For productivity geeks, futility is a relief and a starting point

A fascinating thread started at Hacker News about Oliver Burkeman’s latest post entitled, “It’s worse than you think.” There are words like, “pessimism,” “nihilism,” and “futility,” floating around in the comments. I commented in there a couple of times (1, 2), feeling confident after my own submitted blog post gained a bit of momentum

I found my brain still drawn to the thread, so I wanted to make sense of it. Here I go:

If you’re familiar with productivity books, you’ll know that the majority of them are obsessed with control. For example, “If you organize yourself a little better…,” “If you adopt a new system…,” or even “If you adopt my recommended personal values…,” you’ll be able to do whatever you want to do

These are all great promises, but they’re nothing more than that; and worse yet, they always fall short. No system ever fully delivers, even if you build the best infrastructure—team, company, technology—around yourself

A person’s appetite for more is insatiable. It might not be about more money. It might be about more control, more freedom, or more experiences and emotions of another sort. We all want more. We may even want more of less; that’s still an experience of wanting more. But nonetheless, that’s what draws people to productivity books in the first place. We are seeking something that we can’t find, and we’re thirsty enough to subject ourselves to the minor indignity of surrendering ourselves to an expert who makes the promise we want to hear.

Oliver’s work is a breath of fresh air, because it’s about revisiting the promise in the first place. He reveals the truth of it: it’s never going to work. The title of his latest, Four Thousand Weeks, is literally a summation of the length of the average human life (barring tragedy). 

This is new for productivity geeks, like me. I don’t come to productivity books looking for this reminder, that I have a finite lifespan, that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because I want to do a seemingly infinite number of things. 

Instead, through his work, Oliver challenges us and enforces the fact: You are a human being. You can’t do everything. That’s not optimism or pessimism. That’s just a fact that I, and probably most people in productivity, hate accepting. We reject it because we don’t want to believe that we are finite. And in the process of rejecting it, we run ourselves to the ground; we sacrifice our physical and mental health, we give up our personal lives, we chase the next goal the millisecond after this one has been achieved. We want more.

Oliver does promise something: more peace. And peace, or calmness, is certainly a rare commodity for the productivity psychographic. That’s what Tim Ferriss calls out as he excerpts Oliver’s book; “Even by itself, this chapter left me with a profound sense of calm that lasted several days.” (Cal Newport, advocate of digital minimalism and deep work, recommended it to Ferriss.)

For the productivity psychographic, letting go of control is a radical notion, which is why it’s so powerful and calming. It’s something we’ve forgotten is an option; we’re practically allergic to futility. 

The beauty of futility is in the emotion it leads to: acceptance. 

Futility means seeing reality for what it is, and accepting it. You can’t do everything. You can never do everything. But…

You do have whatever is in front of you. You do have the rest of your day. You do have those people and hobbies and work in your life that you take for granted. You can’t get good at everything, but you need to quit, settle, and commit before you can get good at something.

Still, even months after I’ve read the book, I’ve once again found myself experiencing the predicament: an overwhelm of ideas and possibilities, and an equally powerful resistance to the idea that I can’t do it all. Rather, the thought comes to me, “I must not be doing this right.” 

What I really do need to hear is, “What you want is impossible, because you’re a mortal. You are a finite human being. Not a piece of software. You have limits. You are finite.” So in other words, I probably need to re-read the book.

Futility is just the beginning. It’s always worse than you think, so don’t bother trying to control it. You’re allowed to breathe out, let go, and “unclench.” You’re relieved. 

Ultimately, acceptance is the most productive emotion. Even as I write that though, I realize that productivity is evolving into something else. We’re realizing that more isn’t better, that we don’t always need more, and what we seek can be right under our very noses. I think productivity, as a measure of success and as a field of expertise, is heading in this direction; it’s about understanding the underlying beliefs, emotions, and motives that drives each individual.

Oliver is one of my favorite writers (I reviewed his book for Lifehacker seven years ago!), and Four Thousand Weeks was one of my favorite books of last year. (He also blessed Creative Doing with a blurb.) You can learn more about Oliver’s work, and sign up for his really great newsletter, here.

Also, see Longcutting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *