Everything in Moderation

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” 

As Abraham Lincoln reminds us, efficiency sometimes requires more preparation than actual doing

Since then the tools have changed, but not much else. 

It’s nearly impossible to imagine my workflow without the influence of GTD, Agile Results, the Pareto Principle, or Asian Efficiency. And it’s difficult to imagine my workflow without Omnifocus contexts, or without a time-boxing app.

… or that helpful article I read on Lifehacker, that .99 book I bought on my Kindle, that TED talk, or that… You get the idea. 

We all have a series of habits and systems that result from a bunch of different sources over the years, some remembered, others forgotten. If you’re like me, you credit them with improving your productivity and ultimately the quality of life itself. In many ways they fuel whatever we create because they motivated us, or because they gave us an organizational framework. They are important. To some degree, they are even Pareto. (I use this term in real-life, and when it goes viral, you will know who to thank. Also, for the record, I am responsible for the term ‘Google-able’ because I innovated the term ‘Alta-visting’ 15 years ago. It’s true.) 

Of course, it’s important to monitor our effectiveness. There is always something that can be tweaked and improved upon. Self-improvement must be ongoing to achieve and maintain self-efficacy. 

But how often must we refuel? How often must we read that new book, that new article? That new blog post, or the classic book you’ve always meant to go back and read? 

Each time we read that new book or article or whatever it is, we’re paying opportunity costs. There is something else we could be doing. But at some point there are diminishing returns. Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of President Lincoln (particularly his approach to learning), but I must ask: what’s the good in learning how to be productive for 4 hours and then actually being productive for only 2 hours? 

We must ask ourselves: How much better could this new system, book, or article really improve my workflow and productivity? Am I reading for productivity… or merely for pleasure? What opportunity costs am I paying? What am I not doing that I could be doing? Can I read this later when I have less energy?

Am I just wasting time reading “productivity porn?” (As dubbed by productivity icon Merlin Mann. I cannot take credit for this term.)  

It is easy to fall into the trap. What a great way to procrastinate! Sharpening an axe is way more fun than chopping a tree. And it feels productive! If we’re woodcutters, we need sharp axes. If we’re artists (or by-hand brainstormers like me), we need sharp pencils. And we need Omnifocus contexts and Evernote tags. An organized desk drawer is the bees’ knees, and we all want a new or better way to motivate ourselves. 

But there is always something new to read much out there, so much advice, so many systems, there is always something new to read that will help you sharpen your tool or re-design your workflow. 

But the problem is that—too often—it only feels new. 

So how do you identify when you are addicted to productivity porn? 

I think Justice Potter Stewart put it best (regarding the other type of porn): “I know it when I see it.”

We have to be honest with ourselves. We must recognize there is always a productivity ideal we have in our heads that we’ll never meet. We’ll never work as fast or have as much energy as we think we will. We have to compromise with ourselves, just like we have to compromise with other people. 

What works for me (some of the time…) is to push off the new system/article/book/whatever to my weekly review. Or if I’m really interested, after I’ve done my day’s most important tasks. 

(As I write this, I’ve finished my day’s most important tasks, so I’m off to order Seth Godin’s new book. I, too, am addicted to porn.)  

Thanks to Zachary Sexton of Asian Efficiency for a good conversation about this topic that helped crystalize some of my thoughts. AE doesn't peddle porn. They're definitely a quality over quantity source of productivity advice. You'll know it when you see it. (If you haven't already.)


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