Remember back when you were a kid and, no matter how much you were or weren't looking forward to going back to school in September, you took great pleasure in choosing and arranging your supplies for the new year?
If you were anything like me, selecting the perfect binder, the coolest pencil box, and the notebooks with the perfect line-spacing was always a highlight of the season. (OK, maybe I was a bit of nerd.) Actually filling up those carefully chosen sheets of blank paper with math homework and social studies notes though? Maybe not so much.
Using preparation as a pleasant form of procrastination is a tactic most of us catch onto young and continue to employ even as adult professionals. How much more enjoyable is it to tinker with your to-do list or edit your bookmarks bar than to call that cranky client or actually start work on the all-important slide deck? How many writing projects have stalled as the would-be author selects the perfect notebook and plans out a work schedule?
The Problem Is You
Pursuing productivity, in other words, isn't always about increasing your output and optimizing your workflow. Sometimes it's about avoiding getting down to business and facing the chaos and vulnerability that always accompanies challenging work.
That's the healthful reminder of a recent post from veteran engineering manager Michael Lopp, who blogs at Rands in Repose. He confesses to being a junkie for each new productivity tool and trick, but also admits that no software, no matter how cleverly designed, can fix the essential productivity challenge he faces--himself.
"I eagerly evaluate every single shiny new productivity system because my sincere hope is that they've solved for…me," he writes. But no matter what he tries, Lopp continues to be an excitable guy with a short attention span who is easily bored.
"We spend a lot of time asking too much of our tools when, in fact, what we really need [are] just good practices. I'm certain I could keep track of my individual tasks on a torn coffee-stained napkin reliably as long as the practice around the maintenance of that napkin list was reasonable and, more importantly, maintained consistently," he continues, before concluding: "The tool isn't the problem. I am. Where the innovation needs to occur is not within Asana, Things, or Workflowy, it's with how I choose to spend my time."
This confession is a great reminder for all the other productivity mavens out there. In moderation, there's nothing wrong with optimizing your systems and tinkering with your workflow, but the fundamental feature of your productivity you need to get right isn't your tools: It's you. Without commitment, motivation, belief, self-knowledge, and simple discipline, no hack or helpful gizmo is going to make much of a difference.