The productivity trap

This post was written 10 years ago.
Sat, 08 Nov 2014
About two months ago, on a warm summer's evening - this summer, that never wanted to end, but now has - I was sitting on the floor by the Arnolfini with some attendees and speakers of this year's JavaScript workshop. Next to gender stereotypes I remember us at some point discussing productivity and how it seems to be so utterly important these days. I heard myself saying: "I have become more productive since I have given up trying to be productive". It was something I had only realised quite recently. People are different, and it seems to me, some are genuinely capable of working steadily most of the time, being efficient and productive. But I have to admit that for me that is difficult, and I am starting to think whether it would even be a desirable world where everybody can do that.

I remember, about five years ago, reading somebody's blog post about how GTD just didn't work for them. At the time I hadn't known about the book, and when I read it a year or so later, it seemed such a revelation. I really did spend two days where I dealt with all the lose ends, I organised all documents worth keeping in stand-up folders and hanging files. I felt so good afterwards. And I had a brief spell of dealing with things immediately, finding the next actions etc. But it didn't last, and I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

There must be thousands of blog posts now where people share their stories of how they managed to become more productive. There's usually a list of tips. And a lot of them are really valuable, like turning off distractions, especially online distractions. But what is a bit questionable in my eyes, is when "time off" is just seen as an opportunity to recharge the batteries. When it is just a means to an end, and the end is to become ever more productive. And I have seen this viewpoint being expressed several times.

Against productivity

Then today, I saw two tweets that were posted in quick succession by two different people. One was pointing to a post on Medium wirtten by Quinn Norton which I could relate to very much. It is called "Against productivity". I could quote endlessly from it. One thought I've had myself is that this demand for productivity started with the industrial revolution. It is not entirely a recent thing. It is just that it has come to a head now. It might be time to stop and think, is this really how we want to live.

And then there is this about the American dream: "I began to think no iteration was quite as vile as this one. Despite all the greed and hatred of the past iterations, no version of the dream had been so mechanical — so dehumanizing — as this dream of productivity."

And the other tweet? It linked to an infographic of "Take back your mornings" - take back your mornings to be more productive. What else?

Productivity paradox

The tricky thing is that on the other hand we are probably happiest when we are productive. When we create something, when we finish a difficult task, when we have done something that makes a difference to others, or even just to ourselves.

I often get restless because I do a lot of "unproductive thinking". I have this habit of "philsophising" all the time. And I most certainly overthink things. It is not always totally useless, sometimes I might be able to see some connections that others don't, and I might get some useful ideas. But on the whole, it often seems a bit too much. And of course it keeps me from being efficient!

So for me, I think the real challenge is to not get too distracted (and the online world really can be a bit of a problem, here) to keep myself from working on some things, that I then do finish and can feel okay about. Also, to not get disheartened by what I am thinking.. although that's not entirely avoidable and maybe shouldn't be. - Act on the good ideas that pop into my head. And ironically you can become distracted from putting good ideas into practice, because you are asked to do so many other thing. Be productive, be busy! And then you forget what it is worth getting busy with!

No "Getting things done" != Getting no Things Done

At least for me, there will always be a tension between the things that I'd like to accomplish and what I do in reality. But I do feel a lot less bad by now, about "wasting" some time by just thinking about things, about life in general, about how the human mind works, about how society works (haha those are the high-brow ones, I am not telling you about what else I think ), without seeing an immediate benefit of it. Perhaps that is something that we have to learn again. That when there's no immediate outcome that doesn't mean that nothing positive has happened in the meantime. And it would be good to accept that; in ourselves, and in other people, too.

People have always got things done, and got some amazing things done, before both the "positive thinking" and the "productivity" industry.

This post was written 10 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)

Plans for 2010

This post was written 15 years ago.
Fri, 08 Jan 2010

There is still snow in the streets and it is freezing cold. Yet after two days of closure, school is on again (starting at 10 instead of 9) and my girl has gone, somewhat grudgingly, her brother is off to nursery and their father off to work. Quiet, uninterrupted time, the time to be productive!!

How best to use it? Sometimes a certain anxiety comes with that question. How much will I be able to tick off this time, how much can I manage to squeeze in, is this really the best thing to do right now (GTD is beckoning)? I'm sure I am not the only one who feels like that! Yet today, once everybody had left I decided to write this post, and I was sure it was the thing to do. I might feel a bit stressed once I have finished it, but I wanted to write it all week. It means something to me, because it is about making (professional) plans and targets for the year, and committing to it "in public" - although hardly anybody will read this post ;) (which, at this stage, I don't actually mind).

So, let's get cracking. First, some general considerations. I almost wanted to call this post "The end of the baby years", and this has a double meaning to me. My little boy is to start school in September. So, this year, I definitely want to clarify my professional situation. On a most basic level I can phrase the question like this: "Will my main source of income be from web development?" And I don't only want to answer this question, but start earning some money.

Secondly, I want to grow up! This might sound curious and I struggle to explain it. In the widest sense, it has to do with being too self-focused. - This is partially through no fault of my own (but also nobody else's fault! Just the circumstances). I won't write more, it is too personal and also would take too long at this point. In any case, I never want to lose the ability to play, that is for sure!! I realize more and more that it is a big leap to go from voluntary work to - continuous - professional work, and the biggest leap is in my mind! Otherwise it didn't need to be, and I think people are ready to accept me as a professional, probably more ready then myself. I think I am professional in the way I look at making websites. Knowledgewise, I am pretty up to scratch with how to create websites in a professional way. I follow web standards, and I follow relevant podcasts and blogs with the latest news on how to best do things. It is clear that I don't manage to implement all of it. That is just normal. But to my liking, I turn to little of what I hear and read to practical use. So, this is a second area to change something (and of course linked to the first). There was one post I read, called "The one thing you need to do to become a top designer", and the answer was: Practice, practice, practice. Yes, I think that is very true! (not only for designers) And I want to live by it.

A third general thing is, I want to write and document more. This post is personal by it's very nature, but in future posts I would like to become less personal and hopefully manage to write things of use to other people. This could in some cases be personal things as well, but hopefully also some just technical. And then there's the "one resolution to rule them all" : Get better organized. I just read the first chapter of the above-mentioned GTD again, and find it is so true what Allen writes, and it is comforting to see that it is a common phenomenon. I tried to implement his system before, and to start with, it seemed to work well. I just had problems with the "weekly review" and ironically did not find the time and quiet to do this regularly. Also, at some point I had this thought "What do you want with these manager methods, this is overkill to organize your mummy/aspiring web developer life" - which, of course, is just b*ll****. It applies to everyone. What I do think is that I need to modifiy the methods. I will give it a go again. So, here to the (a little more) concrete plans:

Projects (of which not all definite yet):

  • Do one personal project, where I use new techniques or use already known ones in a better way. So far I am thinking of this: Create a portal for bi- or multilingual families with German as one of their languages. Use PHP for overall navigation, user login, and accessing member information (probably just email). Try YUI (reset, fonts and grids) for the layout. Add some unobtrusive jQuery. And - optimise for mobile. But the content! Well, I will, at least initially, supply some. I have left the Saturday school committee, so I guess I can devote a little time. Part of the content will be from already existing sites. For example I can access the database of the Spielgruppe and pull a random cake recipe (Real cake, not the framework) to the homepage. Who needs APIs?
  • Make little changes to last paid-for website
  • Work on a Uni web site
  • Website for a company in Germany
  • Two websites for and artist and and illustrator (not at all clear when!)


Work at an agency! (if only a short time)



  • Learn PHP more in depth, use a framework
  • experiment with APIs
  • Create aesthetically pleasing websites, OR if not aesthetically pleasing it has to be deliberate -> I want to at least be able to create aesthetically pleasing websites; they might look the same as lots of other websites, but then if you open a book, it looks like other books; it's about facilitiating that peoople can take in the content and move around confidently



  • Go to at least one conference and one networking meeting (like Media Tuesday. Scary!). Also continue to go to Silverstripe Meet-Ups that have a talk, and maybe go to one Web Standard Meet-Up in London.
  • Perhaps set up Web Standards Meetup in Bristol!! Not very likely, this is a bonus target if I have managed to feel integrated into the "community" and feel a professional! 

So, this post might get amended a bit over the next few days, and I could write so much more - but that might become blog posts of their own. Anyway, now I have put down some of the things I would like to achieve over the next year. It might all turn out vastly different, who knows.

This post was written 15 years ago, which in internet time is really, really old. This means that what is written above, and the links contained within, may now be obsolete, inaccurate or wildly out of context, so please bear that in mind :)
Tags: webdev / gtd /