How to avoid a productivity obsession

Effective Faith
7 min readJul 12


Obsessions are dangerous. We develop an obsession when something, anything, takes on a far greater importance in our head space than it actually warrants. In any case, this is bad news but in the extreme it can be downright harmful. Why? Because you only have so much headspace and as as that one thing takes up more and more, inevitably, the space available for everything else diminishes. In the worst case scenario, the thing you obsess over takes over your entire life, leaving you with little capacity to give your attention to anything else. It can happen with anything. We can obsess over our fitness, or our weight. We can obsess over our home, our family life and our parenting. We can obsess over past events or particular problems facing us. My concern right now is how to avoid a productivity obsession. I want to flag at the outset that with some of the things I have listed, there can be deep trauma involved that fuels the obsession and makes the difficulty with moving on, totally understandable. With our productivity, there can be many things that fuel the obsession — check out my series on Toxic Productivity listed below for more on this. But in this area, too much focus on can be harmful and so here are some thoughts on how to avoid a productivity obsession.

In my experience there are 3 main ways that a productivity obsession can manifest itself but at their core they are fuelled by the same thing. Understanding this is key as we consider how to avoid a productivity obsession. Those three ways would be:

  1. App switching
  2. Tinkering with systems and processes etc within your existing apps
  3. Over planning

The thinking behind each of these is the desire to have a productivity system that is totally and utterly bullet proof. That means you never miss anything and are always on top of everything all of the time.

Think about it. We switch apps, because we are convinced that a better app, with better features and functions can show us everything we need to see in exactly the right way that we need to see it in any given moment. Or there may be other features that would automate some of these things meaning we can continuously improve the system we have because of the apps we use. So, we switch, or worse, try to incorporate another new app into the system alongside all the others.

We tinker with our systems and processes within existing apps for the same basic reason. Constantly trying to improve things so that we more effectively keep on top of things. Adding in views, features, processes and ways of doing things, either because the app offers the new features or because we see someone on YouTube doing it and we think it looks great.

And we plan, to try and exercise control over our time and lives. To an extent, this is just wise. Self control in any area of life is wise and good, and this is true of our use of time as well. But, there comes a point where it is overkill. I have talked about this in my post on Planning Overkill. We seek to exercise more control than it is possible for us to do, planning in ever more excruciating detail, because we become increasingly obsessed with making absolutely sure that every second counts and we don’t waste any time.

All of this is an attempt to significantly improve our control, to make our productivity system bulletproof and ensure we never miss anything.

And it feels so valuable doesn’t it? But let’s look at the costs, on a purely basic level.

  1. Every time you switch apps, there is a huge time cost to you. Both in the playing around and tinkering to see what might work for you, then in the actual migration to the app, then in the time lost learning how to use it.
  2. Every time you add an app to your system, in addition to the above, then there is a time cost in figuring out what goes where, figuring out what might be where and learning how the new system works.
  3. Every time you tinker with your current set up in any way, there is the cost of figuring it out and there is the risk that I call the risk of ‘being like the old SatNav’. The old SatNav, when driving north up the A1 in the UK, would direct me to come off the A1 onto the M18 and then drive 6.6 miles along the M18 to the next junction to come off, go round the roundabout and then come back on the M18 to drive the same 6.6 miles back along the M18 to the A1 to come back onto it at the exact point I left and then continue North on the A1. i.e. the additional app or process you add to your system is totally useless and serves no purpose but costs you extra time to follow it.

So how do you avoid this? Well as always there are 2 things to think about. First, you need to look at the core issues and second, implement some practical safeguards.

The core issues of this are addressed in large part in my post Toxic Productivity — A Better Way so I won’t go into too much detail here. It is my view that the need to be totally on top of everything all of the time is a need motivated by fear and that fear is firstly the fear of the unknown and secondly the fear of failure or rejection or of not being valued and valuable. As I have explained previously, these fears are only ever truly cast aside by grace and being accepted on the grounds of that grace and not on the grounds of our performance. Grace overcomes the fear driven obsession of having a bullet proof productivity system.

But I wanted in this post to focus more on the practical safeguards for how to avoid a productivity obsession. I want to suggest 6 of them:

First, Whenever you encounter a new technique, or system or app ask the following questions:

  1. Is there anything that I am not currently doing, or doing particularly badly, that this new app or system or process will actually help with?
  2. What parts of my system will this new thing replace in order to avoid duplication?
  3. To what extent will that actually provide benefit to improve my system in the short, medium and long term and is it actually worth the cost of implementing it?

Second, Block out a few days either once a year or every 6 months, in a quieter time, to go through your system in detail and review every part and every app. This is your time to allow your imagination to get the better of you and try out new things. Give time to considering how they might work and how they might replace and improve upon what you already do. In general, whenever you want to consider something new — plan it into these times and as as far as you can — wait for them. But — failing this then….

Third, Do not try out anything in the moment. If you come across a new app, a new template or technique or system, make a note of it in the normal fashion for how you capture stuff into your system and then make a plan, as you would normally for when you might consider it.

Fourthly, If you want to switch to a new app, ask if you are prepared to commit to it for at least 3 months before considering switching again or switching back. You cannot really know if a new app is going to work for you without 3 months of usage. OR, trial the app for 2 or 3 projects, for example, to see how it works.

Fifthly, Try to examine things in the context of the system that they come from before making any big decisions. Here is an example. I recently watched a video by Ali Abdaal on his ‘trident’ approach to time management and I really liked 2 of 3 the things he does. I considered adding them to my own planning system. But, these things work for him as a part of his whole system and I cannot assume they will neatly tack on to mine without causing duplication and wasted effort. These things that Ali does, are part of system that works and that system will not include some things that I do.

And finally, Before you review your system, run through Carl Pullein’s COD course or something similar for a look at the absolute basic necessities for a good productivity system.

These safeguards are specifically designed to prevent you developing a system that includes so many different elements from different places that it becomes impossible to maintain, meaning your life is spent obsessing over your productivity system and not actually doing your work and living your life.

Yes, you might have the most wonderful ever system devised by human thought — I call it the:

EisenhowerIvyLeeTimeSectorGTDPARAPPVCODECOPEBentoPomodoroBatchingBlockingBulletJournal of ZEN method.

Yes you might have that — but are actually being effective in the day to day? Hopefully, if you apply these it will help safeguard you and provide a guide for how to avoid a productivity obsession.



Effective Faith

How to live effectively as a Christian in the 21st Century