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Debunking Productivity Myths: An Answer to Lifehacker’s Alan Henry

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“It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” — Will Rogers, American humorist.

“We must not be hampered by yesterday’s myths in concentrating on today’s needs.” — Harold S. Geneen, American businessman and former president of ITT Corporation.

Debunking Productivity Myths: An Answer to Lifehacker's Alan Henry by Laura Stack #productivityIf you haven’t already heard the expression, “lifehacking” refers to the practice of developing little ways of making your daily activities more efficient. The term derives from the practices of computer hackers, who crack open commercial code and rewrite it for their own purposes.

Lifehacks focus mostly on improving personal life, so they don’t always lend themselves to workplace application, but sometimes they hit the nail on the head. Such was the case with an article by Alan Henry posted on December 5, 2012 at Lifehacker.com, titled “Seven Productivity Myths Debunked by Science (and Common Sense).” As it happens, I agree with Henry in several key areas, though I have to take a “yes, but…” attitude on his points.

In this vein, let’s take a look at the “myths” he explores.

1. You have to get up early to accomplish anything. This statement is a bit misleading. The original claim hinges on the argument that getting up early lets you accomplish more than most people—not that you’ll never accomplish anything important if you rise later in the day. Some people hit their energy peaks mid-morning, yes, and they should indeed rise early and get cracking. Yet others start slowly in the morning, and yet others have high energy in the evening or late at night. It can be counterproductive for night owls to attempt to do work requiring heavy brainpower in the morning. The reason I’m a fan of getting up early is to get your workout in and arriving early enough at work to enjoy a brief distraction-free period before everyone else arrives.

2. Power Through Your Slumps. Henry points out that trying to bull through low points doesn’t always work—a point well taken. But that doesn’t invalidate this piece of advice, because you can often power through slumps. Set an alarm to go off in 15 minutes and then jump into the task. By the time the alarm sounds, you may be able to continue easily. Sometimes I find I just needed to get some momentum. If you do nothing but pull your hair out, take a break or move on to another task you find easier to accomplish.

3. Multiple Monitors Increase/Decrease Productivity. Henry comes down solidly on both sides of this argument—a logical choice, because there’s no simple answer. Sometimes multiple monitors help you, sometimes they don’t. Personally, I love my huge dual monitors, because it allows me to put a document on one screen, while I type an email and refer to it. In any case, studies suggest the amount of monitor space matters more than the number of monitors…so one 30-incher can be just as productive as two fifteen-inchers.

4. The Internet/Information Overload Is Making Us Stupid, So Disconnect to Get Things Done. Some observers point out that our dependence on the ‘Net means we don’t keep everything in our heads the way we used to. But why should we, when we literally have every fact in the world at our fingertips? There’s only so much core memory to spare. The real issue here lies in the fact that constant connectivity distracts us from reality. According to a recent British study, overconnected people suffer temporary IQ drops equivalent to losing a full night’s sleep or taking too many hits of marijuana. So electronic overload really does make us stupid, but not by taking away facts learned by rote.

5. It’s Impossible to Get Real Work Done at Home/a Coffee Shop/Library/Away from the Office. Another multiple-choice “myth.” Of course you can get real work done away from the office. The real issue is the noise level. Some open-plan offices result in endless distractions and noise, more so than an outside location, so you may prefer to set up on a park bench or at a local Starbucks. A quiet buzz might even prove beneficial. But I’ve also experienced cases where external “hideaways” proved so noisy I accomplished nothing. The real answer here? “It depends.” I write my books in 3-day marathons, sequestered in a hotel, disconnected from email. I get more done than I ever would in my office.

6. Sorting and Organizing Is the Solution to Email Overload. I have to take issue with Henry labeling this a myth. No matter how much email you get, organizing it makes more sense than dumping it into one big pile. I think it’s an excuse for not having a good workflow system (such as my 6-D System™: Discard, Delegate, Do, Date, Drawer, Deter) or not understanding how to use your email software. Around 95% of my corporate clients still use Microsoft Outlook. When I’m brought onsite to teach workflow seminars, I’m still amazed that 99% of attendees don’t know how to convert an email automatically to a task, turn an email into a task request that can be tracked by person assigned, or pull up a daily to-do list. They are using the inbox like a giant to-do list, not knowing where to “put” an email that requires a future response. If you need more fundamental training on processing your email, see http://www.TheProductivityPro.com/outlook.

7. [Insert Productivity Technique] Will Fix Everything and Make You a Happy, Productive Person with More Free Time. This isn’t a myth as such, though I admit that nothing works for everyone. On the other hand, everything works for someone. Time management/productivity plans just provide options for you to try. You may discover that the first method you test works fine; but you may not find your productivity key until you’ve tried dozens. Typically, we cobble together whatever time management system works for us, so most personal productivity schemas represent mutant hybrids other people might run screaming from. I know people who never use a scrap of paper for time management; others use nothing but, while still others use hybrid systems including notebooks, handhelds, organizers, email, and even whiteboards. It’s not right/wrong/good/bad—whatever works for you works. If it doesn’t, experiment with something new. Stop trying to be “hip” if it makes you more disorganized.

Reduce, Reduce, Reduce!

In the final analysis, take any declaration labeled “Truth” or “Myth” with a big grain of salt. You can’t condense human beings to simple numbers; we’re too random for that. The productivity and performance management fields don’t always attain the “hard science” status of physics or chemistry.

Make your own decisions as to what represents Myth for you, and what does not. Any productivity system acts mostly as a mnemonic guide to help you activate the few constants in the productivity equation. You’ll have to take in a lot more than you’ll ever use and then reduce it in the culinary sense: by boiling away the excess until you have a productivity “sauce” you’re happy with. No one else may like the taste at all, but the result will be delicious for you.

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Comments

  1. Interesting counterpoint, and a great “Yes, but” analysis! You’re absolutely right – many of the productivity myths I approached in the original piece are multi-faceted, and can be interpreted in several ways by people with different personal habits and preferred approaches to managing their own workload.

    In most cases, we tried to examine them from the colloquial approach, like the idea that everyone has to be an early riser to be productive (something you’ll see repeated over and over on many productivity blogs) without explaining why getting up early can help you – assuming you’re the type of person who benefits from it, of course. The same was true with the multi-monitor myth: I love my multiple displays, but the studies that led us to them were questionable, and it’s important to get people thinking about where their precious dollars are spent: more screens, or bigger ones, and which matters more to the type of work that *they* do.

    The same is true with the sorting versus searching email myth: sure, for many people sorting and filing helps them find things – but as masses of mail pile up, effective search is just as good (assuming you know what you’re looking for, of course!) and you run the risk of spending time you could actually be doing things sorting, filing, deleting, delegating, and so on. As I know you’re aware, any productivity system that has you spending more time reading about it and practicing its steps than it has you actually getting things done is a flawed system indeed!

    Ultimately, I think you hit the nail on the head in your final point, one I reiterated at the end of my piece as well: Listening to any productivity advice, from those of us who write about productivity for a living to the myriad of books from self-proclaimed experts is something that people should do with a grain of salt.

    In the end anyone can be productive: it’s just about finding the best approach that works for them, and that they can consistently use and stick to for the long haul, and I think that was the core point of both of our approaches!

  2. Another point to point 1. I find that I am least productive in the morning and at night. I like to accomplish everything right in between.

    I thought that is related, somewhat.

    Cheers,
    Brandon

  3. Alan, you’re correct—we were always on the same page—as you do, I like to encourage people to think through their decisions. It’s interesting how many people try to “put a square peg into a round hole” in terms of time management systems and productivity techniques. Some systems take more time “doing” the system than just doing the work. Given any productivity question presented, one can almost always respond, “it depends…” The trick is to figure out your individual needs, given your personality, travel situation, tech savvy, system constraints, workplace reality, budget, etc., and design techniques that work for you. I love your blog, because it gives people the “you could try this…” approach in an inviting way. I just wish people would feel free to ditch what doesn’t work sooner!

  4. Randon, during those hours, you could focus on high-value, creative, difficult, or complex work, turning to more routine tasks (email processing) when your energy takes a nose dive!

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