Time Hacking


Productivity hackers are selling the secret to success – but is the product worth the hype?  What our obsession with productivity tells us about our relationship with time in the 21st century.

Time and Productivity//March 2018 • Katie Fustich

Photo by Chris Lawton

Daniel Ramamoorthy has the kind of energy that is normally reserved for competition game shows. A seasoned public speaker, he’s hosted conferences and summits around the globe,  makes videos where he wears silly hats while imparting entrepreneurial advice, and he’s occasionally followed around by a camera person who turns his adventures into beat-pumping highlight reels, all while carving out space in the world of personal coaching. He isn’t pushing his clients through boot camp workouts, though: he’s teaching them to be productive.


The desire for productivity is universal. Young students scramble to efficiently cram for exams; parents struggle to keep the household afloat, keep up with book club, and pack perfect kids’ lunches; commuters read self-help books or listen to podcasts on their way to work, eager to fill idle minutes with something of intellectual value. And, of course, there are the workers who mesh their professional lives with their personal: work email open in bed, conference calls while on vacation, and bleary-eyed freelancers managing half a dozen clients across nearly as many screens.


We, at all stages of life and career, are so driven by productivity because little else inspires as deep a sense of satisfaction as getting things done, or a more terrible bout of self-doubt than feeling like you’re falling behind. Our ability to be productive has become a core piece of our self-worth, and one of the values by which we measure others. If you’re productive, you’re seen as more skilled. From the corporate to the individual level, more is better.


Though the feeling of being productive fills us with a distinct sensation, defining the term “productivity” is difficult. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity is a mathematical measure intersecting volume of output, time, and expenses. A company is judged as “productive” if they manage to pay a skeleton staff low wages and still meet product goals or revenue targets. It’s an efficiency-centric measurement of success.


It’s not this formula, though, that we have in mind when we sneak a peek at our work emails on Sunday night. Rather, we are putting ourselves to the test against a set of internalized ideals. These ideals can take many forms, from stuffing savings accounts to maxing out vacation days, and can be fulfilled in a variety of creative ways, from outsourcing nearly everything to grinding through 16-hour days of freelance assignments.


“Productivity encompasses both a sense of accomplishment and a sense of fulfillment,” says Ramamoorthy, whose work as a coach focuses on aiding individuals in finding their perfect form of productivity based on their individual needs and goals. “Getting through a to-do list is one thing. Ensuring that those things actually matter (a.k.a. are aligned with your purpose in this world) is another thing.”



The high-profile role of productivity coaches like Ramamoorthy is unique to the 21st century, but he is not alone in his success. A swath of prominent online personalities have made it their mission to shape the narrative of productivity, attracting stables of clients willing to pay thousands of dollars for insight into how to make better use of their time. Laura Stack (“the Productivity Pro”), Merlin Mann (the originator of “Inbox Zero”), and Craig Jarrow (“the Time Management Ninja”), have all built veritable social media empires centered around helping people work better.


While these big names may score the TED Talks and the viral blog posts, it doesn’t take making the front page of the Times to carve out a successful (and profitable) career as a productivity coach. Ramamoorthy has fewer than 4,500 Twitter followers, but that hasn’t stopped him from building a successful coaching business. New York City-based Anna Goldstein has even less of a social media presence, and yet her website, headshot, and branding looks as slick and expensive as any Fortune 500 CEO.


What does seem to tie these individuals together, whether they have 300,000 Instagram followers or 300, is a strategy and a storyline. Often, personal coaches tend to build their brand off of their own professional failure and eventual triumph. Even more frequently, they obscure their rates while potential clients line up in awe. Top productivity coaches charge an average of $500 per hour, according to the Harvard Business Review.


The changing shape of work drives the demand for these guru-like coaches. Freelancing, gigging, and working remotely, once considered to be virtual fads or niche formulas only a few people could crack, are becoming an increasingly large slice of the global economy. In 2016, Upwork and the Freelancers Union conducted a survey indicating more than 35% of America’s workforce identifies as freelance.


There is no doubt that coaches and mentors can be extremely helpful to this growing group of people who are navigating a particularly tricky style of working. Even so, one can’t help but wonder if the coaching career path would be viable were it not for the fact that so much of our self-worth is tied to our work. It’s because we yearn for validation through productivity, that we are primed for guidance on how to be more productive in the first place.



The prevailing productivity schools of thought can be divided into two ideologies: those who outsource, and those who grind. The outsourcers believe that work can be systematically pared down until a nearly self-automated, highly-efficient structure remains. The grinders believe that the only means of achieving greatness is through constant, brute-force production at any cost. While these two philosophies may appear at odds, they both center their praxis on the idea that we can manipulate or “hack” the forces around us to achieve our goals and garner the sense of productivity we crave.


The outsourcing perspective is the more complicated of the two when it comes to execution, as it involves the time and talents of others. The outsourcing mindset is one in which an individual reduces their workload by assigning numerous small tasks to people like freelancers or assistants, creating a web of people (or virtual assistants) who take care of the “busy work.” In theory, this method allows the individual to focus on the core of their business—as well as supply them with a wealth of free time.


Personal outsourcing was popularized by personalities like Tim Ferriss, pioneer of a controversial method he called “The Four Hour Workweek.” He’s one of the most famous names in the productivity coaching space, only considering coaching requests accompanied by an offer of “a budget with 5-7 zeros (before the decimal point),” according to his website.


Instead of one-on-one coaching, Ferriss has built his brand on the idea that anyone can retire early on a tropical island. In 2007, Ferriss released a treatise on his lifestyle that, in his own words, offers insights on how to “escape the rat race” and “earn monthly five-figure income with zero management.” Readers are told they will be able to “eliminate 50% of your work in 48 hours using the principles of little-known European economists,” secure housing anywhere in the world, and receive airfare for 20% of face value.


Despite the too-good-to-be-true nature of Ferriss’ claims (or perhaps because of them), passionate followers have purchased more than a million copies of The Four Hour Work Week. Though now more than ten years old, the book continues its reign as a primary resource for anyone looking to take control of their professional lives and “escape the grind.”


The era of the digital worker has, perhaps unwittingly, embraced the claims made in Ferriss’ book. The idea that a regular eight-hour workday is no longer a requirement for productivity or success represents an essential shift in the way workers are entitling themselves to a more satisfying work-life balance. Productivity does not have to mean spending nights at the office when one could build a life that is so efficient that they rarely have to spend a day at a desk.


In practice, this outsourcing school of thought relies on the type of thinking found in the 2006 bestseller The Secret — dream it, do it. The strategies presented are often so simple (Buy a bullet journal! Get eight hours of sleep! Eat an acai bowl!) that you’ll wonder why you needed to be taught them. Simply strip away the clutter of work and find the core of your productivity.


But how, exactly, your dreams of working from a private island will be made real is often something you are left to figure out for yourself. It’s this question of “how?” that keeps readers reaching for the work of Ferriss, as well as looking to more accessible personal coaches to work with one-on-one.



For those who would forego the careful balance of outsourcing for a more brutalist method, there is the grinding school of thought. Grinding is productivity at its most forceful: work as hard as possible, for as long as possible, and don’t worry about the potential risks or consequences. It sounds painful, but millions of people around the world do it every day, from picking up an open shift at work to checking business emails under the dinner table, to spending all night at the library just for the sake of feeling productive.


If the icon of the outsourcing school is Tim Ferriss, the icon of the grinding school is Gary Vaynerchuk. Vaynerchuk is a public speaker, author, and internet personality who, like Ferriss, has made his name by advocating for a certain type of work-life balance. Whereas Ferriss encourages his disciples to work as efficiently (and therefore as little) as possible, Vaynerchuk motivates his denizens with the gospel of working hard, very hard.


“When you have passion around something, you’ll do whatever it takes to execute on it. You’ll work and grind away until you’ve squeezed every last bit of juice out of that ‘lemon,’” reads a 2014 blog post on his site. “When you’re truly in that hustle, you are maximizing every last bit of energy you have in order to produce.”


A more recent post from 2017 embraces the philosophy that speed always trumps accuracy. “You need to move fast. I am more concerned about speed than being ‘right’ on the first try,” he writes. “The moral of the story is: the more you do, the more you learn.” While leadership and passion are evident in his work, there is also a sense of yearning, even of desperation.


Vaynerchuk preaches a gospel of no shortcuts and no excuses when it comes to pursuing goals. One can’t simply have a virtual assistant complete their tasks; they must complete them with effort and passion while never losing sight of larger aspirations. Vaynerchuk’s mentality is more difficult to contest than Ferriss’s outsourced approach, because there are quite literally no excuses allowed.


Because of its ground-level accessibility (no private jet or personal assistant necessary), the grinding school is likely to appeal to a fairly vulnerable population: freelancers, gig workers, and those without the security of benefits or pensions. Yet this appeal is one side of a double-edged sword.


In early 2017, Fiverr, an online exchange for freelance labor, plastered New York City’s MTA with ads advocating for a startling lifestyle. In the ads, a woman (presumably a freelancer of some sort) was shown wide-eyed and messy-haired. The bold captions proclaimed “Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice” and “You eat a coffee for lunch,” among others. After the campaign went viral on Twitter, viewers were taken aback by the glorification of the apparent exploitation of freelancers. It may be exploitation, but there are some who take genuine pride in aligning themselves with the grinder lifestyle such ads advertise.


Can grinding work? Yes. There is truth in the fact that many have found success only after aggressively forcing their work into the world. Still, there are serious risks that come with pushing your mind and body to the brink that can undermine the potential rewards.



Though outsourcing and grinding are drastically different in practice, they both represent the idea that we can somehow “hack” our working lives to reach an otherwise unattainable level of professional achievement. We want to believe that we can pare down success to a handful of algorithms. We want to be as efficient and productive as the machines we rely on.


The danger in the marketing of productivity extremes is that it’s easy to ignore the potential physical and mental consequences of our thirst for success. While many of us have benefitted from the uplifting tone and motivational mantras of the virtual productivity thinktank, it’s important to step back from the verbiage and allow ourselves to see the risks that come with these rewards.


As new studies emerge, the evidence is mounting that our 21st-century productivity strategies, and “grinding” in particular, are leaving us with a host of problems including anxiety disorders, adrenal fatigue, and episodes of severe exhaustion. While we may be inclined to associate these medical conditions with a more old-school, big-business lifestyle, research is finding these conditions just as pervasive in world of non-traditional work. Deepening the problem is the fact that many freelance or at-home workers have no health insurance, no paid leave, and potentially poor at-home workplace conditions.


A 2017 Fast Company article asks, “Could Working From Home Be As Bad For Your Health As Smoking?” It seems a drastic comparison—after all, shouldn’t working from the comfort of home make you happy? And yet, the article cites several studies connecting dangerous levels of loneliness with remote work. Physical and mental isolation resulting from working from home can lead to issues like inflammation, insomnia, and a weakened immune system.


People who work from home are also likely to work more days and longer hours, as the barrier between work and home dissolves. The American Psychological Association has established a direct link between overwork and serious illnesses like hypertension, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes, and more. Workers who lack job security, such as freelancers and gig workers, are at an even greater risk for such problems. This trend is likely to continue as long as companies continue to shift traditionally full-time roles to “freelance” or “contracted” positions, and a 40-hour work week with a 401k becomes increasingly out of reach.


Businesswoman Mai-Li Hammargren notes that, while we may be inclined to blame the same technologies that enable us to “hack” our working selves for the shake-ups in the job market, “It’s not the technology itself which is the problem—but how people use it.”


“The world used to be more predictable,” says Hammargren. Now, economies are shifting—jobs are lost, but others are being created. “We need to figure out how we can all coexist.”



Just as technology is not to blame for the exploitation or health conditions of a worker, those who attempt to hack their work lives, and those who advocate for such hacking, are not necessarily at fault. Instead, we need to examine the bigger picture and ask questions like, “Why don’t we already have a shorter (if not four-hour) work week?” or, “Why don’t we invest more value in the labor of gig-workers who are stuck grinding to make a living?”


Work itself is changing, and rather than be complicit in a crumbling system, individuals, from first-time founders to productivity gurus, are taking the initiative to develop new concepts of why and how we work to make a living. Productivity hacking may be marketed with an unrealistic ideal, but it can provide a valuable framework. If productivity gurus are the fad diets of the working world, their ideas are what we pick, choose, restrict, and indulge in with the hope that we find a work-life balance that nourishes us each individually.


Ramamoorthy is all for such customization. “I am rather cynical of terms like goals, work-life balance and job satisfaction,” he says. “Because most people have a distorted view of what those words actually mean, or are being presented a distorted view of what those words should mean,” he adds, seemingly nodding to towards the icons of the productivity space who preach single-day work weeks or grinding it out. “Bean bags, ping-pong tables, flexible work hours, and more technology don't necessarily correlate with any of those terms. Truly knowing yourself, understanding your personal and professional purpose and mission, is the key to achieving goals, work-life balance and job satisfaction.”


Without a sense of purpose, we will keep searching for someone to tell us how to work. We will keep buying books, attending seminars, hiring coaches, and fueling an industry built on the human desire for a happier life. This, combined with the changing landscape of work, may leave some off-balance. For those who can find their own center, though, it could also lead to beautiful, unexpected destinations—just maybe not Tim Ferriss’ island paradise.



Did You Know?

  • Only 13.2% of life coaches surveyed by the Harvard Business Review thought that psychological training was necessary for them as a coach. (HBR)

  • Gary Vaynerchuk has 1.67 million followers on Twitter. (@garyvee)

  • Happy employees are 12% more productive, while unhappy workers are 10% less productive. (Fast Company)


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