Why Productivity Is Bunk

Productivity gets a bad rap these days. A few people I respect and am inspired by have gone so far as to say (pretty much) “I don’t give a rat’s ass about productivity and neither does anyone else who’s worth talking about.”

All of a sudden, productivity is chopped liver. Why is this?

Because productivity has been associated solely with the techniques and life hacks that enable a select few people to get more done more efficiently, people spend hours and hours finding new ways to be quicker at things they don’t need to be doing in the first place. Learning to become more efficient at things you don’t need to be doing isn’t being productive – it’s wasting time and energy.

Because productivity has been so closely aligned with “work” and cranking widgets, people feel torn between being productive and enjoying quality time with family. Sure, you could slough off your family and get more work done, but you haven’t become more productive – you’ve just gotten more work done. In the meantime, you’ve neglected a critical part of what it means to be a thriving person.

Because productivity has been measured by the production of key deliverables, creatives think that the hours they spend braintornadoing and playing with ideas means they’re not being productive. Chasing ideas, though, is what enables creatives to do what they love doing – sometimes it pans out to a deliverable product, sometimes it’s just playing with ideas. It’s the process that separates talented creatives from, well, everybody else.

Because productivity has been connected with Doing More Things, we’ve taken on more and more without considering whether we need to quit doing everything that’s not moving us towards our real (meaningful) goals. If being more productive means Doing More Things, you can let me off the bus now.

All of that is why productivity is bunk.

And all that is wrong. Productivity is about figuring out what you want to be and making it happen. It addresses both the end at hand (why you’re doing what you’re doing) and the means (the way you’ll get it done). In the final analysis, you can’t separate personal development from productivity.

I can’t think of one person worth talking about who hasn’t thought about what they want to do and how to do it. I can’t think of one person worth talking about who didn’t have goals and who didn’t have challenges to overcome to achieve those goals. I can’t think of one person worth talking about who didn’t want to help others live from the inside out.

You care about finishing the stuff that matters. I care about it. So let’s not focus so much on the conversations other people are having about “productivity” that make it bunk and instead talk in ways that help us do what we’re out to do.

That means that we’ll be asking better questions about productivity and focusing on the fundamentals because we know that it’s not rocket science. We’re going to make a few mistakes along the way, but we’ll wake up and really show up regardless of yesterday’s win, loss, or draw. We’re pros that way.

Those are things worth talking about because they help us live lives worth living. :)

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  1. says

    First off, way to take productivity back. Rock on, dude.

    Second, you asked for questions. Here’s one. How do you REMEMBER what’s important?

    Everyone tells you to do a fun little exercise where you THINK about what’s important. Sometimes they even tell you to WRITE DOWN what’s important. But how do you keep it in your head?

    I mean, the writing thing is great and all, but I write for a living — writing has no special magic powers for me. (Anyone who even writes a blog knows that writing stuff down loses meaning when you’re already writing 100 emails, 1000 words in blog posts, and another 100 words in comments every damn day.) The “put a stickie note on your bathroom mirror” is lovely for people who don’t share their bathroom. :) But how do you really drill it into your skull?

    Can you do a post about that sometime?

    Naomi Dunfords last blog post..We Interrupt This Program with: The Home Office Day Spa?

  2. says

    Wow. I really like the go-get-’em tone. I personally strive to be as efficient as possible and I try to keep things as structured/routine as possible to open up time for other activities. I’m a big believer in systems and that no one system will work for everyone. It’s about failing fast and adapting so that you eventually find something that works for you. It’s why I’m cautious of people suggesting diet programs or workout exercises to others (doing that requires inspiring others).

    My big focus these days is based on my business, Convos (http://www.convos.com), which relates to group/leader productivity. Group leaders use Convos to set up online groups to manage members, communicate, and coordinate. With technology you never know what you’re going to get in terms of productivity. Getting productive results with technology requires actual usage and for online groups, that requires member participation.

    Charlie, if you have any thoughts or research on group productivity or online group dynamics, I’d love to read about them.

  3. says

    As a professional organizer, be productive has never meant getting more done; it means getting what you need to get done more quickly giving you more time for the rest of the things that you want to do (like relax with family, do crafts, sports, etc…).

    I’m the sort who will do a whole bunch of work up front on something so that I don’t have to do much work later on. This includes lots of staring out the window or playing PuzzleBee on Facebook while my brain sorts through the various things I need to do, then when I do them, pin-pam-poff, they’re done.

    The way I hold things in mind is with http://www.rememberthemilk.com and http://www.nowdothis.com – I take my goals and break them down into actions, then schedule the actions into Remember the Milk. Every morning I then decide what order to do things in Now Do This and when I start getting distracted I look at NDT and it reminds me what I’m supposed to be working on. (Of course if I don’t feel like doing the task, I reorder the list, but I don’t delete anything). This way in the middle of doing things I don’t have to think about the abstract goal, just the associated concrete tasks. Then about once a week I look at what I’ve accomplished and decide if the goal or the tasks need to shift in any way.

    Hope that helps!

    Alex Fayle | Someday Syndromes last blog post..Practicing Flexibility to Remain Steady

  4. says

    First things first, great post, Charlie! It’s really woken me up this morning.

    To me, “productivity” isn’t “get more done faster” — which seems to be how a lot of peopel take it. It’s “get WORTHWHILE things done well”.

    Anyone can come up with the to-do list from hell, and spend the whole day bogged down in miserable trivia. But to have a genuinely PRODUCTIVE day, you need to step back, and figure out what’s going to take you towards your goals.

    It’s a bit like a man forging a path through a dense forest. Hacking wildly at every tree within reach might keep him busy (and leave him exhausted) … but cutting down the trees in a line towards his destination is the only way his day’s work is going to be productive.

  5. says

    the best not-tech way to remember what is important, and to keep life in balance, is meditation.

    that is a straight-out-no-bs statement, wimp around it if you must.

    enjoy, gregory lent

  6. says

    Wow…what positive thoughts and positive direction!

    When I was in the Army, my Sergeant’s mantra was “Pick up your weapon and follow me”…I am ready to pick up my pen and follow you in your quest. I have many great skills and ideas that I need to focus on.

    In this wonderful, Web 2.0 world, I feel like I learn something new each day, but I don’t always feel productive. So, that being said, I’d like to join the party! I need to find a way to focus my energy efficiently and productively.

    I think that my main problem is not having defined goals that have to be accomplished to pay the rent. I have a high-paying day job that provides me with a level of comfort that doesn’t force me to be focused and productive with my ideas. Unfortunately, that day job doesn’t provide me with the feeling of accomplishment that I am constantly seeking.

    I’d love to monetize something that would give me the freedom to concentrate my energy on a niche that I felt strongly about. I’m not sure if I am still waiting on a lightning bolt of inspiration or what.

    I love to teach, and I have several topics that I’d like to share with other people like me. (The dazed and confused, unfocused, entrepreneur wanna-be) Ouch, that sound’s worse than I thought it would.

    Anyway, my question would be, how do I focus on finding the topic or niche that would provide me with an opportunity to learn, and teach, and have a feeling of accomplishment each day?

    How’s that for joining the conversation?

    steve kennedys last blog post..Google on Google Chrome

  7. says

    I found your site through Naomi’s ittybiz, and I’ve already read several of your posts. I’m downloading your planners to give them a try!

  8. Charlie says

    First off, I want to say thank you for the awesome commentary and support for this post. It was really nice to see. I also appreciate you joining the discussion because now we have a lot to talk about.

    @Naomi: I’ve sent an email to you that probably confused more than it helped. I would say that I use Backpack to remind me of what’s important on the tactical level, but I think you might be asking about the higher level important stuff. I’ll have a post out about this really soon.

    @JP: I’ve actually been really interested in the dynamics of group research and online group dynamics – especially as I coordinate with research groups offline and am collaborating with groups online. What’s really interesting are the principles of group work that are the same and those that are different. I’m also really interested in Convos – as some of my headspace clears up, I’ll be getting in touch with you. Feel free to stay on top of me via comments or email so I don’t forget.

    @Alex: Some of the most brilliant ideas and solutions come from engaging in activities that allow your mind to look away from the task at hand. Kind of like when you find the keys when you’re not looking for them.

    @Ali: Thanks so much for commenting! I’m glad you brought up the efficiency vs. effectiveness dichotomy – I wish I would have included that in the post above as that’s a HUGE distinction in productivity that often is not highlighted enough. And I love your metaphor, especially with how easy it is to build from “lifehacks” to the metaphor. Beautiful!

    @Gregorylent: I’m not sure how much I agree with you on this, mainly because I’m not sure what you mean by “meditation.” If you simply mean moments on the day that you spend in reflection and introspection, then I do. If that process has to be tied to popular meditation, I’m a bit more in disagreement. Yoga and such aren’t for everyone, but I think reflection and introspection are.

    @Steve: You’ve been elevated to the awesome comment club. Thanks so much for bursting on the seen with such vigor!

    First things first, teaching sells. Spitting out content and hoping people catch on to it isn’t really the way to go, and since you have a passion for teaching, you’re already on the right track. I’m going to be emailing you to probe deeper, as I think you’ve got a lot of potential that you need to actualize. You might just need to get over some insecurities and become a bit more bold.

    @Zoe: Thanks – please let me know if and how they work out for you.

  9. gregorylent says

    yoga is only for quietening the mind, anybody who has a mind can do it. advantage – less mental rubbish in the way between you and what you want to do. dead simple.

  10. says

    I’ve come to realize that the root of our frustration with “productivity” lies in our poorly conceived definition of “work.”

    Productivity is the art of converting thought into action, action into outcome, and outcome into purpose. When people choose to limit productivity to a definition of “work” that’s confined to activity intended for economic exchange, an entire dimension of personal and social flourishing is lost.

    I define work as the energy required to realize a desired outcome, and productivity as the measure of that. Most of what I see in the bloggosphere about productivity discusses the subject either in terms of motivation or “technique” as Jacques Ellul would describe it — or “technics” as Lewis Mumford would. I believe that real productivity starts with lucidity. There’s not much point in doing more work until its purpose as been clarified.

    Andre Kibbes last blog post..Ubiquity Redux: 15 More Commands to Get More from the Web

  11. Charlie says

    @Andre: Great points. I think we may disagree somewhat on the details but largely see things in roughly the same way. I wonder about work and lucidity – I sometimes feel that I get more “work” done when I’m less lucid about what I’m trying to do. In the idea percolator…more to come on this one.

  12. Uncle B says

    My Red Neck is Sore!!!
    My will for productivity is certainly dampened by a government that , at the same time, and by the same “Panic Decree” drops the value of my savings, and it’s purchasing power, and ups the prices I pay to survive by inflation to bail out a bunch of white collared bastards that have done less than nothing to merit it. When I fuck up, I get my ass kicked! Fast! These guys get pork and golden parachutes to live a lifestyle me and my wife only see in the movies. Fuck this system it is corrupt to the core, fuck productivity, making the rich richer gives me tired bones and a sick stomach! I want Medicare, paid for by the shysters, I want a drug plan , paid for by the shysters, and I want it now – Otherwise I will retire to the bottle and my new color TV, and a soft cushion. They can fix their own damn economy mess! As for the Arab bastard oil extortionists, they can try eating the fucking stuff, I certainly can’t afford to buy it anymore!

  13. Charlie says

    @Anonymous: I’m not really sure how to take your comment. Is “epic” good? Or is this one of those times where I have food in my teeth and everyone knows but me?:p

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