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Cargo-Cult Productivity

Abstract: Productivity hacking based on naive introspection will almost certainly fail due to the inability to isolate particular productivity-affecting variables and rife reverse causation. This sounds obvious but it isn’t.

In a conversation with Malcolm several weeks ago, upon hearing about my perceived total lack of control over the productive mood, he suggested to look for the mental processes accompanying occasional bouts of this mood and try to understand what stands behind them. I was quite dumbfounded by the fact that this thought didn’t strike me before, given my apparent commitment to self-development and ruthless introspection.

Well, in retrospect I shouldn’t have been dumbfounded. In fact, after paying even more attention to my brain states since this talk, I realized that I’ve been acting on his suggestion for as long as I can remember, and from my apparent lack of progress it does not seem a particularly useful strategy.

Cargo-cult productivity is what I came to call it:

  1. At a particular point in time I notice that I’m really feeling like doing some work.
  2. I notice what I feel and the current state of my mind.
  3. I generate a hypothesis which particular aspect(s) of my immediate mental state is the principal cause of me feeling productive.
  4. Once the mood wears off, I try to put that insight to use and to reignite my desire to work on stuff that I want to be working, rather than feeling addicted to reddit.
  5. I fail every time.

I’ve been feeling particularly productive for the last week or so. I’ve restored my Complice subscription, and have been putting quite a lot of hours into reading books from my to-read list, doing college related activities, cleaning up my rss feeds/chrome/twitter and generally feeling really agenty.

My current hypothesis is that it’s caused by the absence of any really ugh fields-creating tasks in a tandem with the fact that I’ve successfully committed to wake up the instant I hear my alarm and start doing whatever is on my to-do list before checking email or any social media (or do the same thing the moment I get home from college).

Does this hypothesis has any real explanatory power? I have no idea. My bet is that it’s just an another rationalization proposed to me by my brain in an attempt to stop me from grilling it, and me willingly closing eyes on all the past experience and the uncountable confounders that make the expected value of this particular “insight” to be near zero.

Regardless, I’ll know for sure in a couple of weeks :)

Update from spring 2016: This insight did indeed turn out to be useless, but I have been able to basically solve productivity.


Feel free to share your thoughts on this post with me!