credit: ISAW

What Most Productivity Advice Misses

I’ve been reading and writing about productivity for a few years now, and in that time, I’ve seen a lot of the same general advice recirculated in different ways. The formula tends to be the same.

In most cases, an article about productivity proceeds by assuming that you have a series of things on a to-do list, and attempts to educate you on how to do them. The problem, though, is that for most people presenting them with the how is never going to be as effective as presenting them with the why.

To take it further:

We’re never as productive as when we feel a deep, internalized push to get something done. The only way that can happen is by coming to truly care about that thing.

But caring is a tricky thing; it’s not easy to come by. You can’t force yourself to care about something, in the same way that you can’t force a willful toddler to eat broccoli that she is refusing, tight-lipped.

Rather, you have to be gentle, nurturing, and clever. You have to approach things with a kind of psychological agility. You have to ask questions, reveal motives and motivators, and leverage them. That kind of thing is a spiritual venture. All I mean by that term — spiritual — is that part of one’s life that isn’t superficial and public. It’s that deeper, private part of a person — the motivating part, where the passion and purpose come from, and where they live.

Making it Meaningful

But that’s the thing about modern approaches to productivity. It seems to me that these approaches are mostly about tools, organizational methods, or morning routines. But very little of it involves a spiritual element. So much of modern productivity advice floats atop that superficial layer of tools, tips, and tricks. And those things have their uses, for sure. We can all use those types of things to give us small boosts. But that’s what they give us over the long term — small boosts.

Even the productivity writing that isn’t about the tools and routines is about leveraging psychological findings. But the problem with that stuff is that it’s not individualized — it’s not meaningful to us as individual people. It’s just aggregated data, molded into folksy maxims about our behaviors — with hypotheses about our motivations.

So, yes, the latest “backed by research” findings might be useful. But in order to even do anything with it, you have to sit down and figure out how it meshes with your lived experience of productivity.

Just because psychologists at Stanford found that hungry people got more math questions right than people who ate chocolate cake doesn’t mean that fasting will work for you. Even if it does, how much it will work for you will depend on how you connect with your tasks, projects, and goals at a deep level. No lengthy list of tips about how to be more productive can make up for one that lacks depth.

Getting Deep

So how do you get depth? Unfortunately, that takes work. It’s the kind of work that you can’t do if you’re too busy just checking tasks off of a list, or looking at spreadsheets full of goals. It’s the kind of work that requires thinking, and the thing about thinking — truly, deeply thinking — is that we have been trained by productivity porn to avoid it, because the’re not immediate output.

Also, beyond our productivity mindset discouraging deep thinking, we also have been trained to avoid questions of a more existential bent — the ones about meaning, purpose, enrichment, etc.

Sure, there are plenty of puff-pieces talking about being authentic, and cultivating mindfulness, but the questions of what that authenticity means, and where that mindfulness should get you are left open. And very little is said about how we might go about answering them. But we have answer them. We have to find deep meaning among the piles of other things in our everyday experience. If we don’t, the things we get done won’t matter a bit.

How do we do that? How do we find the meaning? I happen to have a few ideas:

  1. Put aside the very alluring desire for immediate results. Momentum means nothing if it is momentum in a direction that’s not worth traveling in.
  2. Change your mode of thinking from thinking about the results of what you’re doing to the meaning of what you’re doing. This means thinking about how whatever you’re doing enriches and connects with you as a person — i.e., at a more spiritual level.
  3. Suspend your focus on metrics and quantifying in favor of qualitative evaluation. Focus on how tasks and projects make you feel, what they mean to you, in what sense — if any — they fulfill you.

Make no mistake. This isn’t fluffy stuff to be cast aside by driven, results-oriented people. Getting into the spiritual realm of productivity yields real results — in fact it’s the only way to get lasting results. But it takes overcoming our bias toward short-term busyness that feels like progress.

That is the hard part, but as I hope I’ve shown, it’s worth doing.

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