The Productivity-Industrial Complex
I'll never forget sitting with my buddy Neil at a friend's high school graduation party. The party shifted to the quieter, sitting-around-the-fire portion of the evening. We snuck a beer or three when the adults weren't looking, and they fueled a conversation about our futures. We were headed off to different colleges, but man. We were going to make it someday.
How would we know when we made it? When we owned Blackberries. We lusted after those things and couldn't wait to be important enough to have the blinking red light beckoning us to be productive.
Since I can remember, I've been obsessed with productivity, even if I didn't know it. Whenever I went to my friend Alex's house in middle school, we walked to Rite Aid to get new pens and notepads to finally conquer our 6th grade to-do list (top of my list? Get Katie to hold my hand at the next skating party).
In high school and college, I continued collecting pens, notebooks, and notepads, figuring I'd finally Get It All Done when I found the perfect combination. I couldn't afford a Blackberry data plan in college, so I bought a Moto Q (with no data plan) to have my digital to-do list with me at all times.
Once I started my first job out of college, I got a Blackberry (with a data plan). I finally made it. All the graduation party backyard dreams came true. I now had my to-do list AND email with me at all times, and I was ready to take on the world.
But... I still couldn't Get It All Done. And since then, life has only gotten more complex -- new jobs with more responsibility, marriage, home ownership, kids.
Digital life has gotten more complex, too. I used to listen to NPR's Marketplace podcast for the day's business news. I had to download it from iTunes to my computer, connect my iPod to the computer with a cable, then upload the podcast to my iPod. Today, every podcast I want is automatically added to my podcast app.
And it's not just podcasts. Newsletters, blog posts, Twitter threads, Substacks, and YouTube channels. There's just SO MUCH more coming at us today, often automatically (and yes, I realize writing this makes me part of the problem). Much of it is high quality and worth our time, and we never know when we may stumble across the nugget that changes everything.
So we do our best to Get It All Done. To be a good parent, good spouse, good employee, good son or daughter, AND read, listen to, and watch everything we're supposed to.
So what do we do? We figure if we get the right system in place, we can do it all. We have graveyards of notepads and notebooks, some designed specifically for time-blocking, to-do lists, or meeting agendas. We buy iPads, ReMarkables, and Kindles. We download read-it-later apps, Readwise, and the Kindle app, and make sure to sync all our notes with Notion, Roam, or Obsidian. We integrate to-do list apps with our email accounts and add widgets to our phones and Apple Watches to seamlessly add tasks and reminders. We have stacks of books that are only growing bigger, and we have to take notes on those books and sync them with our other notes. We spend hours trying to build out our Perfect System. We attempt to Build a Second Brain as if the brain we have isn't good enough.
I know because I've tried all of these things. And I still didn't Get It All Done.
For every article we finish in our read-it-later app, there's another one behind it. For every podcast we finish, there are more that will download tomorrow. For every YouTube video we watch, more of our subscriptions will post tomorrow. For every book we finish, there are two more coming from Amazon tomorrow.
Oh, and smart people are developing new apps and tools every day that promise to solve our problems. We'll just have to try them.
All of the stress -- the constant hum of anxiety, distracted by what we should be doing rather than being present in what we are doing -- to solve a problem that didn't exist 20 years ago. Humans managed to get through a few hundred thousand years without knowing (or caring) what someone on the other side of the world thought about, well, anything.
And we wonder why we're stressed. We wonder why we have society-wide problems with diet, fitness, health, and happiness. Why teenage mental health is at all time lows. Why we resent half the country and find ways to hate them rather than reasons to connect.
We "cure" these problems with crappy food and booze advertised everywhere we turn. We doomscroll, download meditation apps, and place impulse Amazon orders that are delivered in two days (and we're annoyed when something takes longer). We solve the problem of too much by adding more.
Step one in recovery is to admit you have a problem. Let's admit that we're never going to Get It All Done.
And since adding more hasn't helped, let's try to subtract. Identify what matters in the important areas of your life -- as a professional, friend, parent, spouse, etc. -- and strip away the rest. If an app, notebook, tool, newsletter, book, or podcast doesn't make you better at what matters, skip it.
Even if a book, article, or podcast does make a difference, but you'd rather read fiction or do chores without AirPods in, skip it anyway.
Click unsubscribe and unfollow. Turn off notifications. Delete apps. Shamelessly admit that you're never going to Get It all Done and you're never going get caught up.
I'm most productive when I use a yellow sticky note for my daily to-dos and Siri to remind me to add things to the list. If I come across a compelling book passage or podcast quote, I'll write it in a small notebook in my desk drawer. And if I don't remember something, it wasn't that important anyway. Find the simplest way to get done what you have to, and accept that it's enough.
Accept that you are enough.
And give yourself grace. No matter how much time you spent perfecting your productivity system, you're still going to miss things. And that's okay. You're not going to Get It All Done. Whether you're spending another hour perfecting your note-taking system, reading someone's hot take on crypto, or reading a book for the sheer pleasure of it, another hour of life has passed you by. Use the next one wisely.
The Blackberry blinking red light, literal or figurative, will still be there no matter what.