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May 11, 2009

Goal Addiction and The Cult Of Productivity

Society wants you to be a goal addict, because it’s good for the economy.

It’s a cycle.  Spend money on those motivational tapes and seminars now. Spend money on antacid later when you’re not getting the results you want.  Blame yourself for sucking.  Spend even more money on booze, drugs, and mindless entertainment to take your mind off of your failure to achieve everything now (or, for the more sophisticated, buy the technological gadgets which will finally help you get more organized).  Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s a cycle.  It’s a game.  And the house always wins, and though you may be a high roller today, you will always lose in the long run.

Goal addiction is great for the economy – but not so great for you.  And you’re in deeper than you think.

“I Can Stop Anytime I Want To” And Other Bullshit You Say To Yourself

How do you know if you’re a goal addict?  It’s just like other addictions – there’s a pattern of destructive behavior and stuff you rationalize to yourself.  Here are a few warning signs:

  • Your default answer is “yes” when presented with a new commitment to sign up for – because you just know you can do it.
  • You’re falling behind in the things that matter (your physical health, your emotional health, and your family, for example), but you’re still cranking on things that have temporary value at best.
  • A significant amount of your daily stress comes from being behind on things
  • You think technology is going to solve your time management problems.
  • You are working your ass off, but not moving much farther ahead on your many goals.
  • You don’t actually have clear “finish lines” for your goals, so any success never feels like enough
  • You think of “juggling” your goals rather than focusing on them.

These are just a few of the signs of goal addiction, and if you’re seeing them in yourself, you need to seriously take notice.

Because if you don’t, a bunch of bad things will happen.

  • By trying to do more and more, you’ll also accomplish less and less.
  • By trying to please everyone, you’ll please no one.
  • Your stress level will continue to spiral upward.
  • Your life satisfaction will start to spiral downward.
  • Ten years will pass, and you’ll be really disappointed with where you are.

Goal addiction is a life killer – and it’s a sneaky one at that, because the goal addicted lifestyle sounds so attractive when it’s glamorized by …

The Cult Of Productivity

I’m not going to describe the ins and outs of the productivity-industrial complex today, but chances are you have been wooed by them for a while now.  They’re the ones pushing the latest productivity gadgets or web apps or life hacks under the guise of “things that make your life easier.”

But all of these edgy solutions almost never, never designed to make your life easier.  They are designed to sell products.  They are designed to push trendy web services. They are designed to make catchy, “blog candy” top ten posts.  They are designed to get you focused on something other than doing work on your goals, because “something other” is sexy and “work” is not.

Because “doing a million things” is impressive.  “Doing less” smacks of weakness.

Because “optimizing” sounds intellectual.  “Simplifying” sounds like you’re copping out.

If you’re not “too busy” these days, you must be doing something wrong - and while that’s bullshit, that’s still the way our culture sees things.

And the worst part of it is, you can be working for the productivity-industrial complex and not even know it - even your best intentioned work may be destined to help people run faster on their treadmill rather than helping them get off the damned treadmill that’s exhausting them in the first place.

God knows I’ve contributed my fair share.  But I’m slightly older and slightly wiser now.

And I’m ringing this bell to get you to ask yourself the question too – Are you so addicted to achieving as much as you can that you sacrifice hitting home runs in the areas that really matter?

Chew on that.

It’s ok to say “Oh shit, why am I doing this with my life?” No one will think you’re weak.

Ok, that’s a lie.  Many people will think you’re weak, that you can’t hack it in this fast moving society.

But just ignore them.  They’ll go back to their tools, their stress and their antacids, and wonder why you look a little happier than you did before.

That’s all for today.  Chew on what I’ve said so far.  Ask yourself if you’re living the goal addicted lifestyle, and if that’s really where you want to be.

It wasn’t easy for me to admit goal addiction to myself, or my role in the productivity-industrial complex, but I had to face up to it.

Still working through it.  Making some progress, one day at a time.

Maybe we’ll throw together an AA meeting for the goal addicted.  Holla back in the comments if you want in. :-p

Till next time,


28 Responses to “Goal Addiction and The Cult Of Productivity”

  • May 11, 2009 Deb Owen

    What?!? We should say ‘no’ to stuff?

    People didn’t really know how to handle it when I stopped confusing anxiety with actually being productive. (Anxiety = ‘I’ve got a million things to do! I must be important!” Productive = “I’m clear about my priorities and if I get to the other stuff, fine”)

    So yeah. People will think you’re weird.
    But they’ll also get over it.

    All the best!

    Deb Owen’s last blog post..can you handle the truth? (helicopters, drill sergeants and coaches)

  • May 11, 2009 Sarah E. White

    I definitely have bought into the cult of productivity on more than one occasion. It can always seem like the next idea is the one that’s going to be big, the one to focus all the attention on, at least until the next big idea comes around.

    I think a lot of us who are driven to go our own way really need to spend more time thinking about what we really want to be doing and not what we think we should be doing or what we’ve been told is the right way to go about doing things.

    How about spending more time reaching the goal of being a happy, fulfilled individual who loves what he or she does? That would be quite the goal to reach!

  • May 11, 2009 Positively Present

    This is really interesting! I spend a LOT of time thinking about and trying to be productive…I’ve never thought about the cult of productivity before but you make some excellent points about it here. Really enjoyed this and I think it will be very helpful for me. Thanks!

  • May 11, 2009 Mark Silver

    Dude. You are so right on. Loving what you wrote here. I cling to my spiritual practices just to overcome the daily influx of my own mental graspings at “productivity” and getting things done.

    Work is good. Chop wood, carry water. And yet “accomplishing things” can be so detrimental. Mother Theresa said: “No one can do great things. One can only do small things with great love.”

    I keep trying to come back to that. Thanks for yet another reminder.

    Mark Silver’s last blog post..The True Measure of Money in Your Business

  • May 11, 2009 Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome


    Nicely said. Although I mentor people about discovering their dreams and pursuing them, I also mentor them (and try to take my own advice) not to kill themselves trying to achieve it all.

    While some people happily choose to do a million things and choose to sacrifice certain parts of their lives, I’m not one of them and I think most people aren’t.

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome’s last blog post..Creativity & Paying the Bills: Dave Rhodes Interview

  • May 11, 2009 Amy Crook

    I’ve got to admit, I’m glad that Zen Habits and Unclutterer were my introductions to the Cult of Productivity — less is more, don’t buy unless you know you’ll use it (no, REALLY use it), five tasks a day, etc.

    Not to mention your increasing focus on… focus. Which is a great motivational tool to stop going for “productive” and aim for “happy to have so few tasks to do that I can finish them and still have a life.”

    You might contribute a little to the cult, but, you also help contribute to the solution.

  • May 11, 2009 Molly Gordon

    Yay, Dave!

    I love how vividly you illustrate nonsense disguised as wisdom.

    Years ago I realized that my biggest problem was that I thought all my good ideas needed to be acted upon. Not so! When I feel crazed or stunned by self doubt, it’s practically a given that I’ve fallen back into the habit of thinking every thought needs to be turned into action.

    Hurrah for letting go of the fantasy of uber-productivity. And while some people will think we’re weird or uncaring when we drop the habit of anxiety, the ones we spend the most time with will come to love that we are present and accountable in our peace-ability.


  • May 11, 2009 Jason Wheeler

    Great article. Look forward to more reading like this.

  • May 11, 2009 Cosmic Connie

    “But all of these edgy solutions almost never, never designed to make your life easier. They are designed to sell products.”

    That’s the problem in a nutshell. Goal addiction is the very fuel that runs modern commerce, including the eminently snarkworthy segment of commerce that I’ve devoted my own blog to: the New-Wage/selfish-help industry. For most of those folks, it really is all about selling products, even when wrapped in a thin veneer of altruism and earnest proclamations about “changing the world.”

    Of course marketers of all types have always tried to nurture dissatisfaction in consumers, and to convince us that the product or service du jour will make our lives better. But the problem seems to be getting worse now because there’s so much MORE of everything, and marketing is becoming more sophisticated. There are just too many bright shiny objects in our paths.

    Lest I start rambling as I am sometimes wont to do, I’ll just wrap this up by saying that this is a really good piece, Dave. I look forward to reading more from you. (And I’m following you now on Twitter, thanks to my pal Blair Warren’s recommendation.)

    Cosmic Connie’s last blog post..All that’s missing is the music

  • May 11, 2009 Brett Legree

    Hmm, what can I say?

    Yes. YES. Awesome.

    I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying this sort of thing, seeing if it would help me. Probably too much time.

    I tried various degrees of “busy” in my life, once to see if I could determine what was *really* important to me, and that worked really well.

    And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and have written a bit about it.

    I still think in a lot of cases with productivity there’s “nothing new under the sun”, a lot of the new stuff is just putting a new coat of paint on 7 Habits or whatever.

    And maybe it’s all good, but I think whatever’s in those books worked for “that guy or that gal” who wrote it, but it might not work for you, or me.

    I think each of us is the only one who can figure out what works best for us.

    And the more I thought about the word “productivity”, the more I thought it seemed to say “efficiency”, which made me think of Frederick Winslow Taylor and working in a factory.

    I don’t want to be more efficient. I don’t want to make more widgets in 8 hours.

    I want to be more effective – so that I can make the required number of widgets in 4 hours, and go spend 4 hours with my kids, or do something fun – or if I have to work for 8 hours, maybe I want to make widgets that really count.

    Effective vs. productive (efficient).

    Does that make sense? I mean, productive (efficient) is sometimes “I don’t know where the hell I’m going, but dammit, I’m getting there *fast* and I look good doing it”, as opposed to effective i.e. “maybe I’m not as fast as everyone else or I don’t look busy, but every *single step* I take counts, gets me closer to something that really means something”.

    Anyway – kick ass.

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..turning point.

  • May 11, 2009 James Chartrand - Men with Pens

    Yup. I’ve written about being effective versus being efficient. I’ve had Alex Fayle post about driving a runaway train and trying to keep it from wrecking. And I’ve been thinking long and hard ever since about that.

    We celebrate those that do it all and don’t crack under stress. Interestingly, though, as much as people seem to admire people who work damned hard and do it all, offer them to trade places.

    “Hey, I admire what you do – but I wouldn’t want your job.”

    ‘Nuff said.

    James Chartrand – Men with Pens’s last blog post..Is Elance a Winner or Loser?

  • May 11, 2009 Brett Legree

    Yeah, I remember both your writing and what Alex wrote, and like you say, we often look up to those folks (but maybe secretly think, “I’m glad it isn’t me”).

    We all have goals/dreams/whatever and work towards them.

    Perhaps a good question to ask ourselves might be, “would I be doing this if I didn’t have to do it?”

    The answer to that question might be helpful!

    Brett Legree’s last blog post..turning point.

  • May 11, 2009 Lisa Gates

    Dave, I have quoted you so often and I’m about to do it again, and twitter this into oblivion. Thank you.

    I’m right with you. Thought you and your readers might like this excerpt from our workbook:

    “If we look from the vantage of our everyday busyness, often we seek to solve the puzzle of balance by implementing some shiny new productivity strategies. After all, we spend week after week, month after month doing tasks, running errands, completing assignments, and moving at cheetah speed. So it stands to reason that if we were more organized, used our calendar more efficiently, maintained our contact lists consistently, or stayed on top of our email or our children’s activities with more commitment, life would be good.

    So we find the next cool thing, the perfect tool, the greatest techie gadget and get organized.

    Yet week after week and month after month we can’t figure out why our ideas dissipate and our lives feel flat. We say that creating balance in all areas of your life is not achieved by managing time better, or checking off items on your ever-expanding to-do lists. Balance is a dynamic state of being that you can achieve by doing what you’ve been meaning to do all your adult life:

    Making consistent choices that honor your values. Period. The rest is hooey.”

    more than 2 cents

  • May 11, 2009 Anna

    Thanks for articulating this nicely. I recently reduced the number of hours I work, and the reaction I’ve gotten from many people illustrates your ““Doing less” smacks of weakness” point. Meanwhile, my work-induced anxiety is long gone and my happiness level is higher than ever. It doesn’t feel weak at all :)

  • May 12, 2009 John Gallagher


    I might misunderstand what you’re trying to say here, but I disagree with your definition of productivity.

    One definition according to is:

    A measure of the amount of output per unit of input.

    I agree that there’s a big bullshit culture grown up around productivity, with tools that don’t really help anyone do anything but distract themselves.

    But trying to say that productivity is to be ignored is to accept that these tools have redefined the word to mean “distracting”.

    I think being productive is really important precisely FOR the reasons you set out. But productivity must also be partnered with a sense of what you’re being productive doing, and if that activity aligns with your important goals in life.

    If you’re truly productive on a task that achieves one of your big goals, how can this be a bad thing?

    Let’s not allow the non-productivity tools have the monopoly on defining the word.

  • May 12, 2009 ChristiaanH

    Positively goal minded here. Although I’m cutting down on the goals and just enjoying the moment. It’s all about quality vs quantity.

    It’s better to do one thing a day, do it the best you can and make sure it’s in our best interest than to do a lot of things, half of which you don’t even do properly and the other half doesn’t make your life any better or leave you fulfilled.

    I suggest you drop whatever tis you are doing right now, walk to the nearest window and stare at a cloud for five whole minutes. Do nothing else but stare at the cloud (and breath…, breathing is mandatory)
    What would happen if you did that right now? Would the world come to an end?

    Relax, calm down and let others do all the dead-end running.

    ChristiaanH’s last blog post..Hello World! or Becoming more social in a day, irreversibly

  • May 12, 2009 deb

    Your posts are changing my life! I totally identified with being goal addicted – and it has kept me from the one thing I want to accomplish most: write my novel. Many thanks!

  • May 12, 2009 Srinivas Rao

    Goal addiction is definitely a big problem in our society. We are more or less perpetuating the social matrix but the irony is we don’t do anything to better ourselves. It’s always, “I’ll be happy when….”

  • May 12, 2009 Dave Navarro

    Thanks to ALL of you for your great comments – this is obviously hitting a nerve and something I should write more about.

    You guys & gals ROCK!


  • May 13, 2009 Alex

    Collectively and individually there is value in working hard, achieving goals etc but often times I think those values become independent of us and become their own self sustaining system or culture so that as individuals we feel that we can’t determine when we put in a good days work because we’re constantly indexing our progress against the expectations of the system which rewards those who commit to it either through praise or other rewards. True contentment doesn’t seem to have the same capacity to do that because it is more amphorous, it can’t be objectively measured and also it’s so much more personal. People often seem to try and benchmark contentment to the amount of stuff they have, the career success of their children etc because the drive to size yourself up against others is strong and using “objective” criteria it is easy to do.

    This post reminded me of this video that was recently featured in NY Times, particularly the consumer portion. While its message is aimed primarily at showing the environmental impact of consumer culture on the environment I think it explains well the autopoietic nature of a principle when people don’t live their lives conscientiously and determinately.

  • May 14, 2009 Christian

    I began using the word “no” a couple years ago. I’ve never been happier. Oddly enough though, I STILL struggle with it. I feel like I’m missing out. The key ( I think) is to understand that you ARE missing out on things, and it’s OK. Since when is success about doing EVERYTHING…it’s not about that. It’s about doing what you want.

    Christian’s last blog post..Tony Robbins Talks About the Economy and Opportunity

  • Jul 21, 2009 Melissa Derbyshire

    Beautiful assessment of what is going on INSIDE MY VERY OWN HEAD! Thank you for being so real and honest, and asking us to do the same. Keep it coming!

    By the way…. I love your “30 Hours a Day” name…. I named my virtual assistant company “36 Hours In A Day” before I found you!
    Melissa Derbyshire´s last undefined ..If you register your site for free at My ComLuv Profile

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