On Productivity and Wild Goose Chases

Take a room full of people and ask how many have productive and not-so-productive days, around 100% will raise their hands.

Take the same room and ask how many wish they were more productive, the same 100% will raise their hands.

Do you see what is going on here?

We all have productive and unproductive streaks. Some days we’re clear and focused, others less so.

Rather than roll with the cycles, we tend to turn it into a problem and a project. We focus on improving our “productivity” and that focus ends up being a huge obstacle to enjoying our work and, ironically, to getting things done.

Let me expand on that.

As with all things in nature, there is an rhythm to our energy and mental life. Our minds ebb and flow from clarity and decisiveness to reflectiveness and uncertainty, from energy and exertion to rest and renewal.

Sometimes we know what to do and we move rather effortlessly into action. We instinctively prioritize what’s on our plate and tackle our next tasks and projects. At other times, we may linger on things, or our attention may drift, or we may move into general planning or reflecting, or feel unfocused or out of sorts.

Unless we understand the natural ebb and flow of thought, we may grow insecure about shifts in our productivity, question our level of self-discipline or commitment, and seek solutions to so-called “procrastination.”

Rather than just do the work as best we can, we go out and buy a book or app that will eradicate our natural “unproductive” periods, and implementing that becomes part of the to-do list (subject, of course, to the same ebbs and flows in thought).

Now, in adding systems and techniques to our workload, we further clutter our mind — unwittingly putting decisive action that much farther from reach.

The upshot is we’ve create a multi-billion dollar market for productivity tools and trainings, all to help us escape a harmless – and inescapable – fact of the human experience, while adding to the mental clutter that interferes with our natural instincts to get things done.

Personally, I’ve tried many productivity tools over the years, each time starting off with hope and promise, only to find them gathering dust a short while later.

Some might say it’s a lack of discipline – that’s what I thought for a long time. Now I know better.  Now I know it is common sense that leads us to drop these complex productivity systems in favor of just showing up and doing the best we can.

Most of us understand at a deep level that obsessive self-management is no way to live or work. We know that there is only one way to focus on the work, and that is to focus on the work. In doing that, our instinctive intelligence tells us how best to organize things to get things done.

There’s a deeper issue as well: When impose outside systems on ourselves, we not only struggle needlessly, we may miss the deeper intelligence behind the rhythms of thought, an intelligence that is working for us whether or not it’s satisfying our rational notions of efficiency.

I finished last year with a burst of activity completing a demanding client project. Early January came around and my mind unexpectedly became reflective, unfocused and curious. What’s next, it seems to be asking, as I started tinkering around with ideas.

Other work began to pile up (I occasionally berated myself for this), but I found myself placing it on the back-burner while my mind considered new initiatives and approaches to my business.

I was still working, mind you, keeping the business running, just not focused in the same way. You might even say I was procrastinating.

Inwardly, however, I knew there was some kind of reordering happening. Somehow, I was being called to consider my business with a more strategic perspective.

This period lasted about 3 weeks before I had a burst of insight into a new direction for my firm. By the end of it, I  felt literally like a different person.

Our slower periods are invitations to reflection and reevaluation, or our psyche taking the time to digest information. Slowing down, it turns out, can be one of the most powerful productivity tools around.

The good news here is while don’t control the rhythms of our productive life, what does ultimately control it is an intelligence greater than what’s available through mere rational thought.

As we come to recognize and rely on that natural intelligence, as we learn to trust in its wisdom and continual presence, as we learn to relax around this whole subject of productivity, we move into an easier and more consistent relationship with doing.

We don’t waste time on trying to productivity problems that don’t exist. We trust our slower periods and embrace our productive periods. We show up as best we can and do what’s next.

And quite surprisingly, a whole more gets done.