I have a complicated relationship with “productivity.” I learned as a kid that I am not very good at productivity in the traditional sense. I struggled to keep up with homework. I procrastinated and ignored household chores.
Even as a surly teen, I thought there must be something wrong with me. I tried to implement systems and rules for getting things done over a decade before Getting Things Done was a thing. None of them worked, but somehow I managed to graduate from high school and launch myself into a busy-yet-unproductive adulthood.
Fast forward to the 21st century and the rise of the cult of productivity. I read David Allen’s book and Merlin Mann’s blog, and I started and abandoned more iterations of GTD than I can count. In my thirties, I was still fantasizing about the system that would make me more functional while continuing to procrastinate and ignore household chores.
The problem with productivity systems is that they make the unimportant seem critical. We pack our lists and apps with things that don’t really matter to us, and then feel overwhelmed by long lists of junk productivity. We can become task hoarders, if we’re not careful.
Don’t be busy. Be creative.
There’s only one secret to doing more of what matters: DO LESS of everything else. Take things off your list. Reduce the scope of your daily life.
Humans are creative beings. It is an essential part of human nature to solve problems and come up with ideas. We like to make things and share what we make with other humans. What is a blog, if not a simple demonstration of this basic fact of humanity: We are all creatives.
Creativity is what comes naturally. Productivity is the imposition of what does not come naturally. We are fighting our own instincts every time we create a project plan or task list.
Does that mean we should reject these tools and systems? Of course not. But if we want them to help us and not hinder us, we need to lean into our human nature and leave room for creativity and exploration.
It is possible to train your brain to accept and learn to like daily processes and structure, but only if it helps you do what matters to you.
Why the why?
I’ve noticed that sometimes I only have a vague or superficial idea of why I do the things I do. In my early jobs, I worked so that I would get a paycheck at the end of the week, so that I could pay my rent, so that I would not have to sleep on park benches in the rain. If you follow that logic you can see the underlying WHY: I value my own safety, comfort, and survival.
I’ve managed to keep that foundation of Maslow’s pyramid covered more or less on my own for over thirty years. I have my basic needs for survival met, and I am ready to climb toward the top of the hierarchy, but that’s where things get confusing.
I care about a lot of different things. I value creative expression, nature and animals, social justice, productivity systems, health and wellness, innovative technology, mental health, human connection, art and music… among other things.
Picking just one or two of those things to center my life around feels too limited. But trying to address them all at the same time is implausible. So… this is where prioritization and elimination comes in. I have to pick the values I care most about, and then design projects and goals to advance those values.
Does this sound like hard work? Yes, it is. But it is also the most satisfying work you can do. Deciding what to do and what not to do makes all the difference.
What the what?
No matter what you do, or what you want to do, your work is creative. Don’t be fooled by the false dichotomy between creatives and others. Humans are creative, barring some major brain injury. The question is, what will be the focus of your particular creativity?
Once you’ve nailed down WHY you want to do anything at all (rather than doing nothing, or drowning in Netflix, which is tempting), the next step is to decide WHAT to do.
This is where it can be easy to get stuck, because WHAT can be overwhelming. It can be overwhelming to decide. It can be overwhelming to start. It can be overwhelming to feel uncertain about how it’s going to turn out.
Here’s the thing, though. You can just try something. If you go to law school and decide never to become a lawyer, it is not a waste of time or money because you learned something about the law and more importantly about yourself. Every single experience is valuable, no matter the outcome.
You might paint a painting, and it might be truly terrible…but maybe the next one will be a little better. Or maybe you’ll discover you don’t like painting and move on. Either way, no one died.
We exhaust ourselves trying to identify the one thing that will make us feel satisfied. The good/ bad news is that there isn’t one thing. There are a million or more things that could be the right thing, just like there are a few billion people who could be a good life partner. Looking for your one true purpose or one true love will be an exercise in despair. Trying new things (and people) will lead you in a better direction.
Given almost infinite choices for what to do with your life, how do you decide where to focus your limited time and attention? Go back to WHY. Even if you don’t know exactly what to do, knowing why you want to do something will guide you in a direction. Will it be the right direction? The only way to know is to try.
How now brown cow?
This blog post is supposed to be about how productivity is really the same thing as creativity. Doing something is an act of creative courage, even when it is something like taking out the trash. You could just drop your garbage wherever, but to get yourself organized enough to put it in the appropriate bin and then take that bin out for collection on the right day uses all of the elements of creative problem solving humans have evolved.
But remembering to do things like taking out the trash is where we run into problems. Remembering a long list of small tasks uses up all of our creative brain space, leaving us little space for new endeavors or innovation. This is why we need to automate most of our menial tasks.
I don’t mean buying a sophisticated robot or hiring a staff. I mean, most of the time we should be operating on autopilot. Developing habits around taking out the trash, exercise, and flossing means your brain does not have to remember to do those things (or figure out when, why, and how every time). You just do them automatically. Eventually, you can even stop checking them off a list.
You are also allowed to take things off your list. If you don’t have to do it, and you don’t want to do it…don’t do it! You’d be surprised by how little we really have to do. Most of your life is a choice.
Of course, if you can afford to outsource things like housework, food prep, and responding to email that’s even better. Not everyone can manage a maid service or VA, but if you can it will keep your mind clear for what it does best: creative work.
The strange gift of being human means that we can think weird thoughts and come up with innovative solutions. Right now, we all need to be spending our limited mental energy on innovative solutions. The only “productivity system” worth pursuing is one that makes you feel like you have more space in your brain for doing the work that really matters. Let the robots do the rest.