My Secret to Sustainable Productivity

A short story about how one person’s selfish pursuit to feel better, led to productivity enlightenment.

(originally published 2/19/2017 on The Human in the Machine)

About a year ago there were few things in life I wanted more than to be productive. A few of my desired ‘products’ included landing client work, writing articles, creating presentations, and having a healthy body & mind. To reach my goals I devoted my full heart and attention to them. It required painstaking focus to create and optimize my work, writing, and fitness regimens, but I was sure that I was set up for optimal productivity.

Sure enough, my methods worked. I produced a lot! I had clients. I had articles. I had presentations. Hell, I even felt physically and mentally healthy. I was #winning!

You may have already guessed at what I’m about to say next. You think I’m going to tell you “I had this amazing, productive existence, but I wasn’t personally fulfilled”. If this is what you were expecting, you’re wrong!

I was completely in love with my exceptionally productive life. Being productive gave me a high and I wanted more of it. It was like nothing I have ever known.

However, I no longer have this life. I changed this course of productive events, by choice. And, I did so for a pretty selfish reason.

I wanted to keep the good times a-rolling!

After awhile I noticed my productivity level had become stagnant. The thrill I used to get from producing had decreased. I was becoming less motivated, and more irritable, more anxious even. What a drag! I needed to find a way back to my feel-good-days. I had to figure out a framework that would solve this problem. And quick! I knew I needed help in finding a way to sustain and grow my productivity so I could feel good again.

I had a plan before that had worked to make my life productive. So surely abiding by a new one would work like it did in the past. Right? I decided to move 3,000 miles away to a slower, quieter environment. Then, I re-optimized my schedule and lifestyle to fit my new digs.

A year into this plan and I still was not able to consistently sustain my productivity, shoot, I couldn’t even increase it! I got this icky feeling when I tried to be productive. Maybe you know the one I’m talking about. It’s a feeling of being “stuck” and not wanting to put the time or effort into something. You know, you feel this way not because you are lazy but because nothing is pulling you in any particular direction. I compare it to staring at your old desires, but, instead of feeling like you want to run towards them with arms flung open, you feel stuck in the mud, with two dirty feet. Talk about a buzzkill.

I thought, “What the hell?”. “I moved across the country — to the middle of nowhere might I add — for this?!” How did my plan fail? What was going on here?

I had to think outside the box.

That’s when it hit me. Maybe it wasn’t the plan that was flawed, it may have been my goals that needed to be tweaked.

I was reminded of an episode of The Good Place on NBC. In this particular episode, the main character is trying to be “good” so she can earn enough points to stay in The Good Place. She soon realizes that she’s not earning any points. It’s because her motivation to stay is entirely self-serving. She discovers that the only way she could earn enough points to stay, is to voluntarily leave and go to The Bad Place.

Could this concept be the same for my situation?

Of course it could! I saw the key to getting more done wasn’t in trying or planning to do things, instead, it was to actually do them! I spent so much energy on the former that I had none left for the latter. Therefore, in order to increase my productivity, I needed to stop trying to be productive.

Also, I realized that productivity wasn’t the only thing I was trying to sustain. I also wanted to be productive and give back to the world. But let’s be real, I also wanted the good feeling I would get from producing. I asked myself, what really gave me that good feeling? It was not enough to be productive. I had to be producing the things I cared about to get that good feeling — and doing them with present mind and spirit.

What I did next was apply this simple concept. I stopped. Oh yes, theoretically simple, but difficult to execute, yes.

I stopped.

Anything I wasn’t truly enjoying or felt I was forcing, I stopped doing it. For example, if my gut told me not to court a client I simply didn’t do it. If I felt myself trying to create an article just to “put something out there”, I immediately set the work aside.

Being honest, this was really hard. I have had a pretty privileged life, but I did not have a lot of savings left over after staying in NYC for 8 years, then moving 3,000 miles across the country. Whew! Talk about depleting the account emotionally and financially.

I was really scared to try this approach. I also felt lazy, ungrateful, wasteful, entitled, privileged, guilty… you name it, I felt it. But, I worked through these feelings. I made myself work through the discomfort because I had to see what was on the other side. Looking back, I’m glad I kept at it because it actually worked.

I started landing dream projects. I received invitations to write. I even found the motivation to write, double-wow! My body felt more fit and my mind became clearer too. To me, I had found the secret!

My theories were correct. All the energy I spent figuring out how to be productive was the culprit and took away the energy I needed to produce. And, all the energy I was expending on doing the things I thought I should to be productive, took away from doing the things I cared about.

By stopping, I was able to conserve and focus my energy in more efficient ways. This allowed me to produce more and enabled me to feel good about what I was producing. I saw it’s not only OK to stop, but completely necessary. Wow, it seems that my selfish thinking was just what I needed to lead me to this realization.

The key for sustaining and increasing productivity isn’t scheduling the perfect day, nor is it following the perfect diet, or the perfect workout. Shoot, I would also say it’s not in trying to produce a certain amount each day, each week, or each year. It’s simply to save energy to do the things one cares the most about. It’s physics, people. It has to work!