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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Comment & Add Your Voice

Naomi Dunford January 5, 2010 at 6:55 pm

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.)

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Early Retirement Extreme January 5, 2010 at 7:06 pm

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 really matter to management whether you are run into the ground or an aspect of you is run into the ground (enthusiasm, say) because they can always replace you.

If you are on your own, then “nesting” the goose becomes really important. This is not just a question of using up productive assets but also about building them up again. This is a cycle; not something that happens concurrently. The brain needs to rest and rebuild before it can be used again. Nobody can work all the time forever even at a slow pace.

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Henri Junttila January 5, 2010 at 7:14 pm

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 it as setting sail for a destination, but I am very flexible because often my destination changes as I follow my intuition and listen to my feelings. Living this way is exciting and something I highly recommend ;)

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Kenji Crosland January 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm

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” even though it might not “feel productive” can not only increase one’s emotional well being, but also one’s productivity.

Thanks for the insight!

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Nhan-Esteban Khuong January 5, 2010 at 7:32 pm

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 . . .

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Mike Turitzin January 5, 2010 at 8:50 pm

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 to work themselves to the bone than it is to answer it.

“Productivity” is only meaningful when you have a clear picture of what you are trying to accomplish and *why* you’re trying to accomplish it. Looks like you’ve done a good job focusing on fulfillment and value.

If there’s no meaning to the work, there’s no difference between being productivity-focused and merely being a workaholic.

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Kim Ramsay January 5, 2010 at 9:16 pm

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.

So I’ve stopped focusing on ‘begin productive’ and instead focus on enjoying the act of creation.

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Steven Ponec January 5, 2010 at 9:16 pm

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

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Brad Edgar January 5, 2010 at 9:56 pm

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 adding value to your day like you said is the most important thing you can do. Splitting out my days is definitely a difficult task. I think it’s something that I will need to start doing in order to ensure that everybody including myself is getting the attention that it deserves.

Thanks for the advice, lets see if I can take action

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Jens P. Berget January 5, 2010 at 10:58 pm

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.

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Dave Doolin January 5, 2010 at 10:59 pm

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.

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Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com January 6, 2010 at 2:17 am

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.

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Maria January 6, 2010 at 2:31 am

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.

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Travis | iStorm Training January 6, 2010 at 7:55 am

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

Great post!

Travis-

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Nathalie Lussier January 6, 2010 at 8:03 am

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. ;)

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Kent @ The Financial Philosopher January 6, 2010 at 8:46 am

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

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Nate January 6, 2010 at 9:15 am

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 productivity. There are a couple of key factors that have been proved to motivate people:

1. Autonomy
2. Mastery
3. Purpose

How good are you really going to feel if you’re getting a ton done, but you don’t have any of the above? It will not help you and in fact, you may feel worse. So, start focusing inward, more than outward. Find some internal purpose, no matter how small, in what you do.

I think your day consists of the above three characteristics, which is probably why you’re happy. To add to that above, you have also found balance, which I think is important as well. Sure, from your description it may seem unbalanced at times, but you seem to always offset that balance by ‘resetting’ if that makes sense.

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Tomas Stonkus January 6, 2010 at 10:27 am

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 to me and on something that brought me closer to my goals in life.Once I realized that, being productive was out of the window.

I just focused on what mattered to me, cutting out the rest. I guess it all comes down to the 80/20 principle where 805 of fulfillment comes from 20% of activities. Realizing that was huge for me.

The more I use it, the more I see other people use it and what wonderful results it yields!

Thank you for sharing.

Best,
Tomas

P.S. I especially liked how you gave your personal examples so we can see your words in action :)

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Bert Meert January 6, 2010 at 10:31 am

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!

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S. Amore January 6, 2010 at 11:29 am

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 compensation)
Usually my partner will ask, ” What did you do today?” and I am at a loss to answer without feeling awkward and spouting technical jargon that just closes the whole conversation right up. (it doesn’t help that my finances are less than in order right now, but that’s another topic)
An ongoing challenge indeed.
These insights do help me remain authentic, thank you.

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Tim January 6, 2010 at 3:46 pm

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 I’ll go check out that new coffee place and do a review for my website, then I’ll knock over some pilates and cook dinner for Kate”, then I don’t see how you could hate that. It’s productive, value adding and delightful.

I think I need to look into your martial art, or take Kung Fu back up.

t

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Jalon Nichols January 6, 2010 at 5:16 pm

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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Anotnio Fisher II January 6, 2010 at 8:08 pm

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.

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Jay Cross January 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm

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.

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Nathan Hangen January 6, 2010 at 9:27 pm

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.

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bloominglater January 6, 2010 at 9:31 pm

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.

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Marwa Rakha January 7, 2010 at 5:20 am

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:)

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Steve-Personal Success Factors January 7, 2010 at 8:21 am

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?

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Marcus Sheridan January 7, 2010 at 11:46 am

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.

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Jen January 7, 2010 at 11:55 am

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.

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Vania Tashjian Frank January 7, 2010 at 3:26 pm

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 more I craft a career focused on the things that excite me, the more I feel like I’m coming home (to me).

The more I do things that actually “add value” to my life and to the life of others whom I care about, I’m hoping to heal the inadequacy and unworthiness I can feel at times, learning to do things that matter vs. do things just to do things.

And finally, I am so excited that you mentioned working with your natural rhythms. I’ve been working against mine my whole life because they don’t fit the norm. Let me tell ya, it sure feels good to sleep in. And, I’ve been doing more of the things I love and less of the things I hate as a result.

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Michael January 7, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Jonathan

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

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Dr. Jennifer Howard January 8, 2010 at 3:15 pm

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

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Naomi Niles January 8, 2010 at 5:01 pm

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 you put marketing into the spending time creating value for others category. That’s something really good to think about.

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Stephen - Rat Race Trap January 9, 2010 at 11:07 am

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

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Ky January 11, 2010 at 2:11 pm

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 in one day. You must be full of energy! And I’m very glad you’ve had this awakening, because if that is your unproductive day then you must’ve been very hard on yourself before!
All the best to you.

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Reg Tait January 11, 2010 at 4:20 pm

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

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Farouk January 12, 2010 at 3:52 am

couldn’t be said better :)

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Trudy January 28, 2010 at 10:46 am

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

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Nick Gurr April 1, 2010 at 5:02 am

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

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Dan Locke July 14, 2010 at 11:39 am

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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Work Sucks September 20, 2010 at 12:16 pm

All you need is the 80/20 Principle!!

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Satanfornoreason July 23, 2013 at 8:24 pm

This. Is. Awesome. It resonates with me, like I wrote it myself and can’t remember doing it. Except I didn’t have the words.

As we get older – as we all do, if we are fortunate enough to stay alive – we lose some of our abilities. We slow down. The most fortunate get to retire. Any of these situations are problematic for a person who has previously defined themselves by their work, what they produced, the role they filled.

No longer being able to do so causes problems.

Unnecessary problems. If you define yourself in your own terms and seek to satisfy your personal desires, then getting up and going to work every day – working for work’s sake – will be seen for what it is: “busy work.”

Many of the most highly paid people are doing “busy work” whether they know it or not; “busy work” is all about appearances anyway. To be sure, many professionals and directors and executives are intelligent people, exercising a skill set not available to everyone. But the decisions they make could be made by any reasonably intelligent person. And there are enough reasonably intelligent people out there that it begs the question, why are they paid so much? Every highly overpaid “professional” receives money that is necessarily not available for other positions, positions lower on the totem pole. (Don’t read anything political into that. I haven’t said what needs to be done about it, because I don’t know. I only know it’s true.)

These issues are intertwined with productivity, happiness, justice, reality, and existence.

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