Stop wasting your time on junk productivity hacks

There are no quick fixes that will whip your to-do list into shape. We need to stop pretending there are

Man sitting inside a ring of desks covered with computers

(Peter Cade/Getty)

In 1925, Lucky Strike cigarettes launched advertisements touting a glorious benefit of smoking: weight loss. The print campaign advised women to “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” and fuelled the rise of the Cigarette Diet, a fad that lasted nearly a decade. Among Lucky Strike’s critics was the National Confectioners’ Association, which objected to its products’ vilification and produced its own ads, contending, “You can get thin comfortably ‘on candy.’” The Candy Diet never became a trend, but the Grapefruit Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet and the Lemon Detox Diet all once enjoyed popularity. We might intuitively know that shedding pounds is a simple matter of eating less and exercising more. But it takes willpower and tenacity to follow this common sense. It’s so much more appealing to think a gimmick will quickly zap away the pounds.

What fad diets are to our health, productivity hacks are to our work. Offering similar shortcuts to success, both fill bookstore shelves, with Extreme Productivity dwelling near Extreme Fat Smash Diet. Systems for boosting productivity are branded (The Pomodoro Technique), packaged (The Action Method) and sold (Getting Things Done) with the same precision as the South Beach or Atkins diet. And whether it’s “10 Simple Steps to Exceptional Daily Productivity” or the “Total 10 Rapid Weight Loss Low-Carb Diet,” both provide endless web fodder.

The sheer tonnage is part of the problem. Consumer appetite for quick fixes is limitless, but there’s a finite number of ways to get more out of a workday. This leads to an endless recycling and restating of a few salient points. Find yourself an article promising surefire ways to boost productivity. Does it tell you to do one of the following: limit time spent emailing, make to-do lists or take the occasional break? Odds are good.

Beyond the repetitive solutions, there are also ones that are simply wrong. Many self-appointed gurus counsel an early wake-up as a way to boost your output. They’ll point to a lengthy list of successful people—Richard Branson, Jeffrey Immelt, Jack Dorsey—who rise before dawn. Researchers working together from two Michigan universities, however, debunked this notion, suggesting an early alarm only helps a morning person. (If you’re a night owl, better to work late).

The demand for this “work smarter, not harder” advice is symptomatic of a collective delusion. A series of polls conducted by USA Today between 1987 and 1998 consistently showed respondents believed themselves busier than the previous year. Yet the number of hours worked by Americans has steadily declined since the 1950s. Similarly, Canadians worked 1.4 hours less per week in 2012 than they did in 1976. We’re struggling to overcome a time crunch that, for most of us, doesn’t exist. (This isn’t to say all productivity advice is useless. Canadian Business dispenses a healthy portion, striving to ensure our tips are counterintuitive, provocative or, at least, amusing. More important, we aim to debunk bad advice and practices.)

The worst hack of all is wasting time searching for easy fixes for your work routine. Like losing weight, there’s no real mystery to what it takes to be more productive. You just need the discipline. Author Michael Pollan once elegantly condensed the ideal diet down to seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” It doesn’t take a lot more to express the essence of a productive routine: Set priorities. Minimize distractions. Take the occasional walk.