The cult of productivity is preventing you from being productive

Productivity doesn’t need to drive you insane.
Productivity doesn’t need to drive you insane.
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years thinking about how to be more productive. As a graduate student and freelancer, there’s no one telling me what to do, and no (immediate) consequences if I spend all day procrastinating. But gradually, through trying different techniques, tricks, and systems, I’ve found ways to procrastinate less and get more done.

Even as I’ve found ways to be more focused and productive, I sometimes still feel this vague sense of dissatisfaction at the end of the day. Often when I’ve been most productive, I feel like the day has passed in a blur: I sat at a desk for hours and didn’t pay a great deal of attention to anything other than the tasks I was focused on. I didn’t really talk to the people around me, not properly. I ate my food while working; I didn’t really taste it. I didn’t spend much time outside, and there wasn’t much variety in my day. I was productive, sure—but perhaps to the expense of other, equally, if not more important things.

Maria Popova of the wonderful Brain Pickings blog makes a point that really rang true:

“Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living—for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

When we care about productivity, we’re always aiming at some future goal, and judging our days by what we’ve managed to produce. Presence, on the other hand, means focusing on the present moment without aiming at anything, and judging our days more in terms of our internal experiences. If we focus too much on productivity at the expense of presence, we might find our lives slipping away in a blur.

I think it’s possible to get a good balance of productivity and presence, but it requires some careful thought about what productivity really means.

Rethinking productivity

“Productivity” has become such a buzzword that it can seem like it’s the goal in itself. But productivity is useless if what you’re producing isn’t meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way. The reason we really care about productivity—or the reason we should care—is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.

When we think about productivity like this, I think it’s impossible to be productive without also being present. To be productive in the most meaningful sense, we need to be able to step back and ask ourselves what goals we really care about, and why. We need to be able to pay attention to how we’re feeling at any given moment, acknowledge when we’re distracted or unmotivated, and look to understand why and what we can do about it. We need to be continually checking in to make sure we’re working towards thing that are really important to us, and not just mindlessly doing things that make us feel productive (like clearing unimportant emails rather than actually sitting down to work on that big project).

Not everything that’s important to us in life is going to be about achieving some goal. Many things are—if you care about having a meaningful, challenging career, you might need to put some time into education and job applications, for example. But we don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking all our time should be goal-focused—sometimes it’s good to be happy with simply enjoying the experience of whatever we’re doing without worrying about what we might achieve.

Beyond productivity and presence?

Instead of judging my days by either how productive or present I’ve been, I’ve started thinking in terms of something else: how deliberate I’ve been. By “deliberateness,” I mean feeling like I’m making very conscious decisions about how I spend my time—thinking about what I want to be doing and why, rather than simply responding passively to whatever my environment throws at me.

For me, one of the most unpleasant and frustrating feelings is feeling like I’m not being deliberate—looking back on the past hour and wondering how I managed to spend so much of it scrolling through my Facebook news feed. To avoid this, I try regularly asking myself: looking back, what would make me feel like I’ve spent this time well? This applies both on a small scale—deciding that for the next hour I’m going to sit down and write this article, rather than aimlessly searching the internet—and much more broadly—thinking consciously about the kind of job I want to have and the people I want to surround myself with, rather than just falling into the first social group or career that comes my way.

I think that focusing on being deliberate actually helps resolve a lot of the tension between presence and productivity. Being deliberate about how we spend our time is essential for being productive in the meaningful sense: for effectively working towards things that are important to you. But being deliberate doesn’t mean “getting things done” for the sake of it, or always being goal-focused. Sometimes being deliberate means consciously choosing to simply experience life without worrying about whether you’re “getting anywhere.” Above all, being deliberate forces you to be present: to keep returning to and paying attention to your experience in the moment, what you feel, and what’s most important to you.

What does this mean doing in practice? A few things I’ve found particularly helpful for using my time deliberately:

Making plans

A relatively simple thing that worked wonders for my productivity was sitting down at the beginning of each day, writing a list of tasks I wanted to achieve, and then actually planning at what time I was going to do each of those things. I think the reason this was so effective was that it forced me to be more deliberate: I was following a plan of things I’d reflected on and chosen to do, rather than just doing whatever seemed easiest at the time.

I even sometimes do this with my leisure time—sit down and write an explicit list of things I want to spend my time doing. To some people, this might seem overkill—but I find it reduces a lot of the conscious energy required to make decisions about what to do at any given moment, and means I reflect more on how I really want to be spending my time, which ultimately means I enjoy it more.

Asking the right questions when choosing how to spend your time

Sometimes simple prompts or questions can be surprisingly effective at helping us reflect on what’s most important. Some questions I find particularly useful for helping me realize what I really want to be doing include:

  • When I look back on the past hour, what would make me feel good about how I’ve spent it?
  • What could I do that would make me proud of myself right now?
  • What would the very best version of myself do right now?

Having regularly scheduled “check-in” points during the day

I use these check-in points to step back and ask: How am I feeling? Am I really motivated and engaged in what I’m doing, or am I getting distracted? Am I using my time and focus in the ways I’d like to be?

Obviously, it’s impossible to be constantly asking ourselves these questions, and if we did, we’d never actually get anything done or be able to enjoy anything. The key here is narrowing and broadening our focus—deciding to focus narrowly (on a given goal or experience), and then stepping back every now and then to check in on how we’re feeling and whether we’re using our time as we’d ideally like to be.

Neither productivity nor presence are goals to achieve, they are both skills to be cultivated. The ability to be fully present and pay attention to our experience allows us to reflect on what’s really important to us in a broad sense, and how we really want to be spending our time moment to moment. The ability to be productive allows us to spend our time effectively working toward those goals that are most important to us. Rather than two goals in tension with one another, productivity and presence are complementary skill sets which help us to live our lives more fully.