Are You a Productivity Fashionista?

Writing about productivity is one of the easiest ways to get started writing. Why? Because both are ends and means at the same time, brilliantly justifying and enhancing one another in a self-reinforcing loop.

As you get serious about writing, you realize you’ll need a good system to ensure you’ll write every day, and as you become more productive in your creative output, you realize you’ll need something to keep talking about. Talking about your evolving system of work solves both problems — and that’s exactly what I did when I started writing in late 2014.

I dove headfirst into all kinds of productivity advice, be it from books, bloggers, or management gurus, and I tried various productivity systems and individual techniques. After a few months, I found what most people find when they go on a productivity spree: In theory, it all works if you stick to it rigorously, but in practice, you’ll likely have to cobble together your own approach — if not for your unique situation, then at least for your unique preferences.

While I was disappointed to realize that, despite being a disciplined person, I somehow did not have the discipline to stick to a structure like Getting Things Done, putting together my own system was fun! By late 2015, I had that system dialed in and working smoothly, and I called it “Master Productivity.”

As soon as I had published my last piece detailing my approach, however, my interest in productivity suddenly waned. After all, I had now been writing almost daily for over a year, and there was so much else to cover. Plus, I now had a system. It was time to use it rather than keep fiddling with it.

For the next few months, that’s what I did. I followed my morning routine, digital notes on my desktop, focused on a few key tasks each day, and blocked distractions as per my regimen. At some point a few months later, however, the inevitable happened: My life changed, and so did my routines. No system can last forever.

What surprised me, however, was that even though I didn’t repeat the whole process of studying, picking parts, and assembling a big machine, my system still evolved naturally. I’d make little tweaks here and there, then move on with my day. No deep dive, new book, or weekend seminar needed.

I’ve now been adjusting my system on the go for eight years — and I’ve stopped neither writing nor working since.

The productivity market is a billion-dollar industry. From cute apps to sleek task management software to enterprise certifications, there is no shortage of offerings trying to help us work better, smarter, and, most importantly — at least to our bosses — faster. In recent years, however, two new archetypal characters have emerged in this industry: the productivity fashionista and the productivity influencer.

The productivity fashionista does not care which work trend he follows as long as it is the latest one. He’ll spend one month taking notes in Obsidian, the next setting up a massive system in Notion, and the one after that abandoning both in favor of Roam Research. As a result, the productivity fashionista is always in the process of learning how to get more done, rarely in the process of actually getting things done.

Of course, the productivity fashionista’s equivalent on the supply side — the productivity influencer — is happy to feed him ever more new tools and systems to try. How about an in-depth review of Asana? Meet Todoist, the new Youtube channel sponsor! Oh, and here’s a how-to thread about how 1Password changed my life, just in case. Much like the productivity fashionista is indifferent to which software suite she wears as long as it’s trendy, the productivity influencer does not give a damn what she peddles as long as it sells.

If we allow these two characters to coexist, voilà, work becomes like attire: driven by forever repeating but ultimately meaningless cycles, limited in their frequency of change only by the imagination of those dishing out ever new tools and products.

“Product.” That seems to have become the defining part of “productivity.” What must actually be an ongoing, sustainable evolution of deeply personal attitudes and habits is wrapped in packaging film and sold one $9.99-unit at a time. Unfortunately, there can be no quick fixes for lifelong tasks, and both sides are paying the price for it — not in dollars but in life satisfaction.

The guru is dead, long live the guru. Having both consumed and spread ideas about productivity, I’ve learned a bit about both since my “retirement.”

If you’re an ardent follower of a singular productivity system, congratulations! You’re one of the thousands but few who found both a good match and the discipline to stick it out together well beyond the honeymoon phase.

If you’re a productivity fashionista, consider that no influencer can give you what you cannot give yourself: a coherent work structure that will function until the end of days. We all have changing needs from being babies to having them and everything in-between, but perhaps your fluidity is a strength in that rather than a weakness — and perhaps you don’t need anyone to spoon-feed you what your gut already knows. Let your way of working evolve organically and from within yourself, and you’ll always have a working system, no new app of the week, month, or even year needed.

If you’re a productivity influencer, consider upholding the golden guru standard of old: What David Allen has done with GTD is hard. He wrote a book, it became a hit, and then he stuck to his system for 20 years. If you can develop a system you truly believe in, promote it. License it. Teach it in small executive workshops and in front of large crowds. Refine it, sure. Even the best systems must inevitably evolve. But instead of constantly distracting your audience with new shiny objects, ask yourself if the tool of the day can ever really cut it. Deep down, I think you know the answer. Much better to serve a smaller but committed audience — because only commitment allows us to serve meaningfully in the first place.

If the entire productivity market disappeared tomorrow, would anyone stop showing up at work? Chances are, we’d rebuild the 1% of tools and systems used by a disproportionate number of people, then move on with our day.

Like writing about productivity or the back-and-forth between productivity fashionista and productivity influencer, self-reinforcing cycles are great to build momentum but questionable once self-reinforcing is all they do. After a plane is in the air, its direction is more important than its speed. Remember where you’re going — for as long as you do that, even if you don’t take the best path to get there, eventually, you’ll reach your goal, and, ultimately, that’s what productivity is truly about, isn’t it?