By: Sinem Günel
I started to study productivity when I was 20 years old and ever since tried any “productivity hack” under the sun.
Yet, I still make mistakes, I mindlessly scroll through news feeds, and “waste time” each week.
And what I noticed is that many “productivity tips” make us feel bad because they require extraordinary amounts of willpower and discipline.
So we fail to apply them consistently, feel bad about ourselves, and read the next book on how to be more productive, effective, or efficient.
We really want to make the most of our time, but it’s just so hard.
When I look back at my own journey, I believe it’s mostly hard because so many productivity tips don’t make much sense in the first place.
And I’ll be honest here: I’ve been sharing productivity tips online for almost half a decade, and I’ve certainly shared tips that I personally don’t believe in anymore.
But hey, instead of blaming myself, I’m using my own mistakes as an opportunity to learn and grow. Here are the five most common productivity tips that usually don’t work:
Your time is limited, so use every second productively
This was one of the first productivity tips I’ve ever implemented.
I realized I could read more books, consume more content, and learn more if I’d just make use of all the downtime throughout my days.
So I started to listen to podcasts and audiobooks instead of music while driving to work. And I did the same when doing the dishes, cleaning up, or running errands.
I tried to fill each second of my day with a productive activity so I wouldn’t “waste time.”
After a few years, I realized that this constant alertness and the never-ending consumption of content just made me feel exhausted and frustrated.
Even though I know that time is a limited resource, I now also know that my energy is equally important.
And I feel way more energized when I’m mindful and present throughout the day instead of constantly being bombarded with new ideas and insights.
In order to be creative, effective, and efficient, you need to let your mind rest.
The stupid 5 a.m. rule
The next stupid rule I followed was “wake up earlier, so you have more time to hustle.”
When I first came across this piece of advice, I was in the final stages of my studies, I was working full-time, and I had just started a business.
I wasn’t only feeling busy, but I seriously had a jam-packed calendar.
I was working until 4–5 p.m., studying for exams until 8–9 p.m., going to the gym afterward, and trying to get back up before 5 a.m. in order to read books which were packed with even more stupid advice on how I should live my life — but more on that later.
Yet, that’s not even the worst part of trying to wake up early.
The biggest problem is that some people are simply not made to wake up early. It’s just not the way their bodies work at full capacity.
We all have different circadian rhythms and different chronotypes, which means we have different needs.
Chronotypes are usually described as four distinct animals: bear, wolf, lion, dolphin.
Most people identify as bears. As a bear, your sleep cycle is in accordance with the sun. You typically wake up and fall asleep easily, yet, even if you get 8 hours of sleep, you might feel sluggish and a little tired in the morning. You’re most productive before noon and are prone to a little dip in energy levels after lunch — this is a great time for you to take a break by going on a walk, working out, or taking a nap.
The wolf, however, usually struggles with waking up early in the morning and feels more energized when she gets up around noon. She’s the typical “night owl” and feels most productive and creative later in the day.
Her most productive time starts around noon, but she might experience another boost after 6 p.m., which enables her to still get things done after most people are done with their day.
Lions are the “early birds.” They rise early, feel energized in the morning, and perform at their best until noon. They usually get most of their essential tasks done before most other people even start their day. Needless to say, lions usually experience an afternoon slump and need a break or nap to recharge.
Dolphins, on the other hand, usually struggle to follow a specific sleep schedule and often lack sleep because they easily get disturbed due to noise and light. They don’t enjoy early mornings. Their energy levels gradually rise until noon, and they feel most productive from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.
Being aware of your chronotype helps you make the most of your day (and life) because you stop chasing unrealistic expectations and instead start to live in alignment with your body and mind.
Stop listening to “productivity gurus” who’re living a completely different life than you do, and start listening to your own body.
Living in sync with your own chronotype and using your peak times will help you get into a flow state more easily. Through this approach, checking off challenging tasks from your to-do list might feel a lot more effortless.
You can take a free quiz to gain more clarity about your chronotype and learn how to live and sleep according to it.
Additionally, you can keep a “productivity journal” for 7–10 days to analyze your daily peak times and get insights into how your energy levels vary throughout the day.
Reading more books won’t make your life better because most books suck
Here’s a harsh truth I wish I had known about earlier: Most self-help books aren’t worth our time because they’re repetitive, uncreative, and written for a specific audience, which is usually made up of people who are very similar to the author herself.
Men who write about productivity usually don’t understand that women’s bodies and minds work differently.
White women who preach that all your problems are made up in your own mind usually come from privileged families, and passionate entrepreneurs might forget that most people don’t even want to build billion-dollar businesses.
In fact, most self-help books could be blog posts of 1,000–2,500 words. The only problem is that readers wouldn’t pay $20 for a blog post. Plus, a book is obviously easier to market and sell than a simple online article.
So a simple idea ends up being a book of 200+ pages.
A striking example of such a book is The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins. The entire book is based on a simple yet great idea, which can be summarized in one sentence:
“The moment you have an instinct to act on a goal you must 5–4–3–2–1 and physically move or your brain will stop you.”
The idea is excellent, but at least 60% of the book is a bare promotion of how great the 5 Second Rule is and how it has changed the lives of thousands of people.
And what’s even more fascinating is that Robbins herself held a 20-minute Ted talk summarizing the key concept, which isn’t only entertaining but also relatable and useful.
The problem is that so many people are telling us that we need to read more books in order to be “more successful” that we try to fight our way through poorly written or ineffective self-help literature because we think finishing the book will magically fix our life. But it won’t.
So we can as well stop reading bad books and just study their core concepts through summaries and videos.
“Hey, did you try this tool that helps you do XYZ?!”
The problem with life-changing productivity tools is that they usually don’t change our lives but only waste our time.
I see so many people who brag about their new, groundbreaking productivity system at least once per month that I always wonder whether they actually ever sit down and get things done.
It’s ridiculous how apps that were created to improve your productivity can end up distracting you, so you end up not doing the actual work.
Most of the time, a simple life is a good life, and luckily you can also get more done by simplifying your life.
Stop chasing shiny apps and tools to magically cure your productivity problems but try to avoid them.
And if you really feel like you need a tool to support you, make sure to first get crystal clear about what exactly you’re looking for so you don’t waste your time trying dozens of apps that don’t fit your needs.
Your to-do list is not a solution; it’s the problem
Did you ever add a task to your to-do list after finishing it, just so you can cross it off? For years, I thought I was the only person doing this, but apparently, that’s not true.
Every time we cross off a task, we get a little rush of dopamine, which makes us feel happy, satisfied, and motivated.
In short, it’s useless, but it feels good.
The biggest problem with to-do lists is that they encourage us to grab the low-hanging fruits first.
If we have ten tasks that each take just a few minutes to complete, we’re tempted to get these done first because each completion makes us feel good.
That’s not bad per se (because you do get things done), but the problem is that you never do the big tasks because by the time you’re done with your ten small tasks, you feel exhausted and lack the mental clarity and willpower to tackle a challenging to-do.
And the worst part is that you can get a dozen small tasks done each day and still be stuck because most activities that truly move you forward in life require effort.
Here’s how you might overcome this problem: When writing your to-do list, also ask yourself how much energy each of the tasks will require.
As mentioned above, your energy levels fluctuate throughout the day, and there’s no point in tackling your most energy-consuming task during your low-energy time.
For me, writing is usually my most energy-consuming task of the day, so I do it as early as possible when I still have a fresh and calm mind.
Emails, calls, or admin work don’t require much energy, so I usually do these in the afternoon.
The biggest problem with advice on productivity is not the advice itself but our belief that we need to do exactly what productivity gurus preach.
Yet, the truth is that we’re all different.
A strategy that might work well for me might be useless for you and vice versa.
Instead of idolizing those who’ve been studying productivity for decades, try to be more mindful about what exactly you need.
David Allen might’ve helped millions of people through his GTD method, yet, he probably never wondered about the fluctuating energy levels and hormones of women in their reproductive years. And the same is probably true for all male YouTubers and bloggers with audiences of millions of people.
Most of the time, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, and you need to listen to your own body and mind to find out how you perform and feel at your best. So don’t be afraid to experiment a little and ignore the advice that just doesn’t seem to work for you.