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Solve Your Productivity Problems with Teleological Analysis

You can’t do more of the right things if you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place.

Pamela J. Hobart
Pamela J. Hobart
5 min read
Solve Your Productivity Problems with Teleological Analysis

Previous installments:

  1. Towards a Humanistic Productivity
  2. The Phenomenology of Motivation
  3. Bayesian Goal Updating
  4. Productivity and Mindfulness: Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

I asked Twitter about productivity pain points in preparation for writing this series of productivity-related posts. Several respondents mentioned productivity discourse's tendency to lose sight of ultimate goals. So let's talk about that.

It's dangerously easy to jump straight from an emotional place (like feeling scrambled, behind, or lazy) into productivity tactics.

Basically everything about ordinary productivity discourse invites this quick move: listicles about productivity tactics, a lively ecosystem of productivity apps and products, "thought leaders" urging you to read their stuff.

As a result, who among us has not had the experience of undertaking a flurry of activity for days, weeks, or longer only to realize:

What have I actually achieved?

WHY?!

What for?

Ugh.

Assumptions make an ass

The crux of the problem is simply this: although it's easy to *feel* a desire or need to do various things, many of these built-in emotional assumptions don't hold up to rational scrutiny at all.

Some goals are kind of dubious simply in themselves. Others just don't make sense in the overall economy of your values, capacities, and commitments.

So when you charge out of the productivity gate fueled by feels, you may very well become more effective, but at the wrong things. Like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Worse, productivity people don't necessarily have great incentives to help you realize this. Their tools are fine as far as they go, but they don't answer the hardest questions about what one ought to do in the first place.

In other words, productivity systems and tips take desires and goals as inputs.

Philosophical inquiry treats them more like *outputs.*

Perform your own teleological analysis for fun & profit

Having worked with a number of clients on their stuff in this regard, I feel comfortable and confident diagnosing the problem: a lack of consistent holding-in-mind of ends. Offering a solution is harder.

On some level, the solution is just: Stop not thinking about the purpose of what you're doing. Instead, do think about the purpose of what you're doing. Make better all-things-considered decisions about what you should do accordingly.

But there's so much packed into all-things-considered decision making: where you're starting from, what you think your values are, ways your values and habits may have served you so far (or not), physical constraints of body/time/place, social constraints of family/society/culture, financial considerations, aesthetic considerations, and more.

To my mind, there is no real way to become better at all-things-considered decision making other than continuously learning what you can (about the world + about yourself) while facing your own life head-on.

If your inquiry into ends grows slippery and amorphous, try one of these to give you a framework for thought:

(Or you can get in touch and we'll tackle it together)

Teleology touches everything

NB: Even some productivity issues *not explicitly about purposefulness* can be solved with a renewed focus on purpose.

For instance, people on Twitter voiced complaints about the difficulty of improving productivity when one is working within a team or group context. Fair enough! You can't unilaterally GTD someone else. Facing coworkers with mixed abilities, commitment levels, strengths, and weaknesses feels like a recipe for disaster.

But while you can't usually improve all your coworkers' productivity, you can improve yourself. *Not* in the sense of doing more and more and more to make up the slack! Instead, "improve yourself" by conforming your beliefs and attitudes to your work situation (i.e. reduce cognitive dissonance).

Do you work at a pretty ok company that's rough around the edges but mostly gets things done in a manner that's mostly satisfactory to clients/customers? Once you've done ordinary things like troubleshoot recurring problems with a manager, your task in this case is to let your frustration go. Enhanced productivity at the margin is likely not to be worth the costs to you. The telos of an ordinary company is to do its ordinary company stuff reasonably well, and that's been fulfilled. Relax!

At the extreme ends of this spectrum, the best individual responses to team productivity problems are different. If you work at a genuine startup (or have founded one!) you usually can't afford to let go the deep, recurring productivity problems in others. Spill the blood, sweat, & tears - figure it out (whatever that ends up meaning). The telos of a startup is to innovate and go like hell. If it's not trying well at that, it's broken.

On the other hand, if you work for a company so dysfunctional (compared to other real companies, not your dream scenario) that you can't do your work at all or troubleshoot with a manager and your life is a living hell, you have to find a way not to care (which may be impossible) or GTFO. The company is not fulfilling its purposes and, not coincidentally, neither are you. As a self-respecting and reflective person, you want work you can feel decent not embarrassed about.

"Starting with why" can be the beginning of the end

You may have heard advice to "focus on why," especially in a business context. This is fine, as far as it goes! And it sure sounds like teleological analysis.

But this advice coming from other sources seem often to have a different meaning than I'm giving it here: the consistent evaluation towards ends for what makes sense to you on strictly an individual level.

For instance, when an alumni relations company recommits to "focusing on why," its leadership shifts their minds to their purpose: becoming and maintaining status as the "most engaging alumni relations product on the market." Ok! Sounds like that tactic "works" in the sense of helping the business to retain its culture and competitive edge.

But I'm suggesting that people perform their teleological analyses in a philosophically robust way, and not with an eye to expediency per se. This means drilling down to foundational values (or up to high-level principles, depending on how you prefer to conceptualize it).

If a self-respecting and reflective person finds no particular resonance with alumni relations, but already holds a highly demanding job at an alumni relations company, she'll likely not be able to improve productivity at that job without incurring pesky cognitive dissonance.

That doesn't mean that everyone's work must fully connect with the ~meaning of life~ as such. Most of us won't "change the world" in any grandiose sense. The resolution can be either changing jobs or caring less. But something's gotta give.

Bottom line: If you want to be properly - not mindlessly - productive, you must remain open to the possibility that "focusing on why" might demotivate you. Motivation is complicated, but not completely opaque, and we ignore its vagaries at our peril.

Pamela J. Hobart

Philosophical Life Coaching in Austin, TX. Also mother of 3, Miata driver, and DIY manicure aficionado.