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Why Your Best Productivity Hacks Still Come Up Short (And What Really Needs To Change)

Source |  |  BY: BRIGID SCHULTE0

New research on the causes of overwork suggests there’s only so much individuals can do to avoid it. The problem, one expert writes, “is bigger than you.”

Why Your Best Productivity Hacks Still Come Up Short (And What Really Needs To Change)
[Photo: Rawpixel /iStock]

I confess: I’m a sucker for life hacks.

Who doesn’t fantasize about getting work done faster and getting more out of life, especially when, after rushing around all day, you’ve barely made a dent in your to-do list, emails keep pouring in, and that one big project you’ve been meaning to work on gets kicked to the following week?

Some of the advice for working smarter is excellent, and developing the right productivity skills is critical. But both have their limits. In truth, all the life hacks in the world can only get you so far. Because both the problem and the solution to doing better work so you have more time for life are bigger than just you—possibly a lot bigger.

According to a new report by the behavioral-science research group ideas42 and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a resource book I contributed to, it all comes down to systems change: What if instead of expecting workers to “fix” themselves on their own, we designed work environments that led everyone to make better choices?


Change is hard for humans. We tend toward what behavioral science researchers call “status quo bias,” which is exactly what it sounds like: We do things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way, often without question. We can get stuck in unhealthy patterns, even when we know better.

That bias is making work itself too complicated. Technology is changing the nature of work—take group messaging apps like Slack and HipChat for instance—but often only by fits and starts; many workplaces that have brought in new tools have yet to let go of older ones. And those they do institute may not be implemented very well. Flexible work policies now let more people work different schedules in different locations, which heightens the need to communicate digitally. Yet layer that new system on top of the longstanding expectation of face-time and in-person meetings, and you’ve created the perfect conditions for overload at a companywide level.

I think of work in three ways: First there’s “real work,” which describes your actual job duties. Then there’s “work around work,” the technical and administrative tasks that help you execute the real work. And finally, there’s “performance of work,” but more on that in a moment. Too often, our time and limited cognitive bandwidths are consumed by that second component, the work around the work—endless email chains, meetings, updates, and check-ins that have become part of the modern culture of over-collaboration. These are the things all those productivity tips and hacks and techniques are supposed to change.

But there’s another reason we get the work wrong, too, and it’s much older than HipChat or that new email strategy you’ve just read about—or email itself. It’s the fact that as social creatures, humans are deeply influenced by social norms. We tend to do what everyone around us is doing, whether we consciously realize it or not.


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