Tarnished Bullets: How Productivity Blogs Waste Your Time

By Nat Eliason in Productivity

Published or Updated on Feb 02, 2016

Take a look at this headline, and tell me what the problem is:

“The 1 Habit These 50 Successful Entrepreneurs Have in Common”

The premise of the article was that most successful entrepreneurs are avid readers and that they list reading as one of their most important habits.

Stop there. Just from that bit, what is already going through your mind?

“If I want to be a successful entrepreneur, then I should read more.”

It seems obvious, right? All these successful entrepreneurs read, you want to be a successful entrepreneur, so you should read too.

But, for anyone who’s taken an intro to statistics class, the problem is obvious: these two things being related does not mean that one causes the other. Or, phrased the popular way, “correlation does not imply causation.”

You could explain this habit in a number of different ways:

  • Entrepreneurs are curious people, and curious people also like to read
  • Their mentors told these entrepreneurs to read more, so they read more, even if they’re getting nothing from it
  • The author of the article wanted a certain conclusion, so he only interviewed people who fit his idea of the result

But there’s a bigger problem here: When we read these kinds of articles, we forget that these habits are an improvement on an already successful life, not the source of it.

For example, take this headline:

“Apple CEO Tim Cook Wakes Up At 5AM Every Day. Here’s Why”

You’re smart and you’ve been paying attention, so you know that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. But what if in the article, Tim Cook says (not a real quote):

“I know I’m more productive by waking up early. I’ve tried waking up at different times of day, and I get the most done when I wake up early. Many of my high-profile friends report the same thing.”

It seems that there is something to waking up early then. And if you want to be successful like Tim Cook, you should start waking up early too.

Makes sense, right?

No, dammit, but every single productivity blog out there tries to trick you with this. If you want to be successful like Tim Cook, the secret isn’t waking up early, the secret is doing great work till you get to the point of being CEO of Apple.

Waking up early is a minuscule, minuscule part of that success. Could he be just as successful waking up at 7 instead of 5? Most likely.

This is the easy test for whether something is worth emulating in other people’s successes. If you removed it from the equation, would they still be as successful? If the answer is “yes” as it so often is, then that aspect doesn’t matter.

Remove waking up early: Tim Cook is still successful. Remove being CEO of Apple (and his earlier roles): not so much.

“But Nat, these things helped them get there, it helped them be more productive!”

I’m not disputing that. I agree that reading, exercising, sleeping well, eating well, are all important parts of the equation… but they pale massively in comparison to what you’re doing with all that newfound productivity and creativity.

You could work at a minimum wage call center, and still wake up at 5am, exercise every day, read a ton, meditate, and do everything else that “productivity” and “success” blogs talk about.

All of the habits, lifestyle choices, productivity tactics, they’re the last 5% on top of doing things that matter. They help you make final improvements from a 94 to a 99, but doing something well is useless if you shouldn’t be doing it well in the first place.

Why do these blogs, articles, and books exist then? Because we’re lazy. We’re REALLY lazy.

We don’t want to hear “well, you’re going to have to pick a skill, get insanely good at it, work really hard for 20 years, and then you’ll be successful.” That doesn’t get shared on social media.

Instead, we want to hear “wake up at 5 am and you’ll magically become successful and rich. Also here’s a gif of a tired kitten.”

These are the “tarnished bullets.” They trick you into thinking there’s a quick, easy fix to your problems or goals (a “silver bullet”) by manipulating your psychological tendency to assume causation from correlation, or overemphasize the value of less consequential variables (Focusing effectLaw of TrivialityQuestionable cause).

It’s nothing malicious, they (hopefully) don’t even realize they’re doing it. But you’re smarter than they are now and you’ll see it coming.

So do yourself a favor. Stop reading about “habits of successful people,” little productivity tricks, and other junk. It will only tempt you into thinking that doing those things will make you “successful,” which will distract you from focusing on more important things.

If you’re not doing anything worthwhile that you’re excited about to begin with, none of those small changes will matter. And if you are, then your passion will drive the productivity on its own.


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