Essays on Technology and Culture

Too Much Self-Help

Recently, one of my favorite podcasts, Back to Work began a short series of episodes, devoted to Getting Things Done [1], the productivity system endorsed and praised by countless nerds, bloggers, and nerd bloggers. Since the start of the series, I’ve gone back and started re-reading the book, reacquainting myself with GTD and its tenets. If you’ve never read it, and you’re overwhelmed by the stuff on your plate, then by golly, go get a copy. Re-reading it has been rewarding, and lord knows that I’ve had some… issues… with getting things done [2] in my past. Merlin’s discussions and returning to the canonical text have been helping me get myself in order. What has not been helping are the panoply of other self-help books, blogs, and podcasts I’ve been reading and listening to.

I could provide a list of what I’ve been reading, or at least skimming, but why bother? The problem isn’t with the people who post this stuff. They’re only sharing what they’ve done to make their lives better, and who can blame them? It reminds me of a recent experience on the subway where a woman began reciting at us a clearly rehearsed and prepared litany on embracing the tenets of her religion. The key difference between her and the writers and podcasters I’m burning myself out on is that they’re not coming to me preaching The Way of David Allen—I’m coming to them. Nothing’s stopping me from unsubscribing from their feeds. Nothing’s stopping me from not buying their books.

Merlin Mann once wrote, “Joining a Facebook group about creative productivity is like buying a chair about jogging.” I’ve quoted it before, but it bears repeating, especially in this context. I can read all about ways to use Evernote, how I can be productive with only the pre-installed applications on my iPhone, or how setting my desktop to a shade of blue has been found to increase productivity by x percentage, but these things are not making me productive. They’re interesting, but they’re not helping. Reading about whether I should add a new application to my workflow, whether I should use Things or OmniFocus, or whether I should just write down the three things that I actually need to get done today on an index card—these can help on a theoretical level, but they’re not helping. At least, they’re not helping me.

What is going to help me is to spend less time worrying about implementing a system. What is going to help me is to spend less time figuring out what application to jump ship to. What is going to help me is to spend less time setting up fiddly little AppleScripts, templates, and other hacks. What is going to help me is not spending money on another pop-psychology book about how I can be more creative, productive, content, brave, happy, and the Best Me That I Can Be, because not a single god-damned one of these things will actually change anything. The best self-help these things have inspired me to do is to declare my independence from self-help. I’ll have more hours in the day to make things if I’m spending less time reading blog posts, listening to podcasts, and keeping up with the latest book about how I can change my habits. It’s a question of mathematics. It’s also a question of priorities.

Let me step back a bit. One of the reasons I listen to Back to Work is that I sincerely enjoy it. Even when I don’t get a whole lot of practical use from an episode [3], I still enjoy hearing Dan and Merlin talk. I still read, and will continue to read some of Patrick Rhone’s stuff, and listen to Enough because Patrick provides enough value and edification that the time spent is worth it. It’s those other blogs and other podcasts that insist on large chunks of my attention that I’m unsubscribing from. I’m not getting enough back from my mental investment to justify it.

More importantly, I’m putting up roadblocks to adding more of this self-help stuff to my life. Maybe if someone I know and respect links to a blog post that touches on some of the things I’m avoiding, I’ll add it to the ol’ Instapaper queue. That seems fair to me. What I won’t do is add that blog to my RSS reader, follow the author on Twitter or, or subscribe to their e-mail newsletter—even if their ideas are intriguing to me. Life is too short. My time is too short. I’ve had enough self-help.

I’ve also had enough of writing about self-help. I no longer feel like publicly fluffing myself about being a productive person any more. I’m getting less out of writing about it than I am reading it. Every day, countless people get their shit done. For some it’s easy, and for some its hard. Either way, the vast majority of them don’t go patting themselves on the back over what they’ve done, let alone doing it for an ostensible audience on the Internet. They just get on with the business of living their lives. Count me out of the circle-jerk. I’m ready to put my hands to use doing something more important.

  1. Copyright David Co, 2001.  ↩

  2. Lowercase intentional.  ↩

  3. And, in all honesty, the episodes of B2W where I get nothing but entertainment value are few and far between.  ↩