The Great Productivity Paradox: 4 huge, hidden costs of becoming more productive

by | Sep 5, 2013 | General Productivity

Takeaway: Becoming more productive has huge costs, like: time, willpower, turning you into a robot, and the fact that its results are often long-term (which can be discouraging in the short-run). To minimize these costs, set productivity goals that line up with your values.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes, 59s.

Cup of coffee and a newspaper.

French press.In my second year of University, I decided to subscribe to The New York Times (Sunday delivery). Every Sunday morning, before my roommates woke up, I would wake up early, press a fresh cup of coffee, and sit down with the paper, skimming the week’s articles.

This continued for a couple of months, until May, when my roommates went home for the summer. That’s when I realized something.

I didn’t actually enjoy reading The New York Times. In my head, I liked the idea of being a guy that reads The New York Times every Sunday (even though I live in Canada), so I subscribed. It’s hard to admit: I mainly read the paper so people could see me reading it. I unsubscribed shortly after I realized this, and haven’t much read much of the paper’s articles, even online, since. (Actually, maybe the story’s a little funny looking back.)

In a similar fashion, I think people like the idea of becoming a more productive person. They, like me, want to be known as “that guy” or “that girl” who wakes up at 5:30 every morning to run, meditate, read, and eat a huge, healthy breakfast before most of the world even wakes up.

The problem, of course, is you can’t become more productive overnight. You don’t just get to be more productive because you decide to – you have to work at becoming more productive; pushing on the outer boundaries of your potential until they budge. If you could simply decide to be more productive, you would already be as fit, rich, focused, and healthy as George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. You also wouldn’t have a reason to read this blog, and I wouldn’t have a reason to write it.

There are two ways you can become more productive

The two sides of productiviity

For A Year of Productivity, I have added a lot of productive elements to my life, like working out and meditating more, so I can explore what it means to be productive, and then share everything I learn with you.

I think are two main ways you can become more productive: by doing more (taking on more stuff), or by becoming more efficient at what you do already.

I hate the words efficiency and effectiveness, because they sound like they’re fresh out a douchey management textbook, but they work in this case. Becoming more productive can either make you more efficient at what you already do, or more effective as a person since you take on more stuff.

I’ve written a lot of articles from both perspectives, but over the last few months I’ve discovered something interesting: taking on more stuff has a much higher cost than doing the same, but better, because it saps you of some of your most important resources, like time and willpower. So far I’ve unraveled four huge, hidden costs of becoming more productive.

4 huge, hidden costs of becoming more productive

1. Becoming more productive eats up time

Everyone defines productivity differently, and a lot of people see it as being able to take on more things with the same amount of time. I usually invest about 9 hours a day into this project and sleep for 8.5, which leaves me with 6.5 hours of free time every day.

Everybody uses their free time differently. The average person: works for 8.8 hours, sleeps for 7.6 hours, eats for 1.1, does stuff around the house for 1.1, invests 1.2 hours into their relationships and caring for others, and spends 1.7 hours doing “Other”.1 Here’s what a typical person’s day looks like, compared to a typical day of mine now that I’ve started this project:


timeuse-1(Note: The “average” stat above is for someone who is employed, 25-54 years old, and has kids. I don’t have kids.)

For A Year of Productivity, I have added more elements to my life, in an effort to become more productive. Adding these extra elements has a massive cost: time. I love working out and receiving all of the benefits of working out, but on an average day I’m at the gym for 1.5 hours, which is a considerable chunk of my spare time. After I take time to meditate (30 minutes), invest in my relationships with my family, friends, and girlfriend (1.5 hours), I have a grand total of 30 minutes left over. Usually because it takes time and emotional effort to switch between the elements of my day, I don’t have any extra time at all.

That’s okay, because I love this project, and I love the challenge of turning myself into a better person.

But it does show how important it is to become more productive for the right reasons. Becoming more productive eats up time; maybe more of it than you think. If I were trying to become more productive because I liked the idea of being a productive person, for example, I probably would have given up a few months ago.

Click for my review of The Willpower Instinct.

Click for my review of The Willpower Instinct.

2. Becoming more productive sucks up your willpower

Your willpower is a depletable resource, and you expend a lot of it when you try to become more productive.

You start every day with a fresh tank of willpower, but over the course of a day, as you restrain yourself from picking at your co-worker’s candy jar and force yourself to hit the gym in the morning, your willpower reserve depletes.

Be mindful of how much willpower forming new habits sucks up. I can feel my willpower reserve steadily draining as the day wears on, especially on days where I have to really force myself to wake up super early, and then drag my butt to the gym.

Depleting your willpower reserve is incredibly costly if you don’t expend your willpower on the right things, for the right reasons. I think it’s a cost of becoming more productive that a lot of people overlook.

3. Some results of becoming more productive are invisible at first, which is discouraging

Your brain is wired to respond to cues in your environment, because it has grown to expect rewards for certain behaviours. That’s why you (without thinking) tap on the ‘Email” icon on your phone when you see new messages come in, or automatically start walking toward the laundry room after your dryer buzzer sounds.

Having clear, specific rewards for your behaviour is the key to making new habits stick, and with a lot of the new things I’m taking on (like working out and meditating more), it’s hard to see results at first.

Especially when you adopt behaviours that are more beneficial in the medium-to-long term, not having clear rewards can be discouraging and can make adopting a new habit, and becoming more productive, a lot more difficult.

A good way to lower this cost: reward yourself after completing something that doesn’t have noticeable, immediate benefits. For example, drink a glass of chocolate milk after you work out, or drink a cup of tea after you meditate. This helps solidify the cue-routine-reward habit sequence in your head, which makes things much easier the next time around.

4. Productivity can turn you into a robot

robotBeing productive feels great, but too much productivity can come at the price of your humanity.

When you bounce around from task to task, without much intention or time to reflect, you may appear productive on the outside, but you won’t have time to reflect on the awesome results of your productivity. Reflecting on how productive you are makes your success more meaningful, and the opposite is also true. Becoming completely obsessed with productivity without taking time to reflect on how productive you are can turn you into a robot.

Ironically, becoming obsessed with becoming more productive can actually make you less productive, if you do it wrong.

The key to avoid becoming a robot is to know why you want to become productive in the first place. When your actions are aligned with the reason you want to become more productive, you’ll feel connected with that purpose instead of feeling like a robot.

Next Steps: What to do about it

Since becoming more productive can cost you so much in time, willpower, emotional labour, and your humanity, it is so unbelievably important that you know why you want to become more productive in the first place, particularly if you want to add additional elements to your life.

I have been thinking about the costs of becoming more productive since starting A Year of Productivity in May, and have settled on the idea that you should focus on both the long-term and the short-term when you define your productivity goals.

How do you go about doing that? Here’s what I recommend.


1. Define your long-term goals

Everyone has productive and unproductive days, but your values stay consistent regardless. I think you should ‘hook’ productivity as deep in you as possible, and you can’t dive much deeper in you than your values. Figuring out your values before you define your productivity goals might sound corny, but it isn’t. Doing so will help you make sure your goals are in line with who you are, and your goals will also provide you with much more motivation this way.2

After you determine your values (here’s a good list to get started), connect your productivity goals to them. If you value art, a good productivity goal might be to create 10 several paintings you’re proud of over the next year. If you value learning, a good productivity goal might be to complete six iTunes U courses over the next three months. And don’t forget to make your goals S.M.A.R.T!

2. Act toward your goals

The beauty of hooking your productivity goals into your values is you can then keep moving down the chain and then connect your daily actions with your productivity goals. And you don’t have to worry about letting your productivity goals leading you astray, because you have connected them with what you value.

A few weeks ago I asked how you define productivity, and while every answer was different, there seemed to be a common thread amongst a lot of the replies: that you need to have some kind of intention behind your actions in order to be productive, and I couldn’t agree more.

Intention should always precede action.

When you intend to perform an action (as opposed to performing it automatically), you feel much more productive. Intention behind action is like wood behind an arrow.

Living purposefully and intentionally is the key to linking your everyday actions with your long-term productivity goals. Intention brings more meaning to your actions, allows you to adjust your actions to better suit your goals on-the-fly, and lets you feel in control. Throughout the day, continually reflect on your actions, and question whether they are connected with your productivity goals.

So, to sum up..

  1. Start with your values. And if you don’t know them, look to your actions and work backward.
  2. Hook your productivity goals into your values. I can’t think of a better place for your goals to come from.
  3. Every day, live intentionally, making sure you reflect on-the-fly how your actions are linked to your long-term productivity goals.
  4. Act with more motivation, drive, and ambition than ever before. Really.

Becoming more productive is not worth doing if you don’t do it for the right reasons, and adding more elements to your life without thinking about their cost will make you even less productive than you were before.

If you’re average, you’ll spend about a third of every day sleeping and another third working, and after performing your maintenance tasks, you end each day with a lot less time, willpower, and energy than you started with.

If you don’t question the hell out of why you’re trying to become productive, you could very well be adding elements to your life that aren’t lined up with the reasons you want to become more productive in the first place.

French press image source.

  1. Source: American Time Use Survey – 

  2. If you’re having trouble defining your values, examine your actions, and work backward toward them. My five biggest values: feeling valuable, exploration, relaxation, ego, and belonging. 

Written by Chris Bailey

Chris Bailey has written hundreds of articles on the subject of productivity and is the author of three books: How to Calm Your Mind, Hyperfocus, and The Productivity Project. His books have been published in more than 40 languages. Chris writes about productivity on this site and speaks to organizations around the globe on how they can become more productive without hating the process.

Pin It on Pinterest