Stop Blaming Science For Your Lack Of Productivity

Written by Niklas Goeke

From 1896 to 1899, over 100,000 people sold their belongings, closed up shop and headed to Dawson City. Located in the Yukon in Canada, the hub of the Klondike Gold Rush resembled big dreams and hopes high as the sky.

Of the 30,000 that eventually became habituated in Dawson City, only a handful became rich. Average spend per person to reach the region was $1,000 ($27,000 today), which far exceeded the total gold produced by the time the rush ended.

Most of these people left with their pockets as empty as they were when they got there.

Right now, the same thing is happening again. Only this time, the Klondike is not in Canada and the gold is not buried beneath rocks and sand.

The nuggets we chase are the insights of science and they’re supposed to make us abundant in productivity.

Welcome to the 21st-century gold rush of the mind.

. . .

Asking All The Right Questions — In All The Wrong Ways

“How many hours a day can a person work on average?”

“What’s the ideal length of a good night’s sleep?”

“How productive should a normal person be?”

These kinds of questions echo through the halls of the world wide web, always accompanied by the same claim, like the miner by his pick:

Cite scientific sources, please. Trustworthy, objective references required.

And boy, do we writers like to deliver. These are all real titles, some of extremely popular articles:

The Secret To Your Self-Motivation Lies In This Surprising Science-Backed Habit
The Ideal Workweek, According to Science
Science Says You Should Leave Work at 2 p.m. and Go for a Walk
The Science of Goal-Setting: The 5 Principles You Need to Know
How to Start Good Habits and (Actually) Stick to Them, According to Stanford Psychologists

“My shovel has struck gold. Come see the new wisdom of research!” we exclaim. Sure, blame us for overusing the science angle, but it works. The bigger problem I see in how we — now as readers — all too eagerly gobble up this information.

To the people wanting answers, I can’t help but wonder: Why did you ask this question? And why did you ask it this way?

Taking a shot in the dark at your inner monologue that led to it:

“Man, I feel like I’m not working enough. I wanna do more. Why can’t I?”

“Hmm, but maybe I am working enough. Maybe I work at capacity already. Maybe this is the best I can do. I wonder what’s normal? Let me ask.”

This comes with many inherent problems: no day is really normal, no person is average, no productivity level is standard, and, worst of all:

It’s an excellent way of handing off responsibility for your productivity to the dictums of science.

This weekend, my parents went to the Escher Museum in The Hague. On the front, there’s one of his drawings.

My Dad brought back a souvenir for me. It’s a little cube, which you can fold in various ways to show different Escher works. The one on the museum front is also on there, and it’s my favorite.

You’ll see why.

. . .

All That Is Gold Does Not Glitter

If you’re a fan of articles of the above kind, you’ll by now be craving more answers, just because I reminded you of the questions.

Fear not, anxious reader! I have much gold.

How would you like me to tell you that a recent study among 2,000 UK workers revealed that on average, people work only about 3 of the 8 hours they spend at the office each day?

That feels good, doesn’t it?

You’ll also love hearing that the most productive people take a 17-minute break after 52 minutes of work.

Or how about Cal Newport’s 12-hour focus day experiment, with the following results:

I ended up spending 2.5 hours focused on my writing project and 3.5 hours focused on my research paper. That’s six hours, in one day, of focused work with zero interruptions; not even one quick glance at email.


Even though I dedicated 6 hours in one 10 hour work day to uninterrupted focus, another 1.5 hours to exercise and eating, and another 1 hour to a doctors appointment, I still managed to accomplish an impressive collection of logistical tasks both urgent and non-urgent.

I could also tell you what Wikipedia says about our dwindling attention span:

Common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task range from about five minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 minutes in older children and adults.[1]

Armed with all these precious fact-chunks, you might then conclude:

“Hey, I’m already doing a lot! More than the average worker. And if Cal Newport can only do 6 focused hours a day, how can I do more? I mean, that guy’s a college professor, after all!”

But here’s the problem:

You still won’t be happy with your output. Your feeling you’re not doing enough won’t go away.

Now, the best you can do is walk around and say: “I can’t do more than I am because that’s what science says.”

. . .

Here’s my ‘average’ day:

I arrive at school at 7:30 AM. I write, take care of small tasks, do my email at 11 and have a 1-hour lunch break at around 12 PM. I’ll spend all afternoon writing a new post.

Sometimes, I’m here till 6 PM, sometimes till 8, sometimes 10. Take off another hour for distractions and you’re still left with at least 9 hours spent in a fairly focused way.

I’ve been doing this for months and I’m still here. Regardless of what science says. No averages necessary, even though I’m a pretty ‘normal’ guy.

Now imagine what someone insanely dedicated and ridiculously inspired like Elon Musk can do. But then again, the guy eats, the guy poops and the guy sleeps. Just like you and me.

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