Productivity systems are for learning, not productivity

I find productivity techniques work really well for me... for some amount of time and then this becomes me.

I stuck with Beeminder for years and just can't get back into it. I had a great scheduling system that lasted months and now, nope it's awful.

No idea why. 😢

— @GeniesLoki, Oct 24, 2020

I am supposedly in the "non-coercion" camp, at least according to Twitter, but I don't quite agree. I think there are a bunch of bad things about coercion, but I don't ever use "non-coercion" as a guiding principle, not yet at least.

From this point of view, my comment on the tweet above is not going to be "yeah, coercion bad!" but "duh, productivity systems are not for productivity".

Good productivity systems are supposed to make you learn a skill. Once you have the skill, you won't not need the system much—at best it will simply remain a convenient tool to use.

  • An app that implements GTD, eg. Things, is not supposed to force you to keep throwing things into one of the four painful bins (Do, Defer, Delegate, Drop) forever. It is supposed to teach you to feel alright with doing easy things quickly; with delegating things easily; and with dropping things without feeling guilt. Once you can do all of that, the app stops being a "productivity system" and starts being a convenient reminder/planning app.
  • The pomodoro method is not supposed to force you to keep yourself glued to the timer forever. It is supposed to teach you to do work for 25 minutes without getting distracted, and to take breaks even when you're in the middle of the task. Once you have that, you can throw away the timer and do breaks whenever.
  • Beeminder is not supposed to force you to keep using Beeminder forever. It is supposed to provide a visceral demonstration that big tasks can be accomplished via small steps (thus giving you hope), and to teach you to value constant progress more highly than you used to. Once you have that, you can throw Beeminder away, completely. You won't even need to replace it with lined paper or something—you just won't need Beeminder at all.

How do productivity systems do it? First of all, by telling you: "this is what you are supposed to do". If you keep rescheduling the same four tasks from today to tomorrow, you know you are failing to learn. If you keep working through pomodoro breaks, you know you are failing to learn. If you keep lying to Beeminder, you know you are failing to learn.

You can ignore the "I'm failing to learn!" warning sign forever and you will never learn anything. It's in your hands to learn the thing the productivity system tries to teach you.

Secondly, productivity systems are supposed to provide visceral demonstrations. Not all are equally good in this regard.

Things provides a tiny demonstration: "you've rescheduled, done, or canceled everything and look, your todo list is empty!". If a todo app doesn't have this feature (a default empty view when all today's tasks have been handled), it doesn't provide any visceral demonstrations at all, and is thus merely a planning tool, not a teaching tool.

Beeminder provides a pretty good demonstration: if you manage to complete several tasks using Beeminder without getting stressed out, you will notice that doing things slow-and-steady works. On the other hand, if you use Beeminder in the "no work, no work, DEADLINE" mode—again, you won't get a demonstration at all and then it's just a pressure-inducing tool, not a teaching tool. This said, it's still possible to fail to improve yourself with Beeminder—if you only pick tasks that don't require you to notice what prevents you from going slow and steady. If you want to read more, and once you glance at Beeminder you go and read ten pages easily and effortlessly every single time, then Beeminder is once again not a teaching tool but a fancy list of goals.

The best self-improvement trick so far: a giant board describes a self-improvement tool—since it doesn't involve coercion, I can't call it a "productivity" tool—that takes these principles to the max. 

To recap: a productivity system must show a deficiency (usually emotional) that you have, or a skill that you are lacking. Whenever it forces you to exercise that skill, you must train the skill and not simply force yourself to get the end result—"a task done" or whatever. If you do not do that, the productivity system will not bring any long-term benefit, although you might get a lot done in the process—and sometimes it's a fine outcome too.


Also see Matt Goldenberg's thread on the same tweet, especially this bit:

But the underlying emotion is still (often) there. Every time we trick ourselves into doing the task without resolving that negative emotion, we're confirming to our defense mechanisms that they were right to worry.

— @mattgoldenberg, Oct 24, 2020