The productivity paradox, popularised by economist Erik Brynjolfsson, notes that computational power has advanced exponentially for decades, yet growth in labour productivity remains modest. Every advance in productivity afforded by technology has been quickly swallowed by a corresponding reduction in the barriers to procrastination. One possible solution: cripple your technology to restore those barriers.
For those who spend their working hours attached to a computer, distraction is never more than a few keystrokes away. It’s too easy to switch from editing a document to blowing time on the web. In effect, the transaction cost to procrastination has become zero.
The standard prescription for boosting productivity – getting organised – solves an orthogonal problem, and ignoring the ease of procrastination invites failure.
For many of us, the biggest gains in productivity do not come from following a specific methodology for “getting things done.” It comes from erecting transaction costs to nonproductive behaviour. Erecting transaction costs means, in many cases, demoting our multipurpose devices to a single purpose – that is, crippling them.
Read below for my specific tips.
The productivity paradox
While many factors explain the paradox, the one most relevant to modern knowledge workers is the dual capacity of technology to aid and to distract. To resolve this paradox, my guiding principle for productivity applies:
Mold your life so that the path of least resistance
is the path of maximum productivity.
The key to unlocking the productive potential of technology is to cripple it: Erect and enforce barriers to using technology to procrastinate.
Tip: Use dry-erase boards and journals
If a large portion of your work involves playing with ideas, buy a large dry erase board. Step away from the machine.
Getting away from the computer makes it hard to subconsciously slip into autonomic procrastinatory tendencies.
Keep a quad-ruled lab journal in every room where you might work.
When outlining, brainstorming or calculating, use a journal instead of a computer.
Tip: Block distracting sites; get an iPad
It’s easy to sink hours into sites like reddit and Hacker News. If you find yourself spending too much time on some sites, block them permanently them using tools like Leechblock for Firefox and StayFocusd for Chrome. (Ed. note: Here’s a detailed guide to eliminating web distractions with StayFocusd.)
When you want to browse distracting sites, use a dedicated device like an iPad instead.
When you need to get work done, remove that device from the room.
I haven’t found a good site-blocking tool for Safari. If you need to disable Safari on a Mac, use:
sudo port chmod ogu-rx /Applications/Safari.app
and to re-enable it:
sudo port chmod ogu+rx /Applications/Safari.app
Tip: Block games; get a gaming machine
I love gaming, but, without restrictions in place, I play them too much. If you find yourself gaming too much on your PC, gradually escalate the cost to starting a game.
First, create a separate user account on the machine and install games only on that account. Give it a long (> 32 character) random password that is difficult to type. (Yes, you should write the password down.)
If you still play too many games, delete the games from your work machine and buy a dedicated gaming console or a second, gaming-only PC. Not having games on your work machine will prevent you from playing them “accidentally.”
My wife and I bought a Wii because we wanted games that were fun to play and, most importantly, easy to pause and put down.
Tip: Put yourself in aeroplane mode
Many find aeroplane flights unexpectedly productive. For a few hours, the prime distractions of modern life are gone: coworkers, TV, email, phone, text messaging and time-draining web sites. Spend a couple hours each day in aeroplane mode: disable the internet on your computer and put your phone in aeroplane mode.
The best place for aeroplane mode is the library, since if you need to look up information, you won’t need to use the web and invite its temptations.
Tip: Live in the console
In my freshman year of college, I wanted to learn the “Unix lifestyle”. So, I deleted my X server (the windowing system for Unix) and forced myself to complete every task at the command line.
I browsed the web with lynx.
I read my mail with mutt.
I learned to develop and debug code without an IDE.
I mastered the art of computing at the command line.
And, with the exception of nethack, there aren’t many ways to waste a lot of time at the console.
I worked a lot. I learned even more.
Tip: Subscribe to a dead-tree newspaper
If it’s hard to block news sites, try a dead-tree newspaper subscription. Every morning, I spread each section of The Wall Street Journal on my dining room table. I bring the New York Times home from work and then do the same.
Five minutes of scanning headlines grants an intuitive sense of the state of the nation, the world and the markets. It’s also easy to save articles as “to read” while relaxing or working out.
The chief benefit of reading the paper is that it strongly diminishes the urge to compulsively check the news while trying to work. Ultimately, it’s a more efficient way to consume news.