It often doesn’t matter how productive you are

Takeaway: Cultivating your energy levels and focus can, ironically, make you feel less productive, and can even make others perceive you as less productive. These tactics are easily worth the cost and struggle, but it’s important to keep their costs in mind.

Estimated Reading Time: 3 minutes, 14s.


There is no productivity

There is a quote that I love from Pierre Reverdy (a French poet):

“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.”

This quote applies to a lot. Take airport security, as an example. Over the last month, I’ve gone through airport security more than I care to admit. Each time, the theater of airport security becomes more apparent: when I crossed security recently in London, I was pulled aside by an agent who wanted to swab a tiny capsule of lip balm, that I had just gotten from the British Airlines flight I was on! The capsule even had the British Air logo emblazoned on the side. There is no airport security; there are only proofs of airport security.

I think productivity is the same way.

One nuanced part of productivity that not enough writers hit on is that it often doesn’t matter how productive you are. I equate productivity with how much you accomplish—the more you accomplish over the course of the day and week, the more productive you are. Productivity isn’t about how busy you are, how many emails you answer. Your accomplishments are what you’re left with at the end of the day.

Unfortunately, though, in the working world, when you work more thoughtfully, like by intelligently responding to emails, saying no to things so you can focus on your most important tasks, and taking more frequent breaks to cultivate your energy levels, you might feel less productive. You may even be perceived as less productive because your work isn’t as visible. (You’ll also get a crazy amount done, and won’t suffer from burnout, but that’s beside the point.) Productivity can sometimes feel a lot like love, or airport security:

“There is no productivity; there are only proofs of productivity.”

As another example, take disconnecting from the internet. Studies show that you spend about half of your time online procrastinating. This is a colossal amount, which makes it worthwhile to disconnect when you’re working on your most important tasks. But disconnecting also makes you feel less productive, because your brain becomes less stimulated—and if you’re less accessible, others might perceive you as less productive as well. Meditation is similar—every minute you spend meditating is a minute you don’t spend being busy, which can lead to you feeling less productive. But meditation helps you bring an enormous amount of attention to your work, which lets you get more done in less time. When you meditate, you gain back more time than you spend on the practice, because you spend your time that much more efficiently.

The same holds true when you cultivate your energy levels by exercising, getting enough sleep, or taking breaks. All three take up precious time—time that you can’t spend working or living. But at the end of the day, all three strategies let you recharge and bring more energy to what you do. This makes your work more meaningful, helps you work more efficiently, and lets you get more done in the same amount of time.

Two things to keep in mind

There is so much to be gained from cultivating your focus and energy that these types of productivity tactics are worth their costs. In the long-term you’ll be rewarded, and feel better about yourself and your work. At the same time, though, it’s important to keep these two things in mind in the short-term:

  1. That cultivating your energy and focus can make you feel less productive.
  2. That other people may perceive you as less productive when you do less busywork.

Both points stem from the same idea: that as you invest in your productivity (the right way), you may feel and be perceived as being less productive—until people see how much you get done. When you equate productivity with how much you accomplish, rather than how busy you are, these short-term costs are worth it many times over.

  • Todd MacPherson

    Great thoughts Chris! Thanks for sharing. It’s interesting how everything that is truly “better” requires personal character.

  • Project1440

    Lots of good points in here. Thanks for sharing! I struggle with “shutting off” and meditating sometimes because, like you said, you feel more productive doing other things. But something i’ve come to realize is that feeling productive isn’t the same as actually being productive. That’s why it’s so important to measure.

    Also, I’ve heard that on days when you don’t think have ten minutes to meditate, you should spend 30 minutes to meditate. I appreciate the reminder that even though those things don’t necessarily “feel” productive, they’re still really valuable.

  • Flower Violet

    This post is an absolute game changer. Everything you say is so true.

  • Lucas André de Alencar

    Great post Chris!

    I think the part of *feeling* less productive was not clear. Maye missed some enphasis that what we feel may be different from reality.

    But makes a lot sense what you said. People perceive busy = focused, but the correct is the opposite. :)

  • Scott Wittrock

    Great article! If you are looking for a tool to help you be more productive, I’m looking for early adopters for The first task list that learns from your habits and helps you focus on what’s important.

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