The Top 5 Productivity Mistakes

Ramit Sethi

My friend told me a ridiculous story about his mom. She lives in a small town in northern California, and one day she called him up.

“You have to try this new restaurant that opened down the street! It’s delicious!”

“Really!” he said. “What kind of food is it?”

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“Mexican! I’ve never had anything like it. It’s called Chipotle.”

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that Chipotle is a national chain with a market cap of over $9 billion that used to be owned by McDonald’s. He just said, “That sounds great, Mom.”

So cute.

But that story also masks the important point that where we live, and our experiences, shape our reality. There was no way for his mom to know about Chipotle because she’d never lived in a town that had one. Kind of like how I only recently discovered what ghost riding was:


Apparently authors of personal finance, psychology, and behavioral change don’t learn how to ride the whip.

Anyway, our reality is so powerful that two of us may see the exact same thing and perceive it completely differently.

For example, I have a friend who is insanely into fitness — she works out every single day, does multiple types of workouts, and watches her diet like a hawk. When I encouraged her to get a personal trainer, she said, “I would love to, but I can’t afford that.”

She genuinely believed she could not afford it.

  • EVEN THOUGH fitness was her self-proclaimed #1 goal.
  • EVEN THOUGH she took taxis to work every day.
  • EVEN THOUGH (you’re going to love this) she earned over $150,000/year.

If I told you about a person like this who (1) claimed fitness was her #1 goal, yet (2) despite earning six figures, claimed she could not afford a trainer, what would your reaction be?

No matter what you think, the truth is that her inability to afford a trainer was real to her. Even as a single woman earning six figures and already spending much more than $10,000/year on fitness, she truly believed she could not afford one.

What this shows you is:

  1. People can be utterly in control in SOME parts of their lives and out of control in other parts.
  2. Her beliefs created her reality. We use key phrases to explain our invisible scripts to ourselves. She “couldn’t afford” a trainer — even though to an outsider, this was clearly untrue.

Easy to scoff, but don’t dismiss her for being stupid. After all, how many of us have the very same beliefs?

About our money? Our relationships? Our careers?

This is why focusing on psychology FIRST is so important.

Years later, my friend finally decided to get a trainer. Soon afterwards, she sent me an email telling me it was “the best thing [she’d] ever done.” If you know me, you know how utterly thrilling it is to see someone achieve a mental breakthrough that will last for the rest of her life…all from testing one belief.

This is not about her getting a trainer. It’s not about the money. It’s not even about fitness.

It’s about systematically deconstructing the barriers and invisible scripts that guide your actions…and deciding to TAKE CONTROL of them.

That’s what this year is about.

Step 1: Take control of your productivity

This week, we’re going to talk about productivity — an area similar to personal finance and relationships because it’s filled with advice of well-meaning people who almost never test their theories, resulting in advice like “Get to inbox zero!” and “Set goals!”

Advice that sounds good (just like “Keep a budget!” and “Stop spending money on lattes!”) but doesn’t actually change your behavior.

That’s because…

Productivity is not just about TIME — it’s also about ENERGY.

I know, I know. Energy? Has Ramit started drinking kombucha and attending spiritual retreats about “sharing space?”

Answer: HELL NO.

But I do want to confront the delusion that being productive is all about “time management” — that if we can just manage our TIME, we’ll be highly productive and do all the things we want to do. Not true.

A few weeks ago, I had a box full of papers that I had to empty. It had been sitting by my bed for literally MONTHS, so I finally scheduled an hour on a Saturday afternoon to do it.

As you can see, I really didn’t want to clean this box.

So the day came. I was actually sitting in bed watching Netflix. Here’s where it gets interesting:

  • I HAD the time. I was doing nothing, and the time was literally blocked off on my calendar.
  • I wasn’t stressed or busy.

Why couldn’t I bring myself to clean the box?

Time management isn’t just about time. I had all the time in the world to clean this box, which would have taken less than 30 minutes.

Have you ever had a to-do item on your list for weeks (even months), and when you finally sat down to do it, it took less than 30 minutes to actually get done?

Why do we procrastinate on getting these simple things done, even when we know we’re creating our own problems?

And what does it COST us to have dozens of old to-do items on our mind…while trying to get through the day and get NEW things done?

The worst part is, after we read more of the same old advice, we say things like, “Yeah, yeah, I get it…” even though we’re not in control of our own productivity.

‘Yeah, I know I should create a list of the 3 things I want to get done every night…’

‘Yeah, I know I shouldn’t waste all this time on Facebook and Reddit…’

‘Yeah, I know I should go to sleep earlier, but I just keep messing around on my laptop…’

We look for more and more “advanced techniques” and life hacks and productivity apps because they’re easy-to-find, crunchy tactical nuggets. Installing a new app makes us feel in control. At least for a days.

But it’s minutiae. We avoid tackle the Big Wins in productivity, just like we do with our money. For example, how many of us complain about our sleep…yet have never systematically practiced improving it? Not even Googled “how to sleep better” and tested 5 different approaches? Most people just say, “Yeah…I really have trouble going to sleep….I wish I could fall asleep faster but my mind just won’t slow down!”

Funny enough, we seek out more and more “information” as if one more tactic or technique is going to change our behavior — but it won’t.

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And most of us do this for the next 30 years of life. Instead, let’s dig into something deeper.

The surprising psychological reasons we’re not productive

Let me quickly correct some mistaken assumptions.

We’re not unproductive because we don’t have enough TIME.

We’re not unproductive because we’re OVERWHELMED with demands others make of us.

We’re not unproductive because we just need to “BUCKLE DOWN and do it.”

The reasons are much deeper, and we’re going to explore them starting today.

We wake up in the morning and what happens? The FIRST thing we hear is that annoying alarm clock. We slam the snooze button — and start our day off by delaying taking action on the very thing we set for ourselves just a few hours before.

We get into work and start looking through emails…the new links posted on Twitter…the latest blog posts. It’s an information diet that’s equivalent to snacking on Cheetos: Just one more! Then I’ll get back to work.

Lunch comes, then the heavy, dull feeling of the next few hours. “Ok, I just need to power through this,” we say. We get another cup of coffee and try to get some work done, checking the clock.

At the end of the day, we WANT to work on cool stuff — our side project, drinks with friends, sometimes even attending a cool event. Instead we go home, tired after another day of work, sit around, watch a little TV, browse around online, text a couple friends, and go back to sleep again….only to do it all over the next day.

Again and again.

Sometimes our friends text us to come out. But after being so drained at work, it’s not easy to get up and go out again. We don’t want to turn our friends down again, so we say “Pretty tired…will hit you up if I change my mind…”

And after a while, some of those texts stop coming.

And in those brief moments of clarity, we look back at what we’ve been doing for the last few years — going to a job that’s “OK” but not amazing, working on projects that won’t really change the world, dreaming about finally taking up that hobby or starting that side business, always coming home tired — and we wonder: “Is this it?”

The cost of being unproductive

Years of being unproductive add up.

On any given day, eating a few chocolates isn’t a big deal. But doing it every day for years adds up. And it’s not just the weight — it’s the habit.

Allowing ourselves to work at a job that’s not tapping our potential…with co-workers who don’t challenge us…and coming home, tired, never making time for the things we CLAIM are important…

It adds up.

  • When we’re not living the very best and most productive version of ourselves, our skills are actually DETERIORATING on a daily basis. Think about that: Top performers aren’t just free of negative energy, they’re actually BUILDING their skills on a daily basis. When you’re focused on negative co-workers and a job that doesn’t challenge your top skills, not only are you mired in the negative…you can’t even begin to focus on the positive.
  • We enter a crippling loop of setting goals we know we’re not going to achieve…then not hitting them because we have poor habits that have been crystallized over years…then we feel guilty at yet again failing our own promises to ourselves…which leads to more vegging out and procrastination…resulting in the cementing of the loop to make it even stronger. Every year. Every time.
  • Life isn’t as FUN as it could be. We can’t take those trips because we don’t have enough vacation. Our boss treats us like everyone else, not cutting us any slack, and we’re reactive to what OTHER people want us to do. Meanwhile, we see friends on Facebook posting their latest weekend trip and their annual international vacation. WTF.

Man, this is getting depressing. Can we just pause right here, please? If I were writing this as a 14-year-old, I would be an emo kid with an inexplicable strip of purple going through my hair.

But it’s not depressing if you know it can change — and it can. The truth is, many of my top students were in exactly this same situation when they started following my material:


Each of these students transformed their lives. YES, it took work — lazy asses, leave — but they’ve built the skills to change their behavior for the rest of their LIVES. And the alternative? Doing nothing and complaining?

Let’s start to take control TODAY.

A new 15-minute video on the Top 5 Productivity Mistakes

In this video, I cover more than the latest life hacking tools. You’ll find deeper material on psychology and the reasons some people are able to be highly productive while others get distracted…frustrated…guilty…and nowhere.

Here’s the video:

And one more thing…

One of the best ways I’ve taken control in the last two years has been getting a personal trainer — someone who could simplify my life and simply TELL ME WHAT TO DO. We know that health is a “keystone behavior” that cascades into other areas of your life.

So to make this fun, I’m giving away an entire year of personal training at the gym of your choice ($5,000 value).

Enjoy the video:


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