Why You Shouldn’t Believe Everything You Read About Personal Productivity

5 big lies about time management

Adam Cairns
4 min readOct 6, 2019

This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats mountain down.

What’s that?


Thanks, Gollum.

Some time management aficionados are just like poor Gollum.

Obsessed with personal productivity, they preen over their carefully cultivated, precious.

And pump out cultish advice.

Let’s be real shall we?

Here are 5 lies about time management that made me stop and think.

1. Start Your Day Earlier

This is an insidious little lie. It’s not that starting your day earlier won’t help some people.

It will.

It’s the tone of voice I have a problem with. There’s an implication underlying it that unless you’re up and at by 5.00AM, you’re a wimp.

For many people, including myself, first thing in the morning is the least productive part of my day.

I’m not a morning person. In fact, I’m not sure I’m even human at 5.00AM.

Making your day longer than it already is, combined with dragging your half-dead self to the office before you’re ready will only lead to one result.

And it’s not improved personal productivity.

2. Technology Is the Answer

Here’s something people suggest.

You need to use technology to organise your day better.

Technology can help for sure, if you like and enjoy using it.

If you don’t, then paper systems work very well. For many people, the physical act of writing things down is a far more effective way of unloading thoughts, than tapping them into a computer.

My alternative suggestion is: use the tools you enjoy.

If you love your Moleskine journal and Montblanc pen, carry on using them.

Design your own system and enjoy the scraping of the pen, the feel of paper and the weight of the book all at the same time.

No system will work if you’re trying to push water uphill using technology you don’t enjoy.

3. My (Fill in the Blank) System Is the Answer

Here’s another one.

There are some people who think they’ve got it all figured out. They’ve designed a system to manage all their tasks, given it a name and now they want you to use it.

Let’s be clear: there are some good time management and productivity systems around. Notice however that’s the plural — ‘systems’.

We all think differently. We work differently too. Some people are naturally ‘list’ people. Others like to plan. Some are happiest when mind-mapping or brain-storming. Other like to doodle.

They’re just different approaches.

I think it’s a good idea to prick up your ears anytime someone says ‘should’.

In most cases a better choice of word is ‘could’ or in some situations ‘must’.

A ‘should’ is someone else’s value judgment (including that little voice in your head).

When someone says ‘should’, you are being judged.

They imply you’re not okay if you don’t do what you should. It’s so different to using the word ‘could’.

It’s sensible to look at the various systems people have designed. Then change them any way you like.

Mash them together or just use some of one system and some of another.

Then you’ll create something that works for you.

4. Learn How To Multitask More Effectively

This one makes me laugh.

The evidence about multitasking is clear.

That’s scientific evidence.

You know — properly constructed experiments in laboratories using functional MRI and other technologies to measure what happens to your brain when you try to multitask.

To cut to the chase:

  • It is impossible to multitask — what you do instead is rapid task-switching.
  • Task switching is inefficient on two counts.
  • First there’s a lag time between switches (inefficient) and second it runs down your brain’s glycogen (energy) so your decision-making degrades.
  • Multitasking also leads to attentional blindness. You miss important signals and cues.
  • Never try to drive your car and operate your cell phone. 48,000 people each year die on the roads because of this behaviour in the U.S. alone.

I could go on.

Really don’t multitask and don’t believe you can get better at it.

A far better tactic is to batch similar kinds of tasks together. Then you really improve your productivity.

5. Productivity Is About Getting Things Done

I worry the aim of much of the writing on productivity and time management is to encourage and support you to get more done.

My challenge back is this: what if the things you’re getting done, don’t matter?

Or they matter a bit, but not as much as some other more important (to you) things.

The aim of improved productivity and better use of your time isn’t to create a larger pile of completed tasks.

It’s about focusing your attention on what matters most to you.

You can have a very productive morning doing absolutely nothing.

Allowing some time for your mind to wander is how Newton discovered gravity.

I get uneasy when I’m around people certain of everything.

Leaving a bit of room for doubt or allowing for an alternative is the better way to go.

What do you think?



Adam Cairns

Exploring the intersection between good organisation and creativity |Blog | Digital Garden | https://bettercreativity.co.uk/