Beware the Productivity Pitfalls: Decoding the Dark Side of Proverbial Advice

Proverbs, adages, expressions, and sayings have provided moral guidance, inspiration, and cultural consistency for humans for as long as there have been influencers to say them aloud or chisel them on slabs of rock.

We morph the wisdom of gurus into memes, books, and wall art. We elect leaders based on their pithy slogans and make life decisions based on the advice of people who lived and died thousands of years ago. Quotes become the language of an era and the media that dominates it.

How productive is our penchant for sound bites?

Let’s analyze five popular productivity adages in the US. With each pearl of wisdom, note that there is a balance to achieve. According to Master Yoda, sometimes we “must unlearn what we have learned.”


Slow down to speed up.


The origins of this principle may be found in Tai Chi and Aikido. Even in the midst of combat, practitioners are taught to remain calm and move deliberately. Power is a result of precision and timing rather than strength and speed.

The rapid pace of information and opportunities makes us feel like we have to be constantly sprinting to keep up. The world seems to prioritize activity over productivity. “Slow down to speed up” is about pausing to assess a situation and plan your approach.

Positive takeaways:

  • Mindless activity can be unproductive.
  • Take time to reflect and renew yourself, your team, and your processes.
  • Doing the right thing today saves time tomorrow.

Negative applications:

  • If something needs a quick decision, retreat into introspection.
  • Delay all action until everyone involved is completely comfortable.
  • Speed is scary, so we should always stop and deliberate.

Measure twice, cut once.


An adage common in woodworking, this phrase reminds novice and experienced carpenters alike to avoid waste and costly mistakes through accurate measurement.

Quality often results from having an accurate plan, and an accurate plan can result from meticulous analysis. “Measure twice, cut once” is about saving money, time, and materials by being extra-special sure you were correct in your initial assessments.

Positive takeaways:

  • Double-check your calculations.
  • Plan your approach.
  • Make the cut.

Negative applications:

No pain, no gain.


If this adage has evoked images of Jane Fonda, Richard Simmons, and other bodybuilders and fitness gurus of the 1980s, you are both old and correct. Although ancient Stoic philosophers emphasized the importance of hardship as a path to resilience, VHS fitness tapes likely gave this phrase the popularity it enjoys.

The underlying message of “no pain, no gain” extends beyond the VCR. Meaningful growth often necessitates perseverance in the face of setbacks. There is no such thing as overnight success, even if social media can make it look that way.

Positive takeaways:

  • Success isn’t easy.
  • Expect some discomfort.
  • Effort begets results.

Negative applications:

  • If it doesn’t hurt, it’s not valuable.
  • Ignore all pain and work harder, and harder, and harder…
  • You can “sleep when you’re dead.”

The devil is in the details.


A task may appear straightforward, but don’t let that fool you. Don McLean may have crooned that “fire is the devil’s only friend,” but this adage reminds us that seemingly minor details can have significant impacts if overlooked.

Neglecting details such as resource allocation, communication needs, and training implications can derail a project manager. However, hyper-attention to details can derail a leader. There is a balance when you strike a deal with the devil.

Positive takeaways:

  • Pay attention to the details.
  • Read legal contracts before signing.
  • Small things can have large implications.

Negative applications:

  • Analyze, re-analyze, and re-re-analyze every detail every time.
  • Be the neck of the hourglass that slows down all forward progress.
  • Fight every battle no matter how large or small.

Anything worth doing is worth doing well.


Aristotle, Confucius, and my Nannanny all espoused the virtues of integrity, discipline, and mastery in all endeavors. Pursue excellence, adhere to moral principles, and tend your vegetable garden well. Half-hearted efforts and shortcuts are unlikely to yield successful harvests.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well” is the war cry of the perfectionist. As a recovering perfectionist, I encourage all of us to approach this adage with a goal of balanced interpretation and application.

Positive takeaways:

  • Choose where to spend your time
  • Not all endeavors are worth your efforts
  • Emphasize quality over quantity.

Negative applications:

  • Everything you do must be perfect.
  • Keep tweaking it over and over and over…
  • If it’s not perfect, don’t roll it out.


Old adages can provide insight and guidance. They can also impose unproductive limits on behaviors.

Look for the wisdom in pithy quotes, but also be aware of the pitfalls.

After all, the devil is in the details…

Dr. Melissa GratiasMelissa Gratias (pronounced “Gracious”) used to think that productivity was a result of working long hours. And, she worked a lot of hours. Then, she learned that productivity is a skill set, not a personality trait. Now, Melissa is a productivity expert who coaches and trains other businesspeople to be more focused, balanced, and effective. She is a prolific writer and speaker who travels the world helping people change how they work and improve how they live. Contact her at or 912-417-2505. Sign up to receive her productivity tips via email.


  1. Seana Turner

    I love the way you took a close look at these traditional pieces of advice. It is clear after reading this that no phrase is universal, no piece of advice without upsides and downsides. I think the take-away for me is being aware of what the intent of the advice was, so I know what I’m listening to. It is easy to mis-apply advice, right?

    A similar one I remember is “just do your best.” In many respects, this means give it a good effort, don’t slack off. However, for perfections, this can be deadly. They never feel like they have done their “best,” and have trouble drawing healthy boundaries on what to be satisfied.

    Any advice should be thoughtfully considered and applied in a way that is helpful!

  2. Julie Bestry

    You’ve done such a nifty job at looking more deeply at things we accept. It’s not that these idioms are true, but that taken to excess, much of the benefit of their wisdom is wiped away.

    I’ve been told that it’s a Navy SEAL mantra, but “Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” is very much akin to what you said about “Slow down to speed up.” Both focus on how a slower, more mindful and consistent approach focuses on being accurate. You’re right that the negatives may prevent nimbleness, but I suspect I’d rather lose out on an opportunity because I was overly cautious and deliberate rather than running wackadoodle. 😉

    As a recovering perfectionist, all of this is very evocative!


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