How to Avoid Pseudo-Productivity

Learning to set better goals.

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Photo by Alora Griffiths on Unsplash

Last year, I decided to get in better shape. It was a vague goal — I didn’t have a clear sense of what exactly I was hoping to achieve or how I would get there. I started with a resolution to exercise three times a week. I found an old set of adjustable dumbells and looked up a few lifts online.

I realized even at the time that it wasn’t going to be the most effective way to get in shape, but I went ahead with it anyway. It had been years since I regularly exercised, so I figured that as long as I started doing something, my fitness would improve.

For the first few weeks, I did get noticeably stronger. I steadily increased the weight on my dumbells, even as I increased the number of reps I was able to do.

By the end of the first month though, my progress was already slowing down. I kept at it anyway, because it had become a routine. It felt like I was accomplishing something by getting in my exercise three times a week, and I ignored the fact that my strength was barely increasing.

Finally, after three months, I faced the facts — my make-shift weightlifting routine had long since stopped being a productive way to get in shape. I had been sticking to it out of habit when I could have instead switched to exercises that would have provided better results with less of a time investment.

Bad Goals

Our culture is unquestionably goal-oriented and productivity-focused, and I don’t think that either of those is inherently a bad thing. The trouble arises though when we set goals simply for the sake of having goals, or when we fill up our time doing things that feel productive without actually examining what benefits they are providing.

There were two goals at play when I decided to start exercising: The results-oriented goal (“get in shape”) and the process-oriented goal (“exercise three times a week”). The reasons I ended up spinning my wheels for so long were that these goals were too vague, and I didn’t adjust them as time went on.

Since I didn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to achieve, I couldn’t come up with an effective plan of how to get there. At first, I was able to make some progress with my fitness simply because I was so out of shape to start with. When I plateaued though, I should have reconsidered my goals and come up with a more focused plan to get there. (I eventually did this, but only after wasting two months ineffectively lifting dumbells three times a week.)

This phenomenon isn’t just limited to the fitness world. Another common example that I see are budding writers who have vague goals of either “becoming a better writer.” In order to achieve those goals, they set simplistic sub-goals like “write every day.”

Writing every day can be a great start to becoming a better writer, but eventually, more focused steps are necessary. In order to decide what those steps are, the writer needs to decide what they actually mean by being a “better writer.”

Is a better writer the one that makes more money? That always writes to market? That uncovers hidden truths? That finds a unique voice?

All of these are fine goals to have, but nobody should chase them all at once. The quickest way for a writer to become better is to know exactly what they want to achieve from their writing.

Better Goals

Vague goals can be useful when someone is just starting a new hobby or vocation, but they shouldn’t become a crutch.

The starting place for setting better goals is to understand clearly and precisely what your results-oriented goal is. If you’re trying to get in shape, narrow your goal down to specific sports or specific types of fitness. If you want to become a better writer, decide what being a good writer means to you.

After your results-oriented goal is clearly formulated, the next step is to research how to best achieve it. The internet is full of easy-to-access, free information about nearly every hobby on earth. Instead of reinventing the wheel, you can learn from the successes and mistakes of others.

Use your research to create process-oriented goals. These are the day-to-day goals that you will follow to reach your final result-oriented goal. With each process-oriented goal, make sure you clearly understand how it will contribute to your overall success. If there isn’t a clear connection, it probably isn’t a productive goal.

Finally, schedule a regular time to review and adjust both your results-oriented and process-oriented goals. Goals change over time for a variety of reasons. Sometimes as you learn more about a subject, you realize that you were going about things in the wrong way. Other times, you may achieve your initial goal and have to set a new one in its place.

Regularly updating goals is the key to avoiding pseudo-productivity. Doing the same thing day after day might help you for a while, but typically these types of routines have diminishing returns. Finding even small ways to vary your routines may be enough to keep you progressing forward instead of simply running in place.

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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