10 Critical Reasons Why You Should Not Be Productive

Do you have a list?

I bet you do, even if it’s not written down.

You probably have your list of immediate work things that must be done and your list of big picture work things you want to do — when you have time.

Then there’s your list of regular tasks at home, your list of appointments to schedule, your list of regularly occurring maintenance tasks for yourself, your home, your car, etc.

There’s the list of things you’ve promised your kids, your spouse, your neighbor, your church, and your parents.

Some of you probably have a list of long-term goals, bucket lists, financial goals, and career plans.

Crossing things off these lists feels good. It forces us to acknowledge our actions and successes.

It makes us feel productive and worthy.

There’s nothing wrong with goals or lists or plans — unless they begin to define you.

If productivity becomes the measure of your happiness and success, you have missed the forest for the trees.

You have failed at savoring the one true reality in the universe: the present moment.

Americans in particular have this thing for productivity.

We like to squish and mush as much activity and accomplishment in a day as we possibly can.

In fact, many of us (maybe you) feel guilty if you’ve had a day that doesn’t feel productive, that doesn’t meet your standards of fruitfulness.

Americans work longer hours than just about any other country in the world.

We like to take our work with us on vacations and holidays. We like to fill our time with productive stuff.

In fact, in spite of some improvements, there are still plenty of organizations that make pregnant women suffer for taking time off to have a baby, and expect ridiculously long hours even though “productivity” hits a wall.

There are bosses who give us the hairy eyeball if we must leave early to tend to an emergency or personal situation.

Productivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

It’s far too easy for productivity to morph into an adrenaline-fueled lifestyle that propels us like a pinball from one task to the next, with little time to appreciate or enjoy what we are doing — much less time to do what we truly enjoy.

A little mind shift is in order here — a little shift away from productivity and toward creativity. Here’s what I mean:

  • Rather than asking, “What do I need to accomplish today?” ask “What am I going to create today?”
  • Rather than saying, “Look at everything on my list,” ask yourself, “What can I remove from my list to give me more time to create?”
  • Rather than groaning, “I dread this crappy task before me,” ask “How can I create this task in a way that feels joyful, creative, and giving?”
  • Rather than looking for ways to manage time so you can fill it with more, look for ways to engage in what you are doing right now so that time becomes elastic and you can do less.

When you shift from a life of production to a life of creation, every moment becomes a your own work of art. You are no longer responding, racing, cramming.

You are designing, solving, serving. You are fully in the moment, because the act of creating requires your full attention, right here, right now.

Being productive isn’t all bad. It certainly has its place. You do have to operate in the world of linear time and according to the schedules of other people.

You have to tend to the practical tasks of living if you don’t want to be fired, arrested, or divorced. But a productivity mindset does not have to be your way of life.

Why you should not be productive in the traditional sense of the word

1. Productivity forces your attention on outcomes rather than process.

When we have a list of things that must be accomplished in a given time, we tend to focus on reaching the desired goal rather than enjoying the steps to get there. Deadlines and time-frames are sometimes necessary, but rather than procrastinating or over-scheduling yourself, give yourself enough time and space to enjoy the details of what you are doing each step of the way.

2. Productivity feeds adrenaline.

When our lives are highly-scheduled and outcome focused, we are fueled by adrenaline which becomes addictive. There is a certain “high” that comes from a high-intensity, production-oriented way of life.  We feel powerful and in control. But eventually, this takes an emotional and mental toll on us which can manifest in illness, anxiety, and overwhelm.

3. Productivity reduces productivity.

Huh? This sounds strange, but in reality we are the most productive when we are the most creative. You can spin your wheels with tasks and to-do lists and have very little to show for it. With a focus on creation in the moment, you are fed by the natural energy that is afforded you when you are happy in what you are doing. This makes accomplishment flow easily, without resistance or difficulty. You can do more in less time.

4. Productivity can kill focus.

When you are trying to be productive and accomplish more tasks in less time, often you are in a constant state of distraction. Your focus is frequently in the future on the next task that must be completed rather than the task at hand.Yes, there are some people who get highly-focused when under a deadline or extremely scheduled, but that’s the exception.

5. Productivity confuses our priorities.

As we work to be productive, our eyes are on the prize of accomplishment. But sometimes the prize isn’t what we want after all. Productivity leaves us little time to step back and consider what is most important and valuable to us.

There will always be a never-ending list of tasks and projects. But are you creating the projects that are most fulfilling and rewarding for you?

Are you giving equal weight and time to non-important actions?

6. Productivity overwhelms creativity.

Creativity needs wide, open spaces, a relaxed state of mind, few distractions without feelings of “should” or “must.” Creativity requires a mind that is receptive, open, and free to focus. In a productive state, we must keep one foot moving in front of the other at all times. We can’t stop to smell the roses or dream bold dreams.

7. Productivity creates a false sense of control.

When we have dotted every i, crossed every t, and check off everything on our lists, we have a feeling of control and order over our world. But in truth, that control is an illusion. Chaos and disorder are always around the corner and can throw us off our well-planned track without warning. When our happiness is tied to keeping ourselves on the productive track, unexpected chaos can truly rock our worlds.

8. Productivity undermines relationships.

When we are busy being productive, it is hard to have time for our relationships.

Most people will say that their relationships are the most important thing in the world, yet they spend very little time tending to them. We become so caught up in the productivity cycle that we ignore or take for granted our loved ones who so need our personal interaction.

9. Productivity saps spontaneity.

When you are immersed in a productivity mindset, it is nearly impossible to be spontaneous and unplanned. You are on a mission to complete your scheduled actions, and something unexpected, no matter how engaging or creative, will appear as an unwelcome disruption.

10. Productivity is the “hobgoblin of little minds.”

Like any foolish consistency, it can keep us stuck on one plane of understanding, enlightenment, knowledge, and insight.

Stepping away from productivity and toward creativity shifts our minds to the next level, helping us grow as individuals, professionals, and members of the human race.

Productivity and creativity can work together harmoniously. The trick is not getting caught in the cyclone of unnecessary activity created by a productive-oriented mindset — then leaving space for focus without distraction or urgency.

Creative thought will blossom in this space, and creative thought almost always leads to productive creation.

What are your thoughts about productivity and how it applies to your life?

If you enjoyed this post, please share it with others.

41 thoughts on “10 Critical Reasons Why You Should Not Be Productive”

  1. I find lists invaluable for enabling me to live in the moment. I know that sounds contradictory, but I find that putting things that need to be done later in writing means I’m not “remembering” them all the time. I literally can just completely forget them.

    • Hi Lynne,
      I do the same thing with lists — they are good reminders. But I don’t live by a list. I have a list of many possible things, and then I pick from that list what feels important and creative for that given day. Often I’ll set aside a day for “life tasks” that must be done. But I try to focus on those tasks with joy. 🙂

  2. Lynne, I know totally what you mean. I write lists for the same reason, not to check off items of it, just so I am not thinking about them repeatedly. The most important things tend to get done anyway, and I hardly ever revisit the list. Plus, in all honesty, I don’t write them that often as well. My life is all chaos and creativity. (In my mind, my husband would beg to differ – big time).

    • Hi Marya,
      I agree — the most important things do get done. And for the tasks you don’t like and put off, you can either get rid of some of them, assign them to someone else, or set aside a day to do them and try to make them fun!

  3. Barrie, we joked growing up that our mom had lists for her lists. As adults, my brother and I were both incessant listmakers (he still is) but I have managed to temper my lists to the tasks that I must not forget–like expense reports and time sheets. With everything else, I try (and I am a work in progress) to let the day flow. I love the way you equate no-lists with creativity. Since I believe my purpose is to create, you give me even more justification to throw away those lists! Thank you!

    B Well,
    Beth/B Here Today

    • Hi Beth,
      I wonder is list-making is genetic! Leo Babauta of Zen Habits is great at keeping his tasks for the day down to 1-2 things he must do, and then the rest of the day is an open book. That takes a lot of life simplifying. The more complicated our lives are, the more tasks we have on our lists.

  4. Beautifully said Barrie, a real eye-opener. Your angles of viewing things and life are so refreshing… Which is the point after all. Please keep it up. Thank you very much.

  5. Barrie, I enjoyed this, although I almost didn’t read it. The blogging formula is lists, lists, lists, and the lists are too often so repetitive and mundane. But yours are worth reading. Each point was distinctive and clearly developed. This is obviously a trend in the culture, not a fad. People are looking for more meaning in their lives, although they often are misled into thinking they are looking for more free time. Hence the compulsive organization of goals and tasks. I call it “The Tyranny of Lists,” but I am not immune. I’ve tried Leo’s one or two per day, but haven’t been able to get comfortable with that. I am, however, getting comfortable with simply blowing off the list completely. I think the deeper response, which Leo is also onto, is reviewing your values to see what you’ve allowed to come into your life which requires so much daily attention. This, too, is a trend in the culture, which might be pointing the way to a less consumption-driven life-style. Anyway, it’s all interesting, and you write interestingly about it. Thanks for that.

    • Oh my Rick — I just recognized the complete irony that I wrote a list post related to reducing lists! Haaa — my bad. 🙂 It is a formula that seems to make a post more “scannable” — another way of rushing through the moment. Oh well, I’d rather readers take away some of the ideas rather than nothing at all! Thank you for your kind comments and thoughtful insights. Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest we review our values and clean out the unnecessary, time and creativity draining activities that pull us away from what’s important. I hope this shift is happening and becoming a trend of the culture.

  6. Hi Barrie, I enjoyed your post and think you make some great points but I think it is important to point out that creating task lists are the one way to get what needs to be done out of your head and captured in some sort of system. To Do Lists are the most rudimentary way to do this and not the most efficient but they are to be favored over storing what needs to be done in your head. If you carry everything around in your head, you will suffer from more stress and more likely than not forget to do some of it.

    Yes, we can push ourselves too far and trying to do too much can definitely be counter productive, but I don’t think lists are the enemy I think being unorganized is, and not having an efficient way to process our work. Leo from Zen Habits has spent years exploring productivity and he has found a system that works for him, he has also simplified his life to an extent that he can manage to live life in a way that allows for this simplicity. I think it is important to have some sort of system to manage all your life tasks but not to take it too seriously. I completely agree with you that the trick is to focus on the process and not on the outcome, otherwise we miss out on the beauty of life. But I also believe that productivity fosters creativity, by getting organized and clearing your life of clutter you can feel free to focus on your creativity. And by the way if you look up the work Productivity in a Thesaurus one of the first words that appears is Creativity !

    • Hi Ciara,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is a delicate balance between keeping your life and work organized and remaining free and unscheduled enough to enjoy what you are doing. Leo has written a great post about this today ironically: http://zenhabits.net/un/
      Simplifying your life does make it easier to shorten lists or get rid of them altogether. I am finding that I do better with reminders for myself of commitments I’ve made or priority activities for a given day or week. That way, the “cream rises to the top” of the things I must do, leaving more room for the things I enjoy doing.

  7. Barrie,

    This is a great list. I definitely hear echoes of the old me arguing with just about every point! LOL I still have a tendency to try and overwhelm myself, or put taking care of myself last, all in the name of productivity but that continues to go away over time.

    I think this is definitely something that can be ingrained from childhood/culture and can certainly be tied to the Western philosophical concept of progress. “Productive” is considered to be a very positive attribute, it’s prestigious, it means you’re not lazy. But being overwhelmed can sometimes be a re-creation of something in our past that we didn’t like the first time around. We tend to do what’s comfortable, not necessarily what’s healthy, which is why it’s so important to stop and question our behaviors.

    I also think many people have an either-or view of the world. What they don’t realize is that you can accomplish great things while enjoying the ride.

    • Beautifully said Paul! It reminds me of the pressure I felt as a newly married woman, deciding whether to continue working when I had children. The mantra at that time was “woman can have it all” — career and kids. They just didn’t mention the price you have to pay for having it all. Life is all about finding the right balance, with a tilt toward spending time doing what is joyful, fulfilling, and meaningful. That may not fit into society’s expectations, but I know it is an outlook that fosters happiness.

  8. Hi Barrie-

    I’m a list-maker and I always have been. Though, I can see what you mean by our lists crushing our creativity, leading to a 180° turn to counter-productivity and the banging of our heads on the nearest flat surface.

    So I’m going to try something new and try to do without the constant reminder of my daunting tasks. Instead, I’m going to crank up my iTunes and enjoy getting through my day at whatever pace comes my way.

    Your posts always seem to come with such apt timing. Thank you for sharing.

    • That’s great Marissa. I’d love to hear how that goes for you and how you feel without your list for a few days. I hope it is liberating! 🙂

  9. Productivity feeds adrenaline

    I have long noticed how many people who have very full schedules seem hyper much of the time. This state not only seemed unproductive it seemed to rub-off, causing many others in the presence of the person to also become at least more hyper than they were prior to the encounter/meeting. It would take me a few minutes to “come-down” from such an encounter. I also noticed one of the consistent outcomes from the hyper meetings; items on the agenda not being covered and or issues that should have become obvious being overlooked.
    I wonder what makes business professionals think that this is an effective work state?

    James David

    • That’s a very keen observation James. Sometimes people think they must act busy and important so that they will be viewed as important and in control. I actually think it is very off-putting to be around someone who is frantic and intense. And believe me, I’ve been one of those people myself in the past! You are so right — it rubs off on those around you and infects everyone with that same adrenaline spike. People who are particularly sensitive to their environments can really suffer from this, as they “soak up” the mood around them. Thank you for sharing this.

  10. I prefer making lists for tasks at work, because I might end up forgetting something important. However I try to be realistic and not to put to many things, so I could complete the things and not feeling not productive. In addition, I think that being productive (to a certain point – not crazy) is a good thing otherwise we won’t have our jobs

    • Yes, you are right Jo — you have to be realistic about your obligations and professional duties. But I’d be willing to bet that most people have far more on their lists than they really need to have. 🙂

  11. Well I would have to join the “list” club … but one thing I have managed to accomplish in recent months is to cut in half the number of “priorities” I set for myself each day. For instance just this morning I reviewed my goals for what I want to accomplish by the end of the year … and a LOT of those items are creative by nature and I include personal and health goals so my days are not all about work. I took several things off the goal list that no longer feel relevant – I’m okay with that – and then worked my way backwards to make sure whatever I’m doing is designed to get me where I want to go in terms of lifestyle and earning a living. Sounds boring as dirt, but if I do that once a month I can just let it go and know I’m on track.

    • That sounds very balanced Marquita! Good for you. I am trying to keep my planned actions to 3 a day. Then I let my intuition be my guide — as much as possible.

  12. Rather than groaning, “I dread this crappy task before me,” ask “How can I create this task in a way that feels joyful, creative, and giving?” – this is the most difficult thing for me to do

  13. The statement, “Productivity saps spontaneity. “, struck a cord with me. I do have a very busy life and people I want to share my life with as do other people. My pattern is to work first then play later. The only problem is that I am exhausted by play time and tend to sacrifice time with people and activities that I love. Living in the present moment, helps bring me back to the joy of living—that is when appreciation fills me and I feel centered again. Thanks for reminding us that a balanced life if a joy filled life.

    • Hi Cris,
      I know, tasks can simply overtake your life if you always put them first. You have to carve out time for fun and living in the moment. You have to leave wiggle room in your day for the unexpected!

  14. Hi Barrie,

    This post is right up my alley! I’ve always resisted living by “goals”. Yet, I’ve managed to have a fulfilled life.

    Sure, there’s more I want to accomplish, but I like balance in my life. I have periods of intense productivity, particularly when I feel a passion for whatever I’m doing.

    Down time is important to me and I naturally experience an ebb and flow, sometimes being more productive and sometimes simply letting down and relaxing.

    Approaching life this way (or shall I say going with the flow of the moment) has worked for me. When I have a deadline that needs to be met, I meet it. Yet, I arrange my life so I’m not rushing through it.

    I want to appreciate the NOW. Or maybe I’m a little lazy, but that’s okay. Rather that then live a life of stress.

    Thanks for addressing this important issue.


    • Good for you Lauren. I think you have a great perspective. Sometimes we have to shift our minds about what “productive” activities are. Resting or reading can be productive if you see them as regenerative.

  15. dear Barrie,
    many thanks for ur reflections. i believe in your thoughts. when we are in a relaxed state of mind we can accomplish our task with value …our creative mind is at peak in a relaxed mind. Its no use multiplying our work and want to achieve many things with limited time, infact we get stressed and the quality is low.i believe in the quality of our output. living the present moment with much love and devotion.
    Thanks Barrie for sharing your relaxwd mind with us..such thoughts and actions flow from being the one you want to.

  16. Everything is best done in moderation. Anything can become an addiction if done to an extreme. Thanks for the reminder to step back and focus on what is important.

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