Here is why productivity doesn’t matter

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Photo by Neven Krcmarek on Unsplash

One question that has, for some reason, bothered me quite a lot is: what is productivity?

Throughout all the different personal development and productivity blogs I’ve read, I’ve learned a number of ways to be more productive. Eliminate distractions, exercise, don’t have long meetings and so on and so on.

However, I never really took time to understand what productivity is.

Perhaps this is because the first answer is quite mundane.

The ability to produce stuff.

It’s a keystone behind David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system which has sold millions of copies and inspired a host of productivity blogs out there.

The more productive you are, the more stuff you produce or complete.

Is this helpful? Anyone can be extremely productive if you take this definition because you can complete a lot of small, relatively meaningless tasks and say you’ve had an extremely productive day every day. This is why answering a bunch of emails or cleaning the house might feel productive even though you’ve put off something more important.

Simply producing more stuff isn’t a helpful definition in a lot of contexts we’re now in. What about…

The ability to produce important stuff.

This is a bit more focused. If complete more important stuff you’re going to be more productive than the person who just completes a bunch of meaningless tasks, right? For example, if you decide not to answer a bunch of emails and instead write the important report or calculate the important calculation, then you’re producing more valuable stuff.

While we’re getting closer to a more usable definition, we’re not there yet. What happens if the tasks you’re working on aren’t important to you but rather someone else? Am I being unproductive because the ‘important’ goals aren’t important to me?

Possibly. But many of us will work for other people and on important tasks that do not completely align with our personal passions. It’s a normal part of a working life in whatever capacity. The importance of the task depends on the context but then we may want to think in more depth about the kind of context we find ourselves in the majority of the time.

We may think about productivity in personal terms – getting stuff done that’s important to you. Doing this might be quite drastic because we could find that we’re largely unproductive despite doing brilliantly at your job or studies. We do want to make distinction between business and personal productivity because not everyone is at the luxury of being able to quit their jobs and focus on things that are only important to them. But it’s a helpful tool when coming to think about your priorities and how you can ensure you’re focusing on them as much as you can.

However, I don’t want to keep on twisting and contorting the definition of productivity. Working on and creating things that are important to you whether that is in a personal or business sense. This discussion leaves us a more important question.

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Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

Does your productivity matter?

The simple definition of productivity – getting stuff done – is unhelpful. Thinking about getting stuff done in terms of their importance is much more helpful. Yet, the more I think about it, the less I think it actually matters.

In the short term, of course it matters. You don’t want to lose your job or fail university because you’re too busy watching videos on things that barely interest you. In the long term, I think the value of an action might be better judged by its ability to help you live with integrity or overall satisfaction.

Focusing on things that are important to you isn’t good simply because they are productive. Instead, it results in matching the things that matter to you and the actions you complete every day. In doing that, we live with greater presence and a movement away from chastising yourself for “not being productive enough” or “lazy” or “wasting time”.

If we judge something as a waste of time because it doesn’t help us live in line with our values instead of whether it is helping us be productive enough, it helps us do a few things.

First, we stop micro managing our time. Doing this helps us stray away from being overly critical of how we spend our time.

Second, it gets to the deeper cause of our disappointment. We can spend a day with a very difficult problem and not write a single word yet still feel like we’ve done something useful. We can spend a day writing rubbish all day, and feel remarkably unsatisfied with everything. It’s the lack of personal importance that seems to drive this disappointment.

Third, we think honestly about the bigger picture – and make steps towards them. My yearly integrity posts are an attempt to slow down and reassess what is really important to me and how I can mould my life and my days in that direction. Doing this places a useful urgency into my days.

So, if not productivity, what is important?

Seneca complains that

It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if you know how to use it.

we say life is short yet treat it as though we will live forever. Regularly returning to important values instead of getting lost in thoughts about what is productive and what isn’t, I think, is more helpful overall.

Thinking about productivity is useful but should only come second to thinking about actions that help us live in accordance with our values.

To do this, we have to slow down and remember what is actually important rather than going so fast you’ve been running in the wrong direction for ages.

As always, thank you for reading.


 

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October Reading List

Hi again. More books.

Most of the books I’ve read over the past few months have been fiction. As you can probably guess from my previous lists, I read a lot of non-fiction. I enjoy it but haven’t lost myself in a lot of good stories for a while.

Naturally, during the last few months, nearly all of my books have been fiction.

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday 

A book about the problems our ego presents to us.

An easy way to explain this is like so: our ego makes us extremely interested and concerned about our personal image and how we’re viewed to others. As a result, we tend to focus less on the important tasks we have to focus on and more on how to protect the image we’ve built of ourselves.

It took me a while to get round to this book. I didn’t agree with a lot of it at first because I felt that he argued ego causes more problems than it actually does. However, after re-reading sections, I came to understand the book better and thought his argument was interesting.

It is when we care less for ego and more for the important things in life that we produce valuable work. Instead of always thinking about how feel. How can improve the lives of others?

Amazon.

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

Brilliant.

I’m very late to get to this book but damn. I loved all of it.

Towards the end of Stalin’s regime, there is a killer who targets children and murders them in horrific ways. Leo, a secret police officer, changes his ways completely in search for this person and risks his career, his life and his wife in the process.

I suck at describing books but read it. Please? Thanks.

Amazon.

One by One by Chris Carter 

Another thriller. Another great ride.

A man calls Detective Robert Hunter’s desk and asks him to go to a website. He sees a man in a glass box, restrained against a chair. The caller asks Hunter, “Fire or water? How do you want him to die?”

The whole book had me on edge and the ending was… interesting.

I also love Robert Hunter now. He’s one of those Jason Bourne type guys. Chris Carter can write a damn good crime thriller. I’ll definitely read more (thankfully, there are about 7 in the series).

Amazon.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Duckworth’s work has been getting a lot of praise among the self-improvement sphere for a while now. And for very good reason.

She studies grit. The combination of passion and perseverance. Continuing with tasks even if they get difficult or boring. In the book, she wants to understand why certain people are more ‘successful’ than others in a variety of tasks ranging from completing the brutal Beast Barracks training in the United States Military Academy to university students getting top grades. It’s not intelligence, wealth, height or any physical attribute that is the best predictor of success. It’s grit.

Her work is entertaining to read and every point she makes is well supported. However, I also admire that she’s open to admitting the shortcomings of her research and questions that can be explored further.

There’s a lot of valuable information to gain from it. Including why perseverance with goals is very helpful but less common than you’d imagine and how to foster grit in other people. I want to explore it in more detail as I think the ideas are worthy of much more consideration.

And Emilia Lahti is her student and she’s the nicest person ever.

Amazon. 


As always, thanks for reading!

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How to Prioritise like Warren Buffett

Here’s the oft cited story*

Buffett was talking to his pilot and asked him to write down the top 25 things he wanted to accomplish either in a few years or his lifetime.

“What 5 are the most important?” he asked.

This is a terribly difficult task and he took some time trying to decide his top 5 priorities – the accomplishments he wanted the most.

“But what about the other 20? What will you do with them?”

The pilot said that the other 20 aren’t as important but they’re a close second and he’ll work on them when he has time.

Warren then said that he’s made a mistake. Everything he didn’t pick as his top five gets no attention at all until his top five priorities have been accomplished.

No prioritisation = nothing gets done

If we don’t assign any kind of importance to our tasks, everything is of equal importance and urgency. You have a lot of choice but no way to determine which one you should start on first. Therefore, you spend a lot of time trying to decide rather than working on something important.

If you do happen to choose, without clear priorities, it’s easy to abandon the project because we wish to start a different one.

This useless dabbling can’t be taken too literally because we all prioritise some way simply by virtue of doing something. If I watch videos, at that time, my behaviour is indicates that videos is what deserves my attention.

While our behaviour seems to point towards our actual priorities, our actions doesn’t always match our desires. Meaning, we don’t prioritise too well.

Although I spend my time watching videos, it doesn’t mean I want to spend my time that way.

Ruthless Prioritisation

Prioritisation should be ruthless.

It involves saying no to tasks you don’t need to complete and some things you want to complete. It asks you to close the door to things you hold dear so you can spend more time with the most important things. Saying no to yourself when the tasks seem so important almost feels like you’re not giving yourself the best chance possible.

Why not do everything instead?

It increases our chance of doing less. Doing everything means we spread our focus and energy very thin. It leads to incomplete to-do lists and accompanying feelings of guilt.

So why does this technique work?

It emphasises simplicity.

By removing the things we don’t need to do and the activities which fall under the category of ‘it would be nice to do some day’, we free up a lot of mental space and reduce our levels of stress considerably.

It’s much more satisfying than blaming the lack of time because it isn’t a great excuse.

You can’t get more time in a day by asking the clock gods to make one hour 100 minutes long rather than 60 minutes. You make more time by removing the inessential and focusing on the important stuff in life.

I mentioned the term ruthless prioritisation because it involves closing the door to some things you have a desire to do and focusing as much as you can on a smaller number of important tasks.

In theory, this is difficult. In practice, it’s even more so.

Here are a few practical tips:

  1. “If I don’t do it, so what?”

What’s the worst thing that could happen if you didn’t make this a top priority?

What happens if it’s not completed?

For the vast majority of things, nothing significant happens. Otherwise, they’d be urgent priorities we’d devote a lot of time and energy to anyway.

I’ve said, along with millions of others that I want to learn a language. It was one of those ‘terribly important things I must do’ but somehow never devoted any time to.

“I should really get round to that”

“I’ll do it someday”

Have you said any of these things before?

Useless statements. They didn’t inspire action because they created an obligation that didn’t have any criteria for completion. They did, however, make me angry at my inaction.

What was I really saying? “I should really get round to it but I won’t”.

Admit it isn’t a priority or make it one. Let the self-imposed guilt will fall away.

  1. Stars, asterisks and scribbles

On your to-do list, write out a list of tasks you want to complete and put an asterisk next to the task you deem most important.

What does important mean in this context?

If you completed this and nothing else, the day is still a success. Everything else is just a bonus.

I found it helpful to be generous when doing this. Writing a long list and making everything a priority increases the standard for success very high but is often unhelpful. It increases self-criticism rather than your ability to complete more.

  1. Priorities change

After hearing about prioritisation and saying no to things, it might be tempting to think priorities can’t change.

They can and probably will.

Focusing on a task and deciding you don’t want to continue is a much better way of making choices than dabbling in a lot of things and never giving yourself the chance say no.

Here’s an example: Reading part of one book and choosing to stop reading is much better than skimming the pages and never understanding if you like the book or not.

Finding what is most important is difficult. And that’s normal.

I frequently find myself having too many options and needing to reassess what is important to me. Sometimes the list stays the same. Sometimes, it changes. It doesn’t always mean something is going wrong.

It’s often a simple indication that I’m changing my mind – which, admittedly, can be uncomfortable.

Letting go of fake obligations and priorities made handling feelings of guilt and indecisiveness much easier. I stopped being pulled in different directions and I could focus on the things I really wanted to do.

Proper prioritisation takes time. Often you’ll need a small reminder of your priorities rather than resorting back to spreading yourself too thin.

Prioritise the important and remove the distractions.

Find peace in focus.

What will you decide not to do?


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* As with a lot of stories about famous people, they aren’t sourced very well at all. I have no reason to believe that it actually happened any more than the Einstein story. Luckily, this story is merely a way to make the value of prioritisation more personal.

The story is from Live Your Legend.

How to Create Plans You’ll Stick To

There are two easy ways to create feasible plans:

  1. Pretend you have 30% the energy you usually have
  2. Copy a plan you’ve completed successfully before

Note that I’ve left out the most obvious way – looking at a calendar and the things you have to do then filling up the hours.

Why don’t we stick to plans?

I’m probably one of the biggest culprit of this which is what led me to figure out how to stop this from happening again as it was becoming a huge source of frustration.

It’s simply too difficult

For some reason, if we imagine a free day we imagine a lot of time. But we also assume our energy levels will match that. It often doesn’t.

Cramming the day with loads of activities is only going to make you tired quickly and far more likely to stop doing them even in the middle of the day. If it’s a long term plan it’s even less likely to continue.

We get distracted

Distractions are a huge problem. As research shows, after a distraction, it takes about 25 minutes to get back into work.

It makes our work far less efficient and moves everything in the plan forward. Therefore we work longer, become more tired and start putting things off.

We don’t give ourselves enough time

We might assume that we can get an essay done in 3 hours but sometimes we might get stuck which means we have to take a longer break. Or we can’t find the book we want.

Same with side projects you might want to do after work/studying. If we expect to do all of them in a minimal time then we’re either going to drop them completely or reduce them drastically and feel guilty about it.

We procrastinate

Looking at a large plan for the day can be intimidating and cause us to procrastinate. Therefore we don’t do anything we aim to. Here’s one simple way to stop it.

Making plans work

  1. Assume less energy than normal

This point relies on assuming you have less energy than your plan assumes

If we try being superhuman then get intimidated or worn out by our plan, it’s not a useful. On the other hand, if we’re more modest, we have a much easier starting point, procrastination is less likely and we will complete things.

Let’s take one of the plans I’ve had in the past (and I’ve had many):

Capture 4 Capture 3 Capture 1

This is actually a simplified version of a plan I had at one point in my first year of university.

Looking back on it, it’s surprising to think that I considered it then even more surprising is that I was annoyed when I couldn’t complete it! Nearly 9 hours of difficult (and unnecessary!) work I had planned. That’s on top of being social, dealing with chronic pain and you know, trying to not hate books after my first week.

The plan didn’t work for a variety of reasons:

  • I didn’t have the energy to complete them
  • I ignored other factors (like having friends and going outside)
  • It was boring
  • It wasn’t flexible

Creating the plan with the mind that you’ll have less energy means you plan to do fewer things, increase flexibility and still complete things. So the plan above might turn into this (assuming there’s a 9am start):

Capture 2

And that’d be it.

The first plan has nearly 9 hours of mentally tasking work while the second has 4 hours with large breaks in between. It’s much easier to start and I found I got more work done with the second plan overall.

  1. Copy a previous plan.

The second condition is easier to implement. If you’ve successfully created and completed a plan before, copy it and use it again.

However, it’s important to take into account new factors when doing this because your past plan might have been completed under much different conditions. For example, if you’ve caught a cold, your energy is going to be lower than it would be normally so you’ll complete less work or it’ll take longer to complete the same amount.

But remember to be reasonable. If you’ve planned an overnight stay at your library or a general rush till exams, you won’t be able to sustain it for a long period. To combat that, refer to point one.

An impromptu Q&A session

“But you’re doing so little work – you’re obviously doing a Philosophy degree this doesn’t apply to me!”

Fortunately, it still does. If you’ve ever planned anything and never completed it (although you feel you should have) then it applies. Creating unrealistic plans is normal and unless you actually have unlimited energy, it’s fine to plan less and complete more.

Dealing with chronic pain means I’ve had to change how I view plans and making my time more efficient. This is one way I’ve managed to stay with the crowd despite being in pain all the time.

“But what if I can’t plan less! I have so much more work to do than you”

That’s where the second condition comes into place.

Not every plan can work on such little energy. Deadlines and loads of work exist. If you’ve actually completed a plan that meets the demands of your current situation, mould it around that. As Scott Young says, you’re allowed to experiment.

If not, continue to assume you’ll have less energy when creating it. And stop procrastinating.

“What if I have scheduled commitments?”

If you have a variety of things you want to do (clubs, learning new things, blogging etc), reducing the amount of energy you’ll have to complete it seems ridiculous. It isn’t.

In this scenario, you have to exercise prioritising and say no to some commitments. If you don’t, there’s a good chance you won’t do them, get frustrated at the ‘little free time’ you have or burn out very quickly and blame yourself.

Admittedly, it is difficult saying no to things especially when you seem to have a lot of time for trying new things. Those things won’t disappear straight away and there’s no point in planning them if you’re too tired to complete them.

It’s alright to say no.

“Am I allowed to continue working past my smaller plan?”

Yes. A minimal plan makes it easier to start working. It doesn’t necessarily put a limit on how much you should continue working. Though, it should make you more efficient with the hours planned – reducing the need to continue working much more.

The next day, return to the minimal plan. A good plan is sustainable.

“I’m rubbish with times. What if I oversleep?”

Ignore times and focus on activities. Instead of planning the hours, aim to work on a project for an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening.

If that is too difficult, aim to do an hour of the project during the course of the day. The earlier the better of course as you don’t want tiredness to excuse you from working.

“Did you write these questions yourself?”

Some things are best kept secret.

Action Steps

The take away from this is to reduce the amount of energy you’ll need to finish a plan so it’s easier to start and easier to complete.

What can you do now?

  1. Create a plan for your ideal day
  2. Assume you’ll have less energy than normal
  3. Create a new plan.

A small amount of completed work is better than a large amount left wished to be completed.


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The One Phrase to Beat Procrastination

Procrastination plagues all of us.

Whether it’s a writing an essay or cleaning the house – we have tasks we want (and need) to do and put them off anyway.

To combat this, we’ve probably read a number of useful things on stopping procrastination. Break down the goal into small and manageable tasks, plan your day, set deadlines, and work without distractions and so on.

They’re all helpful but we still put things off. When we think of the task, we begin to feel uncomfortable. Let’s delve into that feeling of resistance.

What do we feel when we procrastinate?

Should we actually spend time with these feelings, we might learn a few things.  We’ll split the tasks into the classic Eisenhower matrix.

If it’s important but not urgent, we’ll find comfort in procrastination because we don’t have to do it but feel guilty because we know it will be helpful. If our thinking continues, we might feel guilty for having these feelings at all.

If it’s urgent but not important, we might feel anxious or on the other hand, apathetic towards the task. The task’s urgency means we have to think about it but since it’s unimportant, the deadline might just zoom past without consequence.

If it’s urgent and important, the feelings  of guilt, dread and discomfort are multiplied. We’ll feel trapped within the confines of our own procrastination – like slaves to distraction and quick entertainment.

Depending on how bad the procrastination is, the task will remain undone and we’ll just deal with the consequences.

There are many feelings we have while procrastinating. A lot of it stems from the fear of discomfort and results in self-criticism that makes us feel bad rather than change action in a sustainable way.

How can we combat this?

The phrase to beat procrastination

“It’ll be better after I start”

Since all of our feelings from procrastination are born of inaction, using them it’s useless to gauge how well the task will be done. We often overestimate the difficulty or underestimate our ability to try.

Stop thinking about how you might feel during the task and quieten the internal monologue convincing us to give into instant gratification. Start the task then experience how you feel.

Starting something always feels better than not starting but wanting to.

I’ve never felt worse for starting something I’ve needed to. Of course, I’ve abandoned things or disliked them for a variety of reasons but it’s better to have justified reasons and progress under your belt rather than being guided by fear.

Conclusion

When you find yourself procrastinating, say “it’ll be better after I start”.

Because it will and you’ll be OK.


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Other helpful reminders for procrastination:

Create without expectation

What’s wrong with now?

Why Procrastinators Procrastinate

Make Your Bed

If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed

Admiral McRaven

Start the day with a simple and easy task – make your bed.

When I was younger, I ignored the command “make your bed” as many times as I was told to do it. I didn’t need to because I’m going to sleep in it later anyway. It was pointless.

But the point isn’t to prepare you for sleep at night. It’s to prepare you for the rest of the day.

Making your bed is easy. It takes a minute to do, it can be done every day and you’ll always have a reason to do it.

It is the perfect way to get started with changing bad habits and encouraging good ones.

I say this because it teaches us a lot about how habits are created and maintained. Habits require a trigger (a messy bed), a routine (making the bed) and a reward (first task of the day accomplished and a neater room).

It also gives us a small sense of pride. You can say ‘I’ve accomplished something today’ before you’ve brushed your teeth. Since it was so easy, you might be encouraged to complete other tasks such as cleaning your desk or open the book you’ve been meaning to read.

Should you have a bad day, a made bed can offer some calmness. Maybe you haven’t accomplished the things you wanted or something has bothered you. You’ve made your bed. It’s a small victory but one you can appreciate.

If we don’t appreciate the small things in our day, the bigger moments may pass by unnoticed.

Start the day simply and make your bed.

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Let the Fear Pass

Fear is like a cloud.

It hovers over your head and the tasks you want to complete. But after a while, it passes and the sky becomes clear again.

When I notice myself putting something off and ask why, I tend to feel uncomfortable. Usually because there’s not much reason other than  ‘I don’t want to’. Appealing to laziness is the same thing.

Usually, the bigger the task, the greater the uncomfortable feeling. This, and generally poor energy management, is probably why students tend to leave big essays until they begin to panic about the deadlines.

I experience this feeling a lot. It often leads to potent self-criticism that only serves to make me feel bad.

One thing I’ve found helpful is to meditate on this feeling. It takes less than a minute.

What am I experiencing right now? Am I worried about what’s going to happen if I try?

More often than not, it’s fear. Either the fear of discomfort or fear of failure. Every time I catch myself experiencing these feelings, the less powerful they become.

We don’t have to fear the discomfort of trying something new because it can signal a challenge that fosters some personal growth. It’s important not to diminish this growth even if you think it’s tiny. If your challenge was to pick up dirty clothes from the floor and you surpassed it, that’s a cleaner room you didn’t have yesterday.

Neither should we fear failure to the point where it stops us from moving forward because we can only succeed at something if we try and the joy of succeeding is greater than the pain of failure.  Giving ourselves the excuse not to try is only a disservice to our abilities and passions.

Once permission is given not to be consumed by fear and not influence our actions, it passes. Just like a cloud.

As with many things, observing fear and letting it pass takes practice. I still fall victim to putting things off due to these fears as they will always pop up somewhere. It’s a normal thing and it’d be silly to expect everyone to be fearless all the time.

The goal is to move forward despite its existence.

At first, even noticing you’re afraid of something is difficult then moving past it can be a small battle. But don’t get discouraged if you notice its been victorious. Next time you’ll focus on the feeling again and it’ll become easier.

With time and practise, the fear will weaken and you will be immersed in the present moment.

***

Further Reading: 

  1. Create without expectation
  2. On Productivity and Presence
  3. What’s wrong with now?

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