Are You Over-Engineering Your Productivity?

Excessive productivity can bring the most gifted man almost to madness.
– Friedrich Nietzsche

If you’ve ever tried to improve your personal productivity and/or become more organized, you’ve probably encountered the problem of over-engineering. Over-engineering is when you spend so much time organizing, planning, and maintaining your productivity systems that you actually become less efficient. Your productivity scaffolding yields a net productivity loss instead of a gain.

Every few days someone emails me about a new productivity system, application, or web service. Each one claims to have a new twist on how to boost productivity. But what would happen if I starting using dozens of different websites and applications to supposedly boost my productivity. Would I really gain anything at all?

The Hidden Cost of Productivity Enhancement

Consider the hidden cost of investing in productivity tools:

  • Productivity Systems – Learn about the system, perhaps via word of mouth. Buy a book on the subject. Read the book to learn the system. Prepare to implement the system. Practice using the system, often incompetently at first. Stick with the system for a few weeks minimum to get used to it. Continue to spend time working the system indefinitely. Figure about ways to tweak the system to better fit your particular circumstances. Explain the system to other people who are curious about it. Re-implement the system each time you stray.
  • Productivity Software – Learn about the software. Decide whether it seems worthwhile. Download and install a trial version. Learn to use the software. Buy the full version, pay the bill, and do the accounting for the purchase if you deduct it as a business expense. Mail in a rebate if available, and deposit the rebate check. Spend time using the software. Upgrade the software as needed. Transfer it when you buy a new computer. Uninstall it when you no longer need it.
  • Productivity Gadgets – Learn about various gadgets. Read the reviews. Decide which one to buy. Buy it. Unpack it. Learn to use it. Input your data. Spend time using the gadget. Upgrade it as needed. Deal with breakage if you’re unlucky. Explain the gadget to people who ask you about it. Sell it or dispose of it safely.

The worst part is that you have to endure much of this time investment even if you choose wrong and end up discarding a tool you dislike. It can take hours just to properly evaluate a productivity tool.

I’ve found that the most productive use of my time when someone emails me about a new productivity tool is to simply hit the Delete key. It’s a terrific time saver.

Old School Productivity

As I detailed in the article Do It Now, I took triple the normal course load in college and graduated with two degrees in only three semesters. This was back in 1992-93. I had a packed schedule and many open projects with deadlines and various degrees of priority. In my final semester I worked as a contract computer game programmer on the side while also attending school (more than) full-time, so I had professional, personal, and academic projects to juggle. I didn’t use any fancy productivity tools, yet somehow I managed to be extremely productive.

There was really just one productivity tool I predominantly used — a pocket-sized paper assignment notebook. Whenever I’d get a new assignment, I’d write it down in my notebook along with the deadline. When I completed an assignment, I’d cross it off. I wrote down every assignment in the order it was received. I didn’t do any reordering or prioritizing of this list. When a page from the notebook was all crossed off on both sides, I ripped it out and threw it in the trash. If I had to write down scheduled appointments, I added them to my notebook too, noting the date and time. I had a paper calendar at my desk, but I rarely used it except maybe to mark holidays.

How did I decide what to do? I paged through the notebook to scan the current list of assignments. Typically there would be about 20 of them. I considered each assignment’s difficulty, duration, and deadline as well as my energy level. Then I made a snap decision about which one to tackle next. I just picked one that seemed to be a reasonable choice, not worrying much if it was the best choice. I probably spent no more than 2-3 minutes scanning and deciding, so I didn’t do any fancy mental gymnastics. Then I started working on that assignment immediately, sticking with it until it was 100% complete. If I had to write a term paper that took me 20 hours, I did virtually nothing else of any consequence until it was done.

Since assignments were recorded in the order they were assigned, the oldest assignments were in the front of my notebook, and the older, freshly recorded assignments were in the back. If I had a really old assignment, it would often be the only item left on a page with everything else on that page already crossed off. This gave me a little extra pressure to complete the oldest projects, since then I could rip out its page and throw it away, thereby making the assignment list feel a little lighter. The older a project became, the more incentive I felt to get it done.

If a task on my list got too old and I hadn’t done anything with it, I might decide not to do it at all, so I could finally remove the page and toss it. Alternatively, I might decide it was still worth doing, in which can I’d copy it to the back of the list and give it a chance for another cycle. Maybe the timing just wasn’t right the first time. But if a task was on the list for a couple of months and hadn’t been touched, it probably just wasn’t important enough that I was ever going to do it.

Getting Into Action

This simple low-maintenance system worked extremely well for me. It kept me in the state of doing instead of planning and prioritizing. In the years since my college days, I’ve repeatedly fallen into the trap of over-engineering my productivity, getting sucked into trying all sorts of elaborate systems. It’s rather disgusting how much time I’ve invested in trying to be more productive. It’s true that some of it did pay off very well, but given how much time I wasted sifting through lumps of coal to find the gems, it’s hard to know if the overall pursuit was worthwhile.

I keep falling back on the simplicity of a linear first-in, first-out list, spending the bulk of my time directly working on projects instead of fiddling around with my productivity scaffolding. Your results may vary, but I seem to get a lot more done when I spend my time completing tasks instead of figuring out the best way to begin them.

If you find yourself getting sucked into productivity tool mania, consider that the secret to high productivity is to get your tasks done efficiently, intelligently balancing the urgent with the important. If your productivity tools aren’t measurably helping you complete important projects faster than you could without them, you may be better off cutting your losses and abandoning those tools completely. Sometimes the best productivity system is something that’s dead simple.

Imagine what would happen if you spent a solid week or two repeating this loop:

  1. Quickly scan your existing materials such as to-do lists and scraps of paper to pick a task that’s reasonable to do next. Don’t worry about selecting the optimal #1 task. Just pick one that you know you need to get done. If it seems to be taking you more than 3 minutes to decide, feel free to begin with any task that has a deadline sometime in the next 30 days, such as paying your bills or doing your grocery shopping.
  2. Do that task, sticking with it until it’s 100% complete. Don’t check email or do anything else if you can avoid it. If the task is longer than 4 hours, chunk it down, but try to do the chunks in order without switching to other tasks in between unless absolutely necessary.
  3. Return to Step 1 and repeat.

I think most people will get far more done with this simple approach instead of twiddling with fancy productivity tools.

Lightening Your Load

If you keep a good flow of action going, your overall load of tasks will tend to be lighter. A lot of items on a typical person’s to-do list have deadlines within the next 30 days. If you can increase the speed at which you complete such items, you’ll have fewer of those items on your list at any given time. That means fewer tasks to think about and less stress. You don’t have to prioritize tasks that you’ve already done.

Which would feel better to you: to complete an 8-hour project from your to do list, even if it isn’t the most important one, or to spend 8 hours testing new productivity tools? I don’t know about you, but I feel much better after I complete a project. When I spend time trying out tools, I feel much more empty.

Two weekends ago, Erin and the kids went out of town, so I had the house to myself for several days. I knew that was a good time to complete some kind of multi-day project, and I had several good candidates on my task list. I didn’t spend much time thinking about which project was best. I just picked one that seemed reasonable and set to work on it right away, sticking with it day after day until it was complete. That project involved upgrading the hardware and software for’s web server and adding several new features to the site, such as an “Email this article a friend” link for every blog post. I don’t know if that was the most optimal project to do at that particular time, but I’m glad to have gotten it done.

When I spend too much time planning and prioritizing or testing new productivity tools, it keeps me out of the flow of action. Once I get drawn into productivity enhancement mode, which can get pretty addicting, I can spend hours doing meta-work but not actually completing tasks that produce real value. I start thinking of planning as an end in itself instead of a means to more important goals. I may become more organized, but in the end I really have nothing to show for it. If my actions don’t generate value for other people, who really cares?

On the other hand, if I make quick decisions about what to do next and just tackle some value-generating project immediately, I slide into the flow of doing. I feel much more energized when I complete a project vs. when I complete a plan, and I have a tendency to flow right into the next action with only a short break. People actually care about the website upgrades I recently completed. I can see that the new features are being used. If I post a new article or send out a newsletter, I can see that it benefits people. But if I invest time and energy into boosting my personal productivity, it doesn’t benefit anyone unless it translates into increased value delivery at some point, and whether that increase actually occurs is highly debatable.

Be Discriminating

I’m not saying I rule out productivity tools altogether, but in order to even look at something these days, I have to hear positive feedback about it from multiple sources. If one person emails me about it, I usually tune it out. If 3 or 4 people tell me about it, I might visit the website. But in order to really consider it, I probably need to see it come up at least 7 or 8 times. Then if I check it out and discover it’s really good, I might recommend it on my website, so others can benefit from it too. Of all the productivity tools people have informed me about during the past few years, I might recommend around 1 in 50.

Be cautious about turning the pursuit of greater productivity into an end in itself. Remember that the point is to get things done that create value for others. You can’t be said to be productive if you aren’t delivering value, regardless of how finely you’ve tuned your suite of productivity tools. If you do feel the urge to tweak your methods, keep your eye on the delivery side.

This newsletter was written by Steve Pavlina, sent on March 26, 2008. It’s re-published here for achival purposes, with permission.

View all newsletters »