February 22, 2018

Fuck productivity hacks

When I’m out there coaching teams with Lightly, people often ask for productivity hacks.

And I wish I could give them something. This one thing that would help them get more stuff done.

But the truth is … I haven’t found any productivity hacks.

Sure, if you Google that phrase, you will find a million Medium posts. They will tell you to get up early, to write down your priorities, to not check email, etc.

These all sound great. In theory. You try them out for a day or two. And then then never do them again. A month passes, and you find yourself googling productivity hacks”. Rinse and repeat.

Thus, when someone asks me for a productivity hack, I don’t give them any of these advice. I ask which problem they are trying to solve.

In 99% of the cases, it’s the same: interruptions.

What they are looking for is not a productivity hack. They just want the space to get shit done.

1. The problem is not

We don’t need to read more research on how multi-tasking is less effective than single-tasking. Just like I don’t need to read another article about how sugar is bad for me.

The truth is, I will keep eating sugar pretty much no matter the information I receive. Because on some level, I think it’s worth it.

We like to identify with the smart part of ourselves, the thinking part, the modern human: the pre-frontal cortex. And from that very smart perspective, eating sugar (or multitasking) is a bad deal. You get a short high, but the long-term drawbacks outweigh the benefits. Ergo: you should never.

But in reality, I am not my pre-frontal cortex. I am my entire brain and body. That includes the mammalian brain and the reptilian brain. These regions regulate needs that me and my family have had since we were amphibians.

So. You have already received information about multitasking being bad for you. You know that you shouldn’t. And yet you keep doing it.

The questions we have to ask is: why do you think it’s worth it?

The gut reaction most people have is to say No! It’s not worth it! I want to focus on one thing.” But why don’t you, then?

We need to dig deeper.

Let’s look at your actual multitasking. What are you doing? What are these interruptions that are stopping you from being productive?

Meetings. Email. Slack. Coworkers coming to your desk and asking questions.

You know what all these are, right? They are all methods for collaboration.

Now the question has become something else. It’s not about getting rid of interruptions: it’s about getting rid of collaboration.

It’s a more truthful question, and it will help us get to the root of this problem quicker.

To some extent, we seem to only be able to think of the work we do by ourselves as being productive. That would be like a hockey player only seeing themselves as being productive when they have the puck. But what if we frame it like this: being productive is about the value we create as a team.

Framed like that, your quest for productivity hacks will look different. It will not be about closeting yourself away. It will be about how You, as a team, can create as much value as possible. Together.

And these so-called interruptions will be a big part of that productivity. They are not obstacles to overcome anymore.

By having this mindset, you will solve a couple of problems. First, you will stop wasting time looking for productivity hacks: there are none. Second, you won’t feel a vague background anxiety about not being productive” whenever you are helping someone out.

The happiest teams I’ve met are those who enjoy collaborating with each other. They do schedule one or two hours every day for solo work, though. These are hours when they are not bothering each other: no questions, no Slack, no email. Even sometimes: no wifi. (Yeah.)

These solo hours are especially important for your most complicated work, the deep work. When you need to use all of your brain power to solve something.

But a big chunk of their workday will be spent collaborating, and happily so. They see being available to coworkers not as attention deficit disorder, but as being a loyal team player.

Same situation, framed differently. Now a feature, not a bug. The problem is not.

2. Eat and have the cake: XP

The sweet spot between collaboration and productivity is pair-programming. This is the most common experiment we try out when I work with teams. I suggest it more often than anything else because it has better results than anything else.

Pair-programming might seem like a waste of time: two developers working on one problem, instead of two problems. It’s hard to A/B test the productivity in any objective way because there are too many variables in place. But I can tell you this: the developers who try out pair-programming (”XP) in my courses always come back with a huge smile on their faces. Their subjective evaluation is that they have been very productive and have had a lot of fun. (The same is true for scheduling one or two solo hours each day, by the way.)

A key incentive to look at team productivity is of course how we are measured. If my value to the organization is based on my individual contributions — code written, let’s say — then of course I will see collaboration as an obstacle to productivity.

But if me and my team are judged on our collective performance, then we are incentivized to collaborate. And naturally, I won’t see talking to my co-workers as a problem, but rather as being productive. We are trying to bring value to our end users … together.

3. The sugar paradox

OK, remember what I wrote above about that we need to understand why we are multitasking?

One part of it has already been covered: we need to collaborate, and these interruptions” are in fact productivity, only on a team level.

But there is another type of interruption: you interrupting yourself.

This is the phone checking, Facebook feed gorging, news junkie part of us that keeps opening a new tab every ten seconds.

For this part, I think the only way forward is to parent ourselves. Sure, we could work on our willpower, but how often does that work out? Again, it’s a good theory … but it’s better to be realistic and get some real results.

Look: I don’t keep candy in front of me while I’m working. I would eat that candy. Call me a child, I don’t care. If there is candy available, I eat it. That’s just how I’m wired. I’ve tried a million methods to not do this, but none of them work.

What does work, however, is to not have candy available.

The same thing goes for me interrupting me. If I can’t stay away from my phone, I turn it off and physically move it to another room. If I keep opening new tabs, I shut down my internet connection using the Freedom app.

This is not a productivity hack: this is basic parenting. The grown-up part of me is parenting the child-part of me.

4. Static overload

If there is one mistake most tech companies to when it comes to productivity, it is how they use communication channels.

Employees are expected to keep a channel open for everything from birthday celebration, to news, to the actual work they are trying to accomplish as a team.

It doesn’t matter if it’s Slack or email: the problem is that you are keeping an eye on a channel where it’s hard to know what’s important or not.

The simple solution — and the one I would say you sort of have to do — is to keep separate channels depending on the hierarchy of importance. It could be something like: Slack for casual conversations, and email for pressing issues. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it just have to be defined.

This might sound like a no-biggie, but inspect yourself the next time you are trying to be productive. Notice which channels you have to keep open to be a team player, and how much time you have to waste sorting the information.

5. Listen

So you’ve done it all: you know what’s the most important thing to work on, you’ve accepted that interruptions” are actually a big part of collaboration, you’ve scheduled your daily solo/XP hours, you’ve removed all the notification sugars, and you’ve created a hierarchy of communication …

And you’re still not feeling productive? You’re still looking for hacks?


Then the situation might be telling you something.

Maybe you are not being challenged enough. Maybe you don’t care about this project; you don’t see the meaning and purpose of doing whatever you’re doing. Instead of trying to productivity-hack away these feelings, try to listen to them. There is valuable information right in front of you.

Maybe it’s time to switch roles. Maybe it’s time to work on a product that actually makes the world better in a tangible way.

Whatever it is, don’t try to mask it under some blind productivity keyboard frenzy.

Because typing more is not the same as creating value.

Imagine what would feel meaningful and challenging to you. Once you have an idea of what would be meaningful and challenging, start taking steps towards that. Talk to a manager and tweak your situation.

This is dealing with your productivity on the highest possible level. And it’s better to work slowly on something truly meaningful than working really hard on something that doesn’t matter, right? We often forget that when we talk about productivity — we often only talk about speed. But I would rather walk slowly in the right direction, than speed straight into a wall.

I hope I’ve managed to shift your mindset around productivity a bit. I hope you won’t be wasting any more time online trying to find the Holy Grail of Getting Shit Done. If you and your team know the most important thing you should be working on, and you are collectively working on that, and you’ve done the basic hygiene cleanup of notifications …

… then you have everything you need.

Just go get it.

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