Why People Hate Productivity

productivity overload[Note: I’ve spent a lot of time bashing productivity in the past. I’ve long known that focusing too much on productivity leads to misery for most (myself especially). But I haven’t done much in the way of providing an alternative method of working. This is largely because I didn’t really have an answer. I knew what was wrong, yet I didn’t really know how to fix it. Now that I feel that I have enough of an intelligent perspective on this topic, I wanted to share what I’ve learned here.]

We’re exhorted throughout out our lives at all angles to be “productive members of society.” Naturally, you would think that being productive would make you happy, right?

So if aiming to be productive is supposed to be such a good thing, why does it often lead to so much misery?

The problem happens when we get hyper-focused on producing. We start to think we’re inadequate unless we’re being “productive” or “getting things done.”

But getting stuff done by itself is meaningless. When productivity becomes ubiquitous, we’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope.

Productivity has its place, after all. But if not put in its place, it can run rampant. We can feel guilty for not producing. We feel bad when we’re not checking things off a list.

The problem isn’t with valuing productivity; it’s letting its scope become too big. It’s allowing it become the means and the end that makes us hate it. And we resent it because we resent ourselves for not doing enough.

Becoming too focused on productivity leads you to see that there is always “more” to be done. There is always more you can supposedly do. And there is no ceiling.

The other problem with productivity is that it’s too associated with numbers and quotas. Some of the most useful time spent can’t be measured at all. Does that mean it’s not productive? And does it even matter?

In essence, the mindset that revolves around productivity equals a feeling of “never enough.”

I’ve experienced this far too often myself. The more that I focus on being more productive, the more inadequate I feel. As my output increases, so does the sense that I could have done more. And that ultimately leads to guilt and frustration. Then, I try to re-engineer my productivity system further, and try harder. The cycle continues and becomes a closed loop of insufficiency.

The harder you try to be more productive, the less productive you feel.

That’s why people hate productivity.

So, what should you do instead? I’ve tried all sorts of things. I’ve tried not caring. I’ve tried denouncing productivity altogether. I’ve tried only focusing on the most important stuff. And of course, I’ve tried being super-productive.

But all of these are only partial solutions. They’re hacking at the branches while the root is left firmly unscathed.

The solution I’ve found I believe to be holistic in nature. It is bigger than the sum of it’s parts. And it has completely changed the way I work, and operate.

Although I don’t believe the answer I’ve found is absolute, maybe it will work for you too. I’m still evolving and changing, so my views on it may change in the future, but this is the direction I’ve found useful to move in. The answer is threefold and progressive. Each step leads up to and builds upon the previous one.

1. Focus on Fulfillment

The first shift is to switch from asking How many things can I get done? to What actions can I take that will make me fulfilled? This is a simple shift, but the results are dramatic.

Just this slight alteration can be highly challenging. Often what makes us feel fulfilled, doesn’t seem to “get much done.” A typical fulfilling day for me might look like:

  • 15 minutes of meditation.
  • 2-3 hour hike in the morning + strength training on gymnastic rings.
  • 30 minutes responding to email.
  • Write one or two articles.
  • Work on marketing plan for a product for an hour or two.
  • Spending quality time with my wife.
  • Jeet Kune Do class in the evening.

From the outside, it doesn’t seem like I’m getting much done, does it? I’m not really checking lots of items off a list, or completing a lot of measurable tasks.

However, I am creating a lot of value for myself and others. Which leads to the next key…

2. Create value

I’ve found that creating value is a much more meaningful way to view how effectively I spend my time. If I’m focused on always being productive, it’s easy to lose focus of the value in you’re doing, because productivity usually involves maximizing time. Value, on the other hand, has no interest in maximizing time, because value is not directly correlated to time spent.

You can be highly “productive” without creating much value. Or you can spend very little time producing and create an immense amount of value.

Also, value is relative to perception. I may perceive something as highly valuable ( hiking for instance), and others may think it’s quite boring or uninteresting. Whether or not it’s productive doesn’t really matter. Whether or not it creates value to the individual, on the other hand, is extremely relevant.

When I plan my day, I like to think of the different levels of value I’m creating:

  1. Value to myself.
  2. Value to my family.
  3. Value to the world and my community.

Obviously there is a lot of overlap within these circles. And in some ways, anything I do that adds value to me greater enables me to add value to others. Every time I add value to others, I benefit in some way as well.

So there are activities where I’m primarily the one that is benefiting (exercise, recreation, etc.) and it increases my capacity to provide greater value to others (because I’m maintaining or increasing my ability to expend energy).

They are all interconnected and interwoven. But I’ve found it best to split them as equally as possible. So in a given day I may spend…

  • One third of the time doing things that I highly value — hiking, gymnastics, reading, etc.
  • One third of the time spending time with my wife, and family — quality time.
  • One third of the time spending time creating value for others — writing, creating products, marketing, etc.

All of my days are obviously not perfectly divided. Sometimes I’m highly unbalanced where I spend the whole day or week creating value for others. Sometimes I spend the majority of the time working on a product. And some days I’ll take the day off to spend time with my wife. But thinking about dividing these roughly into thirds helps me keep perspective.

3. Following your natural rhythms

This is probably the hardest of all three keys, and the reason I listed it last. What does natural rhythms even mean, anyway? It sounds ambiguous and kind of whimsical. You can’t measure it, you can’t plan it, you can’t really control it. That’s a little unnerving for most people. At least that’s the reason I’ve had such difficulty incorporating it myself.

Following your natural rhythms is a highly intuitive way of living. And it’s messy. Too much scheduling and measuring can obstruct it, because it requires more flexibility.

It also involves trusting yourself.

Learning to do that has been the most challenging thing for me. I never really realized how much we don’t trust our natural impulses and subtle intuitive directions. For me, this has mostly been about learning to trust what I need.

Following my natural rhythms (at least the best that I can) has lead me to spending days or weeks where I do nothing but connect with nature, or times when I spend entire days reading and meditating. And it’s led to me the opposite spectrum; holing myself up in a cave and writing or creating for days or weeks on end.

Ultimately, when I do this the fulfillment and value takes care of itself. And surprise… I’m highly productive.

But it’s not on a schedule. It’s not on a rigid time-line. It’s not something that I can measure or regulate. To be honest, it can be a bit intimidating at times.

But it’s also led me to the greatest happiness that I can possibly experience. And because of that, learning to become adept at this will be my focus for a long time.

That’s what I like about it. The best paths have no end in sight.

photo courtesy of JD’na

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56 Comments on "Why People Hate Productivity"

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Naomi Dunford
Guest

Indeed.

It’s a piece of the pie. It’s not the whole pie, but the pie wouldn’t be whole without it, either.

Effectiveness + other stuff that is not particularly productive but lovely and fun = happy life?

(Jesus. And they’re always asking me why I don’t write fortune cookies for a living.)

Early Retirement Extreme
Guest
It think much of what it means to be human was lost with Taylorism, which essentially treats humans as cogs in a bigger machine. That’s where the quantification dominates while at the same time it takes away the humanity. I think this is also part of the resentment. It takes a certain amount of brainwashing to getting complete fulfillment of being the fastest cog in the corporate machinery. Once you become the entire machine yourself, it is realized … well, it’s the story of the goose and the golden egg, right. If you are a cog, then it does not… Read more »
Henri Junttila
Guest
I have been dealing with this myself for a very long time. I can get a lot of things done, but at the end of the day I just feel like I could’ve done more. As I’ve started doing what I really love (writing, helping and connecting), I’ve noticed that I land in a flow that is pretty similar to your schedule. As I listen to my intuition more, I feel better, which lands me in a spiral that produces more of the same–good feelings. Living intuitively is awesome. The only thing I do is set big goals. I see… Read more »
Kenji Crosland
Guest
This is great advice. I really appreciate the insight about how we should trust our natural rhythm. Working for myself with very little income has turned me into a workaholic, and I’ve become positively obsessed with checking things off a list. The more I do it, the less I seem to get done. Finally, my frustration gets pent up to the point where I have to meditate or take a walk to get rid of it. When I go back to my work, I find myself much more productive. I can see how your method of doing what “feels right”… Read more »
Nhan-Esteban Khuong
Guest

Jonathan, this is awesome,

You really hit the nail on the head and I especially like your third step of following your natural rhythms.

It’s not that it is any more important than the other points, but I think it’s the most neglected. Especially in today’s high paced society with our instant access technologies, constant bombardment of electronic information and stimulation, and highly regulated living/work spaces, there is a tendency to disassociate from one’s own nature.

Now to figure out how to reconnect . . .

Mike Turitzin
Guest
This post resonates with me. I think that often “productivity” is used to mask other things. E.g.: Is what I’m doing worthwhile? Well, it sure will be if I spend 12 hours a day doing it! Is there something uncomfortable I should be facing? Too bad I’m so busy being “productive” I have no time to address it. It’s easy (and tempting) to work so hard at something you have no time to stop and ask, “Why am I doing this in the first place?” This can be a very uncomfortable question to face — and for many, it’s easier… Read more »
Kim Ramsay
Guest
As a creative I find it is essential for me to follow my natural rhythms and intuition. When I’m in the zone, in the flow, my creative output is at a high level, therefore very productive as a result. Sometimes I can sit for days & nights writing or editing, and it comes with ease. Projects get completed, and it feels almost effortless. (even if I have been glued to a computer for 80hrs) When I’m not in the flow, I’m like a stubborn camel. It doesn’t matter how much I can try and push myself, I just won’t budge.… Read more »
Steven Ponec
Guest

I really like how this article focuses on trusting yourself and paying attention to priorities.
I’ve found lately that procrastination is just a man-made thing (via a Tim Brownson article).
Creating value and feeling like your actually doing something useful/building a business or whatever, seems really important.
Jonathan, I love your writing! I know you will keep it up, but…keep it up!
Steven

Brad Edgar
Guest
It’s so easy to get down on yourself when you perceive yourself as not being productive — not checking off things from your to do list. I am currently struggling and trying to perform a balancing act between everything that is going on in my life right now. Getting married in the summer and working two jobs has become especially difficult. I am trying desperately to start my own business and have had problems with focusing my efforts on one single idea. I find myself jumping from one idea to the next and then back to the original. I think… Read more »
Jens P. Berget
Guest

I never thought about productivity this way. For many months now, I’ve been struggling to produce. I don’t know what to produce, but I needed to produce something.

The same goes for my blog. My goal has been to write one new article every single day. I don’t know the content, I just want to produce.

Lately, I’ve discovered that it’s important to stay focused and think quality (both when it comes to content on my blog and life in general). In the end, it’s all about value.

Great tips.

Dave Doolin
Guest

I’ll tell you the flat out best way to get over productivity.

Get sick.

Then you can’t do anything at all.

Somehow, once you get better, things seem more aligned the way they ought to be. Has a way of straightening out your priorities.

Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com
Guest

Focusing on fulfilment is a great idea. Know what you want. Tim Ferriss in the 4 hour work week states that time management is wrong and we should instead minimise and automate as much as we can. I tend to agree.

Maria
Guest

I totally agree with the idea that productivity is going beyond what it was initially supposed to mean – it gets to be a rush, a frantic race towards “more with less”.

What I think goes beyond productivity is effectiveness – the ability to realize what matters.
Getting things done doesn’t matter.
Getting THE RIGHT things done matters way more.

Travis | iStorm Training
Guest

I’ve always felt that doing stuff was way over-rated.

Great post!

Travis-

Nathalie Lussier
Guest

I think it falls into the “zen habits” 3 most important things per day type of planning. If you do 3 things that provide value, then you’re pretty much ahead of the game. Not that anyone is counting or anything. ;)

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Guest

Outstanding words and message Jonathan! Being productive for productivity’s sake is meaningless, as you said.

Hyper-intention is self-defeating. I believe you were able to understand and create productivity because you stopped desiring it…

“Freedom from the desire for an answer is essential to the understanding of a problem.” Jiddu Krishnamurti

Nate
Guest
There’s so much talk on productivity and motivation because it’s such an American (and maybe Western) ‘thing.’ Production = success, right? Well, this is largely perpetuated through the industrial revolution where making things leads to success. So, we feel that the more we do the more successful we’ll be. What’s interesting is that often the opposite is the case and you point this out in this very article Jonathan. Sometimes the more we do, the less productive or happy we feel. I recently watched a speech that Dan Pink gave at TED about motivation, which I think is related to… Read more »
Tomas Stonkus
Guest
To start things off I love your daily schedule. It does not have many items on it, but they are heavy and valuable and that is what is important. I just recently realized that I was trying to do as much as possible without regarding weather it mattered or created any value to any body. However, the more I was working on myself and the more I tried to understand what makes me happy the more I realized how many useless things I was doing throughout my day. Then I just realized that I had to focus on what mattered… Read more »
Bert Meert
Guest

Doing a lot isn’t necessarily being productive. What matter is how intelligent your actions are and how much return you get from those actions. I’d rather do 1 smart thing each day than spend my time doing things that don’t matter in the long run.

Interesting blog by the way!

S. Amore
Guest
first off…thanks for these posts. I have read about 20 in the last week and I feel a shift with each one. well, I am at this point right now where others expect me to have a list of tasks that I check off as I do them but I feel I am not that “type” of person. I feel the list gets in the way of the current task at hand. And, It’s amplified by being self-employed in music/film/video. Mostly because you can work on something forever and it might never feel “done”. (even though there is limited financial… Read more »
Tim
Guest
I suppose it all depends how you measure productivity, doesn’t it? If it’s a metric-based, how-many-documents-have-you-finished, then yes, people would hate it. But if it’s a: “I finally finished that free report, now I can focus on getting this WordPress plugin loaded, so then I can get my iPhone app launched [all coded by third parties], now I’m going to go punch out a 50km bike ride, God, it’s 30 degrees outside (that’s Celsius) – how perfect, then I’ll come home and punch out a 10k run and then a 1k swim in delightful Port Phillip Bay, then I think… Read more »
Jalon Nichols
Guest

I’ve been trying to figure out why this year old picture was getting so many hits on my flickr page! Thank your for crediting me for the photo. I find lots of people have no problem using other’s work w/o credit. I appreciate it!

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[…] Why People Hate Productivity. […]

Anotnio Fisher II
Guest

First, I love the new site design. Second, this post is really good. I have been struggling major with consistently implementing good productivity habits. But the suggestions you made speak to my soul. Its all fulfillment and value.. I want to spend my time doing stuff that connects with my life purpose and deep passions. I want to do things that bring me closer to achieving that purpose and living those passions, things of true value.

Jay Cross
Guest

I’m with Tim, above. I agree with all your points except hating “productivity.” If you control your own life, you get to define productivity using your own values. You sound like a very productive person to me, Jonathan.

Nathan Hangen
Guest

Telling someone else to be a productive member of society is a method of control and a way to bring people down to their level.

In some cases, people need a kick in the ass, but not always…especially in the way it’s used most often.

bloominglater
Guest

i think you’ve hit the nail on the head here. Especially: “Becoming too focused on productivity leads you to see that there is always “more” to be done. There is always more you can supposedly do. And there is no ceiling.” Right on. It’s always about quality – not productivity.

Marwa Rakha
Guest

I have been reading your blog and silently following your posts … but today I felt obliged to bow in respect … bless that intuitive mind of yours:)

Steve-Personal Success Factors
Guest

This is a very refreshing antidote to frenetic activity that oftentimes just masks a restless emptiness. I am going to take to heart the shift: What can I do today that will fulfill me, and What can I do today to create value for myself, for others, and for the world?

Marcus Sheridan
Guest

Really enjoyed this Jonathan. I just subscribed to your blog recently and find your writing style quite though-provoking and relaxing at the same time. Also, I found your daily schedule, 1/3 balance segment quite enlightening. Thanks again.

Jen
Guest

Love this. As I commented on your last post, I am focusing more on being and less on doing recently. It can seem contrary, but life isn’t always linear and listening to our natural rhythms and intuition about what is right for us is important.

Vania Tashjian Frank
Guest
I really like how you summed this up so well. I’ve been struggling with these very lessons my entire life. Somewhere along the way (in my life) I adopted the belief that I should improve my weaknesses rather than play to my strengths, be as productive as possible and work a balanced 9-5 day. Thanks for these very helpful tips – which I just wrote down – that pretty much hit these three big issues. Focusing on taking actions that will fulfill me – more quality in my actions vs. quantity – will be key for me this year. The… Read more »
Michael
Guest

Jonathan

Thanks for these wise words – it’s a great question: what really matters?

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[…] était plus important que la productivité ! Posté sur 8 janvier, 2010 par barbatruc Un article du blog illuminated mind, suggère très justement à mon avis que l’obsession de la […]

Dr. Jennifer Howard
Guest

Thank you for this blog. Great insights!

Productivity with no direction can be a waste of time. Looking deeper into what your real purpose is can help you achieve greatness that feels deeply more fulfilling, creates value to yourself and others and is ultimately in line with who you really are and follows your natural rhythms.

Here is to the life long inner journey that follows productive productivity.

Dr. Jennifer Howard
http://www.drjenniferhoward.com/free-gift.asp

Naomi Niles
Guest
Thanks, Jonathan. Some really great things to think over right there. I’m slowly trying to get out of the productivity mindset with worth. For awhile, I would place a lot of value on how many billable hours I got in a day. That was a disaster. Most of the time, because I couldn’t make the goal and I’d feel miserable. Now I’m trying to go with project based pricing as much as possible and not freak out over the time it takes to get it done as long as I’m actively working toward the end goal. I also love how… Read more »
Stephen - Rat Race Trap
Guest

Jonathan, this is a fantastic article. I think you hit a home run with this one. Very well done – thanks!

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[…] Why People Hate Productivity – “The problem happens when we get hyper-focused on producing. We start to think we’re inadequate unless we’re being ‘productive’ or ‘getting things done.’” […]

Ky
Guest
Lovely article, thank you. I just have one comment, your example of your apparently less productive day seemed ridiculously productive to me! There’s no way I could squeeze all of that into one day! I find that just going to one yoga class that goes for 1.5 hours seems to take up half of the entire day. Or if I decide to work and do something else on the same day, I can pretty much only manage one other thing. And then I can’t seem to fit food preparation in. Basically I seem to be able to do very little… Read more »
Reg Tait
Guest

Great post. I got a lot of value from it – thanks.

Farouk
Guest

couldn’t be said better :)

Trudy
Guest

This is a great post. I especially like the section on Value. Thanks for sharing.

Nick Gurr
Guest

Am currently working on developing the “7 Habits of Highly Ineffectual People”, think this should be the required antidote!

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[…] to productivity. One example of a such a philosophy is outlined in Jonathan Mead’s article Why People Hate Productivity.In it he argues that we should focus on fulfilment and creating value, instead of just getting […]

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[…] to productivity. One example of a such a philosophy is outlined in Jonathan Mead’s article Why People Hate Productivity.In it he argues that we should focus on fulfilment and creating value, instead of just getting […]

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[…] comes to productivity. One example of a such a philosophy is outlined in Jonathan Mead’s article Why People Hate Productivity.In it he argues that we should focus on fulfilment and creating value, instead of just getting […]

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[…] to productivity. One example of a such a philosophy is outlined in Jonathan Mead’s article Why People Hate Productivity.In it he argues that we should focus on fulfilment and creating value, instead of just getting […]

Dan Locke
Guest

I like you and your posts. I like the guys and girls who post here. I don’t know if anyone made “to-do” lists before about 50 years ago. I would love to see the very first “to-do” list. Could be I am wrong.. anyone see a to-do list in a clay tablet?

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Why People Hate Productivity…

An insightful article on how we should focus on fulfillment and value in our lives rather than just “getting things done.”…

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