Every time I write something on the topic of personal productivity, a few people suggest that maybe doing more isn’t appropriate at all.
As a friend of mine suggested on the Facebook page, Western society has an obsession with productivity. We grow up being taught that we want to “do well” but we’re not often taught explicitly what that means. Success is a vague word, and in the absence of a meaningful definition it seems to refer to little more than having an above average income and a lot of phone calls to return.
We know that there’s something very near-sighted about taking busyness and career success for compass-North in our personal quests for happiness, so it’s understandable that the discerning person might be suspicious of anyone that appears unusually preoccupied with their personal productivity.
Last summer, I was more socially active than I’d ever been. Over the winter my focus shifted totally, and as the recreation season returns I find I’m spending most of my spare time at my desk. I’ve been turning down a lot of social invitations, giving vague reasons most of the time, but those who know me best know I am working. Some of them may be wondering, in my conspicuous absence, if I’ve lost touch with the values I espouse — staying present, connecting with other human beings, and enjoying the in-between moments.
A certain amount of personal productivity is absolutely necessary, at least enough to feed ourselves, clothe ourselves, and maintain some semblance of stability and autonomy. But I’ve been achieving those minimum productivity standards my whole life, so the question “Why do you need to do more than you’re already doing?” is a fair one.
Well, I don’t need to do more. Other than the physical essentials of life, I don’t strictly need anything. But it makes no sense at all to cease all activity except the minimum necessary to survive. After I earn enough to pay my food and rent, “unnecessary” productivity becomes any activity other than sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom and meditating. We each decide how much time to apply to any given “electives” in our lives: how many movies to watch, how many barbecues to attend, how many blogs to read, how often to make coffee, and of course, how much we work. Right now I want to accomplish more work than I have been, and I think I have good reasons.
Productivity is not the problem
There is a lot of undue criticism of productivity itself. We see the mounting consequences of thoughtless, irresponsible productivity in the forms of pollution, invasive advertising, mass-produced food, atrocious overseas working conditions, and the death of our own manufacturing sector, to name a few obvious problems.
These are serious issues, but they’re not caused by productivity, they’re caused by thoughtlessness and irresponsibility, a confusion of what it is we really value. For example, a recurring theme on this blog is that money is attractive only because it is traded for what we value, which actually only amounts to certain pleasant feelings. The result is that many people believe it is money that they value, driving the thoughtless kind of productivity that regularly annihilates animal species, erodes personal freedoms and poisons the tap water.
Productivity is often thoughtless, yes. I understand the suspicion that arises whenever we talk about how to be more productive, because we don’t often talk about whether that’s even a good thing. The way our culture reveres growth and profit, it’s easy to assume that whatever we’ve been doing, we ought to get more of it done if we can. As author Richard Carlson quipped in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, “People are no longer human beings. We should be called human doings.”
Western society certainly does carry an enormous deficit in the attention it pays to being, as opposed to doing. Meditation and mindfulness, at least when done intentionally, are still fringe activities associated with hippies and new-agers. We don’t think of “being” as a verb.
Doing nothing is taboo in our culture’s productivity-focused ethos, even though conscious periods of non-doing are proven to improve health, reduce stress, and make it easier to be happy. In my experience, the habit of periodic non-doing actually lends itself to becoming more productive, and makes it easier to notice when your productivity is aimed in the wrong direction.
Presence is a basic need
At least for now, time spent simply being, rather than doing, is not part of a normal person’s day. Yet we all have a persistent appetite for mindful states, even if we don’t realize it. The thousands of different activities we indulge in our off-days might have little in common except that they quickly put us into a present-moment state. All of them — lounging at the beach, watching movies cycling, needlepoint, off-roading, taking drugs, backpacking overseas , music-making, writing, having sex, and having a picnic — relieve us temporarily of the mind’s insidious habit of drifting into the future, which only exists as imagination.
The experience of mindfulness, whether cultivated intentionally or derived as a side-effect of what we normally do for fun, is as visceral a need as any. Our Western societies could benefit from being more aware of that need. If we were, we’d make sure that we have those mindful experiences by engaging in activities that produce something useful for ourselves or others — such as writing, exercising, practicing a skill or building something — instead of baking on the couch in front of the television, having been drawn there by intrinsic needs we don’t understand or try to understand.
Personal productivity doesn’t need to be at odds with mindfulness. Being doesn’t need to be separate from doing. In fact, if the work you’re engaged in is highly resonant with your values, a mindful state arises naturally, because there’s nothing to escape from, nowhere you’d rather be.
The feeling of being productive is different when what you’re producing isn’t truly important to you. For most of us, our jobs are a perfect example. When you’re just trying to pay the bills, work achievement feels more like a fleeting relief, a hit of something temporary, rather than a clearing of the mind.
At my job, I’m always pleased to get a batch of work done. It is gratifying, but it only the sense of feeling like I’ve pushed away something I don’t want for a little while. When I’m making progress on my own personal projects, it feels like I’m moving through the world.
My personal quest for productivity has been more of a struggle to make sure that the most important things do happen, rather than making sure that I make as much happen as possible. There is a difference. Over the last few months, particularly the last few weeks, I’ve been more focused on my personal projects than ever, because they’re beginning to generate their own momentum in a way job-related work never has for me.
The goal of all this is to be able pay my living expenses doing what I love, which is writing. The moment I reach that benchmark, I can cut loose my fifty-hour-a-week commitment to an employer, along with all of its related burdens such as buying work clothes, waking up and going to bed at inflexible times and having to ask permission to get on a plane.
I am partway there. This is worthwhile productivity, if anything is worthwhile. It is certainly more worthwhile than reporting to a full-time corporate job for forty years, just to pay for what I do on my evenings and weekends.
Last weekend was Canada’s May long weekend. It rained every day. I spent most of my three days off working on my own projects. It was one of my most productive weekends ever. I wrote every day. I culled all my files. I cleaned my stove. For the first time I can remember, I have no resistance to getting down to work. For a seasoned procrastinator, this has been a transcendent experience.
The most surprising part of this burst of productivity is that it came with a more mindful, relaxed state. I felt like time was slower and life was more spacious. I got a lot more work done, but I also did a lot more leisure reading, went for more walks and did a lot more mindful sitting — much more rose-smelling, and more of an inclination to take a moment to do it.
This state is lingering. Every action is more conscious, I’m more patient at my job, I enjoy waiting in line and walking across parking lots more than I ever have. As it turns out, productivity — at least when I’m working on the right things — makes it easy to stay in the moment, to be where I am.
When it’s applied to what’s most important to you, an increase in productivity is not tantamount to sacrificing the quality of the present to improve the quality of the future. It’s not an a deferral of today’s happiness for tomorrow’s.
We don’t need to “strike a balance” between being and doing, between work and repose. These are not separate categories of living, as they’re often made out to be. Doing the work that serves your real values improves the present reality of your life. It makes life better right now, and later, and probably forever, as all worthy goals should.
Photo by Cornelia Kopp