Why Productivity Hacks Don’t Work For Me


“I go through to-do list programs like they’re shampoo.” Up until a few weeks ago, I could relate really well to this statement – so well, in fact, that it was starting to seriously concern me. I was an avid reader of Quora/Reddit/Lifehacker posts on productivity hacks. Convinced that the reason for my chronic procrastination was because I hadn’t found the right technique to get myself on track, I scoured blog posts and tutorials endlessly looking for the next big thing to fix myself.

Finding the sweet spot for productivity is all about experimentation, but I went about it all wrong. At the time, I thought, what better way was there to experiment than to read about what other tricks people used? A modified version of the Pomodoro technique. A framework based on Getting Things Done for using Trello. Standing instead of sitting while I work. Not checking email before noon. Meditation. I was spending more time trying out the latest technique to try and be more productive than actually being productive with real work. I conned myself into thinking that this was just an extended process of self-development, and that it would eventually be worth it.

But every night before I went to bed, I was left with a dirty feeling that I hadn’t actually fulfilled my potential for that day. I had an agenda and to-do list that I followed every day, but if you were to ask me how many hours I had spent working, or if I felt confident that I had used my time effectively, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Clearly, using productivity hacks I found on the Internet weren’t working for me.

So I decided to explore the root causes of my feelings. I thought about what it was that I needed: I want to feel confident – with quantitative evidence to back me up – that I did everything humanly possible to be productive every day, while getting 8 hours of sleep, going to class and crew practice, as well as eating regularly. I am currently unaware of how much time I spend being productive every day.

Essentially, I wanted to know whether or not I was fulfilling the following formula:

24 hours – Hours of “mandatory” activities (sleep, meals, practice, class) – Scheduled fun time
= Total number of hours a day spent working

When I first heard of time tracking, I remember being repulsed by how over the top and unnecessary it seemed. Some of my peers who are excited about the Quantified Self movement track their time, recording every single hour of their day. Given the fact that I was approaching a point of desperation, time tracking now seemed like an interesting possibility.

For three weeks straight, I documented every single hour of every day in a spreadsheet, and checked if my productivity matched the formula above. If not, I would figure out where the wasted time was coming from, and prepare a positive change for the next day. For example, I noticed that I wasted a lot of time walking around campus on foot, so I got myself a scooter (dorky but effective!) to halve my commute time. I also noticed that I would spend 1-2 hours a day surfing the Internet, even though it was not part of the scheduled fun time. Now, I actually had solid data proving that I was wasting time, but I also had solid data proving that as a student/coxswain/SunSaluter-er, it was just not humanly possible for me to have enough time in the day to work for more than 5-6 hours.

These conclusions helped me identify more specific ways to combat my procrastination, while also allowing me to come to terms with the fact I was being too hard on myself for expecting 7-8 hours of work a day. How could I reduce my Internet surfing time down to 30 minutes to ensure I still got my work done? From this question, I was able to brainstorm other, smaller ways to hold myself accountable to achieve the desired numbers on my spreadsheet.

I decided to reframe my approach: instead of experimenting with superficial one-time productivity hacks, I would experiment with a new mindset and framework for productivity that would form the foundation for multiple customized habit changes. This was the first time that a productivity technique genuinely made an impact in my life, instead of the usual two-week fad habit that didn’t stick. It wasn’t just a hack that I copied straight off the Internet – learning to understand my time worked because it was a personalized solution developed based on my life’s specific constraints and preferences.

Trying others’ productivity hacks without understanding the underlying framework may not necessarily help me, because their creators’ lifestyles and preferences are likely very different from mine. It would be comparable to solving a differential equation by cheating off an answer key – you didn’t genuinely learn how to do it for yourself, so you didn’t learn anything in the process. Reading about others’ techniques can be helpful for brainstorming solutions, but at the end of the day, I still have to do the work myself to design a productivity framework around the root causes of my own procrastination.

This was the technique I needed all along: creating my own solutions to answer the questions of my own life. It’s not about finding a quick fix – it’s about being dedicated to constantly innovating on my own.

[Special thanks to Janine Chan and Janet Chang for their feedback on early drafts!]