Overcoming Our Obsession with Productivity
Our world is obsessed with productivity.
We likely developed our obsession with productivity as a result of the industrial revolution. At least, that's probably where the seed first sprouted.
As a result of this, our focus shifted from producing quality to producing more in a shorter and shorter period of time. But this didn't just affect the way we work. Over time, it's seeped into other areas of life. Now many of us believe that's "just how life is".
But is this even a bad thing? Unfortunately, it has been the cause of some major downturns in our overall well-being. Most notably, I believe, is the decline of both our health and relationships.
A productivity mindset is dangerous because there's no end to it. You could work on making yourself consistently more productive for your entire life and still have room to improve. It's easy to see why it can become a dangerous obsession.
But productivity in and of itself isn't bad. It's not bad to want to become more productive or efficient. Productivity has its place, but we need to be careful.
The Buddha spoke of the principle of The Middle Way. In a nutshell, The Middle Way is the life lived between extremes, particularly self-denial and self-indulgence. Not being too here and not being too there. Part of this principle has to do with the understanding that, even if something is bad for us, oftentimes it's impossible to complete remove it.
Destroying things isn't typically considered a good thing. But to think that you can ever live in a way where you destroy and consume nothing for the rest of your life is completely unreasonable. You can kill an ant when stepping out of your car, accidentally drown a plant when watering your garden, and any product you use in your home took materials to be made. That involves killing and consuming things.
It's easy to understand how that's just an impossible goal. But you should still do your best to reduce your destruction and consumption.
This is The Middle Way, and it's the example we should follow when considering how productivity should be allowed to shape our lives.
We need to restructure our lives in a way that puts quality before quantity. We need to reevaluate our priorities and then act on them. That means we need to live in a way that puts what's most important to us, our families and our society at the forefront.
As long as what we do to become more productive does not conflict with what's really important in life such as our health, happiness, and the health and happiness of our loved ones, better yet enhances those things, then it's fine. If it harms those things we've deemed most important though then we need to tone it down.
Redefining Productivity: Learning How to Increase Productivity without Sacrificing Health and Happiness
Ever since I was little, I've been fascinated with the idea of self-actualization or of reaching one's "potential". Of course, I'd later come to realize that I was far from the first person to be interested in it.
Naturally, you could consider a part of that productivity. So it's something that's often been on my mind. But I never cared about multitasking or marking off the most things from my to-do list. In fact, I've learned that neither of those things directly lead to or signify productivity at all.
Rather, the way I've viewed productivity has always, thankfully, been in the scope of doing the best job possible in whatever I'm doing. It's because of this that, to me, efficiency is the term we should be more concerned with.
Since being introduced to Zen Buddhism, and spirituality as a whole, my idea of productivity has changed somewhat, but it still very much plays a part in my life.
Productivity has never, and will never, be about moving faster to me. What it is about is doing your best in all areas of your life. Productivity should be about giving us more time to do what- and be with who- we love. The things that matter most, such as our health, happiness, and the happiness and well-being of our loved ones, shouldn't be sacrificed in order to get "ahead" in our personal and professional lives.
Imagine a life where you have more than enough time to do what you love. A life where each day you have dedicated and uninterrupted time for your family and loved ones. You know what's most important to you and the majority of your time goes towards those things. This is the life that productivity should be geared towards.
Here are 13 simple tips and tricks, that I've used personally, which you can use to help you get there:
60 seconds to clarity
Sometimes we get carried away with the busy-work of life and lose track of what is most important. We can’t always focus on what is most important, sometimes we need to get gas, make a deposit, meet someone for this or that, run two more errands, pick up the kids and make dinner. Anyone would lose track of themselves after a day like that. So you’ll need a technique to bring you back to what’s most important when you get lost.
This one is pretty straightforward. I’d suggest keeping this one in your pocket for when you feel like your day, or days, are getting out of hand and you need to refocus. Simply ask yourself the question:
Is this the most important thing I could be doing right now?
This simple question has the ability to refocus you when you’re at your most chaotic. Again it’s best used sparingly, not as a daily technique. But if you use it when life seems to be slipping out of your grasp it has an amazing ability to give you back your sense of clarity.
Figure out what’s most important to you
This sounds like a simple one, but most of us don’t know what’s most important to us. We rarely think about what’s most important to us let alone spend time figuring out how we can get more time for what’s most important to us.
Building off of the first point, if you haven’t even figured out what’s most important to you then you need to really take the time to sit down and figure that out before you do anything else in your life. It’s so important I’d take a day off just to go somewhere quiet, sit down, and think.
Your search will likely be something closer to how it was for me, though: a process. I took a whole lot more than just one day to figure it out. But looking back it was definitely one of the best and most important decisions of my life.
Now that you’ve listed out what’s most important to you, start paying attention to what you spend your time on each day. Don’t change your day up forcefully- just let it play out as it usually does.
Now, take that observation and analyze it compared to what you decided is most important to you. Do they match up? Or is there a conflict? Is something less important, like your job, keeping you from spending time with your kids?
You might have realized by now that this step can be painful. But don’t be scared of this type of discomfort. This type of discomfort just means you’re growing. This step can be tough because it’s making you face a difficult decision: do I keep going how I am and live my life contrary to what’s most important to me or make a stand and decide to put what’s most important first?
No one said it was going to be easy. Living in a way that you put what’s most important to you first is difficult, but it’s indescribably rewarding if you’re not already doing it. The process of shifting your life to match your priorities is often best done slowly, especially if it involves a big change for you.
Focus on one step at a time. And know that not all things can be changed completely right away. Some things will have to be slowly reduced while others slowly increased.
Replace, don’t add
Be mindful of your daily activities. If you decide to add something new, like running in the morning, building an online business, or taking up a cooking class, know what it’s taking the place of.
You only have 24 hours in a day. If you add something to your weekly or daily schedule then something else is going to be squeezed. In order not to complicate your life and make you less effective at all your other tasks you should make it a point, if possible, to remove something whenever you add something.
For ideas on how and where to simplify your life to make room for something new, you can read The 10 Most Important Ways to Simplify Your Life.
Learn to say no
A lot of us have difficulty telling others no. Whether you like to please everyone, try to handle everything out of ego or are afraid of telling someone no, you need to learn the art of “no” sooner or later if you want to maintain your peace.
Being unwilling to tell others no, whether it’s a simple request to run an errand, assistance on a big project or help with a future responsibility, can eat up your time like few things can. This isn’t to say you’re unwilling to help people. What we’re talking about here is knowing two things: your limits and your priorities.
The reality is you can only handle so much at once. And while I’m all for pushing yourself to do your best, you’ll still at the end of the day have your limits even if you learn to go beyond what you once thought was your best.
No is a requirement of daily life, not a sign of weakness. Don’t be afraid to use it.
Ask for help
To bounce off of our last point, sometimes it’s better to ask for help than to try to handle something yourself.
The best example of this is something that involves a skill or resource which you don’t have but someone you know does. If you need help with something but you know someone who is way better at that something than you, don’t be afraid to ask for their help. Explain the situation and how you could use their skills.
Helping others is the ultimate goal and provides the greatest reward in life, so there’s more than enough in it for them by you genuinely asking for their help. Don’t feel like you’re burdening people by asking them for help. If they’re a genuine friend then they’ll be willing to help. And if they’re not, well, better you find out now than later.
Of course, don’t overdo it. The point isn’t to pawn off tasks to others and delegate your life’s responsibilities. The point is to get help with things that come up of which you’re not well-equipped to handle.
Accommodate the path of least resistance
It’s not always easy to move yourself to action. The lowest level of productivity is non-action, so if that’s a problem for you then that’s one of the first places you should start. We’re all familiar with the fact that it’s hard to push yourself to do something good for you but which is also difficult or less-than-fun.
Whether it’s working out, eating right, and even meditation. Pre-plan the activity, set it in stone, and then preset any necessary tools to get the job done. The idea is to make the thing you want to do the easiest thing for you to do at the moment in which you want to do it.
What this means is if you’re going to work out in the morning, then the night before you should place you shoes next to your bed, lay out your clothes, and place your keys, water bottle, and bag with anything else you need all next to each other so you can literally wake up, grab them, and go. This concept makes you 10,000 times more likely to do something, whatever it is.
With eating right you can buy a healthy snack to go with the not-so-healthy snack you usually get and place the non-healthy snack up in the cupboard and the healthy snack out in the open on the counter. You can also place all the healthy stuff in your fridge in front of the unhealthy stuff.
Google uses this principle in their offices. They place the healthy snacks in front of the unhealthy ones where they’re easier to grab. This might sound like laziness, but it’s not, it’s just how we’re programmed and it’s something you can take advantage of.
The Zorro circle
This one is from Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work.
I’ve applied this in my own life and found it’s amazing for taking on larger projects and goals. Large projects can be overwhelming. Recently, I started my most overwhelming project to date: I’m writing my first book.
For the first couple of days after finishing my outline I was nearly frozen. That’s because I’d sit back and look at this huge project I had to complete all by myself and had no idea where to start. Naturally, your mind races and it’s this mental panic that’s the problem.
If you take a second to calm your mind, look at your project and pick a small piece or section to work on, and then block out everything else and begin working on that section like it’s the only thing that exists then you’ll have a much easier time taking on large projects whether at work or home.
Take it piece by piece and before you know it you’ll be on your way to tackling something you never thought you could do.
Pre-Plan your day
It’s important to have a general idea of what you plan to do in a given sitting, day, week, or month depending on what you’re doing. Without this, it’s so easy to become distracted and veer off in another, less productive, direction.
By pre-planning your time you’ll know what you’re supposed to be doing and will be able to catch yourself when you become unfocused. Without a plan, it’s usually just chaos.
I’m not talking about having a written plan for everything you intend to do at every moment of every day. I don’t write down most of what I plan to do, but I know what I plan to do and about when I plan to do it.
As long as you have a general idea, especially for those things which are most important, then that will be more than enough.
Meditation quiets the mind. I talk about meditation often on Buddhaimonia for other reasons, but meditation’s ability to quiet the mind increases your productivity as well. And it does it in the right way.
Meditation reduces mental distractions and mental dispersion and allows you to put your best work out. This is what productivity should be about anyway. Doing more does nothing for you if everything you do is crap. You should strive to produce quality, not quantity.
To begin developing a meditation practice you can read The Ultimate Guide to Meditation: The What, Why and How of Meditation and Learn How to Meditate in the Next 5 Minutes: The Quick Start Guide to Mindfulness Meditation.
Reduce information over-consumption
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Meditation isn’t the only way you can calm your mind. You should attack all sources of the problem. This includes the over-consumption of information which leads to distraction and mind dispersion.
Part of the purpose of a Zen Buddhist becoming a monk and moving into a Zen temple is so that they can reduce distractions which could harm their practice. I’m not a monk, I live a “normal” life, but I’ve found a number of ways to reduce the distractions of modern life in order to improve my practice, help me find peace, and become more productive.
In today’s age distractions are a dime a dozen. Smartphones are the real killer, but our TVs, desktops, and tablets are always there to help distract us further. Do yourself a favor and reduce your consumption of information. You’ll reduce mental distractions and mental dispersion and increase your productivity, as well as your happiness, as a result.
For ways to cure information over-consumption, you can read The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Your Life Through Mindful Consumption and The 10 Most Important Ways to Simplify Your Life.
Become an early riser/wake up early
Waking up early can afford you a beautiful few hours of the most productive time you’ll ever get in a day. I can’t overstate how much more productive I am in the morning versus the rest of the day.
It’s easy to see why: distractions are at an all-day minimum. I never have anything planned outside of my own work, no one calls me or texts me at 4 or 5 AM, the kids are asleep (big one!), and there’s a peaceful quiet like nothing else I can describe.
You can think. You can work. You can relax. You can breathe. Waking up early can be difficult to do, but it has some major benefits. You can read how I became an early riser by reading How to Become an Early Riser: The 12 Techniques I Used to Go from a Night Owl to Waking up at 4 AM Daily.
Multitasking is a killer. Unfortunately, it’s an icon of our modern world. We’re becoming more conscious, but we still have a long way to go.
Multitasking actually makes you less productive and more stressed out. Stress is a good indicator you’re doing something you weren’t meant to do (whether internally or externally). We’re constantly dispersing our concentration and, as a result, never putting out our best work.
You can never do your best job on anything when your mind is constantly split in three or more different directions at any given moment. By developing the practice of mindfulness you learn how to focus on one activity which allows you to increase the quality of everything you do and do it right the first time.
To learn how to practice mindfulness you can read my guide What is Mindfulness? A Simple Guide to the Power and Practice of Mindfulness.