Be Mindful of False Productivity

Striking a balance between feeling productive and feeling refreshed & happy is a delicate line. Over-optimizing too much of my time can lead to feeling artificially stressed, but optimizing too little can lead to feeling under-accomplished. Finding the right mix that makes you feel amazing is going to be much different from person to person. One thing that is the same from person to person is the idea of false productivity.


What I mean by false productivity is time spent on things that are intended to be productive, but in reflection are not helpful. These actions may have been started with the best intention, but once they were complete you look back and think:

Was that really beneficial?

There are a number of things I do that “feel” productive but really aren’t. Trying to be more mindful of these moments was one of my 2017 goals I laid out at the beginning of the year. The goal was to do a better job at recognizing these moments and figuring out what should change in order to have a greater impact on my life.

For me personally, some of those false productivity moments have centered around a few things I find myself doing:

Moving Things Around Rather than Organizing

There is a big difference between organizing and just moving clutter from one spot to another. In our old house, I’d often have a goal of cleaning out one room only to clutter up a different one. This is a zero-sum game and wasn’t getting to the core of the issue – that we had too much stuff! One shift in mindset I made when organizing was to ask “Is this the permanent home for this item?”. If it wasn’t, then it’s much more likely that I was falling into a false productivity trap.

Sometimes organizing means taking the time to decide if something is worth keeping at all. In those cases making a plan for what to do with it – sell it, donate it or give it away – is more productive than moving it one more time.

Creating Todo Lists Without Doing Them

If you’re creating a todo list, but not doing it, then there’s a disconnect in how you’re planning the execution of it. One thing I like to do is weekly task planning using Todoist where I highlight some most important things I want to do during the upcoming week. During this planning session, I pick out a task that’s a high priority, medium priority and low priority for each day. If I do nothing else other than the “high priority” item, then I’ll still feel accomplished that day. After a planning session, it looks something like this:

My todoist week
A sample of my weekly planning

This activity has been amazing for helping organize my thoughts and lay out a plan for it, but it hasn’t been perfect. Sometimes life just gets in the way of accomplishing these though. Maybe I’ll be tired, forget to look at this list, have a different energy level than the task I planned, or just decide to go out with friends instead. All of these are very natural and forgivable things that are expected to happen. In the worst cases, I’ve found myself just carrying over items to the next day – which leads to cascading failures and adding unneeded stress on myself.

The middle ground that I’ve been trying is to have more days where I have NO tasks planned. In my case, these are Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday. For these days I’ll still do things of course, but they’ll be natural things – picking up odd tasks that can help my week, or working on something that feels most important. Sometimes I’ll add those tasks to my to-do list on that day. This has felt much more relaxed, and given me a bit more room for flexibility based on what I’m most focused on that day.

Unfocused Action

Have you ever sat down to do something, but been so distracted that you didn’t make progress? Maybe finding yourself checking social media, following up on email or even shifting to a different task completely. This happens to me more times than I can count. Just as I was writing this post I was checking my schedule at work, checking Twitter and checking Minafi’s Google Analytics. This is not a Roosevelt Dash, that’s for sure.

These activities are useful, but when I’m planning time to do a specific thing, doing anything else is a distraction. This is an ongoing goal of mine – to do better at getting into the flow of what I’m working on by better focusing my attention on it. Some days I do better at it than others.

If I’m doing something away from a computer, the best way for me to focus is to throw in an earbud and listen to some audiobooks. I’m still working on improving focus when on my computer, but a few things have worked well:

  • Shut off email, Twitter and anything else that could interrupt you.
  • Find a time and a place you won’t be interrupted (and let people know). I’ve been waking up earlier, and having that focused time in the morning has been great for getting things done.
  • Plan your focus the previous night. For tasks that have a brainstorming side, having an idea of what you’ll be working on ahead of time helps the idea stew.

Do you feel you do anything that qualifies as false productivity? What do you do?

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I'm , a full-stack product developer in Salt Lake City, UT. I love enlivening experiences, visualizing data, and making playful websites.

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