Sam Holstein

Productivity Advice Can’t Solve All Your Problems

Why Reading Productivity Advice Will Never Solve All Your Problems

For a long time, my life was a productivity guru’s wet dream.

I woke up at 7 am naturally every morning. I didn’t open emails, texts, or check anything in the morning. The first thing I did was crack open a book, work on meaningful work, or hit the gym.

After the early morning was over, I cooked myself breakfast and hit the gym if I hadn’t already. I worked out nearly five days a week for two hours or more each day. I put on 15% of my body weight in muscle in a year.

After the gym, I did errands, paperwork, and other more operational life tasks, right in the middle of the day when my body was eager to do those sorts of tasks.

I was cooking most of my meals and eating tremendously healthy food.

I took regular breaks to rest and relax, walking around my house to find some snacks and spend some time reading before returning to flow work. My reading chair and a pile of library books were ready for me to begin reading at any moment.

All my possessions were organized Marie-Kondo style into upright, folded, and organized slots in the house. My laundry was regularly done and my bedroom always looked impeccable.

At no point in my day do I binge on social media, lose myself in a Netflix series I never intended to begin watching, or otherwise accidentally piss away a few hours of my day.

I’d been publishing nearly every day on Medium for two years at this point. One article I wrote went so viral I earned $10,000 in a single month. I went full-time writing for Medium. I was finally living my dream of working full-time as a professional online writer. Everything was perfect.

Except it was the worst few years of my life.

Time for some of that “vulnerability” writers are always talking about.

In late 2019, my life was perfect. I was also extremely depressed.

While I was writing, working out, and living my charming little life, I was making tentative plans to kill myself. I was smoking enough cannabis to flatten a stoner every day — hundreds of dollars’ worth every month. Every weekend, I chased that cannabis with a prodigious amount of alcohol from my favorite dive bar. I was the customer who was greeted by name and asked “the usual?”

Unless I had a bad week, of course. Then I would be the customer who greeted the bartender by his name. I said, “Dan, fuck me up.”

My depression and suicidal ideation had nothing to do with the circumstances of my life at the time. Living with an undiagnosed personality disorder for ten years takes its toll. The trauma of it (some self-caused, much of it not) was finally catching up with me.

As a writer, I felt like a fake. Every morning I wrote about how to have a successful life, hit the “publish” button, and spiraled back down into my black hole for the rest of the day. Yes, I read, and worked, and did all that stuff I said I did, but I did it while ridiculously high and listening to heavy metal music and wishing my heart would stop. Who was I to write about success?

Eventually, I realized I wasn’t a fake because my misery had nothing to do with productivity. It had nothing to do with my weight, fitness level, inbox, or career performance. All of these things in my life were perfect. Everything I claimed to know how to do, I did know how to do. I was in a tailspin anyway because there is more to life than those things.

There is more to life than inbox zero, the ideal gym regimen, and mastering your side hustle. There is more to life than the perfect morning routine, nailing your next interview, and saving for early retirement. There is more to life than what you can read in a listicle.

I assure you, nobody loves productivity hacks more than me. I’ve been trying to alphabetically organize my binders since I was six years old. But productivity hacks are no replacement for confronting the tough questions about life. If you feel like something is missing, you won’t be able to ease that pain with inbox zero.

Productivity advice is great for getting from point A to point B, but if you don’t know where you are or where you’re going, productivity advice will only get you nowhere faster.

Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

I don’t visit that dive bar anymore. I don’t drink anymore at all. I do still use cannabis, but only a small amount for medical needs. I am no longer responsible for half the marijuana consumption on the east coast. I consider myself sober.

Furthermore, I’m in individual and group therapy. I have what people call a “support system.” I’m far from OK, but I’m getting there.

I’m also not a productivity guru’s wet dream anymore. I wake up at 9:45 am and check my email first thing. I haven’t been to the gym in weeks. My inbox unread count is 139. I play video games for several hours every day. Don’t ask me the last time I cooked a meal with real ingredients.

I’m still a huge advocate for the power of productivity advice. Having these great productivity habits during such a dark period in my life probably made the difference between me going through a tough period in my life and that tough period of my life being the last period of my life.

But don’t read productivity advice hoping it will magically solve your problems. Starting that side hustle will not give you the confidence you’ve been missing all your life. Exercising and eating right will not make you feel lovable again and it will not bring your ex back. Learning how motivation works will not make you love a college degree you hate. Solving these problems requires some deeper work in your heart.

The only advice I have to offer here is ask yourself where it hurts. When you lie in bed at night and stare at the ceiling, alone and hurting, what is it you can’t help but think about? What is it you avoid thinking about?

The answers to these questions are where your journey begins.