Dr. Amantha Imber8 February 2022

Why Productivity Hacks Won’t Help You Be More Productive

When it comes to researching, writing and podcasting about the world of productivity, people love a good hack. A productivity hack promises us an easy way to achieve so much more in so much less time.

For example, you might have read that batch checking your email is far more effective than dipping in and out of your inbox multiple times an hour, as most of us do. You might have heard that using website blocking software such as Freedom.to will help you stay focused on task and not succumb to digital distractions.

While both strategies will help improve your productivity, the problem with hacks like these is that they can be like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. If the way we work is fundamentally broken, hacks can only help so much before things come undone. If our inbox remains an overwhelming mess, checking your inbox less won’t fix the fundamental problem. Likewise, if you are suffering from digital addiction, website blocking software may not actually help you overcome your addiction.

Get to the root cause

Instead of relying on hacks, try to get to the root cause of your productivity problems. Often, this comes down to reviewing your workflow. Workflow is the underlying explicit or implicit system that specifies how your work gets done. Workflow refers to how tasks are assigned, executed, and tracked.

Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport says, “How we deal with email overload is a classic example of how the underlying workflow is broken – and how hacks to stay out of your inbox won’t fix things”.

“Often, the underlying issue is that there’s this workflow that depends on ongoing email communication to get anything done,” Newport explained, on the How I Work podcast. “If you want systemic change, you have to replace your current workflow with something better. To what extent are you rearranging the deck chairs on the sinking Titanic when you’re building a more complicated system for an underlying workflow that’s just inevitably going to keep you overwhelmed or not have enough time to work on what’s important”.

Change your communication workflow

When Newport was appointed as the Director of Graduate Studies, he saw the role as an opportunity to change his workflow around how he communicated with his team. Newport organised his tasks for the role using a Kanban Board, a simple chart to help visualise the workflow for a project from Agile methodology. At its most basic, a Kanban Board has three columns – To Do, Doing, Done. All tasks associated with a project start in the To Do column, and gradually make their way across to the Done column.

Newport added in a fourth column labelled ‘To Discuss’. “I realised I could save a ton of email communication through having a To Discuss column”. Every time Newport had something he needed to ask his department Chair or program administrator or anyone else he was working with, Newport resisted the urge to just shoot off an email in that moment. Instead, he listed the topic for discussion on his board.

“While sending an email in the moment would give me a little bit of relief, every one of those is a new unscheduled message that’s out there and a new unscheduled response. That’s then going to potentially lead to a long back and forth chain of unscheduled messages, which I learned doing the research for my book, A World Without Email, is productivity poison”.

Newport ended up having ‘To Discuss’ columns for separate people that he frequently needed to discuss issues with. Then whenever he was next meeting with them, he would be able to plough through the topics for discussion swiftly and resolve them then and there. “This probably saved me many dozens of unscheduled emails per week by just waiting until I got to those next meetings. So it was a great productivity saver for that particular role“.

Look for low hanging fruit to change first

Newport’s advice is to change common workflows one at a time – and to pick the lowest hanging fruit first.

For example, workflow around how meetings are scheduled is highly inefficient in most organisations. Oftentimes, 10 to 20 emails can be exchanged to organise a simple 30-minute meeting. Instead, using meeting scheduling software such as Calendly.com can dramatically reduce the to and fro communication required for this common and basic task.

Meeting scheduling software works by the user allocating blocks of time they are available for meetings, sending a scheduling link to the person or people they are wanting to meet with, and then those people booking in the time that works best for them. Ten plus emails can be replaced with a single email – a classic example of how changing the workflow provides a far better solution than an email productivity hack.

So instead of relying on the latest productivity hacks to transform the way you work, instead, think about some of the most inefficient workflows in your organisation. One by one, redesign them to make the process more efficient so you are no longer reliant on hacks that don’t address the root cause of the problem.