When Productivity Tools Make the Problem Worse

You’re using your todo list for something deeper than tasks

We think we use our productivity tools to get stuff done, but we’re actually using them to regulate our emotions. 

We’re usually blind to this—which means our tools never actually do the thing that we hope they will do. So we get frustrated at the tools and quit, or blame and shame ourselves for not being good enough at using them. But if we get into a proper relationship with ourselves, we’ll end up using our tools better—and actually accomplishing more. 

Let me explain.

Todo lists are about keeping track of tasks, yes. 

But they’re also about reducing obsessive fear that things will slip through the cracks and you won’t meet your obligations. If you don’t realize they have this function for you—and that this obsessive fear is largely independent of how many tasks you actually get done—you will always be afraid. Your eye will always fall on what you might have missed, or those times where you didn’t quite maximize your potential. Todo lists are a helpful but ultimately insufficient tool for confronting fear, and so you’ll always be driven to run faster and faster away from a dark force that you don’t understand, never realizing that the force is inside of you and that you are running away from your own shadow. 

Inbox 0 strategies are about getting back to people on time, yes. 

But they’re also about feeling like the kind of person that can be calm, cool, and collected—even when your hair is on fire. A new tactic or piece of software can produce this feeling for the first week it is used, but the effect doesn’t last. It has to be bolstered and complemented with other powerful tools to actually work the way we hope. 

I could go on and on—about taking book notes, or creating prediction journals, or doing morning pages. 

I’ve observed a lot of people using productivity tools and I think there are two main things we expect to get from them that we reliably end up failing to get. They are to:

  • Reduce fear
  • Stimulate reward

Let’s take these in order.

Productivity tools as fear reducers

Everyone uses productivity tools to reduce their sense of fear, but people who are obsessed with productivity use these tools in an attempt to eliminate fear altogether.

You can tell if this is happening to you if you’re constantly gripped by the nagging feeling that you’re always behind, or you’re haunted by the idea that you might have missed some important task. Even on the days when you get almost everything done, your mind still goes to all of the other days when you didn’t. Or it feels like the worst thing in the world would be to fail to live up to some obligation.


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