Updated: Aug 23
We live in an age and a culture that seems obsessed with productivity.
I actually think it’s become something of an idol--that is, something that we revere and worship that isn’t, in fact, worthy of worship in and of itself. A quick Google search returns a plethora of advice and resources for optimizing productivity, like an article from Lifehack entitled, “50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time.” Implied? “Achieving more in less time is obviously a good thing.”
I’m not here to argue that productivity is a bad thing. I think it’s great to be productive. In fact, I think being productive is at the very core of what we humans need in order to experience contentment in life. In episode 025, The Contentment Conundrum: Cracking the Code, my wife and I unpack this idea in more depth and detail.
What I am here to argue, though, is that many of us have bought into an inadequate definition of productivity.
And unless we disabuse ourselves of this definition of productivity and swap it out for a better one, we’ll set ourselves up for a lifetime of unnecessary pressure and stress, a chronic and unnecessary sense of inadequacy, and a long list of regrets when the Grim Reaper comes to collect us.
So hang with me as I propose a better definition of productivity than the half-baked, tyrannical one that that many of us are currently enslaved by. And let’s set ourselves free to reimagine what real productivity can look like.
The Origins of My Own Productivity Reimagination
The computer screen stared back blankly at me. The pad of paper in front of me stared back blankly at me. The voices of my team outside my office as they went about their work intensified my sense that I wasn’t delivering what they needed. I could feel the tension mounting as the pressure to make a decision increased but I was no closer to a decision now than I had been 3 hours earlier. Which might have been tolerable had I not already spent big chunks of time over several days trying to make the decision. But this was how good leaders make decisions, right? They retreat to their office for a while and then emerge with the decision that the team needs. Right?
So what the hell? Why wasn’t that working for me?
Desperation Leads to Innovation
Finally, in exasperation, I realized that if this approach wasn’t working, then I had to try something else. And I decided to do something that was counter to the culture of the organization I was in; I decided to leave and go for a run in the middle of the afternoon.
I was nervous about this. It felt irresponsible, and I was concerned about what my team and my boss might think of my choice to leave in the middle of the day. But in this moment, necessity was once again the mother of invention, and my exasperation over failed attempts to reach a decision any other way overrode my fears and doubts.
And an hour or so later, I returned from my run triumphant, with a decision in hand.
Now, maybe this sounds like a little thing, especially in the grand scheme of things. And for some of you, that would have been a little thing.
But I can tell you that for me, “triumphant” is a great word to describe that moment in my Story.
I had finally delivered the decision that my team needed from me, experienced the relief and satisfaction that came along with it, and--in my desperation--stumbled upon a new way to be productive.
A Quick Sidenote
That was 10 or so years ago. As I recount that experience in my own Story, I’m aware of and honestly, kind of self-conscious about how much that situation reveals about who and how I was back then: like the nature of my beliefs about what good leadership is, my own lack of self-permission and personal sovereignty, and much more.
It feels pretty vulnerable to share. But I share it gladly because I know that my Story is in some way also someone else’s story--even if only a little bit.
And by sharing it, someone else will feel a little less alone, maybe a little less crazy, and therefore more able to read their own Story with less judgment, derive more meaning from a similar part of their Story, and integrate that meaning into the Chapter they’re writing right now.
As you’ve probably heard me say before, I think our Story and our unique Purpose in the world are inseparable. So the more we’re willing and able to mine our Stories for meaning and integrate that meaning into the Chapter we’re writing right now, the more we’re able to uncover and pursue our unique purpose in the world. And as Charis and I discussed in the Contentment Conundrum, that’s a recipe for greater personal contentment. It’s also a recipe for a better world.
Alright, let’s paddle out of that eddy and back into the main current of our conversation today.
Freedom from Captivity
At that time in my life I was held captive by the belief that productivity looked a certain way--like being at the office between certain hours of the day and trying to make decisions in a certain way. Ironically, though, I was significantly limiting my productivity. I wasn’t free to explore other ways of being productive.
Here’s maybe the biggest thing I took away from that experience as I view it with the benefit of hindsight: It showed me that it was possible and beneficial to reimagine what productivity can look like.
I’ve been evolving my own concept of productivity ever since.
Reimagining Productivity to Renovate my Whole Life
The example I shared pertained to productivity on the professional level. I’ve since expanded my re-imagination of productivity to my whole life--something that’s become especially useful in this most recent chapter of being self-employed and having the deceptively complicated freedom to use all of my time however I’d like to. Some of you can relate to that deceptively complicated freedom--which requires a different kind of self-management than typical employment situations do.
These days, for example, I take a few long walks by myself each week. By giving myself permission to reimagine productivity, I’ve discovered that those walks are a form of life-giving creative solitude that benefits every area of my life.
Sometimes, a new work idea comes to mind or I solve a work problem. Sometimes, an idea comes to mind--often almost as if from nowhere--that benefits my family. Recently, I realized that I wanted to write a letter to my younger son about something he’s been struggling with. I realized it with a conviction and a certainty that was unmistakable. So I did write that letter, and the results in terms of every metric I know of as a parent were off-the-charts awesome.
That’s not tooting my own horn, BTW--that’s a testament to the value of creative solitude in my life as a form of productivity and the value of giving ourselves permission to reimagine productivity for ourselves.
Sometimes on my walks, nothing in particular comes to mind, and I just enjoy being outside on a country road, and I’m captivated by nature and the sights, sounds, and smells, and reminded that I’m glad to be alive and how outrageously fortunate I am overall.
That’s one way that I’ve reimagined productivity in the current chapter of my story, and there are others. My clients testify to the life-changing benefits of reimagining productivity for themselves, too. In fact, you can tune into Scott Larson’s story in episode 029, entitled Dragon Slayer: One Man’s Heroic Tale of Life Renovation, to hear how he set himself free from old, worn-out definitions of productivity and renovated his whole life in the process.
What’s Wrong with the Prevailing Definition of Productivity?
My own experience, my clients’ experiences, and observing the world we inhabit--especially the prevalence of anxiety, depression, and burnout--all lead me to believe that many of us have bought into a bad definition of productivity and could benefit from swapping it out for a better one.
Specifically, I think the prevailing definition of productivity is inadequate because it’s too narrow.
For example, I think it leads us to see tangible, quantifiable results in business, wealth creation, and amount of stuff acquired as the most valid evidence of a productive and useful life. I think it deifies “hustle” and side gigs, elevating them almost to the status of virtues. The internet generally and Social Media, even more specifically, can amplify that message and, if we’re not intentional about what we consume, lead us to believe that if we’re not 10x-ing our results in every area of our life, then we’re half-assing it.
As I said earlier, none of these things are bad in and of themselves.
But we lose our way when we make secondary things primary, when we idolize things that aren’t worthy of worship in and of themselves.
And we get confused, depressed, and angry when our idols fail us. When we’ve done our damndest to 10x every area of our lives and still find ourselves wanting more.
BTW, I’ve got a lot of thoughts on what’s leading us to buy into this bad definition of productivity and measures of success that don’t satisfy at all. I plan to unpack some of those thoughts in future episodes. But for now, I want to turn the corner to HOW we go about swapping out our inadequate definition of productivity for a better one.
Because if you’re willing, you really can reimagine what productivity looks like for you and substantially renovate your life for the better.
How My Clients Reimagine Productivity
When I work with a client and suspect that they might benefit from reimagining their definition of productivity, I keep an eye out for evidence of assumptions about productivity and begin to challenge them. Like if a client calls a vacation or going to their son’s baseball game on a workday non-productive--compared to “productive” activities like those that produce income or involve housework--that’s a sign to me that they’re possibly unaware of the presence of narrow and rigid definitions of productivity that could be holding them back from an even fuller and more productive experience of life.
How YOU Can Reimagine Productivity, Starting Today
You and I don’t have the benefit of working together like that via this podcast medium, but you can still begin to reimagine productivity in your life right now, if you’d like to. I’ve been doing this kind of work with a client recently in an organic way throughout our conversations, and along the way she created a process for herself for reimagining productivity. I thought it was so good that, with her permission and with only minor adjustments, I’m going to share it with you, too. Here’s how it works:
First, make a list of as many things as you can think of that you consider “productive.” Don’t censor or judge the list in any way. Just put down everything you can think of that qualifies as “productive” use of time in your mind.
Next, make a list of as many things as you can think of that you consider “non-productive.” In other words, things that you see as a luxury because you don’t really think they contribute to a useful goal or purpose. Don’t censor or judge this list in any way, either.
Then, circle all the things on your non-productive list that you enjoy doing, want to do, or simply want to do more of.
Next, decide which of the items you circled on the “non-productive” list might actually belong on the “productive” list. Challenge the underlying assumptions that landed those items on the “non-productive” list. For example, maybe you put “hanging out with friends” on the non-productive list because in your mind, it doesn’t really contribute to a useful, measurable goal or purpose. Maybe you consider it a luxury rather than a necessity. Challenge that assumption. Does time with your friends energize you and encourage you? Are your friends a source of good counsel and perspective that you might not otherwise have gained? Does time with friends help you show up better as a spouse, partner, parent, or employee? If you can answer yes to one or more of those questions, then it’s a good bet that “hanging out with friends” might just belong on your “productive” list.
If you circled something on your “non-productive” list that you enjoy doing but aren’t sure if it belongs on your “productive” list, ask yourself this: Is it possible that enjoying something is inherently “productive?” Obviously, for me, the answer is a resounding “yes!” because doing what we enjoy has so many collateral benefits in so many other areas of our lives.
Remember the old saying, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?”
You can also do the opposite, of course, if it seems useful--that is, decide which of the items you circled on the “productive” list might actually belong on the “non-productive” list.
Finally, give yourself permission to move just one of the items from your “non-productive” list to the “productive list.” Then, decide specifically when and how you will first risk inserting that thing into your daily life. And do it. If you need an extra kick in the butt to actually do it, ask yourself how you would feel if you died 5 years from today and had never actually done that thing.
Wash, Rinse, Repeat
If you work through this whole process, you will have begun to reimagine productivity in your own life. With new permission and a process like this one, you can continue to reimagine productivity one step at a time, one day at a time, one experiment at time. And over time, you will develop a definition of productivity uniquely suited to you that helps you bring your best to the game of life, enjoy your participation in it more, and leave your best out on the field.
Play, rest, exercising our imagination, following our curiosity, learning, time in nature, exposure to new people, places, and ideas, good meals, conversations, and adventures with friends, solitude, and personal reflection are examples of things that I wholeheartedly believe belong on all of our “productive” lists but often are relegated to the “non-productive” list when push comes to shove. The prevailing definition of productivity reinforces this relegation. But I think they are things that are so crucial to human wellbeing--so crucial to becoming who we were made to be and living the lives we were made to live--that I would almost call them non-negotiable. I stop short of calling them that only because they’re not always options for us given the stresses, strains, surprises, and crises of life. And we can, technically speaking, live without them--or, rather, survive without them.
But there’s a big difference between surviving and living, isn’t there?
Landing the Plane
To recap, my proposition is that many of us have bought into an inadequate definition of productivity--usually without even being aware of it. And unless we disabuse ourselves of this definition of productivity and swap it out for a better one, we’ll set ourselves up for a lifetime of unnecessary pressure and stress, a chronic and unnecessary sense of inadequacy, and a long list of regrets when the Grim Reaper comes to collect us.
Let’s set ourselves free to reimagine what real productivity can look like--to evolve our definition of “productive” to include things that simply bring us joy, for example.
After all, remember: You ARE going to die. But you’re not dead yet. So get after it!
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