Several weeks ago, before the California shelter-in-place order went into effect, I noticed a theme showing up in the conversations around me that broached the topic of productivity. Specifically, how one knows if they are feeling productive or not. Now, a little over a month into quarantine life, so many of us are being faced with this very question.
How do we know if we are being productive?
Whether you find yourself binge-watching your favorite shows on Netflix, spending time with feel-good hobbies, or checking off boxes on your to-do list, feeling productive and our relationship to productivity has a major influence on us in modern western society. Especially, now when so many of us are at home – working or not – most of us are finding we have more time on our hands and we are feeling anxious about how to use it.
This got me to thinking, what does ‘being productive’ actually mean AND have we ever thought about flipping that meaning on its head?
I suppose we can start with how we commonly define productivity. I am not going to give you the same ol’ boring dictionary definition but let’s look at how we actually understand what productivity is? A basic search on Google gives you pages upon pages of the latest tips & tricks for becoming a more productive person. Most are numbered lists of how to make lists, set goals, track your time, clear your space, develop a foolproof method to keep you on track, etc.
When it comes down to it, people mostly feel productive when they are getting things done, completing tasks, and accomplishing their goals. Count me in! I have been a big fan of feeling this kind of productivity for most of my life, and why not, it feels great when I check those boxes as completed! The load feels a little lighter, I have a bounce in my step, a smile on my face, and the psychological shackles have come off. Whoo-hoo!
The thing that’s been itching me is, is this the only way to productivity?
There is good news for those who find this conventional understanding of what productivity is to be a little too lackluster. A little too “I’d rather eat raw brussels sprouts sprinkled with stale nutritional yeast” kind of lackluster.
Meet the new kid on the block : Unconventional Productivity
The practice and concept of “Unconventional Productivity” has been gaining more popularity in recent years. In short, the message is : “do some, play more”. This has been resulting in the same amount of “productivity results” as those who set out to complete everything on their to-do list but with a lot more peace and a sense of balance.
Remember that time when you were in the shower and your big breakthrough idea popped in giving you a shot of adrenaline as if someone just poured ice cold water over you? Yep! That was you being unconventionally productive even when you thought you were just taking a steam bath.
Consider the results of recent studies reporting employees who work less are actually just as productive as those who work more. Roll call: Unconventional productivity? Present!
What about the astounding success of the Finnish school system where the children start compulsory schooling at age 7, have minimal to no homework, spend more time outside, less time in the classroom than children of American schools, and yet have been ranked as the best education system in the world? Boom! Unconventional productivity strikes again!
The Human Element
Unconventional productivity brings in an element that conventional productivity does not: the human element.
How much of ourselves are we bringing into our experience of being productive? When we write our lists, are we taking into consideration the ebb and flow of our energy stores throughout the day? When do we need to move faster? Move slower? Do you decide that ahead of time or in the moment? What about when little Jessie wants to play or cuddle, or the time for you to recharge and refuel? We are beginning to buy into the notion that our downtime is an imperative component of the productive process.
Factoring in your “downtime” as part of being productive, is not entirely new. People far more successful than I have been practicing this for far longer. Author and risk management professor Nicolas Nassim Taleb famously identifies as a “flâneur”. Or one who spends their time engrossed in their interests for the sake of being engrossed in their interests. Yet, Taleb has authored at least 9 highly relevant and celebrated books.
Or take a more widely-known figure, actor Daniel Day Lewis. We don’t see him in a film all that often but when he is, he produces an epic performance and we remember it. Think: “My Left Foot”, “The Gangs of New York”, “There Will Be Blood”, “Lincoln”. The man has won or been nominated in the category of “Best Actor” for almost every role he has played. Talk about productive! His performances produce an impact on us and contribute incredible value to our society in the way of culture, arts, and experience.
Its widely known that Day-Lewis is considered a Method actor and can often take up to two years to prepare for a role. That said, it makes sense why Day-Lewis isn’t pumping out films year after year. If we look at this through the lens of conventional productivity, it would seem he is not all that “productive”. But if we look at it through the unconventional productivity lens, the time he takes in between producing films is an imperative part of the productive process. And its the part I like to call the “generative” phase of being productive.
How does he do this? Is he moving fast, trying to produce as much as he can as fast as he can? Or is he moving slower, examining and exploring who this new character is, how they move, how they breathe, how they influence others, or how they are influenced by others?
How you can do it.
Imagine this happening: its a weekday morning, you’ve been up since 6am, you’ve meditated, exercised, enjoyed breakfast with a delish cup of coffee or tea, you are freshly showered and done up for the day and its only 830am. You have a work meeting at 11a that you fully prepped for yesterday. Now what? Most of us might try and see how we can fill that time with another task or respond to an email but what if – WHAT IF – you decided to grab a blanket and go sit on your sofa and gaze out the window.
Slow. Yo’. Roll. Peeps!
Allow yourself to come into a place of rest or reflection, to daydream or float in time. To go inward and attend to what is happening inside of you rather than attending to what you think needs to happen outside of you.
Out of the blue, an idea pops in and its like the best-tasting, perfectly-buttered and salted piece of popcorn you’ve ever had! An insight sparks up and its that little bit of wisdom that helps soften the tension after that argument you had with your partner. Or maybe its this “downtime” that helps to integrate the eighteen-hour day you worked the day before.
Peter Wright, Somatic Coach and Psychotherapist, refers to this phenomenon as being in a state of “active reception”. Specifically, the state that balances action. By being actively receptive we are allowing ourselves to intentionally be in a naturally occurring evolutionary process of pulsation. One where we go in to go out, where we contract to expand, where we generate to produce.
Simply speaking, expansion and contraction make up the basic movement patterns of a pulsation. Check it:
Waking and sleeping.
Inhaling and exhaling.
Eating and well…shall I say it…yep…goin’ to say it…pooping. Or eliminating, for you more formal folks.
Every one of these examples is a naturally occurring process of the body. For every phase of contraction we are preparing our system for the next phase of expansion. Its a necessary process of growing, living, and sustaining life. Its necessary for balance and is imperative in maintaining the human element within the productive process.
So, when we talk about bringing the human element into the equation of being productive – since that is what we are and not a bunch of machines optimized to just create output (at least not yet!) – we are redefining our understanding of what being productive actually looks like. It helps us to generate a sense of balance and relieve our anxiety while creating quality and producing with integrity.
“The skills that got you here, aren’t going to get you there”.
I heard this phrase twice in the same week and HOLY SMOK-IES does that one hit home right now in 2020! We are in a time of massive change and re-organization. A ‘new normal’ is upon us and we can either adapt and respond or resist and take our hard knocks.
It brings me back to my initial quandry, how do we know if we are being productive? And should we try to “get back to normal” with our conventional ways of being productive?
If you have found success with your to-do lists and task management. Great! Fab-o-rama! These skills are good to have – they provide structure and structure is a good thing to rely on. (Should I throw in how it also reflects patriarchal qualities? Nah, let us keep it lighthearted, shall we?)
I suggest we jump on the pendulum swing and integrate some active reception, (ahem, a.k.a. matriarchal qualities…I know, I know, we are keeping it light) into our process. A little more rest, a little more reflection, a little more going inward and attending to what is happening inside of us. What do you have to lose?
Anxiety? = check!
Stress? = check!
Burn out? = check! (see how I love my checklists?)
Sounds like a formula for overall health and with that comes a lot more wealth. When our health equates to our wealth, we all benefit.
So while we are in this rare window of being in quarantine, next time you catch yourself putting off an opportunity to sit on your sofa and go inward, or taking a walk around your neighborhood – without your phone – for the sake of needing to be productive, ask yourself,
“Is how I am choosing to be “productive” right now helping me to generate new skills for who I am becoming in a post-quarantine world?”
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