From productivity porn to mindful productivity

Reading time: 6 minutes

The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime. To put this figure into perspective, that’s about ten years of back-to-back work. So it’s no wonder productivity advice is so popular: we rightfully try to make the most of the time we spend at work. However, our desire to be more productive can turn into a harmful addiction to productivity content: a phenomenon known as productivity porn.

Magic bullets for superhumans

Not all productivity strategies are made equal. While some are backed by science, others are cobbled together by self-experimenting entrepreneurs who are selling readers the dream of a magically more productive, effortless life.

A few tell-tale signs make it easy to identify such productivity porn.

  • Unrealistic demands. Waking up at 5am everyday, getting to inbox zero before 6am, filling your whole calendar with perfectly estimated blocks of time for each task? Productivity porn assumes we are all indefatigable machines. But we probably wouldn’t be looking for advice if we were superhumans.
  • Unrealistic results. A big part of the success of The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris is the title: who wouldn’t want to shorten their workweek to just four short hours?* There is nothing wrong with encouraging people to be the best version of themselves. However, productivity porn promotes the vision of becoming an entirely different person. What’s more, it promises you to get there fast.
  • Guru-like persona. The unmistakable “look at me, I got it all figured out” personal brand many productivity gurus use to attract and retain readers is often a sign of productivity porn. While some productivity writers may have achieved certain results, it is deceiving to pretend there is a step-by-step recipe anyone could apply to achieve the same outcome.

If you notice one of all of these signs, you are probably looking at productivity porn rather than realistic and evidence-based productivity strategies. It’s fine to read these from time to time for entertainment—there is something fascinating with these extreme stories—but being aware that applying these strategies to yourself may be harmful is important.

An insidious form of procrastination

Why do we fall prey to productivity porn in the first place? What is so appealing in these unrealistic productivity plans?

Of course, productivity porn targets our tendency for wishful thinking. While positive thinking can actually lead to a more productive behaviour—that’s called the Pygmalion effect—wishful thinking shapes our decisions based on what may be pleasing to imagine, rather than on rationality. Christopher Booker described it as the “fantasy cycle”, a common pattern where wishful thinking makes us focus on goals that can never be reconciled with reality.

At its core, productivity porn is a form of procrastination. When we don’t feel like working, planning and reading act as illusionary substitutes: they give us the illusion of productivity. Buying the perfect bullet-point journal, researching the best Pomodoro apps, watching videos explaining how “that one productivity trick will change your life…” Instead of making us more productive, these are preventing us from getting work done.

Going deeper, consuming too much productivity porn can sometimes be a symptom of lack of confidence. The process of learning from supposedly more productive people is akin to asking for permission to start working on an ambitious project.

Of course, we often procrastinate on tasks because they feel boring or tedious. But procrastination can also be the manifestation of stress, anxiety, or impostor syndrome. Hearing someone say that there is in fact a magic formula that will guarantee success is reassuring. But when the effortless success we imagined fails to manifest itself, it’s our mental health that suffers.

Mindful productivity for humans

Magic bullets are for superhumans. Instead of scouring the web for the one trick that will make you more productive and creative, it is worth investing in building a system that works for you.

Crucially, such a system should be flexible enough to allow for areas where you actually don’t need a system. For instance, I don’t have to be in an office at a certain time and I rarely have meetings in the morning, so my productivity system does not include anything about going to bed or waking up at a certain time. I just make sure to get enough sleep, and I’m fine with having a bit of an erratic sleep schedule.

You may be struggling to come up with topics to write about for your blog. Adding a note-taking tool to your productivity system may make sense in order to avoid starring a blank page every time you need to write an article.

Or you may be struggling to find time for a side project, always feeling too tired in the evening to work on it, even though you do care about it. It may be helpful to block an hour in the morning before work to focus on your side project.

You will notice that there is no one-size-fits all recipe that can be applied for all these specific situations. In order to decide what the right strategy is, one needs to take the time to think about their challenges and their goals.

Mindful productivity is a sustainable way to work and think. It’s not a magic bullet: it’s being consciously present in what you’re doing, while you’re doing it, in conjunction with managing your mental and emotional states.

Here are a few ways you can switch from productivity porn to mindful productivity.

  • Identify actual bottlenecks. You don’t need a productivity system for everything. Ask yourself: what are my challenges? What is getting in the way of achieving my goals? Again—weird sleep patterns that have zero impact on your health and life? Let it be. Chronic lack of motivation that prevents you from getting the work done? Worth looking into it.
  • Make time for self-reflection. We spend so much time at work; don’t work mindlessly. Take the time to dig deeper into your thoughts and emotions. Identify the parts of your work you find most enjoyable, and the ones you don’t. When you procrastinate, ask yourself why. Learn the difference between worry, anxiety, and stress. Some people like journaling, others do a weekly review, and yet others have a thinking buddy or support group. Find the self-reflection method that works for you.
  • Manage your information diet. The same way you try to be mindful of the food you eat, be mindful of the information you consume. Balance your information diet. Curate your inbox so you only receive useful or enjoyable content—not productivity porn that makes you feel miserable because of unattainable strategies.

Lastly, don’t overthink it, and focus on the process! There is no better way to learn than doing. So get started and learn from your mistakes. The best personal productivity coach is yourself.

🧠 As a knowledge worker, your brain is your most important tool. Join over 20,000 readers and subscribe to Maker Mind, a weekly newsletter with neuroscience-based insights on decision making, continuous learning, thinking, creativity, and productivity.

One email a week, no spam, ever. Privacy policy.

As a welcome gift, you will receive The Beginner's Guide to Mindframing (22 pages), 30 Mental Models to Add to Your Thinking Toolbox (6 pages), and a printable Plus Minus Next journal template.