The Hidden Cost of Productivity

Three mistakes to avoid when pursuing the efficient life

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

“How blunt are all the arrows of thy quiver in comparison with those of guilt.” — Robert Blair

My six-year-old wanted attention, but I wasn’t listening. I was in the kitchen, chopping onions for our dinner. My earbuds were mainlining Tim Ferriss straight into my brain and I was high on wisdom.

My son persisted and I lost my temper. Popping out an ear, I bellowed at him to leave me in peace. He stared blankly at me for a moment, then he was gone. I returned to my cooking, irritated with the disruption.

A moment later, the truth struck me like a sledgehammer. My priorities were completely out of whack.

Until then, I had viewed productivity as a service to my family. I wanted to provide for them without working every hour of the day. But in truth, I was selfish. It was more fun to geek out on productivity than to be the father my children deserved.

Over the following weeks, I reflected on my decade-long productivity experiment and realised I’d made many mistakes along the way. Mistakes I could have avoided if I’d heard more productivity failures stories instead of endless articles about morning routines and to-do lists.

In the hope of sparing you from a similar fate, I’ll share three completely avoidable mistakes I’ve made along my productivity journey.

Mistake #1: Just-in-Case Learning

My productivity journey began in 2007 with reading The 4-Hour Work Week. Tim Ferriss showed me life could be unconventional and I was hooked. From that moment, I decided to be the most productive entrepreneur ever.

Over the following years, I consumed hundreds of self-help books and thousands of business podcasts. I probably went five years without glancing at a fiction book. Who has time for fiction when there’s so much to learn about business?

So… Am I an entrepreneur today? No. Not even slightly.

Along the journey, I’ve dabbled with a few side hustles but never threw myself in wholeheartedly. When I reflect on this period, I realise my recurring error was treating the process as the goal.

My typical approach to a new business idea was to jump into research mode. I would read countless articles and books, looking for the most efficient way to approach my idea. How could I learn from the mistakes of others and leap ahead of the pack? I was pretty sure the answer was out there and I was always hungry to learn.

The problem was I enjoyed learning too much. In fact, learning was easier than trying and failing. I focused too much on the tactics I should be applying and not enough on actually getting the work done.

I now call this just-in-case learning. It feels like progress, because you’re spending a lot of time thinking about the subject, but it’s inefficient. Before you start, you can’t possibly know what you need to know. So you end up learning far more than is needed to get the job done.

How I avoid this mistake today:

For new projects, I now focus on just-in-time learning.

This means I wait until I hit a problem before I start researching how to solve it. With a clear problem to solve, my research is narrowly scoped and usually concludes quickly. This means most of my effort goes into moving projects forward, rather than learning how I could move them forward.

To be clear, I still read a lot about productivity and business, as a leisure activity. I just don’t confuse this with making progress on projects.

Mistake #2: Forgetting I’m Human

For years, my goal was to fill every minute with productive work. I amassed numerous tactics — such as email batching — which pulled me ever closer to perfection. Wasted minutes were fewer and farther between, and each day was more efficient than the last.

At one stage, I started using the Getting Things Done methodology, combined with very tight controls over my calendar. This combination took me to untold heights of productivity; I was crossing off more tasks per day than ever before. There was barely an idle moment anywhere.

Then… I felt completely exhausted. I’d been running full-pelt for months, getting more and more efficient, without pausing to consider whether there was a limit to what one brain could handle.

My work was mentally taxing, yet so was the self-imposed pressure to be perfect. Urgency morphed into franticness. I struggled to switch off after work because my brain was still firing on all cylinders. I felt hunted and stressed.

Fortunately, I didn’t have a complete breakdown. One quiet weekend I realised I was burnt out and something had to change. The business world had lied to me. Forty hours a week wasn’t feasible if you maxed out every hour. Forty hours is plenty enough to kill you.

How I avoid this mistake today:

I try not to get so wrapped up in the work that I forget to listen to my body.

I take stock regularly and react before burnout. My schedule incorporates breaks during the day, as well as periods of lower-intensity work. I particularly avoid burning the candle at both ends when my workload is high. I use my downtime to relax and regroup, not to build out a side hustle.

It helps me to remember the forty-hour working week was designed for manual labourers. The fact it persists in modern knowledge work is accidental and arbitrary. It doesn’t mean forty hours of intense mental work are possible.

Mistake #3 — Tactics, Tactics, Tactics

Along the road to my near-burnout, I focused on practical work habits. I methodically considered every area of business, looking for ways to improve.

I started with the obvious topics, like minimising distractions and spending less time on emails. Then I honed my calendar skills and mastered the art of saying no to meetings. I tried every to-do system under the sun, as well as a variety of morning and evening routines. I even tweaked my exercise and diet on occasions (although I struggled to stick with those changes).

Every article I read suggested more tactics to try. I binge-read and tried everything. I gravitated towards anything with a prescription for action.

I think this was why I got so close to burnout — I forget to consider the bigger picture. Productivity isn’t just about how you read email or schedule your day. It’s about the mindset you have and the mental defences that keep the demons at bay.

My mind was my window to the world; the lens through which everything was experienced. And yet, I had failed to sharpen it one iota during those early years. I was like one of those lobsters with a giant lopsided claw. My tactics were way out of balance with my mental strength.

The result of this imbalance was I failed to spot my pending burnout until it nearly got me. And I failed to benefit from the huge productivity wins that come from training the mind itself.

What I learned from this experience:

The way to avoid this mistake is simple: meditation. I wish I had started it years earlier.

Before you panic and assume I’m prescribing yet another morning ritual, let me say I think meditation can be a project. A consistent spell of meditation, over a span of 3–6 months, can set in place permanent changes in your brain. At least, that’s been my experience.

Meditation is like playing the piano — the basic skill stays with you for life. Without practice, your repertoire will peter away until you only remember chopsticks. But with a small amount of playing, you can remember the old tunes again. Meditation is just like that. You can build a solid foundation that only needs occasional tune-ups throughout your life.

The benefits of meditation on productivity are worthy of an article in their own right, so I won’t cover them further here.

Learning From the Past

Back in the kitchen, with my cooking forgotten and my fatherhood in the balance, I discovered the power of reflection.

Until then, I viewed looking backwards as counter-productive and not action-focused. Plan and worry about the future, don’t dwell on the past, I thought.

Yet, in my rush to consume self-improvement books, I had overlooked the lessons from my own life. After all, these books are written by people who made a lot of mistakes and want to guide you on a smoother path.

If I simply learned all the lessons from my own mistakes, I’d be productive and successful enough. Perhaps that is true for everyone.