On Productivity

Below is a reprint of an essay on productivity I wrote for the the Read & Trust magazine last October.

Productivity is a loaded word

Superficially, productivity implies some super-human skill to keep busy where other mortals can not. It is the polar opposite of the dilly-dally. I can’t go to the park today. I need to be productive. I want to be more productive. Don’t you? If not, what’s wrong with you?

For the longest time, I thought productivity was something I could conquer. I sure tried to conquer it. I put my head down and ran straight at it full tilt. I repeatedly bashed my skull into it for years. I can look at so much folly in my life arising from this private war with that slippery productivity.

When I should have focussed on why I’d lost interest in engineering, instead I obsessed over learning to use an engineering calculator. As a young lawyer, I spent days generating forms that I’d never use. My life is a long series of fool’s errands all in the name of productivity. Productivity gave me a perfect out when I didn’t want to pay attention to the direction my ship was heading.

I never grew out of this personality flaw. I’m still likely to stick unfortunate body parts into the productivity bear trap. Maybe it is the latest app or technique or book that everybody swears is the answer to finally getting my shit together. They are all so tempting to me. I don’t think I’ll ever entirely get over it. I’m like a reformed alcoholic trying to walk my way down Bourbon Street without falling off the wagon.

What I have obtained, however, is a degree of wisdom. I accept that productivity crap is my own personal kryptonite. I consider myself enlightened in this way.

Having made every mistake, I can testify that for a lot of people, productivity is what people talk about when they are unknowingly running in circles. For a lot of us, it has become what we do when we are having trouble making tough decisions.

Knowledge is power. Now that I’ve accepted this personal foible, I pay attention. If I’m suddenly much more concerned about sorting and organizing projects than doing them, red flags go up. I’ve got to examine things closely. Usually there is a reason. Maybe the project itself isn’t something I want to do any more. Maybe the project no longer makes sense. Or maybe it is just really fracking hard and I’m putting it off by finding some way to be more productive.

If you bang your head into this enough times, eventually it sinks in. Productivity is not something to conquer. Indeed, like some mystic religion (or my sister’s cat), the way to get productive is not through pursuit but instead focussing elsewhere.

It was only when I started really thinking about my life that I got productive. As I started choosing my battles and focussing on my own lovely windmills, I really started getting things done. No collection of productivity hacks and software is going to make a difference when you’re heading full speed at that iceberg. Instead put down the fiddly stuff and and pull hard to starboard.

Then, when you are indeed pointing the right direction, do you become productive. At that point, you can even return to your fiddly tools (with moderation) and they can make a difference.

Like I said, productivity is a loaded word.