Productivity is toxic. Productivity is a plague.
Our culture prides itself on being productive. We love it. The internet offers advice on everything from time management and helpful apps to the inner mindset of productivity. We prize anything that makes us more productive—Adderall, coffee, energy drinks, etc.
We all want to do more, produce more, and have more as a result.
Is there a downside to that emphasis?
I once talked to a client who had become so used to the idea of needing to be productive that she couldn’t enjoy a moment of silence or stillness.
And I saw myself in her.
It reminds me of a situation in college that was all too common: stressed out kids working like crazy during the week, and then indulging in unhealthy and excessive drinking on the weekend in order to forget it all. Not saying I didn’t do it, but I’m also not saying it was healthy.
Have you ever gotten really motivated to take on a project, maintained a high level of productivity for a few days, and then burned out? The twinkle fades. The spark dims.
That has happened to me and everyone else I know. When the project dies, sometimes the nagging impulse towards productivity lives on.
That thought is hell. In our obsession with productivity, we morph into robots attempting to optimize everything. That compulsion doesn’t turn off when we finish the day’s work, when it’s the weekend, or when we’re hanging with friends. We can’t fully relax into them because we feel guilty that we’re not being productive.
In the evening, we feel anxiety. Going to sleep, we feel restless.
We constantly feel compelled to be doing. But when we try to create from this state, we’re burnt out, and the quality of our work suffers.
It’s unpleasant, isn’t it?
But there are ways to stop the madness.
I’ve noticed that in my most successful, sustainable, and enjoyable projects, I somehow completely ignore productivity. I don’t need to try to be productive, and never feel like I need to produce more than comes out naturally.
There are three alternatives to productivity that help me get the project done anyway.
These are not ways to become more productive. They’re different strategies entirely. They make productivity obsolete.
Let’s balance our work with play.
Play is a magical concept that involves doing something for no other justification than the activity itself. This sounds revolutionary to someone in a state of compulsive, zombie-like productivity. It might also be majorly uncomfortable at first, like a righty using her left hand to brush her teeth.
And it is so worth it.
It’s refreshing. And most of all, it breaks the vortex of productivity that consumes us.
For me, running is play. Running, I’ve realized, is something I do for no other reason than to run. No one does it with me. No one sees me finish. When I run extra fast or far, there’s no glory in it, no one standing there congratulating me. It doesn’t benefit anyone else. It doesn’t improve me. It doesn’t even feel good. I just do it for me.
Everyone has something like that. What’s yours? Do it this weekend.
When you’re able to balance your life by playing more, whatever you do when you actually need to be doing will flow out without quite as much friction.
What can you do just to do, and not care about results or rewards?
Not Production, Creation
Productivity is robotic. Creativity is whimsical. Production is machinelike. Creation is godlike. Producing is draining. Creating is energizing.
When we tap into our source of creativity, entirely different things come out. We’re all connected to a universal source of creativity, all the time. You know how it feels when you’re in the flow of creation? Whatever is coming out doesn’t feel like it’s coming from you, it feels like it’s coming through you. In other words, in our most creative state, we are completely out of our own way.
We can tap into that source anytime. The first step is acknowledging that it’s there.
The next part is seeing that the only reason we don’t use it all the time is because we think our way out of it. Our heads are so full of our plans, our responsibilities, our relationships, our impulses. Most of us are constantly thinking. But when we’re truly in the flow of creation, it’s possible because our minds have quieted down a bit. They’ve been emptied of some of the trash that was in them. And this quiet, this space, makes way for new things (aka creation) to come in.
If our heads are spinning with thought, you might be thinking, how do we calm them down? Well, when you’re driving your car, how do you get your RPMs to slow down?
Take your foot off the gas.
The best thing to quiet the mind is to stop trying to quiet the mind. Then the natural intelligence takes over and we might just see something new.
Beyond Motivation—The Most Powerful Practice of All
Productivity requires motivation. And that always runs out. Motivation leaves because it is a mood, and that’s what moods do.
So screw motivation.
Because that fire eventually simmers, you take the path of discipline.
There’s a beautiful quote about writer’s block that I think of often:
“I only write when inspiration strikes. Thankfully it strikes every morning at 9am sharp.”
Some artists think that making art is a fanciful process. A luxurious romp into the imagination. They wait until the divine lightning of inspiration electrifies them, and then create a beautiful piece. And then they wait for it to happen again, and five months later, nothing else has come out.
That’s not how master artists work. Mozart was the most disciplined dude who ever lived. The best writers don’t wait until they’re inspired. They sit down and they write. Everyday. That’s why they get to call themselves writers.
The word for discipline over time is commitment.
When you’re committed, there’s no question or debate about whether you’re going to do the thing you said you were going to do.
When you’re committed, things line up favorably for you by sheer magnetism. Your unflinching consistency signals to the universe that you are moving, and it makes way for you.
This is the message of The War of Art, which any aspiring creator must must MUST read. To Steven Pressfield, commitment is what he calls Turning Pro. That’s the ultimate counter to the Resistance that stops us from doing our work.
Why am I attacking productivity?
Because it is a beguiling demon whose charms we must resist.
People who are productive aren’t productive because they try to be productive. They make it look like output is their objective. All of us who pursue techniques and strategies to become more productive work from the outside in. People who produce a lot do it because they work from a level of commitment and creativity that seems superhuman.
It is. And we have that option too.
When we move into the realm of discipline and commitment, we are no longer human. An otherworldly wind blows through us and uses us to create something, and let’s us put our name on it, ’cause it’s generous like that.
We can forget about productivity. It makes us automatons. We don’t need any more of those in this world! We need more people who are alive, vibrant, and engaged. Creating from their souls and pursuing their passions. People putting happiness over money. And creation over production.