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There's no wrong in trying to find the outermost limits of productivity

Koby Ofek

Hi, my name is Koby and I'm an addict. No, strike that. For the time being, let's just say that there is some sort of behavior that I repeat and has significant effects on how I run my day. I'm in some ways compelled to perform it. I spend an inordinate amount of my time and resources on something that others may call trivial, on things that others may deem unnecessary or just ridiculous.

Why am I telling you this, anyway? Well, it's a followup to Rosa Lyster's NyTimes op-ed about productivity junkies. There are actually a couple of very good points there but some ideas that don't sit well with me.

In short, she presents two main ideas:

First, she refers to a specific "productivity" app called Blinkist and says it's not worth your while. I definitely agree. The app creates condensed versions of popular non-fiction books to save you the time and trouble of reading the whole thing. It even compresses it further to create a summary of the summary. Claiming that something is lost in the process is a huge understatement.

Because I love reading, giving up books to get synopses is absurd for me. I did give Blinkist a chance though. It didn't go well.

Literature, even non-fiction is supposed to be more than just bullet points. You need examples, anecdotes, embellishments and style to make what you read clear and rememberable. Ask Aristotle if you don't buy my words.

In Rhetoric, his seminal work about persuasion, a large part is dedicated to Lexis, or style. It follows a lengthy discussion about dianoia or thought. The difference between the two is simple - Dianoia is the what the orator (or author in our case) is trying to say. Lexis is how she does it. Aristotle claims that lacking good prose style makes persuasion difficult, sometimes even impossible. He refers to metaphors, examples and specific word selections. In his own words, "to speak in one way rather than another makes some difference in regard to clarity” (Rhet. III.1, 1404a8–10).

Further, Aristotle suggests that metaphors serve as tools for learning. Metaphors, he writes, can help us understand things better (Rhet. III.10, 1410b14f.). It is necessary for the hearer to find a connection between a metaphor and the thing it refers to before he or she can understand it. When someone calls old age "stubble", we have to determine to which genus (or type of concepts) "old age" and "stubble" belong; The exact meaning of the metaphor cannot be grasped until we discover both, old age and stubble, have lost their bloom. So a metaphor is not only a reference to something, but is also a description of that something. Because of this, Aristotle says that metaphors foster learning: once we understand why someone uses the term "stubble" to describe old age, we have already gained some insight into what old age is all about.

Reading bullet points, even slightly expanded ones à la Blinkist undresses your what. It's not only boring and forgettable, it's also lacking in so many ways.

Second, Lyster is trying to make a point that while being productive is good, super charging to over-productivity is self-defeating very much like endlessly scrolling Instagram is. It does of course makes sense that if you are trying to learn the ins and outs of every new productivity tool instead of working, you are actually slacking. However, as I see things, if you consider productivity optimization as a hobby rather than just a life tool, you will probably not arrive at the same conclusion as Lyster.

To put things in perspective, I'm probably a productivity nerd. I enjoy digitizing many aspects of my life, analyzing and quantifying it and putting things into lists. I like organization systems, to-do lists and knowledge management software. Often times I experienced how diving head-first into a new type of productivity software made feel so happy and satisfied that in itself it made me want to cross things off my (actual work-related) checklist.

My hobby vacuums a lot of my time. Just in the last couple of years I've extensively used four full fledged productivity suits - Notion, Roam, Zenkit and Zettlr. I read articles online, I devour the relevant books and I try to keep up to date with some on-topic podcasts.

Does all of this get in the way of my work? Does it all hurt my actually getting-things-done attitude? Not more than someone else's Netflix hobby or Twitter or knitting or whatnot.

I'm probably at a point that the marginal gain in productivity (for work related tasks) is, well, marginal. I do find joy in my hobby, though, and it does make a difference.

I recently created a personal knowledge management system on my personal laptop based on the Zettelkasten note taking system. The technical set up was a bit tedious, but the part after it - mapping the knowledge from some of my current books and projects - was a delight. I had the time of my life and I learned quite a lot in the process.

In retrospect, I think Lyster is right and wrong. There is no harm in pushing oneself to find the outermost limits of one's productivity. However, I find that saying that Blinkist, while attempting to condense human knowledge into tiny chewable modules and horribly failing to do so, is not in fact proving anything about the desire for uber-productivity. It's a hasty generalization at best. There are so many better tools and just as many more noble causes or sub-niches in the pursuit of productivity than getting watered-down books summaries.

Let me be clear: some people will find productivity apps boring, some people will find them useless, and some may even find them to be harmful. I'm not here to change their opinion or convince them otherwise. What I am saying is that for me, productivity tools are not only useful but also interesting. And for anyone who considers them pointless, think about this—would you rather your designer spend his or her time surfing Facebook for three hours every day or learning new methods to better perform his or her job? It’s a question that you need to ask yourself before judging someone else on how they choose to spend their time at work.

Let's talk about making awesome products, about productivity, about making the most out of life.

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