Your Success Does Not Depend on Productivity Rules

Your productivity settings should evolve to keep up with you, not the other way around

Image: Helena Lopes/Unsplash

Productivity advice seems to be everywhere these days, but the more you read, the more you’ll see its contradictions. 

For example, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen used to advise against keeping a schedule, but now he keeps a really close schedule.

If different people — or even the same person — can succeed with each of these opposite methods, then there’s no point in attributing success to the productivity advice itself. 

In other words, you can succeed either way.

That’s not to say that all productivity advice is useless. Having seen dozens of these types of contradictions through years of saving time, and as a staff writer for Lifehacker, it makes more sense to treat productivity advice like settings we can flexibly dial up or down. Success depends on knowing when to use which setting, where, and why:

Enter the productivity setting

In cases where people succeed with each piece of advice and its opposite, there’s bound to be people succeeding somewhere in the middle too. Thus, each of these settings can be organized into what I call a productivity setting. I’ll illustrate this with two examples:

Productivity Setting Example A: Deep Work vs. Open Door

Author Cal Newport believes in deep work, and that the ability to focus will be the most important ability of the future. He urges us to cut distraction, and cultivate our capability to focus without interruption. 

Conversely, mathematician Richard Hamming agrees that when a person disconnects from the “distracting” outside world, they are more productive, but they lose the sense of what problems are worth working on. There’s another benefit to participating in distraction; venture capitalist Andrew Chen recommends connecting with interesting people on social media, and staying outbound to better recruit, network, and fundraise. 

At one end, there is monastic deep work and no social media or notifications. At the other end, there is no deep work and always-open social media and notifications. In between, there’s the rest — for example, 30% deep work and 70% open door, or vice versa.

Armed with this information, you can now pick a setting that best suits you. What is your philosophy on connectivity and the outside world? How can you combine these two points to make something that works for you? What is the best decision for you? 

Productivity Setting Example B: Schedule vs. No Schedule

There’s no shortage of advice on how to make an ideal schedule; there’s the maker’s schedule and manager’s schedule, there’s the 5AM club, along with the mountains of advice on what to do in the morning and the afternoon. Each person might think their schedule’s the best, but all of them believe that scheduling is important. 

Conversely, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen advocated not keeping a schedule at all. At the time of writing his blog post, he didn’t commit to anything at a set time in any future day. The main benefit, he writes, is this: “As a result, you can always work on whatever is most important or most interesting, at any time.” 

At one end, there is deep, intense, minute-by-minute scheduling. At the other end, there is an empty calendar. In between, you can do 50% scheduled, and block 50% of your calendar for unscheduled and unplanned work. 

Once again, you have a choice. What is your philosophy on spontaneity, intensity, and opportunity? Does one of these make more sense than the other, or can you stretch your mind to combine them together? 

Analyze your values, life, and context

In each of these productivity settings, just a couple of amongst many others, there’s no clear answer which is the right one, and the range of possibilities are vast. 

There are clearly people who succeed with one extreme of the productivity setting, and others who succeed with the opposite. It’s useless to attribute successful outcomes purely to the system; so, then, what is the variable that changes?

You are.

Your life changes, and productivity advice enables you to keep up with it. You can use it to slow things down, or to speed things up; whichever your goals require, changing time and energy commitments, or other circumstances require. It’s on you to identify each piece of advice and its opposite, and to figure out setting is most useful for you right now. 

A better productivity, focused on you

Productivity advice has come to dominate our attention. But there’s no reason that it has to always be about doing more; that’s just one option, amongst many problems that the settings can address. 

Treat productivity advice like settings that you can dial. Your setting should keep up with your changing situations. This mental framework enables you to adjust the settings. Sure, there will be productivity enthusiasts, just like there are tool enthusiasts; but for the rest of us, we just need productivity advice to enable the rest of our lives, not to continuously do more, or to make a shiny productivity system.