Videos and blog posts about “productivity systems” are booming. That’s understandable, since they suggest a shortcut to improved productivity. But what counts is something else. The process is what matters most.
I stumbled across this video some time ago1. In this video August Bradley, photographer, introduces his “Notion Life Operating System”. Sounds impressive. It is. Anyone who is into apps and workflows will at least be in awe. Maybe even enthusiastic. At the same time, videos of this kind often have extremely high click numbers. I, too, like to watch something like this from time to time. Why?
I think this is due to a pleasant misunderstanding. Often it seems that just using a certain tool can be the key to achieving a set goal – a high level of productivity, for example. In our search for potential improvements to our own workflows, we then readily come across videos, blogposts or podcasts that focus on productivity. Usually, these posts come from people who are already extremely productive and/or successful. There we then see, hear or read about the holy grails of productivity. Systems with fancy-sounding names. Workflows that impress. Apps that make everything better. And since they are presented by people who have obviously already achieved a lot, the credibility is also given.
However, the problem is that we usually overlook the most important point: it’s not the tool that matters, it’s the process. In other words, the work you put into it. Of course, that’s much harder to show in a video. Who wants to watch you sitting at your desk, almost desperately working your way through that terribly complicated paper for two hours? What should a blog post look like that adequately reflects my writing process? This text here is a good example. I actually wanted to write something about Cal Newport’s concept of Deep Work, and probably will at some point – but in the last few days I didn’t feel like I had anything of my own to contribute to this topic. For a couple of days I was undecided whether to write an article at all, which would once again deal with some basic thoughts of mine about working. Or if I just don’t write a “light” article. My list of potential blogposts is long, there are many apps. I ended up choosing this type of article, but had to torture myself a bit to start more than one section multiple times.
What is crucial?
But of course I can’t and don’t want to provide an commented version for each of my articles to show how much didn’t work out or at which points the writing wasn’t easy for me. First of all, that would be quite tiring and secondly, most people want to read solutions and not problems. And that is understandable, of course.
The problem is that people like August Bradley don’t succeed primarily because of the tool, but because of the processes behind it and the time they’ve invested in developing them. Someone who spends many hours mastering a tool like Notion or Obsidian has simply put in a lot of work and may be using basic strategies to be productive in his or her life in other ways as well.
I recently wrote about Obsidian here and I absolutely believe it’s a great tool that makes me more productive. But is it crucial? No. What’s crucial is that when I’m reading journals, I struggle through taking notes and then struggle through again to turn those fleeting notes into permanent ones. Obsidian makes a lot of things easier and gives me new options. But none of that would be worth anything if I didn’t do the work itself.
Reflection as a ground-laying process
But what are such fundamental strategies that underpin successful work? What do very productive people do differently than most others? That is, of course, far too big a question to answer here. One of these strategies that seems to me to be particularly important is reflection. By this, I mean constantly examining one’s own work. For me personally, there is probably no strategy that was and is more important than continuous reflection. This can come across as very unassuming, like a quick check-in in the evening to see how satisfied I was with various aspects of my life that day. Or it can be a whole day that I take maybe once every six months to review the past 6 months and set new goals.
Ultimately, it’s important that I take the time to reflect. Which tool I use for this is secondary.
How do you see it? How big a difference can the right tool make? Are strategies or processes more important? What are some basic strategies you’ve adopted over the years? I’d be happy to get into the conversation with others about this either in the comments or via email.
1 And with that together this discussion in the MPU forum.