One reason why Productivity does not matter and what matters instead

Goodreads want me to read more books this year. Sworkit wants me to put more exercise minutes in place. Headspace wants me to complete more meditation sessions and Peak wants me to achieve higher scores in their games. This is how I am measured in today's world - by calories, books read, countries traveled, minutes meditated, returns made, steps walked and pounds lost.

This is the first week of January. High on this ‘new year optimism’, you are tempted to create new year resolutions. And I bet one of the things you have in your head is about being more productive. I did the same last year. And the year before that.

I work six months a year and in the beginning, that freaked me out. I thought – how can I be wasting six months? So, I spent next one year trying to think what else can I do and how to further optimize my six months consulting business. Obsessed with justifying to myself that I am actually productive full year, I ended up wasting a lot of time to ensure I am not wasting time. Quite a brain twister, isn’t it?

I call it productivity fatigue.

While 70% productivity sounds sexier than 30% productivity, it doesn’t differentiate between producing shit and producing a gem. If productivity was a measure to one’s greatness, we would not have heard of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird), Arundhati Roy (God of small things), Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind) because they wrote less than 5 books in their lifetime.

Productivity can be measured, thereby making it easier to fake it. You can show a number for your productivity and fool yourself. But you know what cannot be faked? Greatness. Success. Happiness. Wellness. Wealth. Health. And behold, everything that any human being can strive for is actually unfakeable.

I have never heard anyone dreaming of ‘building 10 houses in my life’ or ‘owning 15 luxury cars’ or ‘do 15 complex yoga poses’. Dreams are to be happy, to be rich, to be healthy – and all of these cannot be measured, they can only be felt.

What productivity can and cannot measure?

Productivity is good for:

  1. Measuring quantifiable goals (e.g. sending 5 newsletter this week)
  2. Measuring stock work with well-defined criteria for success (e.g. production output of a factory)
  3. Forcing you to do repetitive tasks that are important but that you hate doing (e.g. exercising, running, dieting)

Productivity sucks at:

  1. Measuring creative work where quality is subjective (writing, designing, gardening). You can write 1000 words a day for 5 years but not produce anything like 1984
  2. Doing what you hate doing and what you don’t think is critical for yourself — all the productivity apps combined in this world can not make me a good accountant

This also means that productivity is not a good measure of one’s life. Because life is the biggest art.

So, instead of focusing on how much we produce, we should focus on whether it is worth producing in the first place. And if it is, then the focus should be on quality. Not to be caught in the endless perfection loop but to produce a high quality work in an acceptable period of time – something that you can feel proud of. Notice there is nothing that you can actually measure here. You will feel it when you do it.

How our mind traps us?

Immeasurability, abstractness, and uncertainty scare the shit out of us. Having a productivity goal makes us feel more in control.

No wonder then that data science, A/B testing are getting so much attention. We are so immersed in bits of data and finding patterns that we refuse to see the obvious flaws in the bigger picture. Because it is easier to measure data and fake productivity from it.

OKCupid can publish trends on how to get more attention from women on a dating app but can it actually help people become more ready for a long-lasting relationship?

What is the problem with centering our lives around productivity?

I am not discarding the merits of ‘get off your lazy ass and produce’ but I am questioning the obsession behind doing more, reading 10 extra words per minute, sneaking an extra hour in your day by waking early – all the time. Getting more done is useless if you forget why you are doing it.

In fact, an overemphasis on productivity can be counterproductive. Philip Burguieres (Former Weatherford CEO, Houston Texans Vice Chairman) estimated that 50% of CEOs, at some point in their lives, experience depression. As a workaholic and an uber-successful CEO himself who had to resign due to depression, he started counseling executives who struggled with similar predisposition.

Productivity is a good tool for improving something that is working but not necessarily for creating something original. As Adam Grant (bestselling author of Give and Take, Originals and Option B) quotes:

“Procrastination may be the enemy of productivity, but it can be a resource for creativity.”

If you study the lives of creators, geniuses, leaders, entrepreneurs, you will notice that their masterpieces are mostly borne out of serendipity. And serendipity needs a chance moment. Chance moments don’t happen when you are forcing yourself to be productive all the time.

Bear with my rant a little more. Serendipity eats productivity for lunch. Once serendipity strikes and finds a home in you, your productivity would shoot out of the sky. What Elizabeth Gilbert talked as magic in her legendary talk on ‘Your Elusive Creative Genius’ is what follows from such a productivity. Notice how she talks about ‘showing up’ and not ‘creating as much as you can’.

Red alert: Do not confuse serendipity with chance success. One can achieve an accidental success through a shortcut without really understanding it. Pre-mature success makes you fragile. We are talking about a success that came from grinding it out.

So, is productivity useless?

Not at all. A better approach is to understand your transactional and aspirational goals.

1. Aspirational Goals – These are the long-term goals that drive you, that bring a twinkle in your eyes everytime you talk about them.

My aspirational goal can be to write a meaningful book on mindfulness, for example. Why? Because that will satisfy my need to be recognized for my intellect. The rewards here are more internal than external. I can not achieve this in few days. A truly satisfactory book will take months if not years.

Similarly, your aspirational goal can be to achieve financial independence so that you can quit your day job that you don’t like. This again cannot happen in days.

Aspirational goals needs consistency and discipline and self-awareness so that you can keep fine-tuning your end goal as you evolve.

2. Transactional Goals – These are what you do to live or move towards your long-term vision. Learning about publishing can be a mini project I need to finish towards my goal of publishing my magnum opus. A focus on productivity can benefit you in finishing these transactional projects.

Let’s say, you have enrolled in a yoga course that you feel will solve your backache issue. A focus on productivity to finish this course is good! It will help you do more yoga and not procrastinate endlessly.

The fact is that no one can be super productive all the time (aren’t you thankful for it?). If you spent one hour extra to finish reading Outliers, is that the end of the world? Pick what deserves your productivity. You have limited energy at the end of the day. Use it wisely. If I can slack off in reading a book, I might preserve my energy for the evening run.

Better yet, I can attract a new idea while reading the book more leisurely. Yes, that happened to me.

Back to my story, I realized there was nothing for me to optimize in my business. It was running fine at the terms that made me happy. And I gradually realized the preciousness of the six months I had for myself. Rather than fighting it, I slowed down to attract ideas that are worth spending my time on. The result was finishing a book that I couldn’t have thought of otherwise.

To conclude, transactional projects can benefit from a focus on productivity. Aspirational projects are your masterpieces and will benefit from your humane tendencies – intuition, serendipity, caring, compassion, mindfulness.

How do I find my aspirational goals?

  • Getting rid of ‘looking for instant gratification’ mindset
  • Slowing down and allowing serendipity to strike
  • Encouraging self-awareness
  • Being human and embracing human fallibility
  • Not comparing yourself to others

Not so surprisingly, these are all connected and something I am going to explore more deeply in Mental Traps.

Thank you for reading!
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