The Key to Meaningful Productivity: Being Receptive

We are more than just the sum of what we’ve accomplished.

Patrick Ward
6 min readNov 25, 2016

We all want to be more productive and fulfilled in our day-to-day.

Even the words that we use to describe productive people and actions are filled with aspiration: ship, create, code, get things done, make things happen.

A quick search of Google for the phrase “increasing productivity” returns nearly half a million results.

There are countless books, blog posts, tips, and tools designed to help us maximize our ability to get things done.

There’s also a real danger of becoming unbalanced.

I’ve recently seen some people suggest taking this to the extreme, focusing on productivity to the exclusion of everything else in life — no reading, no fun, no conversations, no games, no inspiration.

When we focus too deeply on our productivity, it becomes easy to see ourselves as a collection of outputs. But we are more than just the sum of what we’ve accomplished. We’re also the sum of what we’ve learned, heard, read, watched, reflected on, believed in, and listened to.

As strange as it sounds, the pressure to be productive has made it easier than ever to feel unproductive.

But another word for unproductive can be: receptive.

Receptivity: the key to learning, improving and observing the world

Being receptive effectively means receiving knowledge, ideas, and inspiration from a variety of sources and inputs. It acknowledges all of the work that we do every day to process and make sense out of the signals that are around us all the time.

Over the past few years I’ve challenged myself to spend more time improving this aspect of my life. I’m definitely still early in my journey of exploring this, but I wanted to share some learnings I’ve had along the way and what’s worked for me.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that these things will be right for everyone.

What I am excited by, though, is starting more of a discussion around how we can be better readers, listeners, and observers of the world around us. How we can be generous, healthy participants as well as contributors.

5 practical ways to be more receptive

If productivity asks the question, “How can I create more effectively?” then receptivity poses the question, “How can I receive more effectively?”

Here are some practical tips I’ve implemented in my own life. This definitely doesn’t mean that I’m against “productivity” in the traditional sense, but I do think there is a lot of value in balancing what we create with how we receive the things that are all around us.

1. Default to disabling all notifications.

Being receptive doesn’t mean opening yourself up to all the noise of the world.

Sometimes it means saying no to distractions so that you can focus on the things that matter. Buffer’s co-founder, Joel, shared how zero notifications is one of his most effective life hacks.

At the moment I only receive notifications for phone calls and text messages (and I’m debating removing text notifications altogether, too). I’ve been amazed by how present I’ve been able to be without my phone or computer regularly demanding my attention.

2. Observe one new thing each day.

We have a limited amount of receptivity in any given moment.

To test this, try listening to 20 different songs playing at once — it sounds like chaos, and it’s impossible to appreciate any of them.

Life is a lot like being surrounded by infinite harmonies, with each one competing for our attention. What I’ve started to do is pick one thing each day — a lamp, a song, a specific plant in the garden — and take the time to deeply and truly observe it.

I’m still very much a beginner at this but I’ve already felt it begin to develop my ability to focus, which is a crucial muscle for being more receptive. This pays off also in the form of single-tasking rather than multitasking.

3. Practice minimalism.

Minimalism is the practice of cutting out the extraneous and being intentional with your space, possessions and time. At Buffer, we’ve experimented with a variety of minimalism techniques to simplify life and work. How can we apply these principles to be more receptive in our own lives?

One quick way to become more receptive is to reduce the number of things that compete for my attention.

This is as true for many of the things we interact with as it is for notifications.

  • If I only owned one book at a time, I imagine I’d read it more deeply than if I had a stack of books waiting for me.
  • If I limited myself to one browser tab at a time, I’d pay far more attention to what I’m reading than if I had 15 tabs open.
  • If I had one outfit to wear, I’d save energy deciding on what to wear each morning.

As I start to reduce the things I own, I also dial up the influence that they have in my life. That’s why it’s important to also consider deeply whether the things I keep are essential and meaningful to me (I better love that one book I kept with all my heart!).

4. Write in the margins.

My grandfather used to tell me, “You haven’t truly read a book until you’ve argued with it in the margins.”

Over the years he built up a collection of hundreds of books, each filled with his thoughts, reactions, and questions. They represent a legacy of his ideas and what influenced him as he grew up.

Since I started doing this as well, not only do I find myself thinking about the books I read more, but I find it helps clarify my own thoughts and feelings.

This is an example of a larger practice that I’ve started to incorporate: Writing in life’s margins.

Life is full of those brief blank spaces, those opportunities to engage more deeply in what it is you’re doing. A brief conversation with the person seated next to you at a concert or on an airplane, stopping for a moment to listen to the musician playing on the street, or picking up that piece of trash blowing by your feet.

5. Ask better questions.

While there may not be any bad questions, I do believe that there are better questions.

The more I find myself thinking about improving the way I ask questions, the more I realize that it’s a powerful way of being more receptive. Open questions like, “Why do you think that might be true?” invite us to listen to someone else’s perspective more fully.

It’s a powerful act of generosity whenever a conversation goes beyond the surface level answers that we often give when we’re in a hurry or not sure our perspective really matters.

Not all questions need to be asked aloud, either. I often find myself using curiosity as a tool to expand my perspective or to deepen my empathy. There’s a world of difference between reacting to challenging situations with a statement such as, “That person just pulled in front of me!” vs. a question such as, “Hmm, I wonder why that person pulled in front of me so quickly?”

The statement reinforces my initial reaction, while the question opens the door for even a moment’s extra reflection and compassion. Curiosity is the art of acknowledging the world may not always be the way you think it is.

Over to you!

As you read through this, you might notice that some of this advice sounds like it could apply to productivity, too.

This is why I think the two ideas are inextricably linked: The more receptive we are, the more energy and inspiration we have to be truly productive. The more productive we are, the more important it is for us to become better at receiving and processing signals.

Do any of these ideas strike a chord for you? Got any suggestions for me in my quest to be more receptive? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter!

If you enjoyed this, I regularly write about receptivity on my blog at



Patrick Ward

Researcher and writer. I tell stories about technology through data and research.