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.

If this is you, it’s probably coming from a deep feeling of being fundamentally broken, and inadequate to the demands of life. I think this happens for a variety of reasons: sometimes it’s because there’s actually some difference in our brains that make us more likely to forget things, or to misjudge time, or miss small details, or to start and stick with tasks they we don’t like—and so we need systems in order to help us deal with the world, and achieve the things we want to achieve. This sense of inadequacy is reinforced and internalized from an early age by parents or peers or teachers.

And it’s true, the systems work to help us with the practical necessities of actually getting tasks done. But you can’t simply check fear off of your todo list. If you’re operating from a fundamental assumption that you are broken—using a todo list or a calendar to fix that sense will set you up to fail. You’ll both criticize yourself and lash out at people who remind you of this inadequacy. Or the shame will cause you to shrink and hide, and procrastinate even more. 

Once you realize that you’re using productivity tools to deal with your fear, it opens up a wealth of options for dealing with that fear more productively. You can try to explore where that fear comes from and whether it’s serving you. Or you can learn to sit with it and look directly at it until it dissolves before you. Or you can learn to focus on moving toward what matters instead of away from what you fear. Or you can decide that this fear-as-motivation is useful to you, and continue to deploy it—but this time with intention.

Productivity tools to stimulate reward

Everyone uses productivity tools to make work more rewarding, but some people end using productivity tools specifically to stimulate reward independent of actually getting work done. 

This is probably you if you find yourself bouncing from tool to tool, loving the first few weeks of it but then running into a wall and starting over. Or it’s probably you if you spend days and days building an extremely complicated setup for yourself—without ever actually using it to do the work it’s designed to facilitate. 

This usually happens for people who require a lot of reward to do work, and for whom new tools and systems become an “approved” form of procrastination. It also happens when we become attuned to how great trying a new system feels. Here’s what I wrote about this in Dopamine Stacking:

We can feel the productivity juice flowing through our veins as we boot [our new tool or system] up for the first time. Let the good times roll, baby!

And for a time it DOES. 

We’re full of hope and determination and motivation. We’re flying through our inbox. Our todo list is clean. Our partner notices we’re more energetic than usual, there’s a fire burning in our eyes, we’re surfing the waves instead of being tossed under their weight.

Trying new tools stimulates our dopamine system which increases your motivation and ability to expend cognitive effort on tasks. It also breaks old conditioning you’ve developed with your previous tools which gets gradually associated with procrastination and piles of work left undone. 

Once you realize that you’re using productivity tools to stimulate the reward centers in your brain it gives you a lot more power to make different choices. 

Maybe you want to lean into this aspect of yourself, knowing that a new tool will give you a burst of productivity if you’re in a lull. Or maybe, if you realize that in order for work to be extremely rewarding in order to get it done, you might shift how you spend your time so that you can focus on what you already find rewarding—rather than what you think you should find rewarding. There are infinitely many options once you realize what you’re actually doing.

What can we take from this

The point is this: we think we understand ourselves and our behavior but we actually don’t. If you’ve nodded your head at any example in this article, it means that you’ve been using your productivity tools in ways, and for purposes that you couldn’t consciously say and didn’t rationally understand. 

This can be quite a scary thing to realize at first—but it can also be exhilarating and liberating. It means there is more to you than you know, and knowing more about what is there is both the first step to a richer life, and also the best way to learn to operate in the world as effectively as possible. 

You think you’re a unified, rational self that understands why you behave the way you do—but you are actually many different subsystems working simultaneously in one body. What we want to do is learn to notice and integrate the pieces of ourselves that we don’t know about.

If we can learn to do this, we can learn to use our tools skillfully. We can learn to work like a craftsman on ourselves and on our world—to use the right tool for the right job at the right time—and so accomplish everything we hope for.

If you want to go deeper, here are a few more articles with practical extensions of this idea:

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