The productivity niche has been around on the web for what seems like forever. And while it has slowed down from its initial online explosion, there are still a number of sites out there that have either stayed the course with their core message, have deviated or evolved into something slightly different (but with the same intent) or have spun off into new things altogether. But all of these still manage to find a way to use buzzwords, and these buzzwords have also followed a similar path as the sites that use them.

Here are the 5 productivity buzzwords that have had the worst treatment of all, becoming unabashedly pretentious in the process. I’ve listed the actual definitions for each from the Oxford online dictionary as well as “virtual” definitions that have been applied as a result of websites that focus on productivity, task management and the like.

1. Zen

Actual Definition: A Japanese sect of Mahayana Buddhism that aims at enlightenment by direct intuition through meditation.
Virtual Definition: A hip way to indicate simplifying or to just “chill” out.

While this word has been abused offline for years, once it gained traction online it really received a good thrashing. When Leo Babauta started using it for his Zen Habits site, it was used appropriately, as he had really thought out the process of using the term. But once people started adding suffixes to it (zenned down, zenning my life, etc.), it became a term that people used instead of a word such as “simplify”, which is more fitting and less pretentious. Unfortunately, the word “zen” has also evolved into a synonym for “chilled out” or “relaxed”, which really isn’t the case at all. And it’s not just productivity sites that have taken to the term:

“Zen is being linked to everything from copywriting, web design, and business strategy to personal development, food, and far more.” – by Sandra Pawula via Always Well Within

The way the word is used now is not nearly as meaningful or powerful as it used to be because it is much more than just a word. It’s a movement.

2. Balance

Actual Definition: Mental and emotional steadiness.
Virtual Definition: What one feels when they have reached enjoyment in all facets of their lives, be it personal, professional and the ubiquitous “other” aspects.

Balance, because of the sheer number of things being thrown at us at any given time throughout our lives, is difficult to attain. So, when a person is attempting to feel a sense of balance in their lives, it’s often only an attempt and nothing more. By saying that one has balance, it is as if they are actually just content, as their life isn’t teetering too far one way or another. The word balance is used by as if it’s a reward for following through on what they really want out of their lives as a whole. Here’s an example of a site that uses the aforementioned buzzword “zen” to dangle the “balance” carrot.

“Zen Productivity Principles to Regain Balance and Simplicity”

The reward isn’t the balance, because it is fleeting. The reward is the doing. Balance is just a red herring. It’s the “ghost in the machine”.

3. Lifehack

Actual Definition: A strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way.
Virtual Definition: A strategy or technique adopted in order to manage one’s time and daily activities in a more efficient way so that they can adopt more of said techniques and strategies. And so on.

A lifehack was initially used by the masses to “hack” the tasks that were tedious and didn’t offer any sort of joy so that they could get to the stuff that they really did enjoy faster. But now everything gets life hacked, and entire sites (including this one), are dedicated to help people do just that. So while some use what’s needed in their lives and keep the actual definition alive, many lifehack to the point where there’s nothing left to hack. They’ve hacked their life to death.

Clay Collins offers this perspective on the term:

“Too many people are looking to firefox plugins, new calendar systems, and the next GTD trend in an effort to upgrade their lives. All too often we jump from one productivity trend to the next, seeking what we would find if we just looked inside. The real life hacks (the kinds of hacks that make you happy, save your relationship, and set you free) don’t require technical solutions. They require human solutions.”

4. Minimalism

Actual Definition: A style or technique (as in music, literature, or design) that is characterized by extreme spareness and simplicity.
Virtual Definition: Having very little for the sake of having very little. Can be applied to belongings, websites, apps, tools and a lot more (which is somewhat ironic).

People who want less in their lives now say they’ve adopted minimalism. But, like with the term “zen”, they haven’t really thought out the idea behind minimalism as a whole. Minimalism has become more subjective (which isn’t entirely a bad thing), but the problem with it being used so much is that there’s no education behind it. It’s a slow process, and those who visit productivity sites tend to be looking for quick results. So, if you’re going minimal, maybe you should start with what’s enough for you first. Then take it from there.

“The minimalism we espouse, therefore, does not require monasticism, but rather advocates getting rid of (or preferably avoiding) distractions that prevent us from enjoying a modern, luxurious life. It’s about smart consumption, not no consumption.” – Jerry Brito of Unclutterer

It turns out that minimalism isn’t so minimalist after all.

5. Flow

Actual Definition: To proceed smoothly and readily.
Virtual Definition: A way to say that you can’t be interrupted or progress will grind to a halt.

I’ll be the first to admit that when I’m writing, I’m in a state of flow. And I hate to be interrupted when I’m in that state. But the prevalence of the term on the Web has created the notion that once flow is broken, then it’s okay that progress stops. And since flow comes at any given time and without warning, then all you can do is wait for it. Not true. Some things require full attention and a state of flow is perhaps the “fullest” of attention one can offer, and some don’t. When I come out of flow, I can work on emails, reading and things that can be done and can be afforded interruption.

“The small shift of consciousness that comes from remaining in the flow setting — messages and posts flitting by, dozens of chats, firing off quick updates to your circles of contacts — seems like the devil to the advocates of industrial age thinking and practices.” – Stowe Boyd

So while not everyone appreciates flow, it is a powerful tool — as long as its power is being used for good (getting the best out of a person) and not for evil (getting hardly anything out of a person).

The problem with these buzzwords is that many of these sites have either overused them or have changed their definitions to suit what their site needs. Self-help coaches and businesses are capitalizing on these words, incorporating them into what they sell online to the point of overkill. Bloggers use them because they see other popular sites such as Lifehacker and Zen Habits using them. People use them to justify and excuse their productivity levels — whether high or low. As a result, these words have a lost a lot of the power they once had.

So take their power back by taking a good, hard look at what they mean not just according to Oxford, but what they mean according to you.