I Tried to Trick Myself Into Being More Productive

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/Getty Images

I have never quite understood the appeal of talking about workplace productivity. Work is not religion! You do it for money. If you do it faster, in general, it doesn’t matter; you still make the same amount of money. Yet, often, even when I am dining with my “artistic” friends in New York City, all of a sudden someone will launch into a speech that resembles the following: “And, yes, I have a great job that I’m very passionate about, but it runs my life, you know? I’m working all the time. Still, I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing what I loved. I just wish I could use my time more effectively.”

Readers, when I hear such terrible, boring things, I don’t know what to do! Why are these people so motivated to do their work quickly and yet also with “passion”? Why don’t they want to do the bare minimum it takes in order to get paid??! It’s so confusing.

Strictly speaking, it is absolutely true I could be more productive. I write my essays, sure, but what if I wanted to write a War and Peace–style novel in which the heroine goes out in New York City and is constantly interacting with people obsessed with workplace productivity? I would call it My Struggle and it could be a best-seller. But I would have to be way more productive to write it. Also, my personal life is really not productive. When I go on vacation I just lie on the ground instead of doing any sightseeing. Marissa Mayer would hate it.

I am feeling so left out. I should be more obsessed by work-productivity theories and less obsessed with Sleeping Murder, a new book I’m reading.  As being left out is my worst fear, I suppose I must remedy this.


While reading FastCompany.com (here is an article on their website: “Note-Taking Just Became Easier With Google Voice’s New Transcription Tool”), I come across the new en vogue theory for workplace productivity. Apparently, what you do is you work for 90 minutes and then you take 90 minutes off because “while we often imagine ourselves as machines — which move linearly — we’re actually organisms, which move cyclically.” According to HuffingtonPost.com, a woman wrote a book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working in six short months, just by working on it in 90-minute blocks. On her breaks, she would go running. How fun is that?? Maybe I can both rest and be productive at the same time, which would conveniently resolve My Struggle? I decide to put it to the test for the next three days.

Day 1:

Honestly, you would think that this resting for 90 minutes and working for 90 minutes would be easy, but it is actually a lot harder than I thought. I thought it would be like a fun vacation, punctuated by naps. I had not totally realized it, but in general, I sort of vaguely work and vaguely look at celebrity gossip at the same time. The personal life of Justin Bieber is always sort of buzzing in the back of my head, like a weeping gnat.

Today, I was dealt a particular challenge. I wasn’t really writing anything but instead researching an article about bread. It is VERY difficult to research bread in a productive way, because research is on the internet, and unfortunately, so is celebrity gossip and also articles called “How Giving Up Refined Sugar Changed My Brain” on FastCompany.com. How can someone focus in those conditions?

I get my research done but it is slow, and unfortunately much interrupted by outside forces, like Colin Farrell telling Men’s Health that he is “OK” with being single. At the same time, I don’t really rest much either because I keep getting so distracted while researching that I feel I don’t really deserve a rest. At some point, I go out to a bread-making facility and interview a bread-maker. That was 90 minutes of solid work but it was mostly transportation. I don’t really count that.

Day 2:

Today, I decide to apply the 90-minute philosophy to sightseeing. I happen to be in London. Usually, when I am in a different city on vacation, I take it as an opportunity to lie on the ground and read a new book; for example, The Sleeping Murder. But this time, I decide to be a productive tourist who loves museums and culture. After all, leisure time should be productive as well. Think about machines, humanity’s main competition. Machines never rest. They just do amazing things, like surveilling the U.S. for commercial data. They don’t even eat. I bet machines love museums!!

I really do have a very productive day of sightseeing. First I see the Parliament for 90 minutes. It’s okay. I stay there for a full 90 minutes. Then I rest and eat lunch. Then I go to the National Portrait Gallery, which, if you didn’t know, is just portraits of famous people. It reminds me of Justin Bieber. What’s he doing? I don’t look at my phone to find out, because I am only interested in historically resonant political figures, and I hid my phone at the beginning of my tour. Then I rest and look at my phone. Justin Bieber cried while performing, but he doesn’t know why? I think about this for 75 of the 90 minutes of my rest. Then I try to go to the British Museum, but it’s closed. Then I go home. All in all, one of the most cultural days I have ever had. I am so tired, it was so terrible.

Day 3:

Today, I actually have something to write. This article! I have been procrastinating for weeks and now it is here, staring me in the face. This is the perfect day to start my 90-minute routine in earnest.

Here is the problem: Sleeping Murder has gotten to this amazing part in which the main character goes to a production of The Duchess of Malfi and starts screaming, because it triggers a long-repressed (sleeping) memory of an unknown man murdering her stepmother while saying a line from The Duchess of Malfi. How am I going to concentrate and actually write?

I start the day with the rest. I Google what happens in Sleeping Murder but then decide against reading spoilers. Then I read a little of Sleeping Murder. Then I look at the news and write some emails and look at celebrity gossip online.

Unfortunately, this rest is getting a little long, but I can’t stop resting. I know I have to work, and I have never wanted to work LESS. It’s like this 90-minute thing is making me rebel. I can usually write my articles without too much fuss, albeit slightly distractedly. But this makes me never want to work again. What is going on?

Eventually, things get desperate, and I manage to do a lot of writing quickly. When I take a break for about two hours again, I immediately start working afterward and finish the article in record time! Maybe I do need to rest to be productive, as opposed to just moderately working and moderately looking at the internet all the time. Maybe that is the path to more productivity, even though it actually took the same amount of time. 

This has been a sad experiment, however, because I do not care at all about the outcome. I am sure that my usual distracted pseudo-work would have accomplished the same results. I couldn’t even bring up my new routine at dinner and brag because it was too boring.


I feel bad for the workers of today. No wonder we all care about productivity: We are all in competition with machines, and machines, as we all know, are extremely productive. Any machine I have ever met is better at writing than me, prettier than me, funnier than me, and has more style. Any machine could write a better essay than this, and they would never use the tired exclamation point so liberally. 

That is the real struggle, but why fight it? I should invite a machine for a drink.

I Tried to Trick Myself Into Productivity