Written by: Andrew Petty, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
We live in an age that’s obsessed with productivity. A quick Google search returns an avalanche of advice and resources for optimizing productivity, like an article from Lifehack entitled, “50 Ways to Increase Productivity and Achieve More in Less Time.” The implication? “Achieving more in less time is obviously a good thing.”
I’m not here to argue that productivity is a bad thing. In fact, being productive is at the very core of what we humans need in order to experience contentment in life. I unpack this idea in more depth with my wife in episode 025 of my podcast, “The Contentment Conundrum: Cracking the Code.”
My concern, though, is that many of us have bought into a deficient definition of productivity. Unless we free ourselves from this definition and swap it out for a better one, at best we’ll subject ourselves to unnecessary pressure and stress and suffer from a chronic sense of inadequacy. At worst though, we’ll actually fail to be productive in the ways that are most important and have a long list of regrets when the Grim Reaper comes a’callin’.
I propose that we ditch the deficient definition of productivity that enslaves many of us for one that sets us free to explore and express the fullness of our humanity and create lives we’ll be deeply proud of when we die.
Let’s reimagine productivity.
From Stuck to Triumphant
The computer screen stared back at me blankly. The pad of paper in front of me stared back at me blankly. The voices of my team outside my office as they went about their work intensified my sense that I wasn’t delivering what they needed. I could feel the tension mounting as the pressure to make a decision increased, but I was no closer to a decision now than I had been three hours earlier. Which might have been tolerable had I not already spent several days trying to make the decision.
But isn’t this how responsible leaders make decisions? They retreat to their office for a while and then emerge with the decision that the team needs. Right?
So what was my problem? Why wasn’t that working for me?
Finally, in exasperation, I realized that if this approach wasn’t working, I had to try something else. I decided to do something that flew counter to the culture of my organization: I went for a run in the middle of the workday.
I was nervous about this. It felt irresponsible, and I was concerned about what my team and my superiors might think of my midday absence. But in this moment, necessity was the mother of invention. My exasperation overrode my doubts and fears, and I gave myself permission to try something different.
An hour or so later, I returned from my run triumphant, with a decision in hand.
I had finally delivered the decision that my team needed, experienced the relief and satisfaction that came along with it, and ‒ even more importantly ‒ discovered a new way to be “productive.”
New Freedom to Reimagine Productivity
Back then, I was held captive by a particular definition of productivity. It included being at the office during specific hours of the day and making decisions in a certain way. Ironically, that definition limited my productivity and severely impaired my enjoyment of my work.
My midday run experience not only taught me that it’s possible to reimagine productivity but that it’s immensely beneficial to do so. On the surface, at the level of my behavior, it equipped me with a new way to make decisions and made me a more effective leader. On a deeper level, at the level of my self-appraisal, I realized (with great relief!) that I wasn’t as incompetent as I had begun to believe. I just needed to experiment with other ways of being productive–a permission that my old definition of productivity didn’t grant.
I’ve been evolving and expanding my own definition of productivity ever since.
Pause for a moment: How might your current definition of productivity actually be limiting your productivity?
What’s Wrong With the Prevailing Definition of Productivity?
The prevailing definition of productivity is deficient because it’s too narrow. It tempts us to see tangible, quantifiable results in business, wealth creation, and the amount of stuff we acquire as the most valid evidence of a productive and useful life. It glorifies “hustle” and side gigs beyond their actual value, elevating them almost to the status of virtues. It perpetuates the illusion that a busy person is a purposeful and important person. The internet generally and Social Media, especially, amplify these messages and can lead us to believe that if we’re not 10x-ing our results in every area of our life, then we’re half-assing it.
As I did, we often misdiagnose the source of the misery we experience at the hands of our deficient definitions of productivity as incompetence. So we buy into the lie that if we attend this productivity seminar or use that efficiency hack…THEN, we’ll truly be productive. THEN, we’ll be truly satisfied.
But we become confused, depressed, and angry when we’ve done our damndest to fulfill the demands of our deficient definitions of productivity and still find ourselves wanting more.
The truth is, there IS more. Our souls are right to rebel within us when we try to find satisfaction and fulfillment through a version of productivity that can never produce those things.
A Better Definition of Productivity
A definition of productivity that sets us free to explore and express the fullness of our humanity and create lives we’ll be deeply proud of when we die includes play, rest, exercising our imagination, following our curiosity, learning, time in nature, exposure to new people, places, and ideas; good meals, conversations, and adventures with family and friends; solitude; and opportunities for personal reflection.
When we give ourselves permission to experiment with a definition of productivity that incorporates those things, not only do we become more fully human, those things create a positive feedback loop as a collateral benefit. The conversation we have with our wife on an evening stroll somehow generates an insight that solves a problem at work. Sometimes, the sheer enjoyment of that stroll simply helps us put our work challenges in better perspective.
Our souls begin to experience a new satisfaction and depth of fulfillment as we discover that every part of our lives is connected to and serves all the others. We become more integrated and whole human.
And Remember, You’re Going to Die…
Courageously confronting our Mortality can dissolve any remaining resistance we may have to discarding our deficient definition of productivity for a new one.
Overwhelmingly, the deepest regrets of the old and the dying are regrets for working too much and playing too little, for shrinking back from adventures that called to them and retreating to the apparent safety of the status quo, for neglecting the magical mundane moments with their kids, for failing to maintain friendships over the years. Those regrets arise at least in part from succumbing to a deficient definition of productivity and failing to reimagine it for themselves.
When you’re about to breathe your last, will it have mattered if you found a way to fit five more sales calls into your already-crowded workday if other parts of your life withered on the vine? Will it have mattered if you found a way to 10x your revenue if you’re estranged from your family?
How to Reimagine Productivity for Yourself
When I work with a client and suspect that they might benefit from reimagining their definition of productivity, I keep an eye out for underlying assumptions about productivity and challenge them. If a client calls a vacation or going to their son’s baseball game on a workday unproductive, for example ‒ compared to “productive” activities like those that create income or involve housework--it’s a sign that they’re unaware of narrow and rigid definitions of productivity holding them back from a fuller and, ultimately, more productive life.
Recently, in response to my challenges to her underlying assumptions, a client created a process for herself for reimagining productivity. I thought it was so good that, with her permission and only minor adjustments, I’m going to share it with you, too. Here’s how it works:
First, make a list of as many things as you can think of that you consider “productive.” Don’t censor or judge the list in any way. Just put down everything you can think of that qualifies as “productive” in your mind.
Next, make a list of as many things as you can think of that you consider “non-productive.” In other words, things that you see as a luxury because you don’t think they contribute to a useful goal or purpose. Don’t censor or judge this list in any way, either.
Then, circle all the things on your non-productive list that you enjoy doing, want to do, or simply want to do more often.
Next, decide which of the items you circled on the “non-productive” list might actually belong on the “productive” list. Challenge the underlying assumptions that landed those items on the “non-productive” list. For example, maybe you put “hanging out with friends” on the non-productive list because in your mind, it doesn’t really contribute to a useful, measurable goal or purpose. Maybe you consider it a luxury rather than a necessity. Challenge that assumption. Does time with your friends energize you and encourage you? Are your friends a source of good counsel and perspective that you might not otherwise have gained? Does time with friends help you show up better as a spouse, partner, parent, or employee? If you can answer yes to one or more of those questions, then it’s a good bet that “hanging out with friends” might just belong on your “productive” list. If you circled something on your “non-productive” list that you enjoy doing but aren’t sure if it belongs on your “productive” list, ask yourself this: Is it possible that enjoying something is inherently “productive?” The answer is a resounding “yes!” because doing what we enjoy has so many collateral benefits in so many other areas of our lives.
The reverse of this part of the process works, too. Decide which of the items you circled on the “productive” list might actually belong on the “non-productive” list.
Finally, give yourself permission to move just one of the items from your “non-productive” list to the “productive list.” Then, decide when and how you will first risk inserting that thing into your daily life. And do it. If you need an extra kick in the butt to actually do it, ask yourself how you would feel if you died five years from today and had never actually done that thing.
Working through this process one step at a time, one day at a time, and one experiment at a time can lead you to a new definition of productivity that helps you bring your best to the game of life.
Many of us are suffering from a deficient definition of productivity ‒ usually without even being aware of it. And unless we free ourselves from it and create a better one, at best we’ll subject ourselves to unnecessary pressure and stress and suffer from a chronic sense of inadequacy.
At worst, we’ll actually fail to be productive in the ways that are most important and have a long list of regrets when the Grim Reaper comes a’callin’.
Are you ready to reimagine what productivity can look like? As you do, you will set yourself on your own unique path to greater freedom and a life you’ll be proud of.
Remember: You ARE going to die. But you’re not dead yet. So get after it!*
Andrew Petty, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Andrew Petty is dying. And so are you. But you're not dead yet! Andrew helps you uncover what you really want in life and go after it with guts, gusto, and abandon. Through 1-1 coaching, The Graveyard Group mastermind, and his podcast, Andrew Petty is Dying, you are equipped with the mindset and the means to become the person you were made to be and live the life you were uniquely made to live. The courageous, life-affirming Mortality Mindset provides the motivational power needed to break through life’s barriers and fulfill your potential.