Productivity is all the rage these days, with experts touting the joys of efficiency so you can get more done in less time, and – ideally – use that unwasted time on the things that matter most, like family, health, and travel.
As an example, here’s a quick video of research-based productivity hacks that millions of people are trying to apply (most of these strategies have had mixed results for me, but maybe they’ll work for you).
But here are the questions I’m wrestling with in regards to this, should being “productive” be the ultimate measure for how we define success?
Can we have a valuable life without maximizing the generative capacity of every moment, and does it really work to schedule your fun after the important things are done?
One more, a biggie, are people really balancing their productivity with more life enjoyment, or do they just keep cramming more tasks into the day because they’re mistaking genuine productivity with busyness?
As a freelancer and entrepreneur part of me yearns for more productivity, to check off more things on the daily to-do’s, and to go to sleep knowing I accomplished something meaningful that day. But as a mother, I can’t help but look at my kids and see them as unquestionably – even flamboyantly – UNproductive, and also yearn to have their sense of wild abandon, imagination, and freedom. After all, they seem pretty happy… when they’re not wallowing in some dramatic snack-related despair.
To complicate things further, I’m a creative human and holistic thinker. I burn out if I’m solely focused on practical things for too long, even if it’s broken up with breaks. I need to play, craft, experiment, and generally waste time on things that feed my soul just because it feels good. I also want to connect with fellow humans, enjoy some juicy fiction with a cup of tea, or take a photography walk in nature. It’s during those times that my rational mind takes a rest, and in resting serves as more fertile ground to ideas I’ll later integrate in more practical ways. But despite knowing the value of these pursuits I still have to quiet the nagging voice that says I’m being unproductive, that I should focus on growing my business, researching positive brands, organizing my tax receipts, networking, or learning something. Not just… (gasp) living life!
So where’s the balance?
As is so often the case, it helps to know we’re not alone in feeling like something just isn’t right about the way everyone around us seems to be doing things.
When I came upon the global slow movement, I let out a huge sigh of relief and then a HELL YES! This is what I’m talkin’ about!
"The slow movement is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It's about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting."
You can’t really savor the minutes if you’re on a productivity schedule, trying to get things done.
And while the point of productivity is to avoid distraction so you can actually accomplish your goals, something I totally agree is necessary, there are also times when distractions can be… good. By nature, they are “of the moment” and can lift our spirits in surprising ways. A text from a friend could make you smile, a pause to Google some interesting creative initiative could inspire you, leaving work early to go see your kid play soccer helps strengthen our human bonds.
Because the slow movement focuses on quality over quantity, it is unproductive in all the ways that matter!
Wisdom traditions know the value of doing nothing, living simply, and taking it slow. Isn’t that what meditation is all about? Artists get it too. They don’t mind spending hours, days, months, or even years producing just one piece of art. I know there’s more to it, but the point is that cultivating the stillness of pure being creates the peace from which all the good things can grow, including the vision to be productive with purpose.
Productivity pays the bills, but unstructured living feeds the soul.
The sweet spot is ultimately the ability to recognize when productivity is important and to stay focused, but to also dial it back and chill out regularly enough to actually enjoy this one beautiful life you have.
Here are some ways to help you do just that:
1. Make a habit of creative input.
You can’t keep producing if your own creative well is dry, so do things that enrich you spiritually and engage different senses than what you might use when you’re being productive, however you define that in your own work and life. I have a creativity practice, which encompasses a variety of things like doodling, crafting, listening to guided visualizations, or dancing. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as you’re consciously and regularly finding ways to fill your creative well with things that just feel good and don’t necessarily tie into your business or professional life.
2. Assess where you are on the productivity/slowness scale, regularly.
Doing too much? Give yourself a productivity detox and take a day off, yes you can, the world won’t stop spinning, promise. Use that time to do some slow activities, like cooking, gardening, or even spending 3 hours browsing at a bookstore. Or are you a little too loose right now and need some more structure to get things accomplished after a period of relative unproductivity? In that case, open your calendar right now and literally schedule all the things you want to complete over the next few weeks or months, with reasonable breaks and times to unwind. Then, get to work.
3. Do the right things in the right order.
This is perhaps one of the most useful pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten, from author Sean Platt who gave an incredible talk at camp GLP. It is so very tempting to yearn for the accomplishment of all our desires right this minute, whether it’s to launch a new product or go on an epic trip around the world. We are impatient, it’s a quality that provides both intrinsic motivation and sporadic depression. But it helps to remember that life is a long time, and wisdom is the ability to zoom out and realize that our experiences build upon each other in forging our unique paths as we take each step forward, however tentative or confident it might be. Perhaps for you, at this time, that means focusing on productivity this year, so that you can change careers next year in favor of a slower life. Doing the right things in the right order means making tough decisions with the big picture in mind, and then pacing yourself accordingly.
What’s your take on the productivity/slowness debate?