The Limits of Personal Productivity

Image: Tired by Ramón Casas/Artvee

I’ve been writing about productivity for close to a decade now. I learned things, piece by piece, and owe whatever career I have in large part due to my research on psychology, motivation, and getting things done.

Putting my learnings into practice has paid off. I’m working on a full-time assignment as the editorial director of WorkOS. I previously worked with a lot of clients and people with my own editorial studio Wonder Shuttle. I wrote a book and compiled another. I could do side projects like Prologue.

I do the time blocking. I did the pomodoros. I procrastinate productively. I tried the dymaxion sleep cycle. (Don’t!) SMART goals. I write regularly. I do deep work. I go for walks

But 10 years later, I am also definitely starting to bump up against the limits of personal productivity. There is an asymptote that no amount of personal productivity can change. Here are three, of many, limits that I’m experiencing:

Finitude: The Limit of the Body

Software might make a person feel infinite, but absolutely no amount of productivity is going to be enough to drown out the screaming limits of the human body. I am just one person, and I don’t even drink coffee. I have a capacity for writing. I can only move the mouse so fast. My eyes get tired. Even with a perfectly efficient 8-hour work day, each one of us can process a mere 96 5-minute tasks. And the Sisyphean truth: each Slack message, email, etc., can create another one. 

I need to decide what to do every day, and to decide is to kill off all other possibilities. Not deciding is also a decision, to not save even one of those possibilities. And this happens every moment of every day, whether I like it or not.

This is actually really difficult for a person like me, obsessed with productivity, to accept. Productivity is based on the premise that you can have it all. It promises, “Hey, you can do everything you need to do. There’s a hack, somewhere!” And there is, but the best productivity hack is a team—actual other people—and that requires leadership and resources. (And even then, a team is also finite!)

I found this word “finitude,” and much consolation on the topic, from another productivity maniac, Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, which I’ll definitely recommend in my newsletter. Long story short: There are many things that can’t (and probably weren’t meant to) be solved, even with superhuman amounts of productivity.

Presence: The Limit of the Mind

I actually find on some of my more productive days—getting through a lot of dread administrative work, calls that took weeks to schedule, etc.—that I’m the least present. There are some days where, at the end of it, I couldn’t even remember what I experienced beyond the past hour. And no wonder, my consciousness floated through hundreds of tabs and windows.

Especially bolstered with technology, productivity seems exhausting by design. It’s a trade of personal energy for creating value. I’m typing this up at 8PM on a Tuesday night, and I’m wiped, but it’s the only time I’ve made to write all week. Sometimes I don’t even look forward to it anymore. But hey, I’m productive.

It takes more than a second to snap out of this attitude—to settle into writing, to get back into working slowly. And that’s the special thing about presence. It actually requires personal energy—to settle in, to transition out, to relax and be in the moment. I build those empty spaces of time into my schedule now, and it’s made all the difference in the world. I do fewer things, but I’m more present, and can be infinitely more effective.

Purpose: The Limit of the Soul

This is the most significant challenge. Productivity is appealing, at least partially, to those who seek refuge from the need to decide to make tradeoffs. Those who buy into productivity also buy into agency, self-improvement, and progress. If you’re like me, you like “All of the above.”

Sometimes, this works. But more often than not, the best productivity hack is almost always to do less. More often than not, there is too much work in progress. Productivity would urge that you find a better way, but the truth is you’ll need to draw a boundary. You need to decide what to prioritize, and let everything else hit the ground. 

At some point, I don’t put everything down gently. I let gravity do the work, some things will break, so that the one thing I decide to hold up with both of my hands will survive and, perhaps, thrive.

That’s it, right? That’s pretty much the harsh truth about how personal productivity works. It’s really just about focus, picking one thing, and accomplishing or completing it, then resting, and then, doing the next thing.

This reads like the limit of the body, but it’s really about the soul. We decide who and what we love, and care for, by choosing to spend time and energy with them. And in doing so, we love them more. You could make the spiritual case that love is actually more like a muscle, or a multiplier; the more love you have, the more love you have to give. I believe in that too! I’m just not sure how to practically reconcile the two at this point. 

So. Many. Limits

This started off as one of my bad ideas, one of many that I was on the fence about. But like Cohen’s piece, I’d say it actually turned out fairly well. 

Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent too much time working on a lot of these bad, barely acceptable, ideas, only to realize it all too late. Sometimes, I’m scared—will I never have enough time to write well?—but I realize it’s all just a variation of the same fear. Am I doing enough? Am I being enough? Will people think I’m good enough?

I write about personal infrastructure, and it’s great—it has really augmented my process—but it’s also not enough. Nothing will be enough. There are no amount of integrations, prioritization frameworks, or zettelkastens, that will break through the limits of personal productivity.

Perhaps it’s my sunk cost bias, but I’m still appreciating a lot of the productivity stuff. It’s kept me well creatively, and helped me shake off creative blocks. Again, I wouldn’t have experienced so many of the things I’m grateful for. But I now keep in mind that productivity is meant to support the life I want to live. But it will not grant me, or you, a chance to live more than once. 

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2 thoughts on “The Limits of Personal Productivity

  1. I can well imagine that Oliver Burkeman’s book really comforted you, at perhaps just the right time, though as he would say, how could we ever know that? What saved me from too much angst about personal productivity is that I am quite the failed obsessive and could never get close to how well you probably function. So it’s easy to be humble when you have a lot to be humble about….Another thing that saved me was David Allen’s process as well as the fact that my therapist was well schooled in spotting grandiosity and helped me laugh at my foibles, me made of 97% water!!

    By the way, are your past book recommendation letters available?

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