Meta-Productivity: A Philosophical Diversion

A good way to waste an afternoon is to look at all of the apps on your computer and wonder how it is you get anything done at all. Even better is spent the afternoon considering what it means to be productive in the first place.

It occurred to me on my vacation that I have spent ten years looking for ways to be more productive without any real idea of what I mean by “more productive.” Speed is often a surrogate for productivity (“get it done faster”) because it is relatively easy to measure. Efficiency is another surrogate, but how do you measure efficiency when it comes to productivity? I realized that I have no idea.

I find myself in these ruts now and then, when I reconsider my entire toolbox. What apps take more time than they are worth? What apps are really nothing more than productivity mirages? It occurred to me that in many ways, I was at my most productive when my tool set was small. Back in college, I worked wonders with littler more than Microsoft Word 5.5. for DOS. Why is then, that today, I “need” so much more to be productive.

The result of these ruminations of mine boiled down to five questions I asked myself which I will list here, but will address in future posts.

  1. What does it mean to be more productive?
  2. What, if anything, about the tools that I use enables or prevents me from being productive?
  3. Are there repetitive tasks I do that should be automated?
  4. Is it ever productive to be unproductive?
  5. Is there a set of processes and tools I can identify that once and for all (or at least for the foreseeable future) can settle the questions of productivity so I no longer have to think about it?

I am seeking an endpoint. I am tired of spending time looking for ways to be more productive. I want to have a set of tools and processes in place that work well enough, and then use them without thinking much about their role in productivity. They are just tools to get things done with little fuss. For years I have found that I put more and more time into looking for ways to make something more efficient that I am spending too much time on productivity improvements instead of actually getting things done.

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. It is my hope that by writing about them, I’ll work out the answers to that by the time I get to that fifth and final question, I’ll have a list of things to do that will, once and for all, allow me to close the book on productivity.


  1. I completely relate. I can waste a lot of time going down the “productivity” rabbit hole. I think, for me, it’s the most seductive form of procrastination. (“Of course this is important! Upfront time now will save me so much later”) For me, I realized it really boiled down to one thing – I have to find a way to consistently purge the things I once thought I would do but never will. That’s why I think I (and most) get a burst of enthusiasm when implementing a new system–you’re starting over and cleaning out the junk that’s weighing you down.

    For me, after trying just about everything, I’ve gone back to simple. For work, a paper planner, a paper notebook, and Workflowy. For home, a kitchen wall calendar, a page a day pocket planner, and a simple printed out chore chart with checkboxes for home stuff that must be done weekly/monthly/yearly.

    I find that that outside basic necessities (doctor’s appointments, home maintenance, paying bills), the more I forget, the better. The things I really want to do I don’t need reminded to do!

    I’ve learned a ton from you, both in your paperless series and your notebooks (thanks for Field Notes!). Looking forward to seeing what you have to say on this topic…..

    1. Melanie, you make a good point about starting over and cleaning out the junk that is weighing you down. It could be that my periodic desire to review this is nothing more than spring cleaning.


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