The Dangers of the Productivity Trap

Many people fall into the productivity trap because they get carried away by beliefs that aren't particularly well founded. How do you know if you've fallen in? Find out here.
The Dangers of the Productivity Trap
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 15 March, 2023

The productivity trap is a concept proposed by psychologist Oliver Burkeman in his book, Four Thousand Weeks. It refers to a contemporary evil: the belief that productivity is the ultimate goal of life. It concerns the fact that you have the tendency to include more and more activities in your daily schedule, to the point that you can’t fit anymore in.

This leads to the productivity trap. Burkeman defines it as cheating because this attitude is like a bottomless pit: no matter how many activities you carry out or how many achievements you obtain, they’ll never be enough. You always want more. Consequently, you’re always introducing new activities to your schedule.

Meanwhile, life rushes by and your schedule is fit to burst. At the end of the day, you don’t experience the feeling of tasks accomplished, but rather the sadness of not having done more. As a matter of fact, many of us fall into the productivity trap and never escape.

Man working on computer
The productivity trap leads people to experience job dissatisfaction.

The productivity trap

Burkeman’s book couldn’t have a better title: Four Thousand Weeks. That’s because the writer made a calculation of the number of weeks a person would’ve lived if they reached the age of 80. As you can see, life really is short. You only have, on average, that period to realize your dreams, live your life, and suffer whatever anguish comes your way.

Sometimes, filling every day with activities helps you forget how finite you are. You thought you had eternity ahead of you and that you were capable of ‘stretching’ time, without limit. However, this is nothing more than an illusion. After all, each day only has 24 hours and if you’re trying to wring and squeeze every drop out of them just to be more productive, you could be falling into the productivity trap.

In reality, the productivity trap creates a dynamic that ends up becoming a maze. This is due to a reality that you don’t always detect: work begets more work. Each activity and objective that you add launches a cycle of tasks that, in some cases, grows exponentially.

Inappropriate beliefs

Today, there’s a widespread idea that if an individual is capable of working eight hours, but also has a business, trains in their spare time, takes piano lessons, practices yoga, and, in their free time, is writing a novel, they’re getting the most out of life. Indeed, much of the famous self-help literature is dedicated to presenting techniques to achieve everything you set out to do and, at the same time, control the anxiety that this degree of self-demand produces.

Thus, the false belief is formed that it’s possible to do everything. It suggests that you only need to employ the correct technique and you’ll achieve those 2001 objectives. If you fail, you don’t question the belief, but the technique or your own ability to apply it correctly.

In fact, you start to feel guilty for failing in this hectic-paced life. You don’t realize that you’re forgetting to enjoy yourself and live. As a matter of fact, the stress you experience can be a friendly voice that’s telling you to stop and reformulate. That’s because you’ve fallen into the productivity trap.

Woman working with computer
The need to constantly produce in all areas of life leads to the productivity trap.

Real productivity

Those highly ambitious, hyper-efficient routines of yours don’t allow you to see that you only have around 4,000 weeks of existence. A study conducted by the universities of Toronto (Canada) and Rutgers (USA)  asked a group of participants to list ten important goals. Another group was asked to write down ten reasons for which to be thankful.

Afterward, everyone took a well-being questionnaire. Those who focused on gratitude had much higher personal well-being scores than those who focused on goals.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to stop for a moment and clarify your priorities. If you have many objectives, it’s highly likely that you won’t achieve them all. Try and choose those that are truly significant to you. Start thinking about your happiness and stop believing that only productivity makes you valid. Get out of the productivity trap.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Burkeman, O. (2021). Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Kim A, Maglio SJ. Vanishing time in the pursuit of happiness. Psychon Bull Rev. 2018 Aug;25(4):1337-1342. doi: 10.3758/s13423-018-1436-7. PMID: 29524087.
  • Wirth, E. (2020). La lucha contra los efectos del exceso de trabajo en Japón.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.