William Liao

December 16, 2021

Rethinking your relationship with productivity

The concept of productivity is a very strange one. 

On the one hand, the prospect of attending to more things that you value each day can be enticing. 

On the other hand, the pursuit of getting more done can also be a daunting one that becomes inadvertently riddled with self-criticisms about why you can’t seem to accomplish more, feelings of being perpetually behind, and remarks that we hear all too frequently like: “there’s simply too much to do and not enough time to do it.” 

You needn’t look far to become witness the ever-growing appetite for fitting more work into our lives: 

A quick YouTube search of the term “productivity hacks” will reveal pages of videos with millions of views covering ways to shave minutes and seconds from life’s various tasks. 

David Allen, famed for his writings on productivity, currently has a whopping 4,766 reviews and an average 4.5/5-star rating for his 2015 book “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.” 

Though I’ve long considered myself to be among the growing crowd of people who share the desire to be as productive as possible, I’ve been questioning lately whether the pursuit of squeezing ever more work into each 24-hour sprint is truly the most helpful attitude to have:

On days where I get a lot done, I’m left with feelings of euphoria and accomplishment — as if I’d managed to successfully extract the maximum value possible from the day. 

On days where my to-do lists remain filled, I feel a sense of disappointment — as if I’d underleveraged my time or been too lazy and, therefore, somehow epically failed to live life to the fullest. 

This attitude invariably turns some weeks into an exhausting rollercoaster wherein I experience the full spectrum of emotions from deep disappointment to profound feelings of satisfaction. 

To understand if there’s a more helpful and perhaps less exhausting perspective, I’ve recently chosen to abandon using how much I’ve completed on my to-do list as my primary scale for evaluating the merits of the day.

Instead, I’ve chosen to reaffirm to myself the following statements: 

  1. You did your best, and that is enough.
  2. There’s no such thing as a life in which you are perpetually unperturbed by distraction and able to give your maximal effort — distractions happen, everyone has a bad night’s sleep from time to time. 
  3. You will be more capable on some days than others, which is important to respect. 
  4. There’s only so much a human can do in a day, and that’s important to respect. 
  5. The race to jam as many tasks into each day as possible doesn’t have a finish line. There’s always going to be more to do. 

My thoughts to date on one’s relationship to productivity are the following: 

Participating in the truly endless pursuit of getting more done with the belief that you will somehow, someday, manage to accomplish everything you wish to accomplish is precisely what leads to severe exhaustion and dissatisfaction. 

Conversely, it’s the wholehearted acceptance of your daily efforts and the humbling truth that accomplishing everything is an unrealistic proposition that will enable you to achieve deeper compassion, satisfaction, and enjoyment with each day.