The Productivity Trap and How to Avoid It

I can't believe it's been ten years since the iPhone debuted. I still remember wondering if I needed a piece of glass in my pocket. And if I did have one, I wasn't sure I would know what to do with it. I know what the skinny guy with rimmed glasses was telling me about it on TV, but I just wasn’t convinced at first.

I know it's hard for some now even to remember what life was like the day before the iPhone launched. The whole idea of thinking about a phone as a computer was a truly foreign concept. And the word apps was shorthand code monkeys and computer geeks used to refer to what everyone else called applications. And applications required a box and a CD-ROM; there was no “app store” to search and download. (Just writing that makes me feel old.)

But that single shift in the marketplace ushered in what eventually became the definitive marker of a new economy—apps and mobile services. Today, we can’t imagine our lives without it. And if there is one invention that moved the conversation forward around productivity, it is, indeed, the smartphone.


Nothing has done more to drive productivity to the top of every leader’s mind than technology. Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, smartwatch, or laptop, the pursuit of better, faster, and more effective seems so seductive and enticing. And if you’re not careful, it will consume you.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the chatter surrounding productivity. If that word is in the title, I’m probably going to read it. Like many, I have this insatiable appetite to learn about every tip, trick, and short-cut someone else has discovered to help them get more done in the same or less amount of time.

But I must admit, even I consider productivity to be, in large part, “leadership candy.” It tastes really good, but it’s not necessarily the best contribution to a healthy diet. It satisfies for a short period, but it always leaves you wanting more.

I think the productivity conversation has always been a hot topic. But technology has helped bring an entirely new spin and intensity to the subject. Where productivity once meant efficient and cost-effective ways to scale, it now means hacks you turn into habits that help you do and achieve more.

There is a catch though. It’s that the pursuit of productivity can turn an admirable effort into a complete and total distraction. I don’t need to try every app someone else is excited about. I don’t need to read every article from so-called gurus to discover I’m just one habit away from living the life of my dreams. And I certainly don’t need to assume doing more is equal to better.


If you’re consumed with trying new things, always evaluating your workflows, and constantly searching for what’s next, you diffuse your energy and creativity. You will, as a result, spend your time shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic rather than solving the complex problems you face. Productivity is a means to an end—not an end in and of itself.

I’m sure some would disagree with me on this. I'm not suggesting I don't want to be open to being exposed to new ideas or ways to accomplish common, regular, and everyday functions. My track record of adaptability and agility is well documented. That doesn't mean I haven't wasted time, money, and effort chasing the illusion that one app is going change an outcome. Unless the new app, habit, or hack is unique and specific to a core function of what you need to do, it’s likely just about preference.


Let me suggestion five questions to ask yourself the moment you feel the urge to chase something new:

  • Is there something broken about how you are currently approaching a task, project, or event? When something isn’t working or needs to function differently, that’s a great opportunity to evaluate your options. When that’s not the case, you risk losing momentum.
  • Do you have the time to explore another way to approach or handle something that is already working for you? Be honest in your assessment. It’s OK to put off something less important for a time when you have more margin. Important and urgent are two different things.
  • What is the opportunity cost to change? The cost of change must be less than the cost of staying the same.
  • What is the expected pay off? Define what you will be able to do that you can’t do now. Be specific in how this change or adaptation will help you achieve your goals.
  • Does this change, if applied, have short-term or long-term implications? Cadence is important. If you disrupt your flow, it can impact your progress. Momentum is hard to create and easy to stop.

If you ask and answer these questions honestly, you'll be able to determine whether or not exploring some new productivity suggestion will be worth your time, effort, and energy. There is nothing wrong with learning something new, but there is also nothing wrong with staying the same. The point I want to get across is learning how to be more productive is a great thing, but chasing productivity as if that were the essence of leadership is an illusion and a potential waste of time.

Time is both your greatest asset and liability; there simply isn’t a way to create more of it. So be wise with the time you have and make the most of it, which is what being productive is about anyway.

REFLECT: Are you chasing productivity, or trying to resolve an obstacle or challenge that is costing your time, money, and opportunity? How much time do you spend each day tinkering with things related to being productive rather than driving toward goals, outcomes, and results? Is the time and money you are investing right now to be more productive profitable? Why or why not? And how is that informing your habits moving forward?