Is productivity important?

I love reading articles about how to save five cents on light bulbs, make your own toothpaste, or live without drinking glasses, but even on my favorite blogs, I always avoid articles about productivity. Just the word "productivity" makes my eyes glaze over. I find it really hard to bring myself to care how to cram more productive activity into the day. I guess I'm not convinced that productivity is important.

Hypocrite alert: I totally think productivity is important

I say this from the privileged position of being someone who has a ton of internal drive to do projects. A lot of my free time is spent doing productive things just because those are the things I like to do. If I'm inspired, I'll happily spend an entire day drawing, writing, coding, organizing… Whatever happens to have caught my fancy at the moment.

I'm cautious about imposing any kind of productivity system on myself since I worry that it would dilute the intensity, joy, and, yes, productivity of those moments of high intensity. Being deeply and singlemindedly absorbed in the project of my choice is one of the greatest pleasures of my life, so I'm not interested in losing that. When I'm not inspired, trying to force these activities is like pushing a rock uphill. To me, that's generally not worth it, since if I wait, I'll catch another wave and get a ton done painlessly. Productivity, for me, has always been a matter of sailing between moods.

I've learned to turn it on and off to some extent. At work, I work. I'm definitely better at it now than I was in school, probably largely because I enjoy my job a lot more than I enjoyed school. In my off time, though, if I'm doing hobbies for my own personal enjoyment and fulfillment, I don't see the point of trying to force productivity. These are hobbies, after all. Things I'm doing, supposedly, for fun.

I didn't always feel this way.

The burnout that made room for this blog

At this time last year, I was deep in several commitments for writing and freelance projects, and every moment was basically scheduled. I was working full time at a normal job, and setting aside most evenings and weekends for my extracurricular work. Part of this was a timing issue--I'd accidentally taken on too much at once not realizing that the schedules would run into each other--and part of it was just biting off more than I could chew. I did use some productivity systems then, like Pomodoro, which were helpful, but they didn't solve the problem that I simply had too much work and not enough time for things like going outside, talking to my wife, and simply relaxing.

Some stress-exacerbated medical problems were a bit of a wake-up call, forcing me to take more seriously the idea of prioritizing rest. But even aside from that, I just felt general burnout. I was so used to going from one project straight into the next that I had to force myself not to take on any other commitments.

Birdwatching was a refreshing pastime because it was the only hobby I'd had until then that didn't have any output, any product. There was no time commitment, and nobody was relying on me. It was strange and eye-opening to have a hobby which wasn't also an obligation. As a lifelong indoor kid, it was also strange to have a hobby where I voluntarily spent time outdoors, in the sunshine. While birdwatching doesn't give me the feeling of accomplishment that making something does, it has other benefits. After a good, long walk, I feel calm, relaxed, exhausted in a happy way. It's a new way to feel good that I totally love.

Simply giving myself permission to relax has been a change, too. I've made a recent, conscious decision not to feel guilt about spending an entire evening just reading a book or watching a movie with my wife. I still sometimes do feel guilt about it, but I'm getting better about it. I'm racking my brain trying to think of what disastrous thing will happen if I'm not constantly making stuff, and I can't. The sun would rise and set each day, even if the world doesn't get to read my novels.

In defense of unproductivity

I think because my natural inclination is to be productive and I had to learn to be unproductive, I tend to react strongly against this idea that we need to be productive all the time. Taking a step back to relax has yielded so many benefits which I definitely underestimated and undervalued in my previous intense focus on productivity, but they are real and powerful. Benefits like:

  • Improved health from less stress. And less stress ABOUT my health, since I can easily take an evening or weekend "off" to just be sick.
  • Relationships. Hey, I can actually spend time with people!
  • Ideas. Giving my brain permission to be "off" and not constantly solving a problem lets it turn in new, creative directions.
  • Options. Quitting my "side jobs" and allowing for plenty of slack time in my schedule gives me the time and freedom to take on new projects that excite me--and get started right away, not "someday" (which may never come, or by which time I may not be excited anymore).
  • Perspective. When I'm running around like a chicken with its head cut off, I only think about short-term, immediate problems, not big ideas. Taking time to think has allowed me to make long-term plans and positive life changes that otherwise would have taken a back burner indefinitely.

I know that unproductivity can be taken too far. If I was spending every night sitting around, dreaming about things I'd like to do, it would behoove me to look into ways that I could jumpstart my drive and make myself take the first steps. But, if anything, I historically have the opposite problem. If you, like Old Me, are feeling the effects of burnout, intentional unproductivity may be helpful. Try scheduling some time to be unscheduled. Clear your runway, even without a planned next project. You may be surprised by what takes off.


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