Why You Keep Doing Productivity Systems That Don’t Work

And how to do something new

You’d think after your fourth time totally rearchitecting your notes system it would occur to you. 

You’d think after your tenth time blocking out three hours in the morning for “deep work” you’d learn. 

You’d think after your 357th attempt to buckle down and implement a one-touch inbox strategy it would finally get into your thick skull:

“This isn’t working for me. Maybe I should try something else.”

But that’s not actually what happens. What you say to yourself instead is, “This time it’s different. This time it will really work for me.” And you embark on whatever your personal Quixotic productivity quest is for the umpteenth time, only to have it fall apart a month later. 

I’ve done this myself a lot, and I’ve also seen a lot of people I respect and admire go through the same productivity cycle. My version of this is trying to get to inbox 0 with willpower alone, or deciding I need to be more authoritarian and detail-oriented in the way I run things at Every. It lasts for like two days and then I’m back to being myself. Fellow Every writer Nat Eliason wrote about it recently on his personal blog in a post entitled, “The Perfect Work Routine”, where he describes trying over and over again to block out a set number of hours each day for deep work only to fail miserably. 

These are Productivity White Whales, the things that you try to do again and again but that never quite work for you. They suck, but they can actually teach you something if you pay attention. You can learn how your brain interprets and tells stories that cause you to do things that don’t work, and what you need to let go of in order to be more productive. 

I think this perspective is actually quite radical. We’re used to thinking about enhancing our productivity by thinking about what we need to add to our lives: systems, processes, routines etc. But another important part of living a more productive life is knowing what to get rid of—of learning to lose parts of our lives that aren’t working for us even when that feels terrifying. 

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