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On Productivity and Philosophy

Last updated in Winter 2021 5 min read

Productivity and philosophy go hand in hand.

You cannot separate productivity from philosophy. Philosophy exists as a guide to how we should think and act while productivity (or task management) is the system by how we organize our time to make real the fruits of philosophy. If you cannot see that how you view your place in life connects to the actions you take, you are not living according to your nature as a human being. There is more to life than finishing a long list of tasks. Will you look back at your life on your deathbed and say, "Finally, my Today perspective in OmniFocus is clear!"? Productivity should be about making the best use of your time. If that is not the domain of philosophy, I don't know what it is.

Seneca opens On the Shortness of Life with this gem.

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.

We build systems to manage our tasks—to use our time wisely. But we rarely stop to consider if we should be doing the tasks on our list. This is where philosophy clearly shows itself to be an integral part of personal productivity. If you do not pause to consider if an action should be taken, it has no place on your list of things to be done. What is the goal of a task management system if not the reduction in the amount of time spent deciding what to do?

If you look at the various task management systems that have gained traction over the years, they flutter towards the flame of philosophy like a moth, but they never acknowledge the connection the two have. Getting Things Done helps you create systems to capture ideas and guide you towards a clarification step, but the clarify step does not ask you to consider if the action should be done, but if it can be done quickly or if someone else is better off doing it. If we judge each action against the ruler of philosophy, we would be better equipped to make the decision at this stage of whether or not the task should be done at all. Doing more doesn't mean you were productive. It means you checked off a lot of stuff.

The closest any sort of productivity system has gotten to melding task management and philosophy is The Bullet Journal . Where BuJo succeeded is the monthly migration of tasks. The friction of having to copy over all the previous month's tasks to the next month by hand is a reminder to the person writing the journal that they should pause at each task and consider if it needs to be carried over. It's this lack of friction in digital tools that creates task lists 500 items long and why the Someday/Maybe list might as well be called the Someday/Never list . We capture every fleeting thought into our inboxes and because the inbox and the rest of the tasks live in the same system, nearly everything that winds up in the inbox lives on forever like a zombie feasting on brains. Your brain. Each task in your system is a vampire slowly draining you of your attention, focus, and will.

You may be starting to come to the realization that I'm going to encourage you to go analog. But it's not required that you shun technology. What is required is friction. The easiest task manager is usually the easiest to abuse. The simplest task manager would hardly be considered a task manager by most. David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, said once on a podcast I listened to1, "if you can't do this stuff with pen and paper, no fancy app is going to help you." But you can still use digital tools. The key is to not work from them. You can use them like an archive, but copying your tasks for the day to a notebook or index card can do wonders for your focus. It's easy to fiddle with digital tools and most of this fiddling is spent trying to craft the perfect system. That system does not exist though, and your time is better spent doing things that matter more.

You can't think about productivity without considering your philosophy. The kind of person you want to be influences your habits, actions, and long and short term planning. Task management exists to facilitate the realization of your philosophy.


  1. I swear I heard him say this. Maybe on that series he did with Merlin Mann.