Updated: May 24
I always struggle with “productivity”. Feeling like I haven't done enough, feeling like “who cares anyway?” (especially in pandemic-land). Judging myself that I’m not as successful as I want because I don’t work hard enough, doubting myself when I choose to take more time on self-sustaining activities (talking a walk, cooking, reading, talking to a friend, repotting some basil, etc.). Even though intellectually I know that these are all important things, and that everything is connected, and taking time for myself inevitably results in higher productivity, there’s some longstanding programming in my brain that says “No! Work harder! Faster! More!”
Part of the problem is how heavily linked our contemporary American understanding of productivity is to neoliberal* capitalism’s definition of the term. Part of it is the training I received through college prep school (and by osmosis in later life) to compete in the meritocracy that’s eating high-earning professionals alive**,***.
If I believe that everything happens in its proper time, and that “nature never hurries and yet everything is accomplished” (Lao Tzu told me that across time through a tea bag tag), that privileging process over product will yield a superior end result, and that work I do for money (or the potential of money) does not have primacy over time for personal care and intellectual/creative/spiritual development, how do I reconcile that with 1) needing money for stuff and 2) wanting to achieve something big in my life? I haven’t figured it out yet. I did realize awhile ago that I was trying to live a “passive income” lifestyle on an “hourly wage” reality, but understanding how I want to define and attempt “productivity” (maybe better defined as “material productivity”, as I feel I’m very productive in the spiritual realm of personal growth) is a work in progress.
Maybe they don’t reconcile, actually, and I’m asking the wrong question. Perhaps a better question would be, how do I maintain dynamic balance between the demands of the spiritual world and the demands of the material world? How do I mentally avoid the neoliberal hype around productivity?
The best way to be productive partly depends on the kind of work you’re doing. For everyone, maintaining proper self-care helps immensely (sleeping enough, eating enough, taking time for fun). For so-called “knowledge workers”, it’s having uninterrupted time to think. For artists and creatives, it's taking time to delight and nourish your inner artist.
I’ve started writing a 1-page brain dump (a stream-of-consciousness way to get out of all my anxieties, and oftentimes have nice conversations with myself) and meditating for 15 minutes before beginning to work, and I’ve noticed an immediate improvement in my ability to concentrate and accomplish tasks. I also have an increased awareness of when I’m avoiding the work I sincerely want to be making progress on by doing something that I know is a waste of time, or that is important but won’t help me accomplish that particular project; taking time to listen to my anxieties and find the medicine within the poison then gives me the emotional groundedness needed to gently redirect my efforts.
I propose re-defining productivity as doing what needs to be done to move closer to your goals, doing it well, and doing it in the least amount of time necessary. Not by rushing, but by working more efficiently (reducing the internal wind drag of all of your bumpy anxieties and nagging thoughts/doubts/reminders).
DON’T be fooled by thinking “I don’t have enough time to (or “I don’t deserve to”):
Take a 30 minute walk!
Not work through my lunch break!
Meditate for 20 minutes!
(anything that would actually improve the quality of your day)!
It’s a trap! Consider this old Zen saying: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
DON’T deprive yourself (of free time, of time to think, of time to eat without working, of fun): denying yourself these necessary things eventually leads to internal tantrums and attention rebellion, which are definite and avoidable productivity sinkholes.
DON’T reproduce bullshit neoliberal/capitalist structures in your workday: I didn’t decide to work for myself to continue to be subjected to exploitative work systems, and I assume you didn’t either. Yet because (generally) those are the experiences that fill our entire lives, in every arena and at every age, unless we consciously recognize what we don’t like and decide what we’d rather do instead, our default setting will take over.
So what I’ve come to in my own work is to prioritize process over product(ivity) - an all-around good practice. If your process has integrity, the quality of your everyday life improves immensely, and your product will come out just as well (if not better) as if you had reverse-engineered and had your desired end result as your starting point. Most of the world operates in this “product first” way, and it’s truly getting things backwards.
What is a process with integrity? It’s one that works with your body and your emotions and honors their needs, as opposed to your expending energy to ignore them and then deeming them troublemakers when they won’t be ignored. It’s a process that is individually tailored to how you work best, and to what you feel is important. It’s one that leaves you feeling happy or even joyful, and energized yet relaxed. In order to develop this integrity one must become well-practiced in recognizing one’s own needs and emotions, and then respecting them. That is the path that reveals your process. It takes time, and trial and error, and choosing to transform fear into love by meeting it with loving action. It requires a constant checking in and re-balancing. This may sound like a lot, but it’s really the only work worth doing. This process is so much more authentic and enjoyable than the options that are generally laid out for us, and by embarking on this journey to discover your own integral process you get a self-determined life that’s worth living, while also making the overall world a better place to live.
I’m not the first person to have these ideas, and none of this is necessarily revolutionary, but it certainly feels that way. In these rifts between what seems reasonable in theory but what provokes anxiety and resistance in practice, our internalized neo-capitalist ideology is revealed to be at work.
What are your thoughts, struggles, or insights around productivity? Please share in the comments below or feel free to email me personally.
*Neoliberalism: briefly, why corporations are considered people, why “trickle down economics” persists, why there is such rampant income inequality in the US and around the world. Look for an upcoming blog post on Rebranding the Economy for a deeper explanation.
**Because ultimately, what is all that work for? Sure, maybe you have a nice house and can go on fancy vacations, but all of that is a devil’s bargain that trades money for the truly meaningful and nourishing things in life: being able to spend your time as you wish, which includes having fun, building meaningful relationships with family and friends, having time to daydream and create. And the people who are ultimately benefiting from all of that labor (whether highly skilled or no) are the uber-capitalists.
***While it may be said that everyone who exists in a capitalist system (like ours) is a capitalist, I think that’s a too-broad misuse of the term. Strictly speaking, a capitalist is someone who owns the means of production, who makes their money by profiting from the labor of others. Although I suppose in a way, everyday consumers can be said to be profiting (i.e., paying less money) when they buy goods that are made cheaply overseas, whose cheapness comes in part from the makers of those goods being drastically underpaid...
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