Thomas Wilson


The Weekly #41: Productivity is a daily ritual

The Weekly is a 1000-word-or-less essay on something I’ve been thinking this week. Let’s talk about how productivity is (basically) a scam and how daily and weekly rituals are the backbone of any sane person’s productivity.

I once had the goal to move to Paris. I didn’t achieve it (there was a pandemic). I had a goal to learn Italian (laziness). We’ve all got visions of our future where we’re cleverer, skinnier, more intelligent, or in my case simply the same person but somewhere else.

But we don’t do visions. We reach them. But actually we don’t reach them because the Hedonic Treadmill keeps us all both in motion and stationary at the same time.

I’m going to put the tinfoil hat on properly in about 500 words, but I genuinely don’t think productivity people want us to be productive, and “productivity” isn’t a thing. It’s a thing only because businesses and organisations need way to quantify the impact they’re having.

You are not a business. You are an individual. You do not have to justify yourself economically to anyone. You are whole, you are complete, you are enough.

But we all want to be just a little bit…more.

The secret to doing that little bit extra is in ritual. Every day you’ve got to wake up and do the hard work of redefining what “being productive” looks like. One day it will be writing a eulogy for a family member, the next it might be six hours of visual design work, or a board meeting. Can you compare these things? Maybe, but what a waste of mental effort you could have spent doing things you actually wanted to do.

I’m going to share what that actually looks like.

My ritual

There are two ways I store my productivity system: in my physical notebook (the Leuchtturm 1917 Hardcover A5 with Dotted Paper) and a digital Second Brain (Obsidian).

I use these to do two things:

  1. Weekly Note — Every Sunday I dedicate a double-spread on my physical notebook to a list of things I want to do that week. They’re grouped roughly by work (‘ship feature x’), personal (‘2 x Runs’), side-project (‘refactor below-the-fold section of landing page’).
  2. Daily Notes — Every day I have a double spread in my notebook and a daily file in Obsidian. One side of my paper has a list of high-level tasks (‘go for run’), and the other has a list of things I might have thought about (‘luck is about increasing your surface area’). The digital daily note is infinitely editable. I use it as a scratch pad for writings, or sub-tasks, or links to things I’ve done that day.

Every week, before I create the next-weekly note, I review my previous week. I look at what I did during the days, I look at what I wanted to get done, and I index things: thoughts that came up, projects which might be important for long-term use.

The entire process is vague and not-specific. But if I go into any more detail it’s not going to be useful to literally anyone else. How many other people are working in a small laundry startup, building language-learning tools, and taking nerdy notes on a small subset of podcasts because one day maybe something will stick and I’ll be able to sound insightful in a conversation. There are none.

/Puts on the tinfoil hat/

Despite not making it to an apartment in Paris (yet), I like to think that I am a productive person. I got a PhD and once knew a lot of French. A lot of people would like to think they’re productive. Globally, the personal development market is valued at around $38b. There’s a lot of money to be made by helping people be more productive.

A pessimist would say there’s a lot of money in making people feel unproductive, and that you can make them productive.

People will try and sell you a framework, app, or system that will solve all your personal productivity problems. For a long time I was very committed to time-chunking, task managers, and efficient email. I don’t religiously adhere to these anymore.

Or worse, there are the Vaynerchuck-esque “hacks” which promise, as Pilta Clark writes in the FT puts it, “to transform useless, Solitaire-addicted sloths into hard-charging models of efficiency”.

Learning the click-baity 14 Must Know Tricks For Productivity From A Wall Street Manager isn’t going to help you.

That’s because knowledge isn’t the problem. We don’t have a knowledge deficit. We have abundance. An overwhelming abundance, things we want to do, or should do, or feel like we should want to do. If only we had the time to achieve them.

When there’s $39b dollars at stake, and you want to keep it there, there are two things you can do:

  1. Keep everyone feeling unproductive — make everyone feel like they’re underperforming and need to keep up. Tell them they are unproductive and that your book or consultation or software are the only way to change that.
  2. Keep giving people new goals — as soon as you’ve achieved one goal, move immediately to the next. Or why even achieve it, just drop it and move on.

Most worthwhile goals require sustained effort. Fat comes back, muscles decay, French words disparaissent , and your fingers will forget a G-minor scale very quickly.

The modern personal productivity industry is selling you a solution to a problem it created to benefit itself. People started making money off that. Loss aversion keeps that idea alive.

Productivity is a daily ritual.

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