Productivity articles tend to sound alike, partly because there are a million ways to be unproductive and only a few ways to get things done. Or so they claim. The truth is that whenever you look at the specific habits of famously productive people, they’re always weird, offbeat, and often superstitious. Connect that with the obvious fact that sorting your office supplies probably is not a direct path to fame and cultural relevance. This is why there’s a lot of mainstream productivity advice that drives me up a tree.
(Which is a great place to be productive)
Here are a few of the most common bits of productivity advice that I find counterproductive.
Practice your negotiating skills by asking for a 10% discount on your coffee!
Ugh, really? There are two problems with this common advice. One, dozens or hundreds of people are going to try it, giving these benighted baristas a strong, deadpan NO reflex. Two, it’s a quick way to burn your social capital for pennies. I get free refills and extras at my cafe all the time, not because I ask but because I literally never would. I get freebies because THEY LIKE ME. I’m low-maintenance and cheerful. Once I put together a travel itinerary as a favor for one of my favorites, and now the entire staff knows my name.
Sure, you can get discounts when you ask for them. I’ve gotten a 10% discount on things in several ways many times. Pay in cash, pay in advance, order by the case, put together a group order... I don’t see the point of flexing for a couple of coins once per location, though. Build actual relationships with people you see all the time, give first, be generous, and not only do you get a sincere smile from people, you can get years of A-list service and the occasional free thing.
Pick up the phone instead of using email!
Nooooooo! Do not do that!
On my top-ten list of reasons I finally quit my day job and started working for myself was the tendency of people to call or come to my desk and say, “Did you get my email?” What, the one you sent forty-five seconds ago? This was even more obnoxious when I HAD already read it and was actively responding to it. One of the most annoying ways that one person’s behavior can impact the productivity of others is to constantly interrupt them, and another is to send the same signal through multiple channels. It takes extra time, it’s distracting, and it makes you look dumb.
True, most people are perpetually behind on their email. Therefore, never do anything that wastes other people’s time. If they’re not reading or responding to your email, it might be because they’re inefficient. It might also be because you’re asking for something that you shouldn’t be; that you have the wrong person; that your messages don’t make sense; that you’ve once again abused Reply All; that the recipient doesn’t realize you meant them specifically; that your headers are unclear; that they still have plenty of time and they’re planning on dealing with you tomorrow; or that seeing your name makes them cringe and they’re deliberately avoiding you.
As with most things, if you treat other people like friends and allies, they are more likely to do what you want. That’s because you’ve figured out how to consistently help them get what they want. Everything should be mutually beneficial. If you’re doing it right, people will actively look forward to hearing from you. Sometimes they’ll surprise you by taking the initiative to ask others to help out. Every now and then, they’ll really surprise you by asking if others can join your project, as a favor, because what you’re doing is cool and interesting.
In short, if nobody is responding to you with the alacrity that you desire, question your approach. Question your relationships and your communication style. Question whether your emails are longer than one or two sentences. Maybe even go to your reluctant correspondents and ask them for help in calibrating yourself.
Get up at 5:00 AM!
Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that, upstairs neighbor who works at world-famous tech company and keeps waking me at up 4:30 AM.
I have grievances with this early-rising advice. The first is that it definitely won’t work for everyone. So many people who are successful in the corporate world wake up at that time because it’s the only way they can get two hours to themselves. They’re able to do it because they have hired help, because they can afford to set up their lives exactly the way they like, and because anyone who would complain is probably beholden to them financially.
They never talk about what these early-rising habits do to the productivity habits of the people around them.
My neighbor is up and around between 4:30 and 7:00 every day of the week. Ask me how I know. His stay-at-home wife does laundry every morning at 8:00 (ask me how I know) and that’s only because we complained when she was doing it at 6:00. Have you ever slept under a washing machine on spin cycle? Or a running vacuum cleaner, on Christmas morning?
The early-rising neighbor has next-door neighbors on two sides, and his plumbing runs down the walls between three downstairs units. His early habits are definitely affecting his wife’s productivity - rumor has it that he wants her to get a job and go back to work. His kid is in middle school; I dunno about her grades but I was chronically tired at that age. He’s also affecting the other five households that share his walls. That’s before he even gets out of the shower each morning! This is the power that one individual has to negatively impact [counting...] a minimum of ten family members and neighbors each and every single day, including weekends and holidays.
What time a person wakes up and what time someone accomplishes sixty minutes of work is completely and entirely neutral. If they’re effective, efficient, and keeping up on their production schedule, how could it possibly matter whether they’re doing something at 6 AM or at 3 PM? Why is it so impressive just to wake up very early? Bragging rights, that’s all. Nobody brags that “I personally exhaust and devastate the productivity of ten people a day.”
Thirty-five people report to me. I make it a point to let them do it on their own time. As a result, they’re responsive. They come to me when they have issues. I don’t feel the need to micromanage them or insist that they work at specific times of day; frankly, I don’t have the time for that and I don’t see how other people do. I also tend to sleep until 8 AM.
Here’s my productivity advice:
Build relationships and treat people with respect and dignity, like allies and colleagues.
Give what you wish to receive.
Make sure you’re working on the right things. If your vision is clear and appealing, others will want to get in on it. You yourself will only need the occasional refresh on your vision, and that will be enough to keep you going.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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