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The dark side of extreme productivity, and how to steer back toward the light

How to steer back from darkness to light !

I was recently listening to a talk about how to determine whether you’re addicted to productivity.

I said to my wife, “Hm… how can I make use of the information and turn it into an article?”

She pointed out the irony of the situation — I was totally the target audience for this article, and I’d just proved it.

Career coach Melody Wilding gives 6 indicators that you might be addicted to productivity:

  1. Are you acutely aware of when you are “wasting” time? Do you beat yourself up for it?
  2. Are you reliant on technology to optimize your time management?
  3. Is your #1 topic of conversation how “crazy busy” you are? Do you think “hustling” sounds impressive, while “doing less” sounds lazy?
  4. Are you a slave to your email inbox? Compulsively checking it or feeling like your phone is an extension of your arm?
  5. Do you feel guilty when you only cross one item off your to-do list, or find you’re kept awake at night by work stress?
  6. Have you ever rolled your eyes when your friend says she’ll finally get started on that side project she’s been talking about for months, yet you do exactly the same and rationalize it by thinking you’re too swamped?

I said yes to far too many of those questions. The most applicable indicator for me is the first one: I am very aware when I am wasting time, and I don’t always have grace with myself.

I’ve been productive in my life. In fact, I recently was able to get a second degree and earn 5 developer certifications in just one year, while working and raising two kids. But I’ve learned that there can be a downside to such extreme productivity, especially over a longer time frame.

What is productivity?

It’s possible that the problem is not actually addiction to productivity. Maybe the problem is an incorrect understanding of what productivity is.

“Stressing output is the key to improving productivity, while looking to increase activity can result in just the opposite.” — Paul Gauguin

Sometimes I confuse efficiency with effectiveness. It doesn’t matter how efficient I am if I’m doing the wrong things in the first place.

Effectiveness is far more important than efficiency. I’m quick to fill up my schedule with many things to do, but just because I’m getting things done doesn’t always mean I’m doing something worthwhile.

This has been especially true lately. I’ve had a few popular articles and am getting some views on my JavaScript YouTube videos. I’m spending more time checking comments, views, and likes.

Occasionally I’m able to help someone by responding to a comment and I tell myself I’m being productive. However, this activity is often neither effective nor efficient — its purpose only to build up my own ego.

“When you become more efficient, you tend to do more things — and if you aren’t doing the right things in the first place, you have just become and expert at doing more of what doesn’t need to be done at all.” — Matt Pearman

Sometimes I find myself getting a lot of stuff done, but none of the stuff is important. I’m often able to do things efficiently, but it’s far better to focus on effectiveness. Thinking about what needs to get done and why is more challenging than just doing things.

Although sometimes there is value in being useless.

Usefulness

Derek Sivers spent the last 19 years obsessed with being useful. But he’s changing. Lately he has started focusing more on what he enjoys instead of what he can do to be the most useful.

“I started playing music again, for the first time in 19 years. Not trying to be famous this time. No goals. No results. No care whether anyone else ever hears it or not. This is just for me. Just playing for its own sake, and loving it.” — Derek Sivers

There are sometimes good reasons to not be productive. Doing things for yourself is not all selfish. Self care actually allows you to serve others better. Filling your own bucket is important before you pour yourself out for others.

What’s your goal?

The important thing when choosing how to best use your time is to focus on the ultimate goal.

“To have love as the guiding principle of our lives means that our continual mindset in all we do should be ‘What will serve the other person?’ It is not ‘What will serve me?’” — Matt Pearman

Productivity is not just about tangible outcomes. What is often even more important is intagibles — relationships, connections, and things learned.

So when planning productivity, it is important to think about your true priorities.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey

This may sound cheesy but my top priority is to love and serve others. Knowing my top priority helps me better plan the best course of action. Just being productive for the sake of productivity can lead to outcomes you didn’t plan. Sometimes I do stuff just to do stuff and this doesn’t serve or love anyone — it only serves my sense of accomplishment.

“If you are not in the process of becoming the person you want to be, you are automatically engaged in becoming the person you don’t want to be.” — Dale Carnegie

Working a lot

While watching out for productivity addiction, it’s important to remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with working a lot. Some people really enjoy their work and want to work a lot. This is not in itself workaholism.

Sometimes work is just hard, and takes a long time. This is not always bad. It’s called ‘work’ for a reason after all.

“There is a big difference between hard work and workaholism. You work hard to get something done. A workaholic, on the other hand, works out of compulsion — fear of some sort. Workaholism is unhealthy and destructive. Hard work is healthy, invigorating, and can be practiced up until the day you die, whereas workaholism leads to burn-out.” — Jim Collins

A path toward sustainable productivity

Remember what I said earlier: I am the target audience for this article. These are some of the things that have helped me in the past with the tendency toward unhealthy productivity. Maybe they could help others as well.

A lot of these suggestions are about stepping back from constant productive activity so it is possible to rethink the purpose of the productivity and what truly matters.

Reminders

My wife will let me know if she thinks I need to spend more time with her or the family. Though I don’t always let her know my appreciation in the moment, her gentle prodding in this area has been very helpful.

Reminders can also come from friends and co-workers. You’ll probably have to directly ask them to keep you accountable in this area, as most people won’t just do it without being asked. You can share your core values with friends and ask them to let you know if it seems like you are losing focus and working on the wrong things.

Meditation / Prayer

This isn’t just for religious people. Author Tim Ferriss has interviewed over 200 people who are top in their fields. He found that 80% had “some form of guided mindfulness practice.” This includes meditation or prayer.

Meditation and prayer help you to step back and realize that all those things on your to-do list are not as important as you thought. Also, you may come to the realization that you worth is not based on how much you can accomplish.

You may have to do some research to find a method that works best for your personality and personal beliefs.

I’ve found centering prayer very helpful. This is a Christian method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer. This allows us to clear our mind and experience God’s presence within us.

I’d love to hear what people from other traditions have found helpful in this area. Leave a comment on this article if you want to share.

Sabbath

“As we keep or break the Sabbath day, we nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope by which man rises.”
 — Abraham Lincoln

The Biblical idea of Sabbath is that you take one day off from work each week to rest. Again, this is not just for religious people but can be helpful to those from all backgrounds.

I often get so focussed on getting things done that I feel like I don’t have time to take a day off. This can lead to burn-out.

It takes a lot of discipline to take one day off per week. But I’ve found that when I do this, I’m more productive during the other six days.

Besides taking one day off per week, it can also be helpful to take a longer amount of time for a personal retreat. For over ten years now I have made it a goal to take time twice per year to go on a silent retreat for a few days. My frequency has declined as I’ve become more focussed on productivity. I need to schedule another retreat.

Retreats have a lot of benefits. Airbnb software engineer Haseeb Qureshi recently spent 5 days in silent meditation at a retreat center. He came out of that time with a personal manifesto that helped clarify the purpose of his productivity.

“I return from my vow of silence with unexpected clarity.” — Haseeb Qureshi

While I have never returned from my retreats with a personal manifesto, they have often led to greater peace and a clarification of purpose. I have found that unplugging from technology and sitting in quietness (and, in my case, prayer) allows me to refocus on what my life’s priorities truly are.

Books

Books have often helped guide me when my life has gotten off-kilter. There are two books that I think are very helpful in getting the right life balance when it comes to productivity. Those books are First Things First by Stephen Covey and What’s Best Next by Matt Pearman. Both books can help you think through your priorities and make sure you are not just efficient but effective. I would highly recommend you read one or both of these books.

Conclusion

Productivity is a good thing. However, it’s important to make sure that what you are doing truly aligns with your core goals and values.

If you find yourself falling into the trap of producing for the wrong reasons — or towards goals that you don’t care about — it’s important to take a step back and think through what you’re doing.

“True productivity is first of all a flourishing of your character.” — Matt Pearman

Beau Carnes | The dark side of extreme productivity, and how to steer back toward the light

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