Productivity’s Overrated. Choose to be Present. And Enjoy Life.

Jake Wilder
Dec 19, 2017 · 11 min read
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Photo by Edu Lauton on Unsplash

I became incredibly productive. And then I started hating my life.

Rewind six months. I’d read enough articles by online productivity gurus to know that I wasn’t getting enough done. People kept telling me there’s 168 hours in a week. And if I’m not maxing out each one of them, I’m wasting my life.

What else was I supposed to do but start chugging the productivity Kool-Aid?

And I did. Straight from the tap.

I scheduled everything. I set all sorts of goals. To-do lists and calendars were everywhere. Every minute was scheduled and maxed out for efficiency.

I even wrote a post about it. (Although please don’t go read it. Trust me, I already tried and it’s not high quality stuff.)

I was accomplishing a lot. Things were getting crossed off my to-do list like never before. But soon those accomplishments stopped being impressive. And they weren’t making me happy. In fact, they were making me downright miserable.

Productivity for the Sake of Productivity is Just Busyness

I’m not saying all productivity is bad.

Cal Newport knows what he’s talking about with Deep Work. Minimizing interruptions and completely focusing on one thing brings a wonderful presence to life.

But it rarely stops there. Worship at the altar of productivity eventually transitions into busyness. We’re so focused on getting things done, we forget to ask whether what we’re doing is actually worth doing.

We want accomplishments, so we prioritize work that’s more easily accomplished.

We want measures of progress, so we bias our actions toward work that shows immediate results.

And while I’d started this productivity craze to bring more focus and eliminate distractions, I’d achieved the opposite effect. I’d traded one form of distraction for another.

Like the driver who suddenly finds himself at his destination with no memory of the journey, my days became a mindless blur of checkboxes and task completions. With nothing to truly distinguish the wonderful moments of life from the day-to-day monotony, I continued to show up in body but my mind was absent.

And I was letting the busyness of productivity distract me from facing life’s truly difficult challenges.

When Productivity Becomes Procrastination

In a truly memorable TED talk, blogger and self-proclaimed master procrastinator Tim Urban introduces us to the Instant Gratification Monkey. This impetuous creature runs havoc over minds, choosing instant gratification over actually doing our work. When we choose to spend our time in YouTube spirals and reading random Wikipedia pages instead of doing our work, the monkey is often to blame.

The monkey’s only fear is the Panic Monster, who comes out in the wake of a looming deadline or impending personal embarrassment. The monster’s able to scare the monkey into submission, letting us finally get to work. Often in a flurry of last minute finishes, feverish all-nighters, and ulcer-inducing stress.

It’s this uneasy balance that lets us procrastinate but still accomplish our work. Albeit to a likely poorer quality.

It’s here that productivity gurus find their hold. Productivity promises a way of keeping the monkey restrained. It tells us that if we just schedule, track, and report on every minute, the monkey won’t be able to run havoc over our minds.

So we hear the gurus spouting their monkey control plans and we jump on board. Thereby creating a much more destructive situation.

But what happens when we put so much focus on meeting our deadlines that we ignore the parts of life where there’s no schedule?

There’s no cue for the panic monster. The monkey’s grown up, adopted productivity as his new instant gratification, and is operating without restraint.

Productivity became my procrastination from life’s more difficult challenges. It prioritized short-term, results-based work at the expense of actually living.

Productivity motivated me to spend more time at work and less time with my family.

Productivity pushed me to finish another report instead of exercising.

And productivity told me to respond to every email instead of focusing on long-term self-improvement.

My whimsical Instant Gratification Monkey turned from frustrating to heinous. In Tim’s words,

So productivity alone cannot be our goal. Instead, our focus needs to be presence.

Presence Over Productivity.

Annie Dillard memorably wrote that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

With these words in mind, it’s easier to see that while productivity is a virtue, it’s only a worthwhile pursuit if it can be combined with presence. Productivity may lead to accomplishments, but presence ensures those accomplishments are meaningful. Presence helps us see this moment and decide the best next step.

Without presence, productivity becomes busyness. We find ourselves performing tasks that lack meaning, using mindless action as the excuse for not fully living.

As Seneca advised on this very same problem over 2000 years ago, “There is nothing that the busy man is less busy with than living.”

Most people consider Tim Ferriss to be a productive person. But first and foremost, he’s present. He piles up the accomplishments, but every one is driven by a sense of purpose and meaning, with the distinction that he’s fully mindful of his actions and how they’ll contribute to his life.

At least, that’s the version that I see. I don’t really know him. But after going through the trove of advice in Tribe of Mentors, the majority of productivity advice is actually advice on presence. It’s advice and stories that show how we need to be mindful of the moment if we hope to turn productivity into meaningful effectiveness. And keep it from being a distraction from living.

Recognize Your Purpose

Before his death, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions on the words that he wanted on his epitaph.

It was these contributions that he was most proud. The things for which he hoped people would remember him. Interestingly, being the third President of the United States didn’t make the list.

What would you want on your epitaph? How do you want people to remember you?

When Tim Urban is considering new opportunities, he considers whether he’d be happy if his epitaph had something to do with the project. In Tim’s words,

In Stoic philosophy, we’re encouraged to develop a grand goal of living if we hope to live a good life. By developing a grand goal of living and a strategy for attaining that goal, we focus ourselves towards pursuits that are genuinely valuable as opposed to squandering our time on distractions.

Whether we consider our epitaph, develop a grand goal of living, or just consider the life that we’ll be proud to lead, we should all know the meaning that drives us to be our best selves. We should all understand the destination that we hope to take our lives.

As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks reminds us,

Practice Excellence in Every Moment

When Bill Walsh took over the San Francisco 49ers in 1979, they were a dismal 2 and 14, and the worst team in the NFL. Three years later, they won the Super Bowl.

Despite a miraculous transformation, there was no miracle epiphany. There was no one major change that led to this turnaround. It was the compilation of thousands of seemingly minor changes.

Walsh implemented a “Standard of Performance.” He developed practices to instill discipline and excellence into every moment. Plays were graded down to the inch. Players could not sit down on the practice field. Sportsmanship, cleanliness, and teamwork were primary focuses. While some thought Walsh was overly focused on trivial details, he was actually infusing a discipline of excellence into every moment. As Ryan Holiday describes in Ego is the Enemy,

Most of us consider excellence as some future goal. Something that we aspire to achieve some day. But excellence isn’t an outcome. It’s a process.

When Maurice Ashley lost a crucial chess game, thereby missing the chance to gain the title of International Grandmaster, Alexander Shabalov, a Grandmaster who won the U.S. title four times, told him that, “In order to become a Grandmaster, you must already be one.” With that advice, Ashley went back to work perfecting himself before focusing on winning games.

Bill Walsh and Maurice Ashley both recognized that excellence isn’t a final destination. There’s no timetable or schedule for it. It’s a practice. It’s a mindset of bringing excellence into every moment and every action.

Productivity focuses on the results. It looks for a timetable of accomplishment. Presence creates a process. It gives us the discipline to see each moment and be mindful of whether we’re holding up our standards or starting to fall below them.

Once we can do that, winning and accomplishments will follow.

Be Selective

Most of us struggle to say no. Whether it’s because we’re still committed to the busyness status symbol or just because we like helping others, the result is the same. We take on too much and further divide our attention and time.

We accept new obligations out of a sense of responsibility to others. But we know deep down that we’re doing them a disservice. Few people want us to accept new work if we can’t fully commit to it.

There’s an exponential difference in performance between 100% commitment and 99%. We need the presence of mind to recognize which areas are worth pursuing and which will only distract us from our true purpose.

Derek Sivers applies the “Hell Yeah!” test to each new opportunity. Anything that doesn’t elicit a “Hell Yeah!” is an immediate “No.”

Jason Fried only agrees to commitments a day or two in advance. Kevin Kelly only accepts long-term commitments if he’d be excited to do them tomorrow.

But my favorite practice is credited to best-selling author, athlete, and all-around inspiration Kyle Maynard. He suggests we rank every opportunity on a scale of 10, with the caveat that we cannot use 7. His thinking:

Presence lets us consider each opportunity in the context of our overall mission. It helps us decide if it’s a worthwhile use of our time or if it’s a distraction from our real purpose. And prioritize quality over quantity.

Make the Hard Choices

In an open letter, Bill and Melinda Gates credit Warren Buffet with giving them the advice, “Don’t just go for safe projects. Take on the really tough problems.”

Their foundation is world-renowned for positively impacting some of the world’s biggest challenges. They do this by limiting their focus to a few critical issues and embracing the difficult decisions that come with being truly impactful.

Anything worth doing will require difficult choices. For the sole reason that if it was easy, everyone would do it. And it wouldn’t be valuable.

Our minds will often default to the easy choice. When productivity reigns, the destination is all that matters. So we’ll take the easier path. With a focus on our short-term comfort.

But as most of us have learned through our own struggles, today’s easy choice is rarely the best long-term investment.

Watching television is easy. Engaging with our kids is more difficult.

Demanding compliance through rules is easy. Explaining our reasons and gaining agreement is more difficult.

Finding a quick opinion is easy. Researching to fully understand an issue is more difficult.

Weight-lifting champion and prize poet Jerzy Gregorek offers the following advice,

When we can find and embrace the difficult choices, we’re constantly engaging our minds. We’re pushing ourselves to grow when everyone else is content to take the easy path.

As Robert Frost famously wrote,

Operate Without a Map

I’m often nostalgic for the days before GPS became a part of my life. The experience of getting lost, discovering something new, added an exciting element to travel. It could be frustrating as well, but the occasional excitement of stumbling onto something new often overrode the inconvenience of taking a longer detour.

Productivity focuses us on following a map. It’s an incredibly efficient GPS. It helps us reach a destination as quickly and as efficiently as we can. But we’re still following a map. And detours and surprises become less and less likely.

And we often arrive at our destination without taking the time to notice the scenery.

It’s in the noticing that we find new inspirations. Susan Sontag described a writer as “someone who pays attention to the world — a writer is a professional observer.”

And Steven Pressfield recently posted his benefits to noticing,

The same can be said for innovators, artists, and leaders. The notion of a prescribed map in these situations is nonsensical. If it was simply following the map, it wouldn’t be leading, it would be following. It wouldn’t be creating, it would be copying. It wouldn’t be distinctive, it would be repeatable.

Being present means being able to operate without that map. And pursuing things that are truly valuable.

Be Present.

Blaise Pascal blamed all of humanity’s problems on our “inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

As we continue to seek the promise of productivity, let’s make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. It’s admirable to make the most of the time that we have. But not at the expense of the present. Not as a means of avoidance.

Productivity without presence is mindless busyness. And the greatest distraction to living that we have.

As Bertrand Russell famously warned, “What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them?”

Choose presence. Choose living.

Agree? Disagree? Don’t be shy, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to hear from you. And if you found this helpful, I’d appreciate if you could clap it up👏 and help me share with more people. Cheers!

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Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

Jake Wilder

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

A network of business & tech podcasts designed to accelerate learning. Selected as “Best of 2018” by Apple.

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