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Productivity Is Mostly Figuring Out How Much You Can Ignore

The ultimate measure of productivity, and five rules to help you quit wasting your time and energy.

“A chalk drawing of a person throwing garbage into a basket.” by Gary Chan on Unsplash

Productivity is a neat thing to pursue, and nice way to feel important. It’s something we can do without doing anything, really. It’s a safe space for those of us who have big ambitions, but are scared. Scared of failing. Scared of succeeding.

Productivity is an important thing to think about, and a helpful way to qualify our goals. It’s something we can use to figure out what we want, really. It’s an acceptable standard for those of us who need to separate duty from desire, but are stuck. Stuck in trivia. Stuck in a savior complex.

I’ve been writing about productivity for over a decade.

I can’t say, honestly, that studying and writing about productivity for over ten years has improved my productivity.

But I can tell you what has.

  • Every crisis point or major change that has bullied its way into my life (which have all turned out to be and to bring immeasurable gifts).
  • Every experience of discomfort, of not-belonging, of feeling identity-less.(It’s hard to see your own soul when you fit tidily into a group.)
  • Every deep questioning of the “rules” that I live by (the slow and painful refining of beliefs that direct my choices and behavior).
  • Every time I’ve said yes to something I feel insanely unqualified to do (which is pretty much everything important).
  • Every deconstruction and reconstruction of self (sometimes joyful and consciously, by choice, sometimes kicking and screaming and wailing into the void you enter between deconstruction/reconstruction).

All of these have forced me to look within myself to figure out what matters to me, and what doesn’t. I emerge from those experiences with a certain knowledge and confidence.

With a little more clarity about who I am.

That’s the secret sauce: the clarity about who I am and what matters to me makes productivity possible.


Being efficient at doing stuff that doesn’t matter to you is not being productive. It’s the ultimate waste. Producing more units of output of something trivial (to you) is still trivial.

When you know who you are and what matters to you, you don’t need a matrix for decision-making. You make the decision from the gut, from the core. Then you walk forward with confidence, because whether or not it’s the “right” decision, by some productivity standard, matters not at all. It is your decision.

The ultimate measure of productivity is not units of output measured against use of resources.

Or maybe it is, because your productivity is found in the answer to these questions:

  • How much of yourself do you leave in this world?
  • How far and wide can you fling the essence of your own being while you are here?
  • How strong and unique and powerful can your own voice become?
  • How much can you trust yourself?
  • How well can you discern the voice of your soul from all the other noise in the world, and discerning it, how boldly will you do what it says?

The ultimate measure of productivity is how many units of You have been produced from the resources of your Time and Energy.

Too mystical, maybe?

Okay. On to some practical pointers I’ve learned about productivity — actual productivity, not self-indulgent time-wasters — in my small, magical life.

1. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.

In my writing courses, the first point I discuss is this one. I ask my students to live by it, for the duration of the course.

Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.

Don’t want to write? Don’t. Don’t want to do the homework or read the lesson? Okay. Don’t do it.

This seems counterproductive. It isn’t. We often cover our deepest desires with layer after layer of bullshit. We self-sabotage, in two ways:

  • We pursue things we think are important, but we don’t actually value them. We hit the same obstacles over and over again to keep ourselves from investing too much in something we don’t care about.
  • We pursue things we do value, but we spin in circles around them, because we value them so much that we afraid to fully commit; we’re terrified of learning we can’t do or be what we value most of all.

When you voluntarily sign up for a something (taking a course, reading a book, completing a project, building a habit, or whatever), then struggle to do what you’ve chosen to do, you are in a self-sabotage cycles. The way out is simple: figure out if you really want to do it or not.

If you don’t want to do the thing — if you’ve made a commitment out of obligation or comparison or fear or social pressure — then it’s a waste of your time. Drop it.

If you do want to do the thing — but all the layers of fear and doubt are making you feel dread and panic instead of joy — okay. We can work with that. You can deal with those layers, one by one, and discard them. And you can get back to the joy of doing what you want to do.

Joy is energy. Focused energy. When you have joy in your work — because you’re working from desire — you go straight into that coveted place of flow, and you stay there.

There is no more reliable method of being productive than being able to quickly step into flow, anytime, anywhere.

2. Be mediocre at what doesn’t matter.

Why would you want to spend time being better at something that doesn’t matter to you?

I can think of many reasons:

  • It’s easier to improve trivia than to think about your core values.
  • It’s fun to test and tweak tools. It’s scary to use the tools, and risk discovering that you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • It feels more legitimate to collect and measure data on anything than it does to spend time in the gray-haze, staring-out-the-window phase of deep thinking that actual work requires.

A valid reason to improve your performance at things that don’t matter is to reduce the time you spend on them. This reason is only valid for those things that are unimportant but necessary.

This is a small group of items, as it turns out.

For me, this group includes what I eat, what I wear, shopping, and household chores. They’re necessary; but important? No. So I can deal with them in a few ways:

  • delegate them (hire a housecleaner; split meal duties with my husband).
  • streamline them (batch processing, automation, and other productive strategies).
  • do them as efficiently as possible.

For all of these approaches, a standard of mediocrity is best.


Can you hear the masses of self-help advisors scream?

We should be excellent at everything!

No. Let’s be excellent at what matters: how we treat each other, how we value ourselves, and how we do our work.

I’m going to wash the dishes, but I’m not going to research the type of dish soap I use. I’m going to feed my children, but you can bet what I feed them will be quick and easy.

It can still be healthy and quick and easy, did you know? But it won’t be getting any little love-taps on Instagram.

Mediocre doesn’t mean bad for you.

It means average, ordinary, forgettable. Anything that doesn’t matter is meant to be forgettable; it’s the trivia of life. These things are the bubbles on the surface of the water, not the current itself.

Don’t strive to make inherently forgettable things matter, by improving their appearance, or upping the speed or skill with which you do them. Let them be what they are. Anything else is trying to hold onto a bubble.

Oh, and all the rest of the unimportant items — the ones that aren’t necessary — you can drop. Try it. See what you’re really missing. I bet it won’t be much.

3. Optimize to a point, then stop.

Optimization is fun.

And for things that matter, it’s worthwhile. To a point.

Then it’s not.

When you figure out something that matters, it’s worth learning how to do it well. Find the right tools. Set up systems. Learn from experts. Work with a mentor. Measure some data points. Notice your habits, and improve them.

But after a certain point, the return on your optimization efforts isn’t worth the energy required.

You’ve optimized to a worthwhile point, but further efforts are not going to do much for your productivity. So, um, stop.

Do the work, instead.

Optimization, like everything in life, has its cycles. You’ll hit the point of depreciating return. Stop optimizing; start working. You’ll grow, hone skills, learn things, meet new challenges, take on different projects. Later, you might find value in optimizing again.

You have to be self-aware.

Notice the return on your efforts. When the energy required outweighs the return, you’ve crossed the line: further optimizing is procrastinating.

4. A plan is a starting point.

Oh, planning.

I love A Good Plan so hard I want to have its baby.

Planning makes me feel secure, and confident, and beautiful, and powerful. And then I take one step forward, arm-in-arm with My Good Plan, and reality destroys it.

A Good Plan is a figment of the imagination. It’s a spectre. We ask too much of it. It’s a set of expectations; given precedence, it will suck all the joy out of the actual experience.

We need to rethink the plan: what it is, how it works, and how we can use it. It’s a powerful tool, but not the way we use it.

A plan is a tool that helps us understand our options and make a decision. It can tell us what the best next step is. It can help us weed out the possibilities until we’re left with best possible actions. It’s a tool for bringing vague theoreticals — things like ideas and visions-into the land of practicality. Lining them up. Finding points of connection.

A plan is not a net we can throw over reality. It is not powerful enough to reduce the forces of life into a predictable, linear set of stepping stones. We’d like it to be, wouldn’t we? That’s why we fall in love with a Good Plan, and cling to the leftover bits long after the essence has disintegrated.

A Good Plan says, “I’ll show you how to get started.” 
We hear, “I’ll show you every single step of the way.”

A Good Plan says, “I’ll help you choose a good action.” 
We hear, “I’ll subdue the unpredictable, scary, chaotically beautiful tapestry of life into a color-by-number page for you.”

We’re projecting. Our own fears lead us into these illusions.

Make a plan. Plans are helpful. But use a plan as a starting point. When it disintegrates, let it go. Trust your plan less and trust yourself more.

You can learn what you need to learn when you need to learn it.

Plus, it’s a lot more fun this way.

5. Only two things matter: process and output.

A process is how you do something; it’s the action of work, the work itself, the energy focused into certain actions and released — through your vision and your skills — into a product.

The output is the product: what you are left with at the end of a process, the piece you can share or give or sell.

Please notice that neither one of these things is the outcome.

What is an outcome?

An outcome is a fuzzy, vague, hope of what you’ll get as a result of the process and the output. If we are bottom-line honest, every outcome is a feeling that we hope, at some point, we’ll get to have.

  • I’ll be happy when I graduate medical school.
  • I’ll feel better about myself when I make 10% more than I make now.
  • I’ll feel qualified when I publish a real book.
  • I’ll be able to relax when I get a good review.
  • I’ll feel confident when I have one more passive income stream.
  • I’ll feel important when I get a major speaking gig.
  • I’ll feel successful when I get through everything on my task list.
  • I’ll feel like I’m in control when I get everything organized.
  • I’ll feel accomplished when I have 1,000 followers.
  • I’ll feel fulfilled when I have my own business.
  • I’ll feel safe when I have more money in the bank.

The thing with feelings is this: we generally have no idea how we’ll feel about something until we experience it.

We make bets based on the assumption that we know how a particular output will make us feel. Because we believe our assumptions, we suffer through processes we hate in order to produce outputs we don’t value. We do this in the hope that these outputs will give us outcomes we have no way of accurately predicting.

It’s madness.

The process might last for hours, days, weeks, months, years.

The output may last as long, or not.

The outcome? It might never come.

An outcome is a peripheral moment, one you can only see sideways, one you hope exists. When you try to look straight at it, it disappears. It’s a mirage, a point that is always-future, a mythical place in which some outward response generates an inward change.

That’s not how life works, though.

Inner change generates outer change, not the other way around.

If you gain some elevated feeling, it’s not from the outcome: it’s from the work, the process itself, and the strength, clarity, increased capability, and independence you gained through the process. You might associate the good feeling with the outcome, but that’s correlation. Look back further to find causation.

The switch is simple: quit thinking about outcomes. You can’t control them.

Focus on processes you love and outputs you value. Then you can enjoy elevated feelings, a better experience — joy, and flow, and fulfillment — in every moment of doing the work.

Why relegate joy to some future moment of accomplishment?

Joy is here and now. It is available if you will let go of fantasies and do the hard work of finding out what you love.

Here we are, back around again to the only rule you really need, the first one: 
Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.

That’s all there is to it. It’s simple, but it requires all the courage you have to live by it. It will not make sense to most people. Good luck explaining it. I sound like a raving lunatic when I try.

But it works.

If you want to do something, your energy will rise to enable you. Your enthusiasm will open the doors. Your delight will bend the universe to your will. You will find connections and opportunities you couldn’t have planned, not in a million years of goal setting and efficiency coaching and strategy sessions.

Productivity is fueled by desire. The clearer and stronger and brighter your desire burns, the more productive you will be.

I know you can do what you want to do.

There is no force that can stop true desire. I just hope, for everyone’s sake, that you’re brave enough to do it.