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Productivity porn

And the danger of hobbies that feel valuable but aren’t

About 8 years ago, I had started a new job and was already overwhelmed with all the work. So I found the most productive person I knew (my boss at the time) and asked him how he kept up with all of his tasks.

He walked me through the wonder that is Omnifocus, with his tagging system and subtasks and contexts and dependent tasks. By the end I was foaming at the mouth with excitement. This was the answer!

Then he said “but I wouldn’t suggest any of this.” He said that tools like Omnifocus, with their power and sophistication, lead people down the path of productivity porn. Productivity porn means you spend more time setting up and tweaking your productivity system than the time that system saves you.

8 years later, I’m seeing this more than ever. The rise of Notion has made it especially common. People set up massive color coded dashboards with advanced layouts and databases and template buttons. They feel like they’re ready to take on the world, but have they made a meaningful change?

Here’s an example (taken from a tweet):

The dirty truth is that stuff like that will only make us marginally more productive than a text file, if that. We won’t get back the dozens of hours we spend tweaking it. But we convince ourselves that it’s valuable because it’s fun, and fun things that aren’t valuable make us feel guilty, and we don’t like to feel guilty.

It’s a hobby. It’s something we enjoy doing, so we do it. But it’s a dangerous hobby, because it’s so easy to convince ourselves that it’s a valuable use of time rather than a fun use of time. When we spend a day playing video games or watching Netflix, we get hit with the old “that was a waste of a day” guilt. But when we spend a day tweaking our productivity system, we think we did something, even though we didn’t. This is the trap.

The vast majority of people would be roughly as productive with a pen and paper or a basic text file as they would with an insane Notion dashboard or a beefy Omnifocus setup. Fiddling with productivity systems is fun, and the fun factor is already a great reason to spend time on something. We don’t need to pretend that it’s anything beyond that.