The Productivity Tar Pit

A variety of productivity app logos sinking into a tar pit along with a clock.
Using trendy apps and complex management systems can make us feel like we're achieving, but this feeling is often misplaced.

Productivity. Search for “productivity” and you’ll find a thousand resources on the subject. A variety of apps and systems that will ostensibly help you to be more productive. And like most self-help subject matter, productivity optimization becomes an end in itself. A lot of productivity optimizers lose sight of their true goals and get caught up in the process of organizing and optimizing. It becomes a counterproductive loop of feel-good busywork that gets you no closer to achieving what you intended. A productivity tar pit where your valuable time sinks away.

We’ll discuss why many people end up in this pit, what makes a good productivity system, and how you can be more productive without getting stuck in the tar.

Getting Stuck

So what’s causing us to getting stuck in the first place?

It starts with a problem. Maybe we feel we could be doing more. We feel that our progress is too slow. Perhaps we’re missing deadlines for our work (maybe the deadlines are poorly calculated, but that’s another story). We might be starting a new project. We determine that we may not be as productive as we could be. So we set out to find a solution.

Search for “productivity” – “apps”, “systems”, “hacks”, etc.

You’re then overwhelmed with a variety of productivity apps, systems, and the gurus who peddle them. You choose one such flavor of the month and dive in. It takes some time to adjust, but this new thing feels good. It feels good transferring over from your previous, possibly ad-hoc system. Maybe it gives you a temporary little productivity boost, or at least it feels like it. If anything, it just feels right to plan out and optimize how you approach your work. And you continue on with this new thing for a time.

But then sooner or later, the doubt seeps in again.

Once again, you feel you could be doing more. Once again, you feel you’re falling behind. Maybe you still haven’t even started that new project because you’re unsatisfied with your productivity plan. So you go searching for another productivity app or methodology. You find another, re-adapt your old system, and once again enter this brief phase where you feel you’re being more productive. And this cycle repeats.

And this is the tar pit that so many become mired in.

What causes this counterproductive cycle?

A tar pit at La Brea with water and asphalt at the surface.
La Brea tar pit by Joel / CC-BY-ND 2.0

A lot of tar pits don’t look like tar pits. They have a layer of fresh water that collects at the surface. Animals are drawn to the water, but as they step into it, they begin to sink.

As with tar pits, a lot of productivity apps and methodologies feel useful on the surface, particularly during the initial period of use. But they can quickly become counterproductive time-sinks.

The appeal of productivity optimization and planning often strikes when one is tasked with a new project. Starting something new can be daunting, however exciting, and it’s in this early stage where many get caught in hyper-optimizing and planning their approach. Why? Because it can be a nice escape from real work. It becomes a form of procrastination.

Procrastination is a response to pain. It’s avoidance of pain. That pain could be fear of failure, it could be the tedium of boring work, the emptiness of unmeaningful work, the pursuit of perfectionism, that anxiety that accompanies a new project – it could be a number of things. When real work is too painful to deal with, playing with new apps and productivity systems can serve as a useful distraction that make it feel like you’re getting things done.

Dealing with procrastination is a thought for another day, but briefly, there is no secret special trick for dealing with it. A lot of work is just painful but still needs to be done. And the only way to get it done is to just dive in and do it. A productivity system can help in managing the work, but investing a lot of time into optimizing the system itself can fool one into feeling productive.

Having a productivity system isn’t all just self-deceptive time-wasting – it’s actually useful to have a system. But we need to recognize when it’s getting in the way of our work, and especially when we’re allowing it to get in the way as a form of procrastination.

What makes a good productivity system?

First, let’s divide productivity systems into two types: (1) micro systems (2) macro systems.

A micro productivity system is about working on smaller parts of a larger project by splitting the work into small time-blocks or tasks. An example is the Pomodoro Technique, where your work is made more manageable by splitting it up into small, individual time-blocks with breaks in-between.

A macro productivity system is about the bigger picture that encompasses the whole of one’s work and/or personal life. An example would be Getting Things Done. This kind of system involves a lot of lists of various categories, such as to-do lists, quickly-written ideas waiting to be sorted through, a daily focus, a monthly focus, etc.

Micro and macro systems are often used in tandem. One may have a micro system for working on a larger project one small piece at a time, and one may have a macro system for managing a variety of projects, ideas, personal tasks, reference material, etc.

We’re just going to focus on macro systems because it’s here where a lot of people get caught up over-organizing and over-optimizing – this is where a lot of time is lost. Though be wary, because micro systems like Pomodoro can cause the clock to steal some of your attention in anticipation of the next break, which will negatively impact your productivity.

So what makes a good macro productivity system? In a word: simplicity.

That’s all a good system needs. It just needs to be simple. Your work, your projects, your ideas – those take effort, those can get complicated. If the very system you have for managing them is also complicated, you’ll struggle to get things done.

The other attributes of a good productivity system are really just products of that single most important attribute: simplicity. Those other attributes include being: (1) easy to follow (2) easy to locate things (3) independent of particular niche apps or tools.

  1. Easy to follow – We want to spend as little time as possible using the system so that we can spend more time doing. If we’re putting a new piece of information into the system, it should be clear right away which page or section it goes in.
  2. Easy to locate things (projects, lists, etc.) – As above, we want to get in and out of our system quickly. If we vaguely remember an idea or project name that we added a while back, it should still be easily-located based on how we’ve structured our various lists, pages, tags, etc.
  3. Independent of particular niche apps or tools – If you can’t keep this system with pen and paper or a plain text file, then it’s not going to last. If there are special niche tools you need to maintain your system, then it might already be too complicated. Not only that, but if you’re dependent on a particular app, what do you do when that app disappears? If you do choose to use an app, find one that supports simple open standards like plain text [1].
  4. Example systems

    Here are a couple simple example systems. Adapt them according to your own preferences (but don’t spend too much time adapting them!). They’re ultimately just lists, of to-do’s, projects, ideas, etc. They’re simple lists that are easy to add to and search through, whether they be on paper or in an app.

    The important thing to emphasize about these systems is that they're simple. You can implement them with pen and paper, an app, or even clay tablets. They’re simple and adaptable enough to work with a variety of tools. But the important thing is you don’t need anything special to use these systems.

    Getting Things Done

    This is a popular methodology that focuses on clearing your mind of preoccupying thoughts that are tangential to whatever the task at hand is. As these thoughts pop into your head, you get them into a simple list called your “inbox”. You later organize each item in your inbox into a more appropriate place such as a folder for a particular project, a list of ideas you may want to someday address, as a scheduled task in your calendar, etc.

    Here’s a simple flowchart depecting the Getting Things Done methodology [2]:

    A flowchart illustrating the steps involved in the Getting Things Done productivity methodology.

    Again, this can be adapted for use with open standards like plain text files and folders, or with just pen and paper.

    Just a simple pad of paper. The size is important here, as you’ll see.

    Write down everything that needs to be done. As you complete each task, cross it off. If you get to the bottom of the page, STOP - do not continue to the next page. If you fill the page, get to work. The size limitation forces you to prioritize which tasks make it to your list and which don’t. Every few days, remake the list: tear off the top page, transfer over what tasks are still incomplete, and add any new tasks you may have.

    The end in sight

    For everything we do, it’s important to remember what end we’re striving toward. The end of productivity systems is to help us accomplish our real goals. Don’t let the very system itself hold you back from accomplishing those goals. Don’t hop from system to system and app to app trying to find that perfect one. Don’t wait until you have the perfect plan before starting a new project – just dive in.

    No system is perfect. The important thing is that you have a system and stick to it. Adapt it for your own needs, but again, don’t spend too much time adapting.

    Remember why you’re doing this. The end goal here is to get stuff done. Stay out of the tar pit.

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References


Notes

  1. ^ Sivers 2022
  2. ^ Allen David 2015

Bibliography

  • Allen David. 2015. Getting Things Done. NY: Penguin.
  • Sivers, Derek. 2022. “Write Plain Text Files.” Derek Sivers. March 2, 2022. https://sive.rs/plaintext.

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