Let's Put Productivity in its Proper Place


Introduction — Our Productive Dilemma

Before we jump indiscriminately into being productive, I feel obligated to caution us to check our motivation, first.

I hear you, folks — productivity seems like so straightforward an answer. It almost feels as if we don’t need to question its validity because it is so assumed. Which is why I feel obligated to question us — all of us — because I often find myself holding onto productivity as a sacred truth with clenched fists. Every moment is occupied as an opportunity to get closer to some accomplishment. Every second is a valuable entity with the potential to realize a goal and move forward. Thou shalt waste no time. My life is a ladder to climb, a star to capture. Productivity is what makes us great and worthwhile and successful. I, therefore, am willing to neglect the presence of my children, to ignore the needs of my spouse, and to obscure my presence in the presence of others because there is something to grasp.

What makes this worse is that I hear the cultural proclamation that this is noble — I am suffering for the cause (and causing others to suffer, as well). So I often find myself unable to just sit — my mind runs full of what I could be doing and what task, no matter how small, I could chip away on.

The problem is, if you make it to the end of this article, you will see that I don’t take my own advice.

Because I have also had the honor of presiding over many funerals and I’ve noticed a pattern while speaking the last words over so many lives. In those last moments together, whether at a hospital bed or standing next to a casket dimly lit, folks don’t tend to bring up how much stuff the person did or how frequently they crushed a to-do list. No one seems to be focused on the productive nature of a person in retrospect of the totality of their life. What do they talk about? Their presence. In the end, that’s what seems to be important.

Alas, the self-care conversation does seem to be worthwhile. I can only point you in the direction of that unfolding conversation — the folks who talk about saying no, taking time for rest, practicing Sabbath, recovery, having inputs for all of your output, and even the idea that creativity often stems from stepping away. Those voices are all out there and we should listen. While I would challenge a common theme that the only point of rest is to further enhance your productivity, at least it is a step in the right direction. I even recently read an article on rest as self-preservation. I like that. So keep engaging that idea, but, while you do, I want to offer another angle to this conversation.

And then I want to share the lyrics of a song that have spoken to this more than anything I know.

Part One — Productivity is Morally Neutral

Productivity is neither good nor bad.

Rather, how you are productive will either produce a good or bad effect. Just like fire, bacteria, or the plethora of illustrations of how a particular component of our lives can be used beneficially or destructively, productivity functions in a similar scope. Productivity isn’t something that should be lauded as positive nor should it be condemned as negative. It is simply a description for how you use your time — a medium with the potential to carry out positive or negative effects.

However, if productivity is morally neutral, we have a problem on our hands — because our culture doesn’t act like it. You want to be good? You want to have worth? You have to be a contributor to society? Then productivity is the only answer. Now, I know that is a generalization, but I do believe it is a dangerous one and I, too, have bought into its myth. We have created an idol of the productive person and when something becomes innately placed on a pedestal, when something is given significance as the reason good things happen (such as reaching goals or obtaining success), or when something becomes mandated as the only means to said success — then we veil the neutrality of productivity and elevate it as only a positive and necessary thing.

Let’s also, in this honest space, take a moment to acknowledge that we shouldn’t shame productivity, either. Just as it is not inherently good, it can’t be blackmailed as bad. What this does mean is that we have to dig under the surface of productivity to discover its goodness or badness. As this is not a conversation I see occurring in the larger swath of our culture, I feel obligated to have it, especially because of the inherent and assumed goodness that productivity seems to have. Is this why we only see conversations take place of how to be productive? If it is just a good thing, then you simply need to learn how to do it better — without any consideration of its potential destruction. “Crushing it,” is what I believe the cool kids are saying these days. As if the concept of productivity is synonymous with doing good work and living rightly in the world. Productivity, as seems to be the case in our culture, is predominantly only seen one way: Good, necessary, and reserved for those of us who desire to be noble beings who crush it.

In turn, we end up with a constant flood of the “7 Ways to Be Productive” or “How to Do This Productive Thing to Get What You Want” or a list of the things you need to do every day to be your best and how, if you would just wake up super early and do lots of stuff throughout the day then you will get the fame, success, or good feeling you were hoping for.

There is a reason that the blogosphere has a reputation for being a bunch of self-help, how to, listicle, psychobabble articles offering shots of inspiration, hacks, and cheat codes to success — because success is the goal and productivity is the only route to get there.

On the other end of the spectrum, the most dialogue I see occurring is the need for balance; that productivity is still inherently good, but you can’t do it all. A good conversation, but I believe we can go further.

Because I believe we are not thinking properly about productivity.

We have created this dualism that you are either lazy or productive.

I invite us, therefore, into the question of, “Why?” — If we mostly only talk about how to be productive, can we take a moment to ask why should we be productive? What is a proper relationship to this posture? How does productivity need to fit into a meaningful human life?

For many, we just assume success is the goal and we’ve made productivity the only route. In doing so, we may be blinding ourselves to the downsides and ignoring the potential negative effects that might seep in. We jump straight to the discussion of how to do it without first taking the step of analyzing what might be beneath the surface and whether or not that might be positive or negative. We assume productivity is always good and always healthy.

So I’m here to say (mostly to myself) that, sometimes, a real possibility in our lifestyle arsenal ought to be,

“Don’t be productive.”

Maybe it isn’t lazy or productive — maybe it is responsible or irresponsible productivity. Maybe the real dualism is a healthy or unhealthy use of your time.

As opposed to only discussing productivity as if it is the savior of the entrepreneurial, relational, or self-help world, I hope we can begin to name what differentiates positive and helpful productivity from the negative effects that creep alongside of our blind work. What is most important, then, is knowing why you are pursuing the productive act — we need to be aware of what the motivation is behind our productivity to then know its resulting effect.

Before we learn how to be productive, we need to start with an awareness of the motivation behind our productivity — and not be afraid of not being productive if it means staying true to a healthy motivation.

So let’s pull back the curtain and zoom out the lens to see what might be going on here. Let’s confront some dominant assumptions, get honest about the motivations behind productivity, and uncover a better approach to dictate your relationship with this morally neutral concept.

And, of course, I still need to share those song lyrics.

Part Two — The Dark Sides of Productivity

While not a definitive guide, here are nine observations I’ve noticed that are potentially destructive motivations for being productive:

1 — Idealism

“If I just work this much harder and achieve more, I will be able to set up the world the way I think it should be.”

For those of you who want to be perfect, productivity is your best asset — you use it to pursue the ideal. Your idealism, though, can lead to a highly critical voice of others. The problem becomes when you know how others ought to be and you are convinced that your idealism means that you are responsible for fixing them.

Is your pursuit of productivity a means of controlling others or controlling outcomes to fit your ideal? Is your dissatisfaction with others, yourself, or the world at-large prompting you to do more and more until everything is in balance (particularly, the balance you desire)?

Productivity is incredibly important to this perspective, but only because of the potential power that will result.

If you are pushing yourself because of an intent to force the world into your ideal control, you will still be successful, but at the expense of healthy, mutual relationships — which might actually mean you aren’t successful.

2 — Acceptance

“If I work hard to accomplish these things for this person by sacrificing myself, my obedience will lead to acceptance.”

If you have ever sought validation for your worth by sacrificing yourself in obedience to someone or something else, then your motivation for productivity might not be rooted in a healthy posture. Productivity becomes the way in which we put someone else above ourselves in order to gain their love.

This motivation usually doesn’t care all that much about productivity, but only the potential relational approval that comes from serving someone else’s needs, wants, or desires.

If you put others first in order to be loved, your productivity becomes a means of relational equity — which will fail in actually bringing that relational equity. Productivity can’t be a guise for gaining love or fulfilling a relational agenda. Productive obedience won’t lead to acceptance, it will only result in the continuation of two people trying to get something from the other.

3 — Worth

“If I am productive, I will be valuable.”

Possibly the most prevalent motivation among ambitious work-a-holics, this perspective assumes that productivity will lead to achievement or success which will, in turn, lead to approval by the world. It assumes your worth is only reflected by what you achieve.

If you work hard, then you will be valuable.

If you make it to the top, then you will be approved by the people you so desperately want to have approval from.

This motivation views productivity as a means for being approved by the world — that you aren’t good enough until you have proven your worth through what you’ve accomplished. The fear of failure is more indicative for their hard work than what their hard work might produce in the world.

This group might be the most productive bunch to ever exist — the type A alphas who run the show and win — but this group also might be the most disingenuous. Beware that your pursuit of productivity is not a disguise for earning your worth from the world.

4 — Self-Image

“If I do this thing, then I will feel validated.”

This motivation for productivity is the pursuit of arriving — of finally making it where you have pushed yourself to make it. This isn’t about gaining approval from the world, it is about gaining approval from yourself.

If you are productive because there is something wrong with you and you need to prove yourself to yourself, then your pursuit is motivated by your self-image.

There is usually an assumption with this perspective that you are different and unique and that you therefore have to showcase your individuality.

For this group, pursuing productivity is a means to acquire a notion of your individual self-image. This motivation might be the least dark as this can be noble when it is healthy, but it also has the propensity to result from delusional self-contempt where achievement is solely sought to feel better about yourself. The other danger here is that what results from your life wasn’t the point, it was just a means to the end of claiming something for yourself.

5 — Neglect

“If I just do more, then I won’t have anxiety over my other problems.”

Here, productivity is the guise for escapism. Similar to self-image, some folks use productivity to compensate for an underlying issue that they are avoiding.

Essentially, productivity becomes the means and, therefore, the excuse, to neglect our junk. We escape to the abstract prisons of productivity to give credence to avoiding the ground under our feet.

While this perspective is typically the most innovative because of the passion that gets poured into anything that doesn’t make you confront your own issues, it can be the most internally destructive.

6 — Worry

“If I can be productive, then I will be in control and my problems will go away.”

If you ever feel out of control, your response might be to act; in other words, to be productive as a means to exert control over the forces surrounding your life. Your productivity is an attempt to construct social security in an unpredictable and unstable world.

Typically, this perspective is not interested in productivity and its resulting achievement, but sees productivity as a means to harness a sense of safety and peace in an uncertain world. To this motivation, a self-help listicle ensuring that following these practices guarantees productive success is very enticing. Anything that provides a controlled environment and secure foundation is pursued over the unpredictable world.

Sometimes, just being able to check something off of a to-do list makes you feel like you can continue through the day.

7 — Fear of Missing Out

“If I go through this process of productivity, it will give me something new. If I don’t, I will miss out.”

This is for those of you who yearn for the fun, spontaneous, and optimistic experience of life. As a result, there is always a new and exciting adventure in the next moment — which can be powerfully positive, but can also create anxiety.

If someone has discovered an experience that garners the attention of a person with this perspective, then it will be worth pursuing by said person. This perspective, like the worrier, is not very interested in productivity for its own sake, but for the experience it could potentially offer. Trying a new technique, seeing a new component of the world, and achieving something that appears valuable are worth the work, then. The impulsiveness is its own form of escape. To keep from being rooted in one place, doing more and working harder can provide the elusive experience.

This fear, then, is the motivation for being productive and, the more popular, cool, or exciting the experience seems, the harder they will strive to attain it.

8 — Control

“If I am productive, I will have more power and control to get what I want.”

Where a worry-type wants to control their environment, a controller wants to dominate the world and other people. Similar to the Idealist, obtaining what you want will come through hard work. How does this translate to potentially unhealthy productivity? If you use a productive pursuit of achievement to intimidate, threaten, or challenge others to put them in their place, it might not be very helpful.

The motivation is similar to the “rugged individual” and functions out of a fear of losing power or control. Again, this group will be naturally inclined to be as productive as possible, but the motivation can be destructive. While this passion can be incredibly constructive, resorting to dominance and power and control through productivity will lead to an achievement at the expense of relationships, emotional integrity, and health.

9 — People Pleasing

“If I produce this, others will be happy and life will stay calm.”

One component of this posture is complacency — you are likely to not do something if it means keeping things peaceful and calm with your surrounding environment. People pleasers usually don’t pursue productivity if there is a chance that it will lead to conflict with others or even within themselves.

However, there is another component of minimizing problems and potential conflict — meaning that this perspective has a tendency to be productive if it makes people happy. It is a submissive productivity, usually against their own desire, but if it means avoiding disturbance, then it is worth it.

This motivation for productivity is usually an attempt to give a pleasant or peaceful solution to problems that will appease others.

Is There a Theme Here?

Those are some of the dark sides and I would encourage all of us to let productivity go if it is brought forth by these motivations. The potential mess these will bring is likely to be greater the desired gain.

You may also notice that embedded throughout these dark sides is a common theme — the disingenuous use of productivity to get something else. Productivity is a means to an end that is usually selfish or rooted in a primal dissatisfaction. We don’t like how things are and want an easy way to avoid our dislikes. The answer is productivity. You could even unpack this further that our productivity is often a means to escape and, in a more existential way, a means to escape death. Whether escaping pain or failure or our perceived lacks or even the escape of our finitude by pursuing immortality, productivity is the numbing agent that allows us to live in the hope of the future without sitting quietly in the present reality of how things are.

Which brings back the question — if productivity has no moral value and these are ways it can be bad, then how can we interact with it to be good?

Which comes back to the problem — that when productivity is a means to an end to serve some sort of self-interest it will, even if it leads to good, come with some baggage.

The answer comes back to your presence.

The answer for a healthy motivation is rooted in your intention, your agenda, and the goal of productivity in the first place.

Which means the answer will come back to, of course, you.

Part Three — The Proper Place

Again, I only have observations for this answer that come from my anecdotal experience. However, these observations have been of great value to me in order to place my life and, therefore, my productivity in its proper place.

First, a question.

If the only result of your productivity is that this thing happened, would you still do it?

If there was no success, fame, financial gain, or external reward, would you still go about the productive process? Would you still make that thing, start that business, write that article, or create that addition in the world? If it wouldn’t make the world how you want it, gain love, validate your worth, showcase your individuality, avoid your junk, control your environment, avoid missing out, dominate the world around you, or appease other people, would you still do it?

The real question is, “How much is enough?”

In the Jewish scriptures there is a book entitled “Ecclesiastes.” It is a strange book, full of the depressing wisdom about the futility of life. But seriously, it’s a good read. Within it, there is this poetic line:

Fools fold their hands
   and consume their own flesh. 
Better is a handful with peace
   than two handfuls with toil,
   and a chasing after wind.

A bunch of hands.

However, in the Hebrew language, each word that translates into English as ‘hand’ is a different word to differentiate a way of using your hands. Fools folding their hands is the image of a limp hand rested on the legs, doing nothing. It is the inactive, checked out, disillusioned posture of apathy.

At the end, there are two handfuls with toil — which is actually a picture of closed fists. It is the tight grasping that resembles the dark sides of productivity; the modern equivalent of Kanye West’s, “I’m living in the 21st century / doin’ something mean to it…” You crush it. You win. You dominate. You put your boot on the neck of the world and you climb to the top of that ladder.

But then there is the handful with peace — which is the image of an open palm. The thing about an open palm is that it can hold things, it can accomplish tasks, it can be productive, but it can do it all without holding tightly and missing the point. Things are free to come and go. The handful with peace is a type of life that knows how to be present.

There is another story from Judaism that plays on the burning bush narrative with Moses. Ancient rabbis made a point that the bush was actually on fire the entire time, but Moses never took the time to notice. How many times did he pass this burning bush because he wasn’t paying attention; because he wasn’t present? Maybe this is why later in the story of Exodus the Divine gives these instructions to Moses when he is told to go up to Mount Sinai to receive Torah — “Go up to the mountain and be there.” The assumption is that when you go up to the mountain you will, quite naturally, be there. But maybe there is a difference. Maybe the Divine knows that there is a chance that Moses will hike to the top and he won’t actually be there.

And maybe our pursuit of productivity as a means to some other end, our desire to escape from death and dissatisfaction, and our striving to accomplish and go and win might be in the way of us actually being a human being.

Why do we yearn to be a cultural hero that accomplishes everything under the sun? We posit success, which usually means financial success or power, as the goal of existence. What are we longing for that we think that will provide? Because, as I’ve said before,  I have yet to meet someone who is both wildly successful by our rampant cultural standards and satisfied. I have yet to meet someone who has accomplished and juggled everything under the sun and proudly proclaims it was worth it.

I have, however, met folks who accomplished the heroic feat of ultimate production and mourned that they never enjoyed the fruit. I have met folks who experienced everything under the sun and concluded that it was all akin to vapor extinguishing the meaning from their lives. I have met people who walked away burned-out, empty, and yearning to have it all back.

I’ve also met the wise, seemingly provincial simpleton who is content—who holds the chosen objects well, who did a few things and enjoyed its produce, and who embraced finitude and therefore life.

Maybe the good word we need to hear is actually:

Don’t be productive.

Because it won’t save you.

The world will continue on whether or not you do all of those things and there is a chance you will miss the world in your myopic adventure to get to the top of the ladder. There is even the chance that your productivity, if disingenuous and dark, will make the world worse. We use productivity to arrive at some abstract goal only to, in the end, realize that we didn’t. Just like what I’ve discovered at all of those funerals, there is a chance that you may be looking in on yours only to find, at least to those people surrounding your grave, that your productivity didn’t matter that much. We so often close ourselves off to what else is possible and what else is important — the things that we will be truly remembered for by those we love — by only pursuing the to-do list that seems so important in the heat of the moment.

Which sounds lazy — not emphasizing your focus to produce and “become your best,” as they say, goes against our modern, enlightened progress that our culture has worked so hard to create. But remember, this perspective to be as productive, efficient, and successful as possible has not been inherent to the human condition throughout history.

Jeremy Rifkin points out in his book, “Entropy” how the post-classical and pre-modern peasant had more vacation time and free time than the modern 40 hour a week (or 4 Hour Week, if you will) worker. Work was to survive, not validate your existence. It came with less luxury, but it might be said that luxury comes with its own problems.

Progress isn’t always progress.

I understand that culture has changed, but our endless pursuit of progress might not be as essential as we assume. I hope you still pursue success, accomplishment, and progress, but to do so isn’t the human goal of existence, it is just one option you might choose.

Even the simple modicum of feeling guilty for getting more sleep — will those lost hours of sleep really change all that much in the scope of world history? Maybe. And if it will for you, you must have some divine and predestined call as a hero worthy of lore that most of us missed. But this goes further. Should the only reason we turn off our phones or don’t check our email for one day of the week or take a vacation or a day off be so that we can recover and be back on the grind? Or might the grind exist for the point of taking a day off because that’s where the life is? Maybe you shouldn’t try to do everything on your list, first, because it doesn’t matter all that much and, second, because it could cause you to miss a world full of value waiting to be held by an open palm instead of a closed fist.

That’s our invitation — to be content.

To ask ourselves, “If I don’t do this thing, what would happen? Will the world still continue to spin on its axis?”

Or a better question to ask, “If I do this thing, what will I miss?”

What relationship will suffer? What will I fail to see and explore and discover and feel? What gratefulness will I withhold because I am crushing it right now? Is the peasant in a third world country less successful because they grow their flowers and love their family and eat good meals and sit in the presence of creation and admire its beauty? Or is the popular entrepreneur with a systemized email and phone call process and a full schedule and noble goals the more successful one? I guess it depends on your definition of success.

But let’s not get off track — because it’s starting to sound like productivity is bad and, if you remember, productivity has no moral value. My hope is that these thoughts have aided all of us in realizing that we don’t need to get rid of productivity, but that we just need to put it in its proper place.

So what’s the alternative to those listed improper means to an end? What’s the alternative to the closed fists? What does a productive life with the presence of open palms look like?

It all comes back to you.

The alternative is that you, using as Mary Oliver said, “…the one wild and precious life you have”, will be a certain kind of person in a certain kind of world. My hope is that this will be the motivation that compels our productivity and that it will emerge the usefulness, effectiveness, and health of how we use our time so that we might avoid the dark side and the leave the world a little better than we found it.

Therefore, a final question when considering your posture towards productivity:

Will this add value to the ongoing life of myself, my place, and the global journey?

If productivity is the means to the end of a better world resulting from your work then, by all means, be productive. If it involves you transcending yourself for the good of the whole while not disintegrating the current good of that whole, including yourself, then work your ass off and crush it. But also acknowledge that the healthiest version of you will lead to a healthier place which will lead to a healthier world — and incessant productivity and self-absorbed motivations for productivity probably won’t be that healthy for anyone.

Essentially, we need to allow our productivity to come out of our surplus, not our deficit.

Can you start with the fact that you are already good? That you don’t have to make the team, you are already on the team; that you don’t have to earn your humanity because if your heart is beating and your breath is flowing, you’re already a human being. You already have this gift of life. You are already here, in the world, with the beloved, mysterious gift of being alive.

So just use your gift appropriately.

You have this sacred responsibility for what kind of life you will bring to the world — so what are you going to do with the gift?

If there is some productivity involved, then use that tool wisely while being aware of the trap that our culture has embedded within us and its potential dark sides.

But don’t forget your place in the world.

And, certainly, don’t forget the proper place of being productive in the midst of it.

Epilogue — The Astronomer

A friend of mine, Noah Martis, is a brilliant wordsmith and an incredibly talented musician. One day he confronted me about my posture of feeling inadequate and my striving to accomplish much to prove my worth. He said something along the lines of, “You’re trying to be the best purple possible, but there is no such thing as a better purple. Just be purple!”

Needless to say, he saw the dark sides of my productivity and he was trying to help me put it in its proper place — that I could pursue productivity for this goal of health, but that if it impeded that goal, I needed to put it down.

Which involved helping me see my proper place — that I didn’t create the world and that it will keep turning without me; that I’m already good and my constant striving was actually hurting my presence. He challenged me to share the gift of my life by letting it flow out of what I have, not out of what I lack. And he said it began by seeing that I am loved, not for what I do, but for simply being here.

Later that night, I got a recording in my inbox and he shared this song with me.

May you hear the prophetic announcement of living in such a way as this:

Heard it first at the birth of an age old friend.
That the way it will ain’t the way it’s been.
The way it will ain’t the way it’s been.
He saw so far ahead.

But I’d like him to look a little closer now.
I’ll help him put his telescope down.
I’ll help him put his telescope down.
Cause I’m here on the ground.

Long enough for you to see.
Long enough for you to see.

Chances go, don’t miss another.
To love yourself like I love you brother.
To love yourself like I love you brother.

“The Astronomer” — Noah Martis