Many of the articles on this website touch on the concept of productivity. And yet, I have very mixed feelings about the word. There’s something aspirational about it, and at the same time… it feels dirty.
Whenever a word triggers me like that, I like to do do an exercise to figure out what’s causing it. First, I write down all my instant associations with the word, without thinking too much. (For example “productivity is…” or “productivity means…”. No thinking allowed, just instant writing.)
Then I look for patterns or insights in what I wrote.
(This is a fascinating exercise. I suggest you try it with “rich people are…” and see which instant associations bubble up. It might not be pretty.)
As always, the instant association exercise did its job. In this post, you’ll read what it brought to light, how I managed to reframe productivity as traction, and how that reframe might help you live a more creative and more fulfilled life, too.
The Productivity Trap: Does productivity mean maximizing economic output?
The instant association exercise revealed that my biggest problem with productivity is that I (and many others) often mix it up with “economic productivity.” In other words: maximizing economic output every day. Or less euphemistic: working 10-12 hours a day.
What about “producing a lot in as little time as possible?” At first sight, that looks like a good thing, right?
But here, too, there’s a lot of pressure to maximize output without regard for rest and recovery.
For example, let’s say you’re a master of deep work, and you finish a job that is supposed to take 8 hours in 4 hours.
For many people, that means “Great, now I have 4 more hours left to do something productive“. And they end up working 8 hours anyway. Or 10 (better do something “productive” at night than watching TV for 2 hours!)
This is a typical productivity trap. It’s a monster that’s never satisfied, creates a lot of pressure and leads to burnout.
A healthier way to achieve a lot
Luckily, there are other and healthier ways to be focused and achieve a lot. I like how Nir Eyal frames it in his excellent book “Indistractable“:
On any given day, your mission is to do the things you set out to do.
Sounds simple, but it’s a massive mindset shift.
To understand why, we need to take a look at the concepts of traction and distraction.
The magic of traction and distraction
At any given time in your day, if you’re doing what you set out to do, no matter if it’s work, play, going for a walk, or taking a nap, you’re gaining traction. In other words, you’re moving towards the goal you set.
If you’re not doing what you set out to do, you’re getting distracted. You’re moving away from the goal you set.
The only prerequisite is that you choose what you want to gain traction towards. You have to deliberately decide what you’re going to do, create, work on, or play with.
Traction is inclusive of ALL your daily activities, work or not
The nicest part about this approach to “productivity” is that it allows, includes, and even encourages what many people classify as as “non-productive downtime.”
For example, you can consciously decide to write two hours a day. Then, if you end up actually writing during those two hours, you’re gaining traction towards that goal.
But you can also consciously decide, in advance, to watch a 1-hour series afterward as a reward for your hard labor.
And if during that time you set out to watch that series, you actually watch the series, guess what: you’re gaining traction towards that goal too!
If you set out to meet with friends, or have a romantic date night… and you follow through… yep, now you’re gaining traction in that domain too.
The same goes for spending time with your kids, and anything else you consciously decide to do in any given day.
If you adopt this new traction mindset, everything I described has now become “productivity”.
Traction increases integrity, self-trust and self-esteem
Now, why is this important?
Simple. if you consciously choose what you’re going to do, no matter if it’s work, play, relaxing,… and you then follow through…
That shows integrity.
You show yourself you can do what you set out to do. You keep your promises to yourself.
And that increases your self-trust and self-esteem.
That’s right: saying you’re going to watch an episode of your favorite series and then doing that (without feeling guilty) can increase your self-trust as much as saying you’re writing a blog post and following through!
That might sound weird, but that’s how it works. It’s just a healthier way to look at your daily activities.
Added benefit: the more self-trust and self-esteem, the less inner resistance you’ll feel to living the life you want to life. Read more about that here.
2 Essential conditions to make Traction work
Here’s what’s important to start taking advantage of the power of traction:
- Consciously decide what you’re going to do on any given day: work, play everything. If you don’t, the habits you created unconsciously over the past years will take over and pull you toward activities you want to avoid.
- Avoid overpromising things you’re going to accomplish in one day. If you overpromise and it’s impossible to fulfill that promise to yourself (or others), you lower your self-esteem. If you do this every day, you’ll end up losing all trust in yourself. You’ll develop a belief that you’re unproductive, lazy, not reliable. In reality, you’re making unrealistic promises to yourself.
A better way to manage projects without overpromising: timeboxing
With practice, you’ll get better at estimating the time needed to complete a project you can create a realistic calendar.
But sometimes, it’s hard to predict how long a project will take.
If that’s the case, I recommend “time boxing”: adding a set block of time to your calendar to work on a project.
Once the time is up, you stop working on that project.
It doesn’t matter how much you achieved. As long as you worked on the project during that time block, you’ve gained traction. (If you ended up doing something else or you got distracted halfway through, that’s a different story.)
In the end, it’s all about being honest with yourself and finding uninterrupted blocks of time to work.
Step-by-step plan to start gaining traction
Here’s how I recommend you get started with traction, without overdoing it (remember, keeping your promises to yourself and your integrity is vital):
- Decide on 1-2 projects you want to spend your time on a given day (work, play, relaxing, friends,… anything)
- Find uninterrupted time in your calendar where you can do that thing. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes… find what works in your current situation.
- Add it to your calendar. Make sure to think through any possible distractions that might come up (your phone, kids, meetings,…) and prevent them from pulling on your attention during your chosen time block.
- When the time comes, work on the project you set out to do.
- When time’s up, stop working, no matter how much you did.
- Afterwards, review. How did it go?
Did you do what you set out to do? Did you get distracted by anything? Could you prevent these distractions from happening in the future? You might have to change your environment. Put away your phone. Choose a different time with fewer distractions.
Did you overpromise to yourself? Were your expectations for what you could achieve in this time block unrealistic? Was the time block was too short or too long? If necessary, adapt the time blocks and lower your expectations for the next time to avoid disappointing yourself again…
Keep in mind: repeatedly letting yourself down is bad for your integrity and self-esteem.
- The next day, plan another uninterrupted block of time, this time adapted based on your experiences with the first block.
- Keep trying and adapting.
Practicing traction this way will help your self-esteem, integrity, your trust in yourself. You’ll also get more done in less time. Because this is a plan that works long-term. It builds discipline. It helps you create a life you like and feel good about in the long term.
Final thoughts: replace the word, not the meaning.
Whenever a word becomes cluttered with negative connotations, I give myself two choices.
Either I train myself to redefine the meaning of the word and replace the negative connotation with something more positive. That’s the hard way.
Here’s the easy way: I replace the word itself with a brand-new concept with no negative associations.
Productivity becomes traction.
Controlling becomes channeling. (Blog post coming soon).
Failure becomes lesson.
You get the idea.
I suggest you take the easy way and replace your goal of productivity with traction.
It’ll save you a lot of time and frustration.