How to Be Productive Without Focusing On Productivity

I like being productive, but I'm not all that interested in productivity.

I know that sounds like splitting hairs, but bear with me for a minute.

I like accomplishing things. I like accomplishing things that are meaningful to me, serve other people,  provide me with a sense of well-being and comfort, and that help me achieve my goals.

But I'm not all that interested in doing these things within a rigid time-frame. Sometimes I will or I must, but for the most part, I enjoy being able to do the things I like to do at a comfortable pace.

Here's why . . .

  • I'd rather go deep than wide. I want substance and depth rather than quantity and shallowness. I want to get to the marrow of an activity, to the juiciest bits.
  • I want that flow experience. This is the “runner's high” that comes from engaged focus without distractions or the anxiety of the next thing hovering over you.
  • I want to grow, learn, and become proficient. That takes time and practice. You can't be a good writer if you don't write and write and write. You can't become a good anything if you don't do it over and over and over.
  • I like quality. At least in the pursuits that are worthy of my time and attention. I want whatever I produce to have substance, value, and distinction. This also requires time and attention.
  • I don't like time-fillers. It's taken a long time to realize how much of my life I devoted to time-fillers (television, mindless tasks, useless computer searches). But now at midlife, time has taken on a new importance. I value it dearly.
  • I enjoy having room for the unexpected. Sometimes something wonderful lands in my lap, and I want to be able to say yes when these things appear.

Back in the '80's when I was a twenty-something working in New York City, productivity tips were all the rage. Magazines were filled with articles teaching you how to get more done in less time, and companies hired consultants to help squeeze as much juice out of employees as possible.

During that same time, as women were struggling to climb the corporate ladder and have equal pay, they were also struggling with how to balance work and family. The answer then was, “You are woman, you are strong. And you can do it all.” We sold ourselves the bill of goods that it is possible to work full-time, be an attentive spouse, raise well-adjusted children, maintain a home, and remain sane in the process.

But you can't do it all and do it all well. Or joyfully.

You might figure out the productivity game, but you are losing the game of life. Because life is to be savored, not gulped or crammed.

If you find yourself spinning your wheels, stressed-out trying to accomplish everything that demands your attention, maybe this is speaking to you. Believe me, I've been there (holding a baby, wiping down a counter, and taking a business call at the same time), and it's hard to jump off the treadmill. It feels like the world will fall apart if you don't keep all the balls in the air.

But I suggest you drop all of the balls right now. Drop everything for a day or two and give yourself permission to regroup. The world won't fall apart. Call in sick. Drive off to the mountains or the park or somewhere to get away for an afternoon or weekend. Just you and a pen and paper.

So here are a few suggestions to take with you to learn the art of how to be productive without productivity:

Clean up your time

Take a good, hard look at how your are spending your time right now. What are some of the time-fillers and time-wasters you could immediately eliminate? Too much TV or computer time? Over-shopping? Having too much stuff to sort, clean, and organize? Talking on the phone for hours? Write down the time-fillers you are willing to give up.

Set priorities

Do you know what is most important for you to accomplish on any given day? For your work and your personal life, create a master list of things you want to accomplish for the week and for the day, setting them in order of priority.

Every day, select one work activity and one personal activity that is non-negotiable for that day. Handle the work action immediately when you arrive (or as soon as possible after you arrive) at the office. Handle the personal activity as soon as you get home.

Do those activities thoroughly and with focus. If you finish and have extra time, select one more activity from your weekly list and do the same.

Manage distractions

When you are working on your main activities for the day, remove all possible distractions. Close your office door and put a note on it requesting no interruptions. Turn off your phone, close down other browsers on your computer, and remove anything else that might pull you away from the task at hand.

If you have co-workers or children or others who need your time, give them a time or times when you will be available to them during the day. But ask them to respect your time when you are focused on your one important daily activity.

Do what you love and love what you do

When you are working on something you love, then you naturally want to spend productive time on it. It is engaging and fun. The problem here will be that you lose track of time and the real-world demands of some of the other things you must do.

But when you have activities that are responsibilities that are not so fun, try to treat them with the same focus and thoroughness. Here's what one of my readers, Susan, said this in a recent comment about her passionate and boring pursuits:

I am grateful I have the life I have. I live in Hawaii, write books and teach all over the world. In the process of getting here I waited on tables and cleaned houses. I brought my passion to that as well. I looked at waitressing as being of service and blessed the food. When I cleaned someone’s home I polished and cleaned with love. Bringing your passion to even the ‘boring’ things in life allows our magical, fun filled passionate life to show up a lot quicker.

Look at the big picture

While you are sitting there with pen and paper, take a look at the bigger picture of how you want to be productive in your life. What do you want to produce? This calls for defining your core values, the principles that are most authentic and important to you.

Are you producing things for other people that you don't believe in or have any commitment to? Are you producing effort on tasks that don't provide meaningful results? Are you producing simply for the feeling of “accomplishing something”? Or are you producing with passion, with love?

The poet Kahlil Gibran speaks of the love we should bring to our work and all of our pursuits:

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection, even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy, even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit …

If you want to produce, produce with purpose, intensity, and love. Leave productivity at the door and savor the joys that come with being fully engaged with the task at hand.

Want more specific tips on being productive? Check out my friend Erin Falconer's (editor of Pick the Brain) book Rock Star Productivity.

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Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 13 comments
Sandra / Always Well Within

Hi Barrie,

I’m so like you! I would rather go deep than wide. I prefer quality to quantity. Your perspective and suggestions resonated so strongly for me. I especially like the idea of picking one work and one personal high priority each day. I’ll implement that one right away! Thank you so much!

    Barrie Davenport

    Hi Sandra,
    So nice to see you! I’m so glad the post resonated with you. Let us know how the one goal a day process works for you. 🙂


So great! Your blog posts really are the best ones out there (no offense to anyone!).
I mean it: I started to comment to you privately but then thought, compliments are good to share publicly 🙂

    Barrie Davenport

    Wow Jodi! How nice. Thank you so much. I’m grateful that you shared this.

David Stevens

This is more like it Barrie,
I enjoyed this…fresh & appealing and this “I’d rather go deep than wide. I want substance and depth rather than quantity and shallowness. I want to get to the marrow of an activity, to the juiciest bits.’…is a stand out. Thankyou.
be good to yourself

    Barrie Davenport

    So glad you like it David! Thank you so much for your kind words. 🙂

John H

Thanks for the tips Barrie! I can relate myself to the picture =) I remember one time when I was the one babysitting our kids, they always had fun going to my room and scatter all the things they could while I’m sitting down working my unfinished tasks in front of the computer. Fortunately, we hired a nanny and everything in my room is now arranged. =) Now I can focus working on my projects and thanks also to Time Doctor, it helps me get my to-do list more realistic.

    Barrie Davenport

    Hi John,
    Kids sure have a way of diminishing productivity! They force you to move your focus to them, whether or not you want to! Glad you’ve found a solution.

veronica wambui

Hey Barrie, How i enjoy your works. my world is surely crowded; i’ll find time to get priorities. Thanx i surely needed this to focus,.

    Barrie Davenport

    Hi Veronica,
    Focus is the key. Start with the most important thing and give it your full attention. Thank you for your kind words! 🙂

Marci | Liberating Choices

The photo you picked for this post is a great one! I remember when my son was young, trying to write, and all things he “created” while I did!

I like to check things off my list, but this post makes me think about how I do it. And I love the comment by Susan you shared. To me, the art of being productive without being focused on productivity is a shift in attitude/mindset. Slowing down and cramming less in my day helps. But I also think changing how I think about the things I check off my list gets to the heart of your post too.


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