The Productivity Paradox: Presence vs. Productivity

Why it is better to be “Present” than to be “Productive”.

“Busyness is an illness of the spirit” — Eugene Peterson

In our quest for higher productivity and self-efficacy, we have pursued happiness relentlessly — only to bypass happiness with untold amounts of stress and busyness.

What I’ve learned is that the pursuit of busyness has become our greatest source of unhappiness.

As kids were taught if we only work harder we’ll achieve our dreams. The notion is inculcated in us that “working harder” is always “better”. It has been only of late that there has been a recognition that working smarter not necessarily harder is better. This is also reinforced at the workplace — the employee who works till mid-night (every night), is viewed as “excellent” and gets the promotion.

In addition, social media provides a curated version of our lives on Instagram that seems picture perfect. Curated perfection is now the ultimate goal.

I’ve recognized that “busy is a decision” and that presence is more rewarding than productivity or efficiency. My husband was in his early thirties when he passed away. He was sick, felt the symptoms, was exhausted all the time, but ultimately it was too late, nothing could be done. We had just had a baby eight weeks prior — and to say that life was busy was an understatement.

All the things that we had wanted originally for our lives — connection, creativity, a life of memories — had now evaporated in three hours.- Keisha Blair

In a time when stress levels are perhaps the highest they’ve been in history, its time to for a discussion on our limits as human beings. In another quick fix effort we’ve traded tranquility and meditation for “anger rooms”, a rather alarming, trend among stressed out people who’ve abandoned hope of meditating their tension away. The fact that these rooms exist says something troubling not just about our current stress levels, but how we’re choosing to address them. For $20 to $90 you can pick an instrument like a baseball bat or sledgehammer and — consequence free — break a whole bunch of stuff to release your anger.

However, alternatives to reducing stress and anger such as controlled deep breathing, prayer and meditation and the mindful practice of keeping things in perspective are far more effective.

The “power of pause” creates high quality energy that increases our resilience and our ability to deal with more complex problems. — Keisha Blair

There are a number of ways to pause, physically, mentally and emotionally. A pause can be created by a walk around the block, 20 minutes of meditation, exercising, immersing into a hobby, or simply a high-quality coffee break. The important point is to create time and space to empty your mind and then reflect and filter issues.

It was on an unpaid sabbatical from work, that I realized the power of pause. I simply learned to be present. To be present with my emotions and my innermost goals and desires. That grief and that long moment of pause turned out to be my most powerful moment of self-realization.

There are two fundamental truths about living life in a constant state of busy:

Busyness and Stress is the Thief of Intuition:

Busyness (and stress) is the thief of intuition. I conducted an “intuition experiment” after my sabbatical ended to see if my intuition would be as sharp as it had been when I relegated my busyness to the back-burner. To my surprise, when I re-busied myself and lived life in a constant hurry after returning to work — my intuition seemed to have vanished. I no longer heard that little voice — or maybe it was there but I had no time to hear it. I couldn’t wait in “expectancy” as my life had returned to the mad rush of meeting deadlines, meetings and requests. So I decided once again to take time off for another extended period. Again, like clockwork — my intuition returned — not just any intuition — the type that guided me on what to decisions to make from the moment I awoke. Paradoxically, I had achieved so much more when I took the time off than when I was busy and most “productive”. Furthermore, the “achievements” were different. They were in line with my personal mission and values.

2. Busyness and Stress Robs us of “Really Living”:

Busyness creates a cycle of constantly putting off the things most important to us. Reconnecting with loved ones, friends and family. Giving our kids the type of quality time they so desperately deserve. Connecting with our kids’ school to really engage the teachers on how we can be more involved and proactive in our child’s education. Putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future.

Luminaries like Henry David Thoreau have touched on the productivity paradox in reflecting on a neighbor he finds to be “the most poetical farmer,” one who embodies “the poetry of the farmer’s life”:

“Minott is, perhaps, the most poetical farmer — who most realizes to me the poetry of the farmer’s life — that I know. He does nothing with haste and drudgery, but as if he loved it. He makes the most of his labor, and takes infinite satisfaction in every part of it. He is not looking forward to the sale of his crops or any pecuniary profit, but he is paid by the constant satisfaction which his labor yields him. He has not too much land to trouble him, — too much work to do, — no hired man nor boy, but simply to amuse himself and live. He cares not so much to raise a large crop as to do his work well. He knows every pin and nail in his barn. If another linter is to be floored, he lets no hired man rob him of that amusement, but he goes slowly to the woods and, at his leisure, selects a pitch pine tree, cuts it, and hauls it or gets it hauled to the mill; and so he knows the history of his barn floor.”

In the end, excellence (and by virtue productivity and efficiency) isn’t about achievement, it’s about character and our individual impact on the trajectory of humanity.

Keisha Blair is the co-founder of Aspire-Canada. You can also find her at