When I was working in marketing, I had a habit that surprised my peers:
I didn’t read any marketing blogs.
I had no feed set up to track the new articles being put out by my peers. Instead, I went out of my way to ignore them, and whenever one of someone would ask “hey what did you think about that article that X posted?” my response was usually “what article?”
What I knew then, and believe even stronger now, is that there are a vast number of things that you and I do that make us feel productive, but that barely move the needle. Or, worse, that move it backwards.
I call this “fauxductivity,” anything that gives us an artificial sense of productivity without getting anything important done. In many cases, the key to getting more done is simply a matter of removing these fauxductive habits, or significantly reducing the time we spend on them.
I challenge you to read through the list and see how many of them you do frequently. Then, seriously ask yourself if it’s massively improving your quantity and quality of output (a la Deep Work), or if it’s just something you do when you’re not sure what to do.
I’ll be updating this list as I find more tasks that fit the criteria of “fauxductivity,” so bookmark it and refer back to it when you’re trying to figure out why you’re just not getting as much done as you’d like to.
Following Tactical Blogs
Most tactical blogs are a complete waste of time. And for distinction, a tactical blog is one that teaches you specific tactics on how to do something, as opposed to making you think, as I outlined in my article on infomania. This applies to all industries, but I’ll pick on the health blogs since they tend to be the worst offenders.
If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s extremely simple. Don’t eat anything you couldn’t find 2,000 years ago, and don’t sit all day. Can it get more nuanced than that? Yes, but it doesn’t need to.
But Men’s Health and Cosmo wouldn’t make much money if they just had one article explaining this and then never said anything about dieting ever again. They make money by confusing you, and by putting out tons of new articles on new “weight loss tips” that you need to know.
And it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking that if you read all of them you’ll somehow find the magic bullet to the body you want, so you read tons of them and feel good about yourself for “staying on top of it” and “doing your research,” but you’re just tricking yourself into thinking you’re working on your health.
The same goes for marketers reading marketing blogs. Whatever your strategy is, you need to execute on it, not read what dozens of other people are doing. If you want to get tons of traffic from Google, then you need to write great articles. Not use today’s SEO “hack.”
The exception to this rule is when you need answers to a specific question. I strongly recommend keeping a mental catalogue of good tactical sites that don’t waste your time, so that if you need an answer to something, you know where to go. Just don’t go to them looking for answers to questions you don’t have.
Messaging / Email
Nothing tricks people into a false sense of productivity more than email and work messaging. On one side you feel productive by sending emails and staying “in touch,” and on the other side of it, people will judge you as being unproductive if you don’t.
One former boss told me multiple times to be more active in our company Slack, because not being as active made me seem like I wasn’t working as hard. He wanted me to be less productive, just to look more productive to other people!
What matters is actually getting things done, and you can’t do that so long as you’re constantly responding to the whims of everyone else. If you absolutely must respond somewhat regularly, set a schedule where you only check every 50 or 80 minutes, and only give yourself a 10-minute window for response. If it needs to be a longer conversation, get on a call.
It’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking we’re getting things done by studying and studying and studying, when we’re just doing it because we want to procrastinate, or because we don’t know what we should be doing.
Because many people struggle to teach themselves new things, they think the answer is more courses, more books, more research, when the best tactic is typically to get out there and do something.
The rule for research is that it should answer a specific question you have. Doing research on the hopes that you’ll stumble into something useful is pure fauxductivity.
If you find yourself doing any sort of research, pause and ask yourself: “what question am I trying to answer right now?” If you don’t have an answer, put down the book or close the tab, and get back to work.
If social media isn’t a major part of your business (a la Gary Vaynerchuck) stop caring about it. It’s like blogging, it should either be an all-in commitment, or it should be left on autopilot.
But that’s for business social media, what about personal? We frequently go to social when we need a break, tricking ourselves by saying “well maybe there will be some important article relevant to my work,” or “maybe someone sent me a message I need to respond to.”
Don’t fall for it. When was the last time that scrolling through the trending news on Facebook seriously helped you get your best work done? Block it for most of the day (I like Go Fucking Work), check it once or twice, and everything will be fine.
Try going without reading or watching the news for a few weeks. I guarantee you your quality of life will improve, the world won’t end as a result of you not staying up to date, and the most important things going on you’ll find out about anyway from your friends or family.
As a result of the attention economy, the news has become a massive waste of time, focusing more on trying to keep you looking at it so they make money, mostly by scaring you.
But people read it because they feel like they “need to stay up to date,” and so that they have something to talk about with people they don’t care that much about anyway. But it’s artificial productivity.
If you repurposed that time to your real work, or reading useful books, you’d get significantly more done and be much happier.
Stats / Analytics
I love checking my website stats. There’s an intense high from seeing a spike in traffic or a new article ranking on Google.
Anyone who has a site likely succumbs to this habit, too. It’s easy to get lured in by your stats, thinking that if you stay on top of them and know how you’re doing, that will somehow help you do better. But checking stats and going through your analytics is typically a form of procrastination and should be ignored as much as possible.
A simple rule is to have one metric that you’re focused on, to check it once a day, and to only freak out if it’s consistently down for longer than a week. Ignore daily fluctuations, even multi-day fluctuations, and just keep working on what’s going to make that number go up.
This is true for marketers and people in businesses, as well. It’s easy to fret over your stats and give them more value than they have (usually if you don’t know what to do with your time), so you have to fight that impulse. Do the thing that moves the needle, and the score will take care of itself.
Re-arranging your tasks on Trello, checking things off on Asana, color coding your to-dos, none of these get those things done. But they’re all attractive as a distraction from the work you know you should be doing, since adjusting your productivity system makes you feel like you’re doing something productive.
Certainly, though, moving cards around and ticking things off doesn’t accomplish anything any more than checking your GPS drives your car. Find a system that works for you, and spend the least amount of time in it as possible.
Finding New Tools
The same problem with task management carries over to the obsession with finding new tools. Trying a new productivity tool won’t magically make you get more done, it’ll just make you feel a little better about yourself briefly before you get bored and try another one.
Don’t read articles about all the new productivity tools you have to be trying. Find one that works for you, and stick with it. For 99% of people, WunderList, Trello, or Asana will be all you need.
Do you suppose Elon Musk, Maria Popova, Michael Lewis, or whoever else you look up to in the world today is a member of a “professional community” for “networking?”
No, certainly not. They do interesting things with their life, and meet interesting people as a result. Any professional community, and many mastermind groups, especially ones that you pay to join, tricks you into thinking you’re getting something done and “advancing your career.”
This is not to say you shouldn’t meet people or talk to them. Rather that if you’re in a group, being active in the group is not the same as getting things done, and it’s unlikely that the other people in it are of such a high quality that you have a ton to learn from them.
More likely, they’re at or near your level, and so their advice and suggestions will be mediocre, helping you make small 10% improvements instead of 10x ones.
Did I miss anything? I want this to be as comprehensive as possible. These are fairly specific to areas I encounter, so what else do people waste time on online thinking it’s being productive?