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When productivity becomes unproductive
When productivity becomes unproductive

When productivity becomes unproductive

You have a lot to do, and you feel like you’re not reaching your potential. You are the itsy bitsy spider.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling the same way millions of people across the world are right now. You have a lot to do, and you feel like you’re not reaching your potential. You want to do better, you want your time spent on work to feel more "productive".

Before we begin, we recommend reading our article When We Forgot Why We Work. Why? Because we’re not here to tell you about productivity in the way you might think. This is not a top-ten on the best ways to DO more. We’re here to tell you how to do less.

Greg Mckeown has a fantastic take on this idea in his book Essentialism:

“Essentialism is not about how to get more things done; it’s about how to get the right things done. It doesn’t mean just doing less for the sake of less either. It is about making the wisest possible investment of your time and energy in order to operate at our highest point of contribution by doing only what is essential.”

There is no secret method or tool to help you achieve the productivity and utility you seek, but rather the most effective way to do this is to re-imagine your understanding of progress and achievement.

This idea asks you to confront the idea that you cannot do everything, and the pursuit of everything will result in the achievement of nothing. We must sift through the noise and find what is exceptionally valuable to us and our work.

In 2016, Silicon Valley strategist Alex Soojung-Kim Pang published something very important. Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less discusses the idea that the traditional 9-5 workforce structures no longer serve us, and that rather we should focus on compiling maximum effort into a 4 hour work day. It sits well alongside Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which examines how we can hone our abilities to focus on higher value work and shut out the noise.

This idea is wonderfully reconstructed by these authors, but it’s not new. Humans have been looking for antidotes for these very human problems for as long as we have been intelligent. Buddhism has concerned itself with this idea for 2,500 years, in 49AD, Seneca published On The Shortness of Life. Our problems in 2023 may be very different to the ones being experienced back then, but the solution framework remains the same.

So how can we use the ideas and advice of thought-leaders like Greg Mckeown, Cal Newport, Seneca? We must first understand what is important to us, and understand where we can find and forge value in our very short time on this Earth. This is what works for us:

Think about the end

A confronting way to start our list of tips, but a profoundly important one. When your time comes, if you had a chance to reflect on who you are and all that you have done, what do you think will be important to you then?

Was it that you spent enough time experiencing the joys of life with loved ones? Did you enjoy the people and work you surrounded yourself with through your career? Did you help others experience joy and live well in their own lives? Did you help to foster respect and sustainable management of the environment in your local community?

It does not have to be one thing, but it cannot be everything, and it cannot be global. Do not forget that you are one person, and you will not reflect on your life’s achievements in terms of what you did, but what you felt and saw and experienced.

Think about the two most important facets of your life that will matter to you at the end of the road. These are your overarching goals.

Think about today

We ask you - as of right now - what matters? Of all the things you did today, did anything bring you a sense of joy? What did or did not bring you content?

Fulfilment is not at the end of the rainbow, it is how you go to bed feeling each night. It can be found in the smallest of endeavours, the minute tasks that edge you just a little bit closer to your overarching goals, ones that you can see through to completion in the span of anything from one minute to a couple of hours.

How you answer this will help you to understand what you value. Of everything you do in your life, what does and does not help you go sleep at night feeling fulfilled. If you’re thinking that some of these things do not help you to feel fulfilled, is that because you did not enjoy them? Or is it that you did not enjoy how you did them?

For example, perhaps you’re thinking that your time at work has not felt meaningful. It could be that your current job is not the right one for you, but it could also be that the way you’re spending your time at work is not structured to achieve fulfilment. This is busywork.

Think about tomorrow

What can you do tomorrow to achieve a sense of fulfilment? Whether tomorrow you have work, you’re seeing friends or family, or you have nothing on your agenda, what will help you contribute one small step toward your overarching goals?

If you want to give this a try, keep it small. What can you realistically achieve in one or two hours tomorrow? Perhaps it’s a couple chapters of the book you keep meaning to read, it could be calling a friend to just say hi, choosing to start that report at work you’ve been putting off rather than achieving inbox zero.

Whatever it is you think might help you achieve fulfilment tomorrow, agree to commit to it completely. Choose a time to start, and work carefully and consciously to see it through. Greg Mckeown in his book Essentialism developed an effective framework for this:

Choose: You may have a lot of different activities or tasks to choose from when you are deciding what you can achieve tomorrow. You must be able to disconnect from what you have to do from what you can choose to do.

Discern: Choosing is hard, because we often feel like everything is important, that we simply cannot prioritise one thing over another when they all seem to us of equal urgency. This is not true. Discern what is the most valuable contribution you can make tomorrow, and separate it from things that you - at the end of the road - know to actually be trivial.

Trade-offs: Finally, the most important aspect of this framework is understanding that you need to make trade-offs. Once you have eliminated what you know understand to be trivial, there will still be a number of highly valuable things you could do tomorrow. That you “have” to get done. The reality is, we cannot do it all tomorrow. He explains:

“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”

Productivity is about recognising that you cannot do it all in a day, that you cannot do it all ever. We have today, and tomorrow, and the day after that. There is nothing grand waiting for you at the end of the rainbow, you’re already there. We can only choose meaningful daily activities that will bring you content when you put your head on the pillow at night.

There is no answer on how to be more productive, there is just today and tomorrow.

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