Why your productivity "hack" isn't working - and what to try insteadFeatured

I’m sick of tech bros telling me about their “secret” or that the latest productivity hack is going to save my life – it’s only going to require waking up at 4am, an ice tank and 3 hours of meditation. Clearly, someone else is going to have to take care of my kid.

We’re told there’s a secret trick to being productive and meeting our goals - in fact, the truth is way messier. If we get curious and compassionate about the mess, it’s more likely we’ll meet our goal, without burning out. So let’s dive into the mess, together, and learn about why hacks don’t work, and what we can do instead.

Productivity hacks don’t take into account how our brains work

Hacks are intended to be a shortcut based on deep expertise knowledge - but usually, they’re just regurgitated tips that aren’t aligned with how our brains work.

In truth, they can set us up for failure. They’re often incredibly rigid and make us feel like we’re never doing enough, and we’ll never meet our goals. Especially since they don’t take into consideration what real life looks like: getting sick, surprise projects, early dismissal for our kids that no one planned for, the list goes on. A real “hack” is one that is realistic, thoughtful, and creates self-compassion and confidence in your capabilities. An ice bath won’t do it for everyone, unfortunately!

Want some good hacks? Spoiler alert, the best hacks are the ones that work for you, not the bros you may be following on social media. You may like setting timers, an accountability partner, blocking your calendar, etc. It’s about finding the ones that help you get things done without beating yourself up. For example, the “5 things millionaires do before they start their day” will probably not work for most people, unless they also have a personal chef and a 24/7 support team.

Hot tip: check out James Clear’s Atomic Habits for more ideas - it goes beyond hacks and into building changing habit skills. My favorite one is habit-stacking - combining a new habit with one that’s already deeply ingrained in my already exhausted brain.

The biggest issue of these hacks is they don’t get to the meat of WHY we’re trying to do the damn thing. If we haven’t gotten clear on our internal motivation - and quieted the negative nancy voices in our head– it’s impossible to get started. No timer or partner is as strong as your internal drive.

Getting clear on your motivation trumps a productivity hack any day

My clients often want to know where they can get more motivation. If I could bottle it and sell it, I’d be a millionaire, and in fact, I’d probably just give it out for free! We’d all be getting so much done!

The real truth is that motivation comes from action. Once you take the steps to get going, it gets easier, momentum kicks in, good habits develop, and discipline becomes routine. Rather than waiting for motivation to strike, or that perfect opportunity to start… just… start.

Want to get clear on your motivation to help find that internal drive? Ask yourself WHY. Why is this so important to you? And keep asking yourself why. Have you heard of the 5 Whys of Design? It’s when you ask “why” so many times you want to scream BECAUSE I SAY SO! Go that deep.

For example, why is exercise so important? If my first answer is to “be healthy”, I’ll struggle to find the motivation to get up before the sun or fit a workout in after a long day at work. If I discover that the deeper reason is “so that you can be healthy enough to keep up with your grandkids,” I’ll get further. Put that on a post-it next to your dumbbells!

Having clarity on the Why that’s based on you instead of those around you helps cut through the noise, the blockers, the excuses. Suddenly those hacks can be a tool rather than a hindrance.

We’re going to have to deal with that nasty voice in your head, too

Still struggling even after you’ve worked through your internal motivations and leveraged the productivity hacks that will work for you? We still have to clear the cobwebs on our limiting beliefs.

What does a limiting belief look like? Often, there’s a voice in our head - whether it came internally or externally, that we’ve listened to so many times it’s become a fact. It might sound like “people like me aren’t meant to be leaders,” “I'm just not organized enough to be a manager,” “I don’t deserve to make more money,” etc. It’s the moments where you use words like always, never, should. It’s going to be hard to start an exercise routine if, somewhere in your heart, you believe you’re not an “exercise person.” The character traits and stories we’ve ingrained within ourselves are often referred to as limiting beliefs or personal narratives. And a productivity hack or motivational driver won’t help you move past it if you haven’t dealt with it.

So what can you do about these voices? They’ll take time to rewrite - they’re considered facts in your brain, after all! A couple of ideas to try on:

  • Work with a therapist or coach to uncover them and work with them. I had always thought I wasn’t good at change - my family told me that all the time, it was a running joke. After a fair bit of therapy, it turns out, I am good at change, it just looks like taking charge (after a short emotional outburst!).
  • Ask yourself, “who told you that? Is that a trusted source? Is that true?” Nine times out of ten, either no one told us that and we made it up, or, the person who told us that shouldn’t have such a large impact on our lives. So, downplay the source. It’s not true.
  • Make a truth/story list - write down all the things that are absolute truths (to anyone who’d come in blind to the situation) versus the stories that you’re telling yourself about the situation. More often than not, you’d be surprised how short that list of truths is! Even when they all felt like facts!

There you have it folks. Productivity hacks are pretty useless when they don’t take into account: our real lives, clarify our internal motivations, and, consider the complexity of the stories we’ve been holding near and dear to our hearts that hold us back!

Hopefully, some of these questions and ideas are helpful to noodle on. As you get clearer on your real WHY, and the stories that might be holding you back from getting there, you can incorporate all the hacks you want! But don’t put me down for ice baths. No thanks. I like my warm baths with bubbles.

Wonderful advice, thank you!
this is awesome, thank you Rikki!!