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When is productivity a dirty word?

Productivity: the ratio between the volume of your input and the volume of your output. In other words, how much stuff you can make or do with the resources you have. The more, the better – right? Not quite.

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Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

Productivity: the ratio between the volume of your input and the volume of your output. In other words, how much stuff you can make or do with the resources you have. The more, the better – right? Not quite.

High productivity receives high praise because we worship at the altar of more – more busy-ness, more stuff, more money, more achievement. But this pursuit of more can be problematic, especially when it comes to productivity. Productivity for productivity’s sake is a fast track to stress, burnout, anxiety, resentment, dissatisfaction and unproductivity.

I’m a doer, I like to keep busy, I’m achievement-oriented, a serial learner and I love a to-do list. My obsession with productivity has led me to make an impact in my career, start my own business, volunteer extensively, have a full social life, be an awesome host, and do a post-grad and a coaching qualification while having a full-time job and a toddler. It has also almost led me to burnout, made me unnecessarily lose countless evenings and weekends to work and, at times, made me ungrateful, dissatisfied and unhappy.


When productivity becomes problematic

We get a sense of satisfaction from being productive for a number of reasons; making effective use of our time, hitting targets, getting praise, being seen as valuable, feeling worthy, achieving something, creating things. The problem isn’t productivity itself – productivity can be great – the problem is productivity that is unexamined. Left unchecked, productivity can become obsessional and unconscious.

Unconscious productivity is unbracketed, it externalises our value, places too much emphasis on what’s next rather than what’s right now, it has no real end-point and, ultimately, only really makes time for more productivity.

Conscious productivity is mindful, it allows us to get into a flow state, achieve set goals and maximise our time to make room for things that feed our wellbeing.

When productivity works for you:

  • You are present and enjoy the process (at least most of the time)
  • You have clear, achievable targets
  • The goal is personally important to you
  • You celebrate your wins
  • Rest, reflection and restoration is part of the process
  • It creates more (not less) space for other things in your life 

When productivity works against you:

  • You’re not present
  • There is no end in sight (think: hamster wheel)
  • The end-goal keeps moving
  • The end-goal isn’t your own
  • You finish a task and move straight onto the next thing
  • It’s at the expense of your wellbeing 


How to be consciously productive 

To maintain a healthy relationship with productivity, question it – be clear on your who, why, what, when and how.

Who are you doing this for? Why are you doing it? What is the target or purpose? When will you know you have achieved it? How will you recover and restore? Being mindful of these things puts you in the driver’s seat, ensuring your productivity always works for you, not against you. 

When I talk to clients about productivity, the purpose isn’t to be more productive so they can cram more in, it’s about being more conscious. It’s about internal drivers over external drivers. It’s about creating more time and space to do the things they really want to do, and haemorrhaging less time and energy on the things that don’t (or shouldn’t) really matter.  

I once had a coaching client who was a very self-aware high-achiever. She had the ability to slip into an almost fixated productive state but found it difficult to step back out of it. This created a cycle of extreme productivity followed by burnout. It had plagued her for years. Her challenge was not learning how to be more (or less) productive, it was to learn how to be more consciously productive. What ended that cycle was questioning the motivation behind her hyper-productivity, the beliefs she held, the pay-offs. She developed a technique that allowed her to visualise her productive state and imagine herself stepping in and out of it easily. The questions and the visualisations were just ways to dissemble her hyper-productivity so she could start being more conscious about it. She created more time for things outside of work, built in time for recovery and rest, and could achieve what was important to her without sacrificing her wellbeing.

To-do lists, admin, work – it won’t cease on your behalf and the relentless pursuit of more will never bring completeness.

Don’t just seek more productivity, seek conscious productivity. Question your who, why, what, when and how. Always bookend your ‘production time’ with down time – all things that run on energy need to be refuelled and switched off. And, finally, don’t forget to enjoy the process because the destination (and the end of that to-do list) never really comes so you might as well enjoy the ride.

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