Public transport, to many observers, personifies a modern day tragedy. On any train or bus, you will see endless commuters slumped over tablets and smartphones, a businessperson drafting emails, tabloids and broadsheets discarded on empty seats. There are more keyboard clicks than human voices. Everyone is connected and disconnected simultaneously. Such a scene evokes nostalgic, whimsical reflections about the Western world, the combined curse and blessing of the information age.
Newspapers, of course, are timeless. They entered circulation for the first time in the late seventeenth century and since then, their primacy in enlightening the public on political, economic and cultural matters. Magazines serve a similar function. Technology, however, is revolutionary by continuously changing both the amount and the type of material we can access, while emboldening us to become ‘content creators’ ourselves.
Few people reject technological change as entirely negative. After all, we are lucky to have anything from knowledge to business opportunities at our fingertips. But it can be pretty overwhelming. The world, for one, is polarised. Concerning divisive subjects such as politics and the human condition, opinions and sources conflict everywhere. Each one claims to ‘debunk’ the others. Regardless of whether the subject matter in question is the ideal political candidate or way to quit procrastination, each one markets itself as the voice of authority. And with the restrictions on who can produce informations for others to consume loosened, anyone can elevate their voice to that of an authority. The internet is a window and a shield, giving an insight into who one wants others to believe them to be. The right response to this is not nihilism but on the contrary, a critical eye, a display of selectiveness in choosing your sources and role models.
Little suffers from ‘information overload’ to the same degree as blogging and the ‘self-improvement’ niche. Entrepreneurs, bloggers and writers address the cultural aspiration to become our best selves and meet our goals, providing sometimes conflicting and sometimes harmonious advice on anything from time management to organisation
I’ve no issue with productivity blogs and articles. I mean, you’re reading one right now. I myself have written on topics such as procrastination and staying productive as a writer, basing the overarching theme of my blog on what people come to me for advice. Mostly getting things done in a timely manner, writing, exams. My attitude to online advice is not one of cynicism and gloom; the world needs more people sharing their insights on how to cultivate the best life. However, acknowledging faults within yourself and the causes you dedicate yourself to is a cardinal principle of self-improvement. For instance, highlighting the imperfections of our education system does not displace my love for academia, learning and the merits of the UK relative to other countries. The internet is a vehicle for anyone, from a qualified professional to a student to share their perspectives and advice. But personal development as an industry suffers from several problems.
We have a preoccupation with the scarcity of time and the need to faultlessly stay ahead of our ‘competition’. The internet engenders comparison. Logging onto Instagram, we scrutinise our lives under a microscope and beg answers as to why we aren’t as rich as X or a productivity guru like Y. And ironically, the internet is the first to provide solutions. Websites offer to make you rich overnight, promising ‘Ten Secrets to Success At Work and In Life’. Often, they regurgitate the advice we’ve all heard before. Don’t get me wrong – producing completely unique content in a saturated internet borders on impossible, but many articles invest effort disproportionate to their resources in accounting for individual circumstance or adopting a unique voice/perspective. Clickbait culture fuels the problem further, a problem many acknowledge but perpetuate through their actions. Creators must follow a certain formula to rank in search engines and prosper on social media. Clickability, shareability and ‘readability’ determine an article’s success. Which is a shame, because torrents of articles that may have been produced by a robot – formulaic and predictable, the headline falling short of its promise – flood genuine quality.
Another issue is the making of productivity a goal unto itself, not a means to a grander end, which implies that there’s a secret trick to surpass your inner hurdles. People spend hours reading self-help guides and searching for a single, magical solution to their ills and further dilute their goal-reaching efforts. Sure, certain strategies (removing distractions and time-blocking, to give an example) push us in the right direction. But after a certain point, the more time we spend researching how to ‘streamline’ our lives, the less prone we are to actually implementing the suggestions we stumble across. Critically, we forget what productivity, at a fundamental level, actually is. We receive instant gratification simply through reading advice, while subconsciously knowing that if rectifying chronic procrastination was that easy, no one would ever procrastinate in the first place.
‘Productivity’ is not a competition. It does not have an objective definition or an all-encompassing purpose. In the terms of economics, productivity is measured by the amount of output per unit of input. With numerous factors involved, measurements are notoriously difficult to make – what’s the best way to measure input and output in services, in particular those whose resulting value is seldom quantifiable, such as psychotherapy? How do we account for emerging industries (like blogging)? These difficulties aside, governments propagandize productivity as a national objective because it ultimately manifests itself in long term, all-embracing change: better living standards, improved opportunities, superior consumer products, etc.
In everyday discourse, productivity has a similar purpose. It concerns the ability of individuals to meet their goals, getting the most done in a given number of hours. This generalised definition, however, captures an unrefined outline. Something with fewer ambiguities is devised by looking at our own circumstances and goals: achieving specific grades, meeting deadlines at work, satisfying clients and winning a promotion at work. In short, what productivity means to a student working towards their degree will differ from what it means to a corporate professional or a writer finishing his/her debut novel. Also, notice how, both on the individual and national scale, output reigns over input as a benchmark – not the number of hours you put in, but fulfilment of the utmost goal.
Perhaps, if there is a ‘secret’ to productivity, it is precisely that there isn’t an easy solution. The reason many strategies (like good time management and avoidance of distractions) appeal commonsensical is because they are, but scarcely translate into real-life action when we underestimate the effort and discipline they demand. And the best way to ‘hack’ being productive is to view productivity as a strategy, not an achievement in itself. Determine precisely why you want to stop procrastinating and refine your time management. Don’t expect the formation of new habits to be an overnight process: it never is.
The internet brims with good advice, concerning anything from mindset changes to articles specific to your goals. Used with mindfulness and moderation, we can exploit these resources to our advantage. Adopting a minimal approach to your online sources reduces mental clutter and exposes you to valuable, timeless content. But how do we know where to venture our time and attention, how do we know where to find our own secret to productivity?
Of course, the articles from which I derive use will be different to yours which will be different to your neighbour’s, and so forth. We all live in different circumstances, at varying stages in our lives: advice tailored towards students like myself is unlikely to help someone ten years into their career. Some tips are simply too general or incompatible with our lifestyles and personalities: bullet journaling isn’t for everyone, time-blocking isn’t for everyone, neither are certain mindsets claiming to be superior. Search for contextualised advice, specific to your distinct goals or wisdom that can be applied for years to come. Always remember the threshold between reading and assimilating advice and actually implementing it; doing the latter requires considerable effort, in particular if procrastination, poor time management, etc are key weaknesses of yours. Avoid passively skimming articles, thinking they’re registered in your mind, just to forget the information minutes later. When you read, take notes. Jot down anything you find genuinely compelling and/or that you are willing to implement. Then, follow your plan of implementation and track progress, discarding any technique that doesn’t work and simply causes friction in your schedule.
The best ideas, oftentimes, are candid and do not pose as a quick fix. They emphasise the hard work involved, that goals demand commitment, prioritisation and flexibility. It may not come in the form of tips telling you what to do at all, but as an opinion or story that explores your questions from an unusual angle or asks further questions that are implicit in yours.
Sorrow and dismay arise from our online lives because the internet seems to hold all the answers and at the same, confuses us further. On one hand, merely knowing of others in the same boat as yourself, the solidarity of goal-setting and personal development across our culture reinforces motivation and tames loneliness. On the other, a hurdle stands between online advise on one side, and action and long-term wisdom on the other. Changing this requires an attitude of skepticism and attentiveness to the information we choose to consume, and recalling that it is up to us to turn valuable advice into positive change within the frameworks of our own lifes. Define what productivity means in terms of your long-term goals, and reinforce it as you would any other desirable habit or quality.
Let me know in the comments: what is your favourite approach to productivity? What are your favourite self-help/personal development blogs to read, and how do you deal with information overload?