6 Scientific Reasons Why Your Productivity Hacks Never Work

If you’ve read any productivity or self-help articles or books, you know that reading rarely makes you more productive. Sadly, this article is no different (it’s probably not going to make you more productive).

But at the very least, I hope to teach you a few things about the science of productivity (which is really the science of motivation in general). And more importantly, I hope to help you chill the fuck out. I see way too many productivity cults and way too much self-torture to “get ahead.” It would be OK if these things really did get you ahead, but more often it’s just banging your head against a wall. So without further ado, here are 6 reasons why your productivity hacks never work:

1. You Can’t Use Logic to Change Your Emotional Self

To take an analogy from psychologist Jonathan Haidt, you can think of your mind like a Rider riding an Elephant. The Rider is you, the logical, conscious being and the Elephant is also you but the emotional, subconscious you.

The reason you want to hack your productivity—from the perspective of the Rider—is because you have a lazy Elephant:

“This damn Elephant just won’t go where I want him to go! *whip*”

But at the end of the day, the Elephant just doesn’t want to go. And sadly, elephants don’t read, or they don’t read most non-fiction at least. So if you read productivity advice that’s targeted at you, the Rider, rather than you, the Elephant, it will almost certainly fail. You, the Rider, already knew what you wanted before you got the advice. The problem was your lazy Elephant. The advice may have made you more confident in what you wanted, but your problem wasn’t a lack of Rider confidence.

The productivity advice didn’t target your real problem, so no wonder it failed.

That being said, smart writers know to target your Elephant. For example, here’s two books I read that did this masterfully:

  • How to Get Rich by Felix Dennis – Felix Dennis calls this book an anti-self help book because he repeatedly says things like “You probably won’t get rich…Even if you read this you have almost no chance of getting rich…If you’re older, you have even less chance of getting rich.” But ironically, this anti-self help works better than plain vanilla self-help because it triggers your emotions. It may make you say “Screw you, Felix. I’ll show you.” or “Challenge accepted!” Now we’re speaking elephant.
  • The War of Art by Steven Pressfield – When I first opened this book I became immediately skeptical because it was written in an illogical, almost religious tone. But quickly I got hooked and realized that that was exactly why it was effective.

2. Meditation Can Fix Many Problems…But Not Productivity

This lesson is intended for those individuals that attempt to use meditation to increase their productivity. Meditation is ineffective at increasing productivity, and to get to the bottom of why it’s ineffective, we need to break down how emotions operate in our mind and body. With each emotion, there’s a feeling you have, and there’s also body changes that occur. For example, with anger you feel…well…angry, but also your blood pressure goes up, your heart-rate increases, and your face tightens.

If I had to guess the order in which those events happens, intuitively I’d guess something like: (1) some stimuli comes in (for example, someone insulted you), (2) your brain processes the stimuli and decides to be angry, (3) you feel angry, and finally (4) you have all the body changes, like an angry scowl.

But in fact, (4) comes before (2) and (3). You receive some stimuli, your body immediately reacts, and then your brain detects that your body is angry, so you start feeling angry. It detects rather than decides. Surprising, right? This is called the James-Lange Theory of Emotion, and this weird theory explains how meditation works.

Meditation works by hacking this system. If you’re stressed, you’ll be breathing quickly. But by forcing yourself to breathe slowly, your mind will detect that slow breathing and eventually it will think “oh, everything must be good since my body isn’t stressed.” Believe it or not, even faking a smile for long enough can make you happier.

“Fake it til you make it” works for emotions. Motivation, though, is not an emotion, so it can’t be hacked this way, at least not to the extent you want.

3. You’re Not Celebrating Your Small Wins Enough

So what is motivation if not an emotion? I’ll explain briefly.

Motivation is related to how much you want things. You always want something, be it to write The Great American Novel or watch the next episode on Netflix. You may even want both of those things simultaneously. Thus your brain needs a way to decide at any moment in time what goal you want the most and what action to take to get it.

That’s what motivation is: a decision-making system in your brain to score and choose certain actions based on the expected reward of those actions. When your brain evaluates an action, its dopamine neurons fire dopamine (the chemical), and the amount of dopamine they fire is proportional to the expected reward of the action. As for what rewards are, those are anything that make you feel good, from social recognition to a good cup of coffee. Oh and one other important detail: future rewards are discounted, so for a future reward to match an immediate reward, it needs to be bigger (and the farther in the future it is, the bigger it needs to be).

What’s the takeaway from this? Well, if you want to write The Great American Novel and you want to watch the next episode on Netflix, but 10 out of 10 days you choose Netflix, then your brain just thinks Netflix will be more rewarding for you. Agree with your brain or not, that’s just how it is.

“But I really do want to write my novel!”

Well, when you’re thinking of writing your novel, what are you imagining the reward to be? Perhaps you’re imagining the self-satisfaction of finishing the last page and holding the book in your hand. Or perhaps you’re imagining yourself on a book tour signing autographed copies. Regardless of what you’re imagining, I have no doubt that those are huge rewards for you, but they’re very far in the future. They’re probably not big enough to overcome the discounting.

There are other reasons why your expected rewards may be lower than they should be too. For example, perhaps you’ve already gotten over the hump of starting your novel. Perhaps you’ve even quit your job to focus on writing full-time, but you can’t stop thinking about future scenarios like “what if I run out of money?” or “what if no one even likes what I write?” Those potential negative rewards are going to count against your total expected reward.

Luckily, there are some easy ways to boost the expected rewards of productive actions. One is enjoying the process or rewarding yourself during the process. You can’t wait til the very end for the first sign of reward. It’s just too far away. Any time you make any progress, you should reward yourself, or better yet, pick a goal where you naturally feel rewarded by the process.

If you are rewarding yourself, it’s helpful to make a ritual of it, like a champagne toast or some other symbolic gesture.

Give yourself a toast even for the smallest wins

Personally, I think a symbolic gesture or something involving social recognition is a much better self-reward than buying yourself a new pair of shoes or treating yourself to an ice cream sundae. Why? Because if guilty pleasures is all you have to look forward to from your ambitious, long-term goals, why do you even need the long-term goals? Why not just go straight to the guilty pleasures?

4. You Don’t Have Enough Autonomy

Ah autonomy, one of my great loves. I discovered the importance of autonomy a couple of years ago when I hated my job. Every day I woke up and played the song Thank You by Dido:

My tea’s gone cold. I’m wondering why I got out of bed at all. The morning rain drops on my window, and I can’t see at all. And even if I could, it would all be grey. I’ve got your picture on my wall. It reminds me that it’s not so bad. It’s not so bad.

Thank You (Dido)

Great song, but very dark. Suffice it to say I wasn’t happy at the time. So I scoured all kinds of literature to figure out why I wasn’t happy, and what I discovered was Self-Determination Theory (SDL), a leading theory of human motivation. The theory resonated with me at the time—and still does—so let me tell you what the theory is.

SDL posits that there are three “basic psychological needs” humans need to satisfy in order to be motivated in a particular job or task or role: (1) autonomy, (2) competence and (3) social connectedness. Researchers typically focus on autonomy since that is the most complicated or counterintuitive of the three, so I’ll also focus on that one (more on competence later though).

So what is autonomy? Well let me start with a puzzle that led to the focus on autonomy in SDL: the “undermining effect.” In a classic study on undermining effect, researchers visited a class of preschool kids and found that some kids intrinsically enjoyed drawing (they would draw in their free time) and other kids didn’t. They then split the kids that intrinsically enjoyed drawing into 3 groups, A, B and C. They told A that if they completed a drawing they would get a reward (a certificate with a gold seal and ribbon—wish I had gotten one of those). For B, they didn’t mention the reward but still gave the reward to them if they completed a drawing. And for C, they didn’t mention the reward and they didn’t give the reward. Then they let the kids go at it.

And what did they find? Initially group A became more motivated than groups B or C, but later, if they stopped giving out the reward for new drawings, group A became less motivated than they were before the study began, whereas with B and C, nothing changed.

This doesn’t seem very rational. If you intrinsically enjoy drawing, you should still intrinsically enjoy it after the reward session is over. But that’s not what happens. It’s a puzzle.

What SDL researchers have found is that there is a fundamental difference between instrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, with intrinsic motivation generally being stronger. Additionally, they’ve found that it’s not just two classes, intrinsic and extrinsic, there really is a continuum from fully intrinsic to full extrinsic motivation, and motivation gets progressively stronger the closer you get to fully intrinsic:

For example, if you are a doctor, you may need to a lot of tasks you don’t intrinsically enjoy, such as paperwork, but if you strongly identify with being a doctor and see paperwork as an integral component of being a doctor, you’ll be motivated to do it. The paperwork is an extrinsic requirement, but you still feel you are the one deciding that you want to do it (you have an internal “locus of causality”).

Compare that to being in a role where your boss tells you to do something, you don’t agree that it’s the right thing to do, and you don’t even think you’re the right person to do it. That’s fully extrinsic.

The moral of the story is that you will be much more motivated the closer you are to intrinsic motivation, whether it’s that you enjoy the work itself, you strongly identify with your role, or you feel some high level of control. If you don’t, you better change something now. Though often, if you are lacking control, you may not have enough control to give yourself more control, so the only option may be to make a drastic change of role or environment.

5. You Need to Level-Up Your Skills First

Another aspect of Self-Determination Theory is competence. It’s pretty simple actually: if your skills are too high, you’ll feel bored (imagine Lebron James playing basketball against middle-schoolers) and if they’re too low, you’ll feel stressed or a lack of control (imagine middle-schoolers playing basketball against Lebron James). It’s very similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of Flow if you’ve heard of that.

Moral: if you feel unable to do a particular task or project, maybe you need to take a bit of dedicated time to increase your skills and learn more on other tasks or projects, then come back to the original task or project.

6. Trying to be Productive Makes You Less Productive

Anyone who has taken a shower knows that often great ideas come when you’re not trying to produce great ideas. The same is true with productivity. Often when you’re not trying to be productive, you become more productive.

This is exactly the concept of wu wei (doing by not doing) in Daoism, or Mark Manson’s “Backwards Law.” I also like to call this phenomenon the “Office Space Effect,” since in the movie Office Space, the moment the main character stops giving a shit what his bosses think and just acts as he wants to act is the moment he gets promoted.

Of course, you can’t live your whole life according to wu wei or the Office Space Effect, or you may actually never get anything done. But sometimes not doing is better than doing. It’s a subtle and mysterious phenomenon, but I think there is a scientific explanation for why it happens.

The reason is because we’re often crippled by fear. Fear of failing to come up with a new idea, fear of not being promoted, fear of wasting your time or letting your friends or family down. Since fear is equivalent to potential negative rewards, as discussed earlier, it decreases our total expected reward of doing an action, which decreases dopamine and makes us less motivated.

If fear is removed, we become more motivated and more willing to be playful— mentally, physically, however we like—and that can lead to huge rewards.


Real productivity, in my opinion, doesn’t look anything like self-torture. It looks like treating yourself with love and respect and finding an environment where you naturally thrive. So go treat yourself and try a new environment. Good luck!

By the way, if you enjoyed this article, you can follow this blog via email or follow me on Twitter where I post every article.

Thanks to Kan Leung Cheng for philosophizing with me about these ideas.

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