Distillation no. 2 of the 3 Ps of personal growth series. Why productivity can be a limiting concept and a more empowering alternative.
As of today, I do not use productivity to judge the quality of my days. I do not use it as a measure to prove my worth.
Like purpose, I found productivity embedded this feeling of not enoughness into my life. Long to-do lists pinned time to the ground, while planner pages left me behind in its dust. No matter my output, there'd be a voice pointing to all the gaps and seams where time had leaked out.
When I finally looked productivity in the eye, I saw how it was a fight I couldn’t win. A never-ending race of more, more, and more.
Was I the only one? I consulted the productivity experts. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were not here. The pupils in their eyes quivered on the edge like a candlewick drawing its last breath.
I then asked myself: what does productivity tell me in the end? Is it truly a valuable signal?
I noticed how it told me about quantity. That was about it.
I could do ten things, but did I do them well? Did they bring me joy and meaning? Were they the most effective vehicles for my intentions? Was I truly present?
So many questions left unanswered…
Whenever I'm unclear on something, I consult my dying self. I imagine an old version of Dandan, lying on her deathbed like a fried egg, oozing wisdom from her soft center.
I asked her: if productivity is not serving me, how should I measure my days? Should I even measure them at all?
In between shallow breaths, she said:
That message cut straight through. I saw myself, an industrious gal crossing to-dos, but missing the point of it all. Substituting the deep well of living for the short-lived thrill of completion.
All we have is the present moment. No past or future, but a river of now, now, and now. My dying self was asking: How many nows did you drink? Or were you looking to drink from a mirage, one that trailed further and further the closer you came in?
I then stumbled upon this short doc about a prolific 97 year old philosopher. He said: “I've seen these trees blowing in the wind innumerable times, but somehow, this time, seeing a tree is a transcendent experience. I think to myself: I've had these years all along, but have I really appreciated them?”
His response struck me. Out of all the things he could be thinking about, he was pondering: was I present?
Seeing how productivity separated me from the transcendent now, I was curious to see what would happen if presence became the main barometer for my days.
After four years of this shift, I was surprised by the results.
The more I focused on presence, the more I created. I went from creating 1-2 classes and a film a year to 4-5 classes and 2 films a year, which is considered a high output in my industry. Presence brought in more focus. Presence brought in more prosperity and joy.
This increase in output didn't lead to burnout, but regeneration. This is because I was able to create from a relaxed state and fill myself with the transcendence of simple moments.
Reaching for a clay cup. Marveling at a seed in the palm of my hand. Listening to the customer service rep without the whirr of urgency. These moments burbled awe, which fed me with renewal.
Don't get me wrong. I still planned and organized. I still wrote to-do lists, but they weren't the sole arbitrator of my days anymore. I was moving to another beat, the beat of life.
What this revealed was that productivity is not essential fuel for the fire. In fact, I think it can actually dampen it. When we leave our days feeling dissatisfied with our output, it can create more resistance to keep going. When the repetition of dissatisfaction leaches into our own self concept, we can stop believing in ourselves and halt our path all together.
Productivity…it's just one benchmark. It's just one story.
So is presence.
You can choose the story.
Through the years, I have noticed two other things about productivity, hidden in the fine print:
1) Sometimes, the most generative thing is not producing. Having negative space, resting when tired, stopping to listen when things aren’t clear… these are vital grounds for sustainable long-term generation, as shown by nature.
2) Sometimes, productivity speeds up our path in the wrong direction. Playing off the famous Confucius quote, I like to say: one step aligned with your truth is worth more than ten thousand miles misaligned with your truth.
If there's any takeaway to what I've shared, it's this: you can choose your story.
A benchmark is just a story. We get to decide the benchmarks of our lives, that is, if we want benchmarks at all! Productivity is just one of the options.
So, I offer you a starting point. When looking at the forces governing your life, ask yourself:
Which ones are allies for my journey?
Which ones feel more like bullies?
And embracing your allies more.
Of course, it's not as easy as throwing the old story in the trash.
What I have found is that it requires a transition that involves grief and celebration. Grief for the old house of cards that have fallen: the dreams, the illusions, the prescribed paths to happiness, the aspirational selves based on the old story. Celebration to realign the feeling of fullness with your new story.
I have come to terms with the fact that I'm not a factory, but a warm animal-bodied human living in the river of now. I'm not interested in milking time anymore. I long to live my life in full transcendence, rooted in the real.
And so, for now, I choose presence over productivity. I choose fulfillment over purpose. I choose a deep whiff of the forest over a ticked square. I choose wonder as the main currency of my life.
I hope this was an enriching read for you, allowing you to reflect on your own relationship with productivity. Up next, we will close this trilogy with a bang, exploring power, the hidden force shaping our lives.
Have a wonderful day,
Does a mountain optimize its day to check off to-dos, or does it feed entire ecosystems by holding center and letting be?
There are many catapults to the stars. Which one do you choose?
The Fine Print of Productivity
Choosing Your Story
My Choice, For Now
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