So many productivity hacks center on the idea that productivity is best achieved by breaking things down into small, attainable goals: Make your to-do list public, so that you can feel a greater sense of pride with each item you cross off (and a little more shame with each one you leave unchecked). Start a bullet journal and use its intricate system to divide your days and weeks into distinct, beautifully decorated chunks. Take a break every 90 minutes or so, and a nap if you need it.
The problem with this philosophy, as psychologist Art Markman explained today in Fast Company, is that splitting a task into smaller pieces isn’t necessarily that helpful. While so many productivity tips are delivered as one-size-fits-all advice, people tend to fall into two separate categories, those motivated by results, and those motivated by process.
Members of that first group, Markman wrote, will respond better to the break-it-down strategy: “They contrast where they are right now with where they’d like to be, and that creates energy to get to work,” with each finished step providing its own morale boost: “If you look forward to (and celebrate) the completion of those smaller tasks, you may have better luck keeping your productivity consistent all the way through.”
Those who fall into the second category, on the other hand, don’t feel the same sense of reward from incremental steps. “Writers, for instance, may have particular articles or books they’re working on, but their long-term success simply involves a lot of writing—it doesn’t just hinge on this or that published piece,” Markman wrote; feeling productive is about the means rather than a specific end. For those people, it may be more helpful to think of a project as a cohesive whole, rather than a series of tasks:
Rather than add smaller goals on your path toward the big one, stop thinking of your work in terms of goals altogether. Instead, reimagine what you do in terms of the processes you follow to do it, with the goals as mere side effects. This process orientation can be valuable, because it helps you focus on the habits that contribute to your success—consistently.
The first step toward becoming more productive, in other words, is determining your own productivity style — then, and only then, can you figure out which of the many tips and tricks out there actually fit your needs.