Monday, 17 July 2017

How the devil sets productivity traps for the unwary

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There's a short story by Leo Tolstoy about a farmer who was very poor, and who asked God for help. Soon after, the devil came to see the farmer, and offered him a deal.

I will give you as much land as you want,” proposed the devil. “It is up to you to decide how much land you'll get. All you have to do is run as fast as you can, tomorrow, from dawn to sunset. All land that you'll traverse will belong to you at the end of the day.”

The farmer felt exceedingly happy upon hearing the proposal, and turned to planning what he was going to do the next day. He intended to cover as much territory as possible, but at the same time, he wanted to ensure that he would be running on fertile land.

At dawn, the farmer started to run. He didn't take with him any food or water because he didn't want to waste time taking a break for eating and drinking. He only had one day to make his fortune, and wanted to make the best of it.


For the next hours, the farmer ran as fast as a reindeer on the prairie. However, when the sun was high in the sky, he began to grow tired. “Should I stop and get a drink?” he wondered. “Should I stop and get something to eat?”

Yet, he determined to keep on running, and continued the whole day without ever taking a break. Occasionally, he would slow down for a few minutes, but then remembered that the devil had promised him all the land he could traverse until sunset.

The whole afternoon, the farmer continued to run with a smile on his face, realizing that he had already covered more land that he would ever be capable of cultivating. However, he continued to run farther.

When the sun began to descend on the horizon, the farmer felt severe pain on his chest. He slowed down for second, and then stopped. “I am not feeling well,” he said. Next, he found it difficult to breathe, and felt the taste of blood in his mouth. And before he knew what was happening to him, he fell on the ground, and died of a massive heart attack.

So much for a productive day.

In the twenty-first century, we are not far different from Tolstoy's farmer. We run all day, and we are constantly looking for short cuts to do things faster.

Each day, new software applications become available with the goal of helping us answer additional emails, read documents faster, access our files day and night, and listen to audio recordings twice faster than the speed of human speech.


Despite these innovations, our work has become increasingly frantic. Millions of people do not even take the time to have a proper lunch. Instead, they gulp down some pizza, drink soda, and munch some cookies on the go, so that they can keep running like Tolstoy's farmer.

Day after day, the scheme repeats itself in the name of high productivity, but is this really true? The problem is that some of those software applications are going to prove worthless because they just help us do at a higher speed things that we should not be doing in the first place.

Like it happened to Tolstoy's farmer, the appeal of better results can make us lose our sense of proportion. It can make us want more just for the sake of getting more, while we lose sight of our primary goals. It can make us want to do things faster, just for the sake of doing them faster, without actually thinking if we should be applying our energies elsewhere.

The danger of productivity traps is that they can push us further than we want to go because they make us forget the big picture. They make us forget that the real goal of productivity is not to do things faster, but to do the right things well at a sustainable speed.

If you think about it, we shouldn't want to do things that add little value to our lives, nor aim at working twenty-four hours a day. Least of all, we don't want to create useless work for ourselves by filing electronic documents that we will never have time to retrieve, let alone read.


Such useless exercises remind me of the advice that Van Helsing, the vampire-slayer, received in Bram Stoker's novel “Dracula.” This is what a friend told Van Helsing:

You were always a careful student, and your case-book was always fuller than the rest. You were only a student then, but now you're a master, and I trust that your good habits have not failed. Remember, my friend, that knowledge is stronger than memory.”

A friend was warning Van Helsing against the danger of paying too much attention to details, and forgetting about one's primary goal. Productivity traps produce the same effect. They make us devote efforts to tasks that seem urgent but that, in practical terms, deliver little value.

Like animals, we human beings are fascinated by shiny objects. Everything new, everything fresh, everything colourful attracts our attention, and makes us want to try it out.

Yet, if we want to be highly productive, we need to force ourselves to ignore shiny objects. We need to force ourselves to devote our energies to the areas where we can make a difference, to the areas that really count.

If you allow yourself to get carried away by productivity traps, you will end up like Tolstoy's farmer, getting a heart attack while you were trying to do something that you should not be doing in the first place.

Lack of consistency is what makes people get ensnared in productivity traps. People forget the primary purpose of their work. They forget their life's mission, and instead, they just keep working for the sake of working. As I explain in my books, without a consistent philosophy, nobody can make the right decisions. With coherent views, nobody can resist the appeal of productivity traps.

Already in the nineteenth century, Jane Austen put in the mouth of Elizabeth Bennet, the female protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice,” the conclusion that we should be mistrustful of anything or anybody that lacks consistency:

There are few people whom I really love, at even fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”


Consistency is the answer. If you keep the big picture in mind, you will not find it difficult to avoid productivity traps. If you possess a strong sense of direction, you will not find it difficult to discard unimportant things.

By sticking to your life's mission, you will be able to become immensely proactive without having to chase shiny objects that will eventually prove detrimental.

Highly productive people don't feel anxious or stressed. You will not see them pursuing shiny objects because they have long ago embraced the ideal that Walt Whitman presented in his work “The Poet.” If you want to be highly productive, you should also embrace this ideal:

Nothing out of its place is good; nothing in its place is bad. He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse; he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land. He supplies what wants supplying; he checks what wants checking.”

Let the ideal of consistency, simplicity, and balance guide your life. It will help you avoid worthless shiny objects and productivity traps, and hopefully, contribute to preventing an early death due to a massive heart attack.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photo taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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