It’s Time to Stop Thinking About Productivity

Emily Kingsley
Mar 29, 2020 · 5 min read

If you live your life chasing the end of your to-do list, it’s time to take a pause.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

It’s hard to know what to do right now. Regular routines, meetings and grocery stores shelves have been tossed up like dried leaves to the wind.

It’s tempting to look at this weird new time as an opportunity to set bold new goals and crank out projects like never before.

But before dive headfirst into a bunch of big, new projects, consider this idea. You might get more done if you give up your color coded calendar and let your days pass fluidly instead of chopping them up like herbs on a cutting board.

It feels productive to make little labels and give one task 30 minutes when another one might get 90. It’s nice to see that little moving bar pass through each hour reminding us of where and what we should be doing at that time.

But when we focus so heavily on productivity, we tend to to prioritize completing a task over getting it done with intention and purpose. In my regular life, I wake up feeling like I need to be productive all damn day if I’m going to hold together all the moving parts of my busy life.

Focus on intention and purpose instead of completion.

During regular times, it feels like I’m always rushing. I move from task to task until the clock runs out. I collapse on the sofa, have a glass of wine, and go to bed so that I can wake up and do it all again. Trust me, I get a lot of shit done, but I still start almost every day feeling like I’m already behind.

But my days look very different now. I’m working full-time from home. My kids’ schools have both closed. My husband, a paramedic, is working most of the time, so I’m at home trying to figure out if everyone can tell I’m making a peanut butter sandwich while my mic is muted on my Zoom call (can you?).

And what I’m learning is that I get a lot more done when I stop focusing on being productive and just do what needs to be done.

Here’s an example. Every December, I put a Thule box on top of my Subaru and load it up with all of our ski gear. We ski all winter and then at some point in late spring, I’ll realize it’s silly to still be driving around with my skis on top of my car as if I’m expecting a surprise late may snowstorm.

In a normal year, my husband and I will find a rare 30 minute gap in our schedules and rush to take the box off. Since we’re pressed for time, we’ll just set it down next to our shed. I’ll take the skis out and lean them up against the basement door. The ski poles will fall in a pile next to the firewood. But I’m no longer driving around with skis on top of my car, so I can check that item off my list. Productive!

Checking items off your list isn’t the same as getting them done.

Here’s the problem. Later on, I will have to find a time a place to put everything away in it’s proper place. And by then our gear will be covered in spider webs and dirt, so first I’ll have to hose it down and then wait for it to dry. Not productive!

But this year — oh baby. We crushed it. The box is off, the skis are hanging in proper ski racks in our basement and I even washed and dried all of our mittens, hats, ski pants, face warmers and jackets and packed them away so we’re ready for next year.

And guess what — it didn’t take that much longer.

Better yet, it was enjoyable. Since I didn’t have a crushing list of tasks I needed to get to, it felt good to take the time to do the job all at once and know that I wouldn’t be facing a dozen tiny tasks over the next two months.

True, it’s not wrapping up a bestselling novel or investing in a tech startup, but wrapping up little tasks like putting away skis clears the clutter from my mind so that I have the mental resources to start thinking about bigger picture goals.

Check lists and calendars are the product of a life with too many things on the calendar, not the goal. There are moments where I want to reach for my planner so that I can see what I have to do next. It’s harder to take a minute and just think about what I should do next. But it turns out I’m a better decision maker than my calendar.

A packed calendar is a crutch that you lean on so you don’t have to figure out what to do next.

I’m also learning that my tight schedule is a convenient excuse to overlook things that bring meaning and happiness to my life. It’s easy to not call my mom or send a birthday card to my aunt because I’m too busy. And I know everyone understands because every time I see them, all I can talk about is how busy I am.

But making the call and sending the card make me feel good. Much better than my call-in board meeting or going to town hall to register my car.

So why is it that we’re so focused on productivity? Maybe it’s all the books written about it. It might be all the fun products, like apps and planners and watches that buzz, beep and snort at us to let us know when we’re slacking.

I sometimes think about my grandfathers who were both lifelong dairy farmers that lived well into their eighties. They spent their days driving tractors, carrying milking machines, harvesting hay and fixing fence.

By the time I knew them, their backs were stooped and their hands were callused from a life of manual labor. But they wrapped up in the barn by 6:00 and came to the house to enjoy an evening of jigsaw puzzles, reading and occasionally an episode of Jeopardy.

By any measure, they had productive lives. On any given day, they accomplished dozens of tasks, all without the help of a guru or a graphic organizer. They didn’t eat a frog or work for only 4 hours each week. They just buckled down and got shit done. All on their own.

We can do this too. When you wake up, focus on the things that you can do that will make you feel better. Clean your microwave. Throw out your single socks. Ditch your checklists and look around for things that need doing. You can always come back to your calendar later.

I’m not saying that now’s the time to stop doing any of the things you love. You shouldn’t stop taking care of your family or taking a shower. You don’t need to stop showing up for people or forget about paying your bills.

But maybe this is a moment to take a break from relentless productivity. Wake up, see what moves you. Take a pause before you check your phone or jump into your morning routine. You never know what you might get done.

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Emily Kingsley

Written by

Big fan of good books, funny looking animals, and great stories. Always ready for the next big thing.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Emily Kingsley

Written by

Big fan of good books, funny looking animals, and great stories. Always ready for the next big thing.

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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