The Cult of Productivity & the Art of Purposeless Living

The Egg Productivity System

photo by rent-a-moose

Isn’t the essential reason behind greater productivity, greater happiness? Aren’t we supposed to get more done so we can have more time for the things we enjoy?

Our pursuit of increased productivity, should result in increased happiness right? But do we really feel free?

Our aim to be more productive and increase efficiency can often lead to obsession. We confuse achievement for happiness. Our happiness should be the inspiration for achievement, not the other way around. When our happiness is found in achievement, we get sucked into constantly putting our happiness in the future.

We’ll allow ourselves happiness when..

… We pay off our debt.
… We don’t have anymore problems.
… We lose 20 pounds.
… We have x amount of money in the bank.
… Our lives are perfect.

There’s nothing wrong with being more productive, the problem occurs when our happiness is determined by it.

The Truth is.. We’re Often the Happiest When What We’re Doing Has Absolutely no Purpose.

We create productivity systems to make us more efficient and get more done. When we originally start on this path, our reason is to have more free time and decrease the stress of unfinished tasks hanging over our heads. If it’s done, we don’t have to think about it anymore, right?

But somewhere along the lines we lose sight and our desire to accomplish becomes an obsession. We’ve become a member of the cult of productivity. Productivity is no longer a means to an end, it’s the end entirely. In fact, we never get there, do we?

That’s Because.. There’s Always Something to Obsess Over.

The essential tenet of the cult of productivity is we’ve turned a means into an end. We no longer see the forest for the trees. Instead of doing things to enjoy them, we do things solely for the future benefit. We never get there though because we’re constantly living in the future. I’ve been there and it sucks.

A few symptoms of this disease are…

… Meditation for the sake of gaining a clearer, calmer mind, and increased ability to focus.
… Exercising for the benefit of better health, stamina and increased energy.
… Organization for the sake of a clearer mind and fewer distractions.
… Socializing to make more contacts and increase your circle of influence.
… Personal development for the sake of it.

There’s nothing really wrong with any of these things up front (except perhaps that last one.) The problem is when do these things because we know we should. Instead of a joy and a means to improve our life, they’ve become grim duties.

I’ve found myself caught up in this rat race. Becoming obsessed with making more money, being a better employee, a better husband, a better person, a better organizer, a more likable person. All of these things seem like noble pursuits, but when you lose sight of your intentions, you become a slave to your goals.

We’re no longer doing them, they’re doing us. Our obsession with our goals has moved us from inspiration, to enslavement. I know I’m not the only one that’s experienced this. It’s hard to remember the authentic reason for your goals and not let your ego’s identity get caught up in them.

We’re so obsessed with the outcome that we don’t even appreciate the results when they arrive. We’re already caught up in “what’s next.”

Productivity is Not the Root of Happiness.

Judging your happiness based on productivity doesn’t make much sense when happiness is the root of productivity. Productivity will never be the root of happiness.

If your goals are starting to own you, maybe it’s time you took a step back and re-evaluated your life. Are your goals serving you, or have they become insufferable, bovine taskmasters?

We need to have the courage to re-evaluate, drop and re-prioritize our goals at any time. Our lives aren’t static. A goal that may have served you well a year ago, could be completely out of alignment with your life now. Sometimes quitting things or breaking up is the best answer.

When it comes down to it, the most important thing is how we feel. If our goals are making us feel like sh*t, then they’re probably not doing much good for us.

If you count every minute that goes by till 5 o’clock, maybe you need to say “I quit.” If your friends are bringing you down, perhaps it’s time to let them go. All of this takes guts and can be absolutely terrifying. But how much time do you have to live a life that is less than what you dream of? Most people aren’t afraid of dying as much as they’re afraid of truly living. Letting go of fear is scary in and of itself. That’s because you’ll no longer have your ego to hide behind. You’ll no longer have your socially conditioned idea of “what I should do” to crouch yourself down under.

Most people in our time have a internal conflict between what they love (what they want to do) and what they feel is practical (what they should do). The solution to this problem isn’t easy, but the answer is clear. You don’t have to settle for either or.

What it Really Takes: The Marriage of Your Heart and Mind

Just like any relationship, the marriage of your heart and mind requires hard work. Their might be a honeymoon stage at first. You’ll blissfully forget the world and follow the most impractical notions. Enjoy it. But reality will set in sooner or later and you’ll have to do some real soul searching. You’ll have to re-create a relationship that satisfies both your heart and your mind’s needs. Anything less just isn’t worth living for.

If you feel like you’re getting caught up in ego-driven goals and you’re drowning in your own expectations, it’s time to stop and think about where your life is going. If your “sacrifices” are making you miserable, maybe they weren’t worth it in the first place. Just ask yourself.. Does this make me feel alive?

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Michael Henreckson May 18, 2008 at 5:11 pm

I really like the idea that happiness is the root of productivity rather than the other way around. For myself I definitely feel unhappy when I’m unproductive, but I am also more productive when I’m happy. So it really cuts both ways. But yeah, we productivity freaks need to learn how to be purposeless once in a while.

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Akemi - Yes to Me May 18, 2008 at 6:53 pm

I like this post. I’ve always felt there is something dangerous about always pursuing productivity, but I guess I didn’t have the guts to point it out.

Productivity tips are tools, not goals. I also would like to point out that so many people fool themselves by chasing the wrong goals and therefore wrong productivity tips. For example, some say they want to get more organized because then they have more time and they can start working on starting their own business. I’d say, if someone wants to have their own business, start working on that business — don’t put if off until they are more organized. Learn how to market that business rather than how to unclutter your email inbox!

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Jonathan May 18, 2008 at 8:28 pm

Michael,

I definitely feel what you’re saying. I think sometimes it’s really hard to define the terms of the joy we get from productivity with the joy from being without purpose. The problem for me is when I beat myself up when I’m not productive. There needs to be balance.

Akemi,

Thanks for your spirit. I especially think the last comment you made is relevant. Do what excites you, not what you think you should do.

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Evelyn Lim | Attraction Mind Map May 18, 2008 at 8:46 pm

Welcome back, Jonathan! Great article.

I like it when you said this “If you feel like you’re getting caught up in ego-driven goals and you’re drowning in your own expectations, it’s time to stop and think about where your life is going.” It describes much of the misery I’ve put myself through in the past and am now seeing that my way of doing things has not served me.

Thanks for sharing,
Evelyn

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Kelly@SHE-POWER May 18, 2008 at 9:48 pm

Nice article, Jonathan. I am not much of a fan of productivity because like many people today I have a tendency to do too much and I think productivity encourages that in a way. I also think thinking and analyzing and systemizing keeps you too much in your head to really be happy. I find that if you follow how you feel about the way you are living your life then you’re more on track with your choices.

You always know you’re following the ego if stress, nervousness and/or anxiety kicks in. When you’re busy and really in sync with your goals and in touch with your present then I find you live in a state of excitement and anticipation. I know which one I prefer.

Kelly

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Louise Pool May 19, 2008 at 1:14 am

Jonathan, I love this article. I’m not a great fan of productivity precisely because I’ve seen too many people get caught up in it and inflexibly pursue their goals without leaving time to be happy.

A little more “being” (happy) and a little less “doing” (duties) is actually more “productive” in the long run.

Louise

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Tom Volkar / Delightful Work May 19, 2008 at 5:51 am

Every time I read an article like this I just smile. I’m so pleased to have reached the age where I’m proud to be a happy slacker. I’m only partially kidding. I think as much as possible we need to create obligation-free lives. If nothing feels as though we “have to” do it then everything has the opportunity to be joyfully rewarding.

I’ve thus far been immune to this productivity dis-ease. Perhaps it’s because I often gage my rightness with my aliveness as you so wisely suggest. Does it bring me alive? Does it call to me? Does it fulfill me? It would be difficult to answer yes to most any productivity hack if we applied that standard to it.

From what I’ve observed, employees are more likely to fall off this productivity deep end than the self-employed who already value their freedom. Is that your observation as well Jonathan?

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Charlie Gilkey | Productive Flourishing May 19, 2008 at 6:27 am

Great post, Jonathan. It’s becoming more and more clear to me that the productivity boom is/was a result of having way too many things to do, but the productivity cult encouraged doing more things. It’s definitely time to reevaluate what we’re doing.

The real trick, now, is getting out of the productivity cult. I personally can’t see quitting too much – but I’m currently in the phase of strategic withdrawal.

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Jeff@My Super-Charged Life May 19, 2008 at 6:49 am

Jonathan – These are some fantastic thoughts! I definitely fall victim to striving to achieve more at the cost of my happiness at times. Of course, often it takes a sacrifice to move ourselves to the next level. It is definitely a balance. One that is hard to get right sometimes. I think what you have written here will help us to think through things more clearly to be sure we are on the right track. Great work!

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Nathalie Lussier May 19, 2008 at 7:02 am

I agree with what you’re saying here. For a time I was obsessing over becoming more productive, but really that did not make me productive at all, just stressed. So these days I have set up some general goals for myself: improve my Mandarin, write every day, exercise, and so on. Then on a daily basis I just keep tabs on myself. Some days I don’t exercise, some days I don’t learn any new Mandarin words. But every day I do something that is getting me closer to my overall goals and values.

And it’s okay for me not to finish every thing and rush all the time. If I wanted to do that, I would have signed my life away already and be working 60 to 70 hours per week with no vacation.

Thanks for the great post and for shining a light on the “productivity” trap.

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Wouter May 19, 2008 at 7:32 am

I think your post is very sad, I think you should check on where you are usually most happy while being productive, and therefore do something that you love, otherwise you are in the wrong place guy. There is nothing wrong with pursuing innovation and production, and I will feel more thrilled to do it if it was dangerous, as this is one of the purposes of life, to want more, challenge conventional thoughts and live life to a level that you cannot find if you are unproductive. Be brave, be productive.

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ZHereford May 19, 2008 at 7:57 am

Well said Jonathan!

Productivity or any other tool should be the servant not the master!

Just for the record what is a “bovine taskmaster”? :)

Z

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Andrea|Empowered Soul May 19, 2008 at 8:18 am

Love this article! I think our time can be better spent than the constant pursuit of “doing more and being better.” Rather than pursuing a specific goal, it’s lovely to focus on who we are being while we are doing whatever it is that we are doing. That way, whatever we are doing becomes it’s own reward. Or we’ll discover that whatever we are doing brings us no reward whatsoever … and we’ll hopefully get over it and move on!

Blessings,
Andrea

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Duff May 19, 2008 at 2:59 pm

Good stuff. I think people are starting to really get that only things done for their own sake, where satisfaction is in the present moment, will lead to happiness.

In my recent interview with David Allen (airing soon on Precision Change) he indicated that this is what people are seeking through “simplicity”–a psychological experience of being totally present in the moment.

There are many ways of experiencing this, whether through meditation, spending time in nature, or through being completely present while you do things. You can also try to escape life in various ways (4-Hour Workweek style, or by dodging life’s responsibilities) which works at a superficial level, but doesn’t fundamentally change one’s relationship to their experience of doing.

I’m working on a method for this combining GTD and body awareness to lead to greater presence and relaxation while working. Fun stuff! Keep on questioning.

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Kenneth King | Destiny Building May 20, 2008 at 7:49 am

Tom,

What a cool new term for me to embrace, the “happy slacker”. I like it. :) De-committing and living simpler lives is a great way to overcome the productivity disease.

Jonathan, you make a great point about seemingly positive endeavors such as exercise and meditation. There are true benefits in the (slightly) delayed gratification that comes from doing these activities, such as a clearer mind and a healthier body, but when we cease to enjoy actually doing them and they become part an endless steam of our productivity routine, that’s when it’s time to reevaluate. To do so, we should ask ourselves which of the following statements ring more true: Do we frequently obsess over not getting them done? Or do we simply enjoy our lives more when we do? That to me would be the key.

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JEMi | Tips for Life, Love, You May 20, 2008 at 12:15 pm

I really enjoyed this entire piece Jonathan – great writing. Yes, the whole “task” thing takes away from the growth that would be happening if personal development/productivity stuff becomes a duty. It’s easy to get caught up – particularly when you’re frantic for an answer to become more noble/great/successful etc.

Funny how SO much more happens with a quiet clarity and reflection…and not for the sake of being able to say “I have clarity and I reflect”

Still the mind for the sheer pleasure and rejuvenation and watch what happens.

I like your suggestions on reconnecting to your main purpose

*bravo*

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Erek Ostrowski May 20, 2008 at 2:35 pm

Nice job, Jonathan! I really like this post, but I think you may be giving productivity a bad rap. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater!

What I really hear you emphasizing here is the importance of being present and unattached to any result, which is the source of true productivity.

The attachment to results is what causes us to confuse achievement for happiness, not the commitment to being productive.

I think I’m basically echoing what you’re saying, but I’m also attempting to distinguish between true productivity and ego-driven attachment.

Also, I love your point about not letting our goals own us, and having the courage to step back and re-evaluate our lives and goals at any time.

Thanks!
Erek

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dode June 9, 2008 at 10:36 pm

A great piece Jonathan, well written and clearly expressed. Also right on the mark.

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Sara June 10, 2008 at 7:15 pm

Beautiful! I 100 percent agree. I used to be able to do nothing. And I was proud of it. I distinctly remember staring at the ceiling for a good hour, happy as can be. (Of course, I was 12.) It’s become a lot harder since then.

I also worry that I’m contributing to the cult of productivity by blogging about a personal development topic. Maybe it’s time to help readers do less instead of more…

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Monica Ricci July 27, 2008 at 6:37 pm

I am an organizing expert, speaker and author and I love this post. I agree that productivity is indeed NOT the root of happiness. I do think they are connected, however, in many instances. For example, I know I’m not alone in saying that when I have a killer day, everything just rolls along smoothly, and I’ve accomplished a lot, I DO feel much happier than when I piss the day away. :) Love your blog.
~Monica Ricci

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Breian Malupa - Breian.com August 2, 2008 at 5:47 pm

I can agree to this post to some degree.
I have known certain people who can’t stand being non-productive or not doing anything.

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janelle August 13, 2008 at 9:04 am

I absolutely LOVED this post…”There’s nothing wrong with being more productive, the problem occurs when our happiness is determined by it.” This speaks leaps and bounds to me in my own struggle..

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George December 12, 2008 at 11:43 am

I’ve read this post and similar ones, and I can recognize that once I grasp this notion, I’ll will have crossed another threshold, a turning point in my life as most of us experience as we mature and start seeing things for what they really are. I can relate to the “feeling” alive, but I find myself at a loss to see how to come to that point you are descibing and really feel it not convince yourself you are. I realize that some notions take time to reveal themselves, and this might be the case for me; I’m just hoping you can eloborate to trigger that revelation :)

Thanks for sharing these deep thoughts with us

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John May 14, 2009 at 3:23 pm

It occurred to me on reading this good blog that maybe the goal is the means and getting there is the end—just the reverse of what we normally think! In the classic “Zen in the Art of Archery,” author Eugen Herrigel can’t at first understand how supposedly purposeless shooting can achieve the purposeful goal of hitting the target. The master archer tells him to hold the bow and arrow correctly and wait patiently for “It”—not Herrigel—to shoot.
In fact, this appears to be the real goal of the exercise and the target becomes the means to achieving this end. Herrigel seems to acknowledge this when, toward the end of the book, he says something along the lines of, “The real target you’re aiming at is yourself.”

Thanks for posting a thought-provoking blog.

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Rose August 31, 2009 at 10:08 pm

I was reading back on some old posts and this one really spoke to me.
I’m doing a correspondence course at the moment, and I thought I was studying to become what I wanted to be. But it has become a chore and has led me to not enjoy it any more. I feel kind of trapped and I think I have become a slave to my goals, a phrase you mention…
A lot of your articles are really inspirational to me particularly at this time when I feel kind of lost and not sure if I’m doing things for myself or if I’m doing it to try and impress others or something.
Um, this comment seems pretty rambly and all over the place, but I guess what I’m trying to say is thank you. And keep writing.

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Chris Done November 28, 2009 at 9:39 am

This seems to be a modern long winded re-hash of Zhuangzi’s treatment of uselessness[1], but I like it.

[1]: http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/chuangtz.html

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Toilers of the woRld June 24, 2010 at 9:25 pm

“Toilers of the world, disband! Old books are wrong. The world was made on a Sunday.” – Nabokov

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Winning Ideas For Life January 7, 2011 at 7:57 pm

This is interesting post and debatable as well ! Happiness and productivity can’t be compared to each other ! If we are in corporate world , we need to be productive and being a productive resource it does bring a sense of accomplishment to us ! This may not be the real happiness but it has sort of self satisfaction because we are helping a system to work by contributing our efforts ! Now if we are in creative field , productivity doesnot mean much and happiness can be found in things that we enjoy

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Vanessa January 23, 2011 at 7:20 pm

A genuine adult!

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