We live in the age of the “productivity guru.” A productivity guru is someone who advertises his or her own productivity and suggests that others can achieve similar results. I enjoy the books and other content produced by some people who can be characterized as productivity gurus—Cal Newport, David Allen, Tim Ferriss, and Marie Kondo, for example. But they have thousands of imitators, and for many of these, the core of their brand is exaggeration: exaggeration of what they have accomplished and of what you, the consumer, can accomplish by following their lead.
The internet is saturated with claims about how much we can learn, remember, and do in short spans of time—if only we follow the right method and buy the right tools. These inflate our self-expectations and promote perfectionism and the planning fallacy. They inevitably lead to disappointment when the expectations prove impossible to meet.
While trying to browse books about writing on Amazon’s Kindle Store recently, I found that most serious books on the topic were buried beneath a pile of self-published throwaways with titles such as “How to write 5000 words per hour.” 5000 words per hour is an average of 83 words per minute nonstop for sixty minutes. This is faster than most people type anything–much less writing intended to be read. Out of curiosity, I downloaded a sample of the book. The author’s secret? The pomodoro technique, which is useful but hardly novel.
It is important for people to know what they can reasonably expect of themselves. Promoting exaggerated ideas about how quickly people can master a skill or how much a particular tool can increase one’s productivity may seem harmless because it is such a common marketing tool. But it amounts to spreading false information and false expectations. It can subtly promote unhappiness by encouraging people to set impossibly high standards that they cannot meet.