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salt

If you read productivity blogs and self-help books regularly, you’ve probably gotten something useful out of them.

Maybe you’ve gotten rid of some bad habits, or organized your desk (and kept it that way).

Maybe you lost weight, or quit smoking, or developed a better relationship with your spouse.

On the other hand, you’ve almost certainly failed many times more than you’ve succeeded. Implemented systems only to drop them, tried diet techniques and failed, struggled to shift your sleep schedule around and snoozed all three alarms.

If you’re teaching a rat a behavior, like pushing a lever or completing a maze, giving it a piece of cheese each time will help. But if you really want that rat to learn something cold, you’ll give it cheese once, then no cheese a couple of times, then another cheese, then maybe a three-cheese break before a third cheese.

Intermittent reward is the most powerful form of behavior modification. That’s why gambling is so popular. By making rewards unpredictable, they become far more satisfying to the subject when they are given, making the behavior in question much more ingrained.

See the parallel? This is why we become productivity junkies. When a few systems and techniques are helpful here and there, we are inexorably drawn to try each new one as it appears whether we need it or not.

Five More Minutes, Honey

“Maybe this one will work,” we think as we scroll through another list of the top ten ways to speed up Firefox or take notes online, our eyes red and bleary as the clock ticks past one in the morning. “Hey, neat pen.” Like any addiction, there are diminishing returns. As we struggle to optimize a setup that’s already pretty darn optimized, we get smaller and smaller gains in exchange for all that time spent browsing and reading and thinking about productivity.

Does that mean you should hit unsubscribe right now? Close your Google Reader account forever and run madly into the woods with a bottle of water and a hunting spear? No. But put in some basic limitations on your consumption of productivity materials and your adoption of new systems and techniques:

  • The Furniture Test. Treat any new system, technique, or belief like a piece of furniture. It could be something that you’ll live with for years, if not a lifetime. And just because something looks good at first, and works well for a few months, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for life. Test it out with friends. Ask non-productivity geeks what they think of your new diet/organizational setup/motivational technique. They may have the perspective to point out obvious flaws or long-term drawbacks you’ve missed.
  • Know your source. We’re always following links off the big sites like Lifehacker and gathering tips without taking a close look at who’s offering them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve found what sounded like an interesting piece of advice, only to click around the author’s site to discover that he’s a bearded anarchist in the desert who trains hawks for eccentric Texas oilmen. Which may be fine for him, but what works for him when it comes to, let’s say, personal hygiene, is unlikely to work for me.
  • Be mindful of your time. This is an obvious one. Keep your productivity blogs in a single folder in your RSS reader and force yourself to check that folder only once a day and not to go down the lifehack rabbit hole for more than half an hour. You can do that, right?

In summary, keep your thirst for new systems under control, take advice from strangers with a grain of a salt, and realize that your life works pretty well as it is and that you’re pretty good as you are. It’s fun to tweak, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re doing OK from day to day and that it’s worth putting most of your attention toward living your life instead of analyzing it.

Photo by rodluvan

3 Comments

  • Kristi Holl

    gravatarJan 16, 2008
    8:38 am

    Fantastic article! This applies to whatever type of article or blog you’re addicted to reading and trying. Consider the source! Because time gets away from me so quickly, I’ve learned to use a cheap kitchen timer and set it for 30-60 minutes, depending on my schedule. And when the timer goes off, so does the Internet. Otherwise you spend all your time reading and little time DOing. I’m also tired of the knots in my neck from countless hours hunched over a laptop!

  • Paul Hopkins

    gravatarJan 17, 2008
    3:11 am

    >it’s worth putting most of your attention >toward living your life instead of >analyzing it.

    reading this alone was enough! Great post!

  • Kyle P.

    gravatarJan 21, 2008
    4:16 am

    Thanks, David. That is awesome advice! I’d recommend hitting up the RSS reader over coffee every morning and not touching it the rest of the day.