Monday, August 17, 2009


Written by Ali Hale in her blog Aliventures

(Photo taken by me, Eleanor, because dogs know about the importance of just being)

If you’ve been reading blogs for a while – especially in the personal development sphere – you’ll have come across a lot of posts about productivity. There are entire blogs devoted to this subject: complete with tips, tricks, systems and hacks to help you become more productive.

But does productivity really give us more? Does it make our lives better? What are the costs of productivity? What are we losing when we try to squeeze more “doing” into every day?

The Smugness of Productivity
Have you ever had a really productive day and felt smug? I don’t mean the quietly satisfied feeling of having done your best and achieved something important to you – but the feeling of being better than all those unproductive people around you.

When I’m honest with myself, I realise there’s an strong element of smugness in my desire to be productive. In an online world where other people’s outputs and achievements are clear to see (or being boasted about), it’s easy to get competitive. Once I wrote ten blog posts in a day. I didn’t especially enjoy it (I was pretty exhausted and “written out” by the end) … but it meant I could brag on Twitter: seven posts done, eight posts done…

I’d like it if I didn’t feel that way. I’d like to be able to say that my occasional over-focus on productivity is a pure, noble one, aimed only at making sure I create as much value as I can.

The productivity world invites a certain holier-than-thou attitude. I’ve been working through Dave Navarro’s 30 Hours a Day recently, an excellent programme, but it does bear a taint of smugness: encouraging the listener to feel that they’re better and stronger than the general mass of humanity who won’t even make it the whole way through a productivity audio program. The very title, “30 Hours a Day” put me off getting the program for a good while: it smacks of this smug productivity culture, suggesting the real super-humans of the productivity world should be cramming an extra six hours of productive work into an already packed day.

(I’m being very one-sided here; the 30 Hours a Day program is excellent, on the whole, and I’ll write a much more balanced review at some point!)

So what’s the problem here? Firstly, no-one likes a smug git (and a lot of people probably secretly think you’re a bit sad). Secondly, if you find yourself trying to be more productive than your partner, colleagues or Twitter followers, your obsession with productivity is likely to be poisoning your relationships – and your own mental health.

Productivity Damages Relationships
In my article on Are You Too Efficient To Be Effective, I quoted Stephen Covey’s words “You simply can’t think efficiency with people.” The danger of productivity is that, for many of us, it’s aligned with a narrow focus on efficiency. We measure our productivity by the out-dated standards of the industrial revolution: it’s all about widgets cranked. (Or blog posts written, or the word count on our novel, or the pure-as-untrodden-snow state of our empty inbox.)

I believe that we can be deeply productive in our relationships: a strong relationship with relatives, colleagues or friends doesn’t just bring joy and meaning into our lives, it can also be a powerful opportunity for greater creativity, greater fruit, than we could ever produce alone. As a friend, mentor, teacher or parent, we help people to grow and flourish – one of the most powerful things we can do.

But an obsession with productivity for productivity’s sake can sour your relationships – with the colleagues who interrupt you, the housemates who distract you, the partner and kids who need your time and attention. If that’s how you find yourself thinking, it might be time to redefine what productivity really means:

If you’re ever trying to balance being productive with hanging out with your kids, it’s time to reevaluate how you’ve framed ‘productivity’. Being a good parent is one of the most meaningfully productive things you can do.

(Charlie Gilkey, Being a Good Parent is Being Productive, Productive Flourishing)

Does Doing More = Happiness?
We all want to get the most out of our lives. Once we’ve satisfied our basic material needs (food, a place to live), we start seeking more: loving relationships; activities which we find deeply satisfying; a purpose in life; fulfilment. A desire to be productive can grow, healthily, from this: our time on the earth is limited, and we want to make the most of it.

But we so often seem to get it wrong:

Our aim to be more productive and increase efficiency can often lead to obsession. We confuse achievement for happiness. Our happiness should be the inspiration for achievement, not the other way around. When our happiness is found in achievement, we get sucked into constantly putting our happiness in the future.

(Jonathan Mead, The Cult of Productivity and the Art of Purposeless Living, Illuminated Mind)

Productivity is all about “doing”: being productive means different things to different people, but all of these involve some end result, whether it’s more money in the bank, more words on the page, or dinner on the table.

Mental health, and spiritual and personal growth, involve “being”. Your character may be revealed through what you do … but the essence of your character is who you are. If you’ve ever tried to grow, to really change and develop who you are, you’ll know that it can be the hardest, most painful – and most worthwhile – work that you will ever do.

I still have a long way to go. I find it very easy to focus on “doing” instead of “being”. I shy away from the real challenges, because I’m so often lazy and afraid. But I’ve seen others take the brave, high, long path in their own lives, and their courage is inspiring. (If you want an example, go and read Joely’s blog, In These Heels? or read about Trent’s financial meltdown and subsequent turn around, or read about Peter’s year of change.)

Productivity is the Easy Way Out
Feeling “productive” can be an easy way to feel that like a good, valuable, useful person, someone who contributes a lot to the world (even if what we’re actually doing isn’t all that significant). It’s like a short-cut to feeling fulfilled – the equivalent of turning to junk food when we’re hungry.

Demonstrating our productivity to others can win us praise. We might even feel that we’ve won a competition, that we’re better than others. This is caused by a cultural paradigm of business, doing more, multi-tasking and efficiency that’s hard to escape:

Because “doing a million things” is impressive. “Doing less” smacks of weakness.

Because “optimizing” sounds intellectual. “Simplifying” sounds like you’re copping out.

If you’re not “too busy” these days, you must be doing something wrong - and while that’s bullshit, that’s still the way our culture sees things.

(Dave Navarro, Goal Addiction and the Cult of Productivity, Rock Your Day)

We get hooked on ticking tasks off a list, because they give us that quick rush of satisfaction. We get obsessive about our work, not only because we enjoy it, but because we feel that “hard” work makes us a better person. The problem is, it’s often not really “hard” – it’s easy drudgery that lets us avoid facing up to things we’d rather not think about: a failing relationship, an unhealthy lifestyle, a chronic lack of self-esteem, dark thoughts we’d rather deny.

Productivity Means Avoiding the Hard and Important Things
Productivity can be an escape. It lets us avoid reflective time. We cut out prayer, meditation, journaling, walking, daydreaming, simply allowing ourselves to “be” … all in the name of productivity. It gives us a convenient excuse to avoid the truly hard work of learning to love ourselves for who we are – and using that love to foster a genuine desire to grow, to become the person who we know we can be.

However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)

Productivity can become a mask for feeling empty and lost inside. It can hide a lack of self-worth. It can muffle the nasty little internal voice that whispers we’re not good enough, that tells us that if people really knew what we were like, they’d be horrified.

Productivity as a Mask: My Example
I know that, in my own life, I tend to throw everything into doing when there’s something deeper than needs tackling.

This most often manifest itself in a spiritual context. When my faith is at a low ebb, when I feel far from God, when life has turned a murky grey – I throw myself into church activities: lunches, committees, administrative work, organising things, even serving others. But there’s an emptiness to it. Perhaps I convince others that everything’s okay, and maybe I even convince myself, for a time. But there’s always a point at which I recognise that the doing is an excuse, and that what I need is something that’s much quieter, and much harder.

As with many of my posts on Aliventures, I’ve written this because I needed to read it myself. The process of thinking through and writing this over a couple of days has helped me to question my “productive” efforts, to take a hard look at why I’m using “doing” as an excuse to avoid the deeper questions and challenges. I’m pulling back, to take time to reflect, to journal, and to be. If this post struck a chord with you, if it echoed anything of your own experiences, I’d ask you to give yourself the time, space and freedom to do the same.
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