productivity and success

I found myself perusing a productivity book that my husband had picked up somewhere. It had a slickly designed cover and was full of essays by productive people, each giving a unique tip for being more focused and productive.

Checking email in the morning, and more than once or twice a day, is universally acknowledged as bad. Check.

Know what your priorities are, having them clear in your mind. Alrighty.

Only try to tackle three things a day, and always do them first thing in the morning. Mmmk, gotcha.

An hour later, I was ready to take a break, and I thought to myself that perhaps I’d make a few notes and try implementing a few of the ideas the next day.

And then, that wonderfully wise inner voice within me said: “Kate. Seriously? Being more productive? Fuck that.”

You know how something can sort of hit you all at once when it clicks into place? It was one of those moments. With a clarity that felt shocking because it was so counter to what I thought I believed, I realized:

I do not actually give a shit about being more productive. I have zero interest in furthering my productivity as a freaking life goal. In fact, I already know how to be productive, in my own way. If anything, my life could use more serendipitous diversions, not more “productivity.” Puh-leeze.


The Productivity Attraction

Just like that, I tossed the book back onto my husband’s desk. I was over it.

Yet I did keep thinking about what had even attracted me to the book in the first place. What is this “productivity” thing that people get so attached to? Why is this the benchmark of a successful life? Why do so many people seem to think that it brings happiness?

It seems to me that it’s pretty straightforward and clear: if you want something badly enough, you’ll find a way to get it. If I’m dithering around, unfocused and unproductive, I probably don’t want it badly enough because I’m not doing the things that I need to do, in order to make it happen.

The evidence seems to point in that direction. At this point, I’ve heard too many stories of people with even the most heinous of jobs or the most blocked-in schedules with a gazillion kids and commitments figuring out ways to do what they want to do with their lives. Michelle Ward told me the story of how she started her coaching practice by squeezing in client sessions on her lunch hour, when she was still working a 9-5 job. The ultra-marathoner Dean Karnazes wakes up at dawn to run a few hours, has a full work day, and then tucks his kids in to bed at night only to go out and run a few more hours. I recently learned that Aaron Sorkin wrote A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins while he was bartending.

Obviously, people fall on hard times. Death, divorce, illness, job loss, major moves–they all happen, and we all go through phases and times and places where we simply cannot be productive.

I’m not talking about hard times and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. I’m talking about society’s obsessive need to tick seconds into grid calendars and hyper-produce so that we can feel “successful.”

We’re a society that keeps talking about focus and productivity, when really, we need more conviction, which means that we need more courage–the courage to see our desires as our birthright and just go after them, already.


A Handy Diversion

Why do we keep talking about focus and productivity? Probably to divert ourselves from rolling our sleeves up. Probably so that we can feel in control, like we’re stepping up to the plate with a bunch of tips and tricks. Probably for the same reason that most of us would rather read a book on organizing a closet, than actually starting to deal with the mess.

Or probably because we feel overwhelmed when we aren’t hiding out behind excuses. Probably because if we just got in there and got to it, we’d start making mistakes or not know what the next step was, and that might feel vulnerable. Probably because one great way to never fail is to never try.

Productivity really comes down to a few basic concepts:

  • Spend time on the things you want to be doing, and not on the things you don’t want to be doing.
  • Don’t keep saying that you “have to” do everything you don’t want to be doing, because at least some of it, if not most of it or all of it, can be taken off of your plate if you really get creative.
  • Consistently show up to do the work.
  • Consistently cut out the things that get in the way of doing the work.

As far as I can tell, them’s the rules–and if that kind of productivity feels miserable, then ask yourself how badly you actually want the thing you think you want. The rest is just content shifting, like changing how you check email, which is part of “take things off of your plate that you don’t like,” or starting your day in the afternoon because that’s when you have your best ideas, which is part of “consistently cutting out the things that get in the way of doing the work.”


Whaddya want on your tombstone?

Of all the adjectives that I would hope my loved ones would use to describe me when I die, “productive” is nowhere on the list.

I’d like them to say that I lived and loved well, with an open heart and a sincere desire for connection, and that they knew I fervently desired love and connection even in the midst of conflict.

I’d like them to chuckle about how I let laundry and dishes pile up, but I rarely said no to a wine country drive at sunset.

I’d hope that they would admire my big visions for my life and how I went after them without apology.

I would hope that my lasting contribution in their lives would be the numerous times that I told them how much I believed in them and celebrated their successes and asked how I could help.

Being a “prolific” writer? No. I would wish that they’d trade stories about how I have always been a writer because I couldn’t not write, because it’s a compulsion, starting with drawing my stories before I could write the alphabet, to creating mock “magazines” where I typed up articles on a manual typewriter and pasted in pictures cut from real magazines, to writing full-length chapter novels before I was even ten, to writing for school papers, to submitting short stories, to writing secret blogs that became public blogs that became a business with writing as its foundation.

Writing is unapologetically adored as one of the great loves of my life. If I am productive with writing, it is only because of my full-on, ecstatic love for it. I couldn’t love something this much and not put it as the center of my life.

Productive? No. Zero interest in that as a marker of my success or the legacy that I leave.

I’m aiming for a life well-lived, with conviction and passion, on my own terms, in the spirit of love and connection, with courage guiding the way.

Drop “productive.” Swap in passion. Practice courage in hard times.

(Click to tweet that:

How much better do you live, if this is the centerpiece of your courageous life?