Why Trying to be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time

Most of the time, trying to be productive is pointless. In fact, it’s a big, fat waste of time. It’s kind of lame when time management (productivity techniques & hacks) ends up killing your time, huh? Here’s why this happens…

For a long time I’ve thought about why people are so crazy about productivity. I’ve wondered why I am so concerned with accomplishing and completing. I mean, when you get to the point of looking for more time-efficient ways to fold underwear, you might have a problem.

So why does productivity matter, anyway? What’s so important about achieving?

The answer… not much.

The feeling of needing to accomplish something stems from dissatisfaction with the present. With this mindset, the whole idea of achieving is to become something. On the surface, it may seem like you’re doing something positive, but there’s a subtle undercurrent of rejection of what is. Rejection of yourself.

Here are just a few of the things wrong with our definition of productivity:

  • Getting things done is associated with doing things you must do, out of a sense of drudgery.
  • Productivity is often related to filling quotas. It’s about how much you can do, not necessarily what you’re doing, or whether it really matters.
  • The whole notion of being more productive is doing more things in an equal amount of time.  Being too preoccupied with this makes it easy to lose sense of what’s important. It’s easy to have a productivity meltdown.
  • It’s completely time-based. It’s about measuring, quantifying and analyzing data. Productivity does a very poor job of taking into account things that can’t be boxed into time bubbles, such as relationships, quality time alone, relaxation, doing nothing (intentionally), and many creative-based pursuits.
  • Goals and being productive is strongly related to goals that are quantifiable. If you want to become a better write, you might make a goal to write 1500 words a day. This might help you become a better writer. But with goals like this, it’s so easy to get caught up in reaching the number and let obsession with completing your goal kill your initial passion.
  • Checking things off a To-Do list is rarely meaningful. Would you qualify volunteering your time to a worthy cause, giving food to a homeless person, or doing a good deed as “getting things done”?
  • Aiming to be productive usually doesn’t involve an inside out approach.
  • It’s associated with tolerating life, instead of living passionately. Getting by, rather than really living.

I know what you’re thinking… Does this mean productivity is bad? Does that mean following your dreams and seeking to accomplish is wrong. Of course not. It’s just that some things are really hard to schedule. And when you try to, it’s completely ruined.

  • Can you really schedule a time limit of quality time with your spouse?
  • Can you schedule following an unexpected route to solving a creative problem?
  • Can you set a timer for how much time you allow yourself to explore possibilities?
  • Can you program daydreaming and spacing out in your day planner? And if you do program it, doesn’t that completely kill it?

Aiming to be productive is the wrong way of going about it. If you follow your heart and align yourself with what you hold most dear, productivity becomes irrelevant. You’ll achieve, but you’re not wrapped up in it. Your identity isn’t caught up in whether or not you cross everything off your To-Do list.

Your happiness is based on how much you enjoy what you’re doing, rather than completing X number of tasks.

Where we got off track

Think about it for a second: Has checking a bunch of things off a list ever given you a feeling of intense, lasting joy? Or does it make you feel good for a little while until you feel guilty for all of those other things you have yet accomplish? Where we really get off track is by trying to use productivity as a tool for too big of a job.

Imagine building a house, simply aiming to get it built really fast. That would be pretty stupid. You’d neglect the reason for building it, the design of the home, location, and the purpose the structure serves. Aiming to be productive is fine, but you probably won’t have to worry much about that if you really love the blueprint and really love building homes in the first place. If you’ve got that part sorted out, you’ll naturally be highly motivated and productivity becomes irrelevant.

De-conditioning

So what does this all mean? It means productivity is secondary. It’s the end result of doing what you love and living authentically. Trying to be productive becomes pointless when you live authentically. Things just flow naturally. Sure, you may have to eliminate distractions, develop focus, organize, etc. Those things at first glance seem like tools of productivity. But they’re really not. They’re just the static you need to remove to live authentically.

All these obstacles aren’t getting in the way of being productive. I saw life that way for a long time and kept getting mediocre results. It’s a broken model. What these obstacles are really getting in the way of is you doing what you feel matters; what you feel will make this planet a little better than when you got here.

When you really get down to it, the noise and distractions aren’t really obstacles at all. They’re actually there to help you see what’s true for you and what’s not. They are a means to contrast, something to show you what doesn’t matter, so that you might know what is truly important. Obstacles are there to help your spirit grow.

Being productive can be nice. It’s great to have something to aim for and a goal you want to achieve. But the achievement is always secondary. What matters most is that you are following the call of your heart.

In this way, you find that being productive doesn’t really matter at all. You don’t even think about it, because that’s just what happens when you you live authentically. You’re not preoccupied with how much you achieve, because you’ve stopped caring about that. You stop caring about always being intent on arriving. You don’t just bite two ends of a banana. You savor the whole thing.

You’re actually there when things are happening, instead of thinking about what you’ll achieve next.

Then something awesome happens: Actually being where you are, completely transforms your entire experience of everything. You realize that your dissatisfaction wasn’t caused by things being the way you wanted externally. It wasn’t the pounds you hadn’t yet dropped, the career you hadn’t yet landed. It was your resistance to what exists, right now.

If you’re fighting the universe, who do you think is going to win?

No more wasted time

So, what you do instead is follow your natural rhythms. You live in alignment with what you love doing. You’re there, completely.

Maybe being more productive isn’t the answer. Maybe what matters most is transforming not our resume but our consciousness. Deriving our joy not from arriving, but from moving in the direction of our heart. Finding satisfaction in each step, and beauty in the messy business of living. Bliss in the movement toward our dreams.

It’s kind of funny actually, like a cosmic joke. The very thing that’s supposed to save you time — being more productive and doing things faster — ends up being the biggest waste of time.

But it’s more than that…

In reality, the only reason we squeeze and strain ourselves to be productive, is because we’re afraid of being honest with ourselves. Living authentically is scary as hell. More often than not our hurry to get busy is a cover up for our inability to get real and stop living a lie.

It’s time to stop putting off liberating yourself.

Perpetual waiting is a serious illness. And I think it’s time to detox.

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75 Comments on "Why Trying to be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time"

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Sean C
Guest

As usual, you take our notions and turn them inside out, turning our values away from the quantifiable to the true value of meaning. It takes a while for you to make your point, but it’s a point worth making.

thanks

Seamus Anthony
Guest

I totally agree. It reminds me of that guy who wrote that Lazy Way book … I forget his name. Also see my Why Blogs are a waste of Time article. Same concept, different framework. Just do what you love and stop wasting time on BS. You’ll be dead soon anyway right?

Julie Barton
Guest

Love this. I will be re-reading multiple times as I consider everything you’ve said – fabulous perspective on being present with the universe, and being honest with ourselves.

Charlie
Guest
I agree with your conclusion – although we differ in our views of what productivity is. Let me explain: “productivity” has gotten a bad rap. It’s become some masochistic hamster-wheel view of checking things off a list that is ultimately meaningless, unfulfilling, and unsustainable. But that’s not what productivity is about, really. When productivity becomes about instantiating yourself in the world, it becomes about things we care about. So whereas you say “you find that being productive doesn’t really matter at all,” I say that it does matter if we’re doing things that make us who we are. We’re not… Read more »
Kevin
Guest
Amen, brother! It’s a bit weird when ideas converge. I wrote a similar article only a few days ago that touched on exactly the same idea. In fact, as I re-read my blog, I realized I’d actually touched on it twice! Being productive when a specific goal is in mind and when there is a reward at completion (such as more free time) makes sense. Obsessing about being productive when there’s little or no benefit in it is energy wasted. Focus on what is now, do what needs to be done and then enjoy your life. Stop driving yourself crazy… Read more »
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[…] just posted Why Trying to Be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time. What I like about it is that it addresses why productivity is bunk and points out why a lot of […]

Nathalie Lussier
Guest

It’s all about your inner game. If you can’t get that right, then any “productivity” you try to achieve is going to be wasted.

Jonathan your articles are getting more and more in-depth and thought provoking. I love it! :) Oh and the detoxing has begun, my friend.

larry
Guest

the real issue is that what most people call time management is more about a routine than a way to be focused and in the moment and accomplish the things that we must do to make a living. true time management is about focusing and doing in 4 hours what takes an unfocused mind 8 hours to do and then to use those “free” hours to enjoy more of life.

Mike Stankavich
Guest
Jonathan, I wholeheartedly agree that making efficiency based productivity your primary focus is a recipe for frustration and ulcers. I strongly believe that in many cases lack of motivation stems from not having a clear vision of an objective you want to pursue. Where I do see value in certain productivity techniques is in cutting a large objective down into manageable chunks. If I want to write a book, it’s easy to get stalled and and frustrated if I just stare at a blank screen (or page) waiting for War and Peace to magically flow from my fingers. If I… Read more »
Christopher
Guest
You say “Imagine building a house, simply aiming to get it built really fast. That would be pretty stupid. You’d neglect the reason for building it, the design of the home, location, and the purpose the structure serves. Aiming to be productive is fine, but you probably won’t have to worry much about that if you really love the blueprint and really love building homes in the first place. If you’ve got that part sorted out, you’ll naturally be highly motivated and productivity becomes irrelevant.” However to me this is slightly short sighted in the sense that there will be… Read more »
Amber
Guest
Couldn’t agree more Jonathan! Great work as usual. It seems a lot of us are on the same spiritual journey. Into full present conscious living! When you align with what you love you align yourself with the universe so to speak. Everything becomes easier and you just do what you have to do. You don’t need to overly organize or get a million things done to be happy. All you need is now. You’re enough, this moment is enough…future goals can be achieved while still soaking in every moment of it. I’ve learned that it’s the quality of every moment… Read more »
Szabi
Guest
I’m sort of torn between agreeing and disagreeing with this in the strangest way. I feel that if I truly wanted to live by all my pure values, I would be traveling the world, or just traveling, and trying to encounter people, not worrying about money or how I will get by. Living the life I live, I feel I can bring myself to a level that people can relate to, and through that I can understand them better and the ways to tickle their curiosity toward their true being. I define productivity through the amount of interaction in everyday… Read more »
Mike King
Guest
Jonathan, you certainly have good points, especially when you do finally make it at the end of the article. I find it a bit one sided though when you leave your definition of what productivity is to you out of the picture. If you simple said it is spending the most of your time on things that have heartfelt meaning and importance in your life, then none of the things you describe are things about productivity. They are all things about pretending to be busy like task lists and schedules. So, your points are valid but the rant on productivity… Read more »
Nicholas Powiull
Guest
I narrow this down to being the mind. Rather than thinking of it as a rational mind or reactive mind, it’s easier for me to conclude that it’s the mind itself. When I use the term ‘mind’ in this definition, I am speaking of the part of you that is continuously driving you to get something done in order to make things better. Within most people there is a continuous mind chatter and mental noise dialogging on the background of every moment. This dialogging is in a continuous struggle, since in every moment it has a goal or desire that… Read more »
David Baillie
Guest
Thank you for the thought provoking post. I will hazard to respectfully disagree based upon my perspective of “productivity.” Certainly, if by productivity you mean cranking out more widgets faster to advance some meaningless end, I agree. Your article is a great reminder for us all to step back and evaluate (often): are our efforts yielding something worthwhile? I prefer to view productivity as a measure of how effectively I have achieved my goals and how true to my values these goals have been. Have I grown? Have I contributed in a meaningful way to something that means something to… Read more »
Pearl
Guest
This post is so wonderful, I don’t really have words for it. I feel fortunate that we are about the same age and I can look forward to seeing how your blog and career grows. This paragraph really hit home for me: “When you really get down to it, the noise and distractions aren’t really obstacles at all. They’re actually there to help you see what’s true for you and what’s not. They are a means to contrast, something to show you what doesn’t matter, so that you might know what is truly important. Obstacles are there to help your… Read more »
Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome
Guest
To me, productivity is all about getting what you want done and having fun the rest of the time. So for that to happen there needs to be a plan, but only at the broadest level. For example, I have my BIG goals for which I create a monthly objective and daily actions. As long as I get (most) things done in a day I can futz around as much as I like. Most days I don’t feel like I’m being very typically productive, but the next morning when I review what I accomplished the day before I’m amazed at… Read more »
rob
Guest

Great article I think. I have starred it to read later. I am to busy doing b**s to read it.

But seriously. It came at the right moment. I am trying to do my work and not ‘be productive’. ‘being productive’ for me seems to involve a lot of bodily tension. I want to drop that.

Keep on blogging!

Evan
Guest

Thanks Johnathon.

I really like the critique of productivity and completely agree with it.

My one quibble: I’m not sure that fear of ourselves is the only reason for productivity. Unless pleasing others is a variety of fearing ourselves – which it very well may be.

Martin Wildam
Guest

I do not fully agree with your article. Although we should be happy and enjoy every moment of our life you can’t only do things that you like. Not every necessary action fits to your desired path of personal development.

Without increasing my productivity I would not have been able to free time that I can dedicate to my family.

Vi
Guest
Unfortunately, I completely disagree with you. I think that the drive to be productive is part of human nature. And by productive, I mean the root word: produce. Given a blank slate with nothing to do, people get bored and also become unhappy. Sure, some of us could use a vacation. But, given too much free time, I believe people will eventually want to do something useful and meaningful with their lives. Whatever it is, I believe people innately have a drive to produce. Produce what? Well, that’s their choice. Be it goods, services, music, art, writing, ideas, knowledge, charity,… Read more »
matt
Guest
There are a couple of good points here that are consistent with your last posts, such as accepting the present, being mindful, attaining flow, enjoying the journey and so forth. However the issue I have here is that you again point to “doing what you love” as the path to attainment of peace etc. Engaging in activities we love is great BUT there are alot of essential jobs and tasks that need to be done that we done love. We need to complete these tasks so we can do practical things like paying the bills and putting food on the… Read more »
AC
Guest

I actually came and checked on this blog feed because I was feeling distracted while attempting to study. I couldn’t think of a more relevant post! This was SO insightful and really made me think about what I’m doing and why I was feeling that I ‘had’ to do it, thus looking for distraction, when really I do want to be doing it. I’m going to go get to that now.

Thank you always for your words of wisdom!!
This blog has changed my perspective in a lot of ways :)

Duff
Guest

Yes yes yes! What motivates productivity? Wanting things to be different. Why do we want things to be different? So we can experience happiness, peace, joy, etc. What changes if we just step into experiencing these things first? Everything. Does productivity still matter? Sorta, but not really.

Nina Alvarez
Guest

I really highly value this blog. It’s one of the few blogs that is really hitting home with me lately. Thank you so much.

jo
Guest
Ahhh yes. This is one of the main reasons I left my company that was supposedly “not a corporate environment”. However, productivity and time tracking were top priority….leaving one hard pressed to research and actually keep up with the latest technology that was necessary to apply to the task/project. The other sad point was that we had an extremely obsessive time tracking manager whose main responsibility to see who is “being productive” via her review of the the time entries. This type of productivity does not translate to an optimal product nor necessarily delivery. So glad to be out of… Read more »
Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching
Guest

Thanks for this post. I’m glad this issue is getting more attention. One thing I’d add is that we can also see being unable to be with ourselves as a reason why we procrastinate and don’t accomplish our goals. If we can’t tolerate sitting alone in silence with all our thoughts and feelings, we’re unlikely to be able to focus in our work.

Cedric
Admin
Thank you to everyone who commented. I think there was a little confusion, because I didn’t adequately describe WHY productivity doesn’t matter. Here’s the deal — at least for me — productivity is the end result. If I want to be productive aka produce, as someone said, then I should focus on the purpose for what I’m doing. If the purpose is a big enough motivator, then you don’t have to strain yourself to be productive. Sure, you’ll get stuff done, create, whatever; but you won’t feel like it’s something you MUST do. And that’s really the whole point when… Read more »
Cedric
Admin

@ Charlie: And that’s all it really is — a matter of semantics. If I define productivity in a positive context, then it probably wouldn’t bother me so much. The problem is we have this stigma that idle hands are of the devil, you know? Western society really fucks with us when it comes to time obsession.

Cedric
Admin

@ Nathalie: I see a GNC product in the near future. “Ultra Not Give a Shit About Getting Things Done – 15 Day Detox Protocol. Now with added super time killer formula!” Seriously… we could be on to something.

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[…] to be continuing, with Jonathan at Illuminated Mind taking an excellent look at why it’s a huge waste of time. This is probably one of the best reads on the issue in a long while, though it brings up an […]

Matt Soreco
Guest
There comes a point when you have a system down and it’s as good as it’ll ever be. I guess some feel that when you reach this point, it’s wasteful to try to squeeze out more productivity since the effort will cross over and be more than the reward. I think there is an insane bias in the backlash though. Because not everyone has mastered being productive. Or even started. I’m so glad I’ve found GTD and have adapted it to my life and work–even though I don’t follow it to the letter or worship it like a cult. I’m… Read more »
Shawn Levasseur
Guest
The criticism of GTD in this article feels disingenuous. It presumes that people who engage in it are just getting random “stuff” done that they have given no thought to why they want it done. That the system is an end unto itself, and that happiness is seen by such people an empty in box. The argument also presumes that GTD is merely about checking off items on a list, that no thought as to why an item is on that list ever happens. The review portion of GTD is all about that evaluation and thought as to an task’s… Read more »
Evan
Guest

Hi Shawn,

Unfortunately there are often things we do that we haven’t reflected on. People often copy others who have been successful without comparing their own situation and abilities with those they copy (but one example).

Every time we find it valuable to re-prioritise we are showing that we have been doing things without thinking about why.

birgit
Guest

thx for putting my feelings in words
i’m a socialworker and i have too much work because people become very poor the families broken and they have not much sense in there lifes
some people think i only have to make some schedules
and my work will easily be handled
unfortunately everybody who asks for help breaks my schedules
and now i’m feeling bad because no schedule works
throw away my schedules and start talking with with the people who need help
socialwork instead of case management

Richard
Guest
Loved the article. I just followed you from Zen Habits by the way :-) Being productive can be counter productive, unless it comes from an understanding of *why* we should be productive! It is not just to make life easier, but it is to gain understanding about ourselves. After taking initial wisdom from others – like yourself – we should then begin to think for ourselves and use our inner wisdom to get things done and reach higher levels of understanding and, in turn, efficiency. Tapping into this natural reserve of wisdom takes time, and meditation (although not necessarily in… Read more »
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[…] Why Trying to be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time – While I don’t agree with every point made in the article, I do think that too much emphasis can be placed on productivity for the sake of productivity. A lot can be said for doing nothing. […]

Matthew Cornell
Guest

Really all that’s happening is that there’s a batch of GTD bloggers who fell in love with GTD a few years ago, have mastered it, and are now bored ;-)

steven aitchison
Guest

Hi Jonathan, I just wanted to say what a great article you’ve written here. Dave Crenshaw wrote a book on this which is worth a read called the myth of multitasking. Anyway felt compelled to comment, thanks again.

Baker
Guest

Being honest with our strenghts and weaknesses gives us clarity. When we are clear we can take the steps to go forward. Great post.

+Baker

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[…] Why Trying to Be Productive is a Huge Waste of Time […]

David Dittell
Guest

Jonathan,

Excellent insight throughout. Too often our “goals” become the end-all. We should never lose sight that our concrete goals exist to get us through to another set of goals, and accomplishing what’s on that to-do list or action plan should not be your ultimate focus.

Mark
Guest

You did an excellent job with this! The perpetual chase of being more productive misses the whole point of why we are here as you have so aptly expressed. What do we get for being more productive the opportunity to squeeze even more into our already over taxed day. Great job!

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[…] Why Trying To Be Productive Is A Huge Waste Of Time […]

Brett
Guest
I think we definitely need to follow our natural rhythm and flow. It’s what we lack in our every day lives. Yet we still expect it of others and it goes around one more time. I understand why what you believe about productivity but we still have to make a living. And, if we become more productive at our work we can have more time for our natural rhythms. But I think you are on to something. People get obsessed with being productive to the point that they become less productive. They get caught up and miss the point. I’ve… Read more »
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[…] lastly (for this Friday, anyway), Jonathan at Illuminated Mind wrote a post on Why Productivity is a Huge Waste of Time. He reminds me to stop beating myself up about my so-called productivity because our non-productive […]

Reginald Reglus
Guest

I enjoyed your perspective. Thought-provoking indeed. I would give you a resounding “amen” had you said that obsessing about productivity is a waste of time. However, I have to differ with your perspective that productivity in general is a waste of time. Productivity, being present in the moment, enjoying the process and achieving goals all work together. It is about balance and counterbalance. You should productively move towards your goals while you are enjoying where are as you move through the process of becoming. And you should savor the moment when you arrive at your goal. It all works together.

Valerie
Guest
This is very insightful for someone who is new to the path of enlightenment. Only I perhaps get confused in the nuances of productivity and needing to get things done that are not a part of my passion or who I am now. Don’t you think it is okay to put the taxes, the car wash, dog’s vet trip, kids Halloween costume on your to do list which makes you feel productive as you achieve them. I am not necessarily passionate about any of them, but that is real. That is life. That is what being responsible is – doing… Read more »
nameless
Guest
Obsessing on be more productive at the expense of neglecting the most important things in life, which by definition are unquantifiable…is, well, un-productive. We should also note that by being more effective getting through are daily reality(task)frees up time to spend with our loved ones, ourselves, and pursue our passions. Humans by nature, live as if we are in control of our lives. As we grow, we realize there are many aspects of the world that are beyond understanding, let alone control. Yet we still must strive to establish some sense of order in the world, it is just who… Read more »
Raj
Guest

My two cents..Lot of day jobs requires us to deal with drudgery most of the time and we don’t have a choice (do we?). Productivity systems (like GTD) helps us get over these drudgery asap and free up time . If we have goals worthwhile pursuing (alternate career/personal Dev/Spiritual)and yearning for more free time ,then we gotta be a productivity machine ..It’s all about fine balance and nothing is black and white :-)

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