Provoking thought

No More Productivity Hacks

I hear you. You’re busy. Not enough hours in a day.

I hear you.

So, let’s do a mental exercise. I’m going to grant you a wish: some extra hours in your day.

You used to work eight hours per day, but since you’re now working from home this turned into ten. This makes absolute logical sense, because working from home means you no longer have your daily thirty-minute commute. I’m going to turn your resulting ten hour workday into twenty hours through the sheer magic of Zef. I’ll eliminate all your annoying work distractions, like hobbies, your wife, girlfriend, husband or boyfriend, your kids, and friends. All gone. You’re welcome. You can get things done now.

What a relief, finally those extra hours you needed.

Let’s project ourselves a few months into the future. You’ve been running on those twenty-hour work days for some time now. Isn’t it great? What does your day look like, do you have all the breathing space and time to think that you needed and didn’t have before?


What happened!?

All that time filled up, you say? Your calendar is again full of meetings and you still have too many projects to complete? Still no time to reflect and think?

How is that possible?

Here’s a fun exercise to try:

You get some large rocks, pebbles and sand. You’re asked to try to fit them all into a jar.

If you put in the sand and pebbles first, the rocks won’t fit. The only way to fit it all is to start with the rocks, then the pebbles, shake a bit, then poor in the sand, shaking it all down.

Pause for deep insight.

This is so applicable to time management! Start with the big, important things first, then pad it with the smaller tasks.

🤯 Mind blown.

Ultimate time management, here we come!

Sadly, it’s a trap.

We love us some productivity content. We read books about getting things done, or if you pretend to be cool (like the younger me) you write about getting sh*t done. We read sites like LifeHacker. We learn about how successful people succeed because they manage to squeeze extra time out of the day by getting up at 5am every day and you can too.

We buy a dishwasher to do our dishes. Robot hoover to do our hovering. Apple Watch to unlock our Mac.

Has any of it made any material difference in how busy we are, though? Has it?

It’s a trap.

To come back to the rocks, pebbles and sand exercise, the reality is there is always going to be an infinite number of rocks. Pebbles and sand too. Whether you optimize the heck out of your jar organization, are able to shrink or eliminate pebbles, or get a larger jar — it will fill up. Always.

Your to do list will never be empty. The best we can do is prioritize it or remove things we decide not to do. Items will always be added. Always.

Your to do list will never be empty.


Accept it.

Are you there yet? Have you accepted this reality?

Good. Now we can use it. If we accept we can never do everything there is to do in this world, we realize that what we can do is become more deliberate about the rocks we decide not to put in our jar. Or to think about the rocks already in there, but we should really kick out. Rocks like, you know, reading lots of books and articles about five ways of squeezing another two minutes out of your day.

So to shake things up, let’s do the reverse exercise we started with. Rather than doubling the number of work hours in a day, let’s half it. Ok, maybe that’s pushing it. Let’s reduce it to a sane eight hours. Oh hello hobbies, oh hello wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend and kids!

If we accept that doubling or increasing the number of hours we work wouldn’t fix anything, why would cutting two hours break anything?

It wouldn’t.

If you don’t believe me, think about a time that somebody was sick for two weeks and did nothing. Did the world blow up? Or when that key player resigned and it took 6 months to find a replacement. Did the company collapse?

Nope. All that happened was that you had to more ruthlessly prioritize. And guess what, it turned out there were always things to drop.

Following that logic, cutting out a few hours out of your workday will also not blow up the universe (famous last words). It will help you regain some sanity, though.

While a dramatic forcing function like illness or people resigning can be helpful, we don’t really need those to make cuts, do we?

Therefore, the only question that remains is… what rocks are you going kick out of your jar?

This essay was inspired by the premise of the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman. If you want to dig deeper, give this book a read.