Flourishing with Productivity
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 13, 2021
We can't coast into a flourishing life. Life is dynamic and demanding. We must efficiently and consistently prepare through productive action.
Life charges at full speed, always seemingly demanding more than we can effectively accomplish. Overwhelmed, we hide from the onslaught of demands, ignore the necessities, and languish in "unfinished" anxiety. Productive people do not finish everything, however, they amazingly attend to the important stuff—efficiently and competently.
A basic fact of life is there is always more to do than there is time available. I have found that as important tasks accumulate, my anxiety rises. Yet, oddly, instead of starting on the tasks, I slip off into unimportant busy work, allowing to the growing mass of essentials to annoyingly sit in the back of my mind, occasionally breaking into thoughts and harassing my peace.
"We keep busy, convincing ourselves that we are productive and hard working. Our failure to do what is important is disguised as busyness."
I'm not alone. Research suggests everyone has a problem with procrastination. However, Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, explains that "those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommitment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it" (2010, location 2064).
Basically, when I recognize that I'm stalling with busy work, I'm more likely to halt my procrastination and become productive.
"Know the true value of time; snatch, seize, and enjoy every moment of it. No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today."
Philip Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield
Flourishing Demands Efficient Productivity
Recently, my news feed has shown a slew of links downplaying productivity. Perhaps, a new age attitude that life should be wonderfully stress free.
I agree that often we get dragged into an unrelenting need to doing, while neglecting other essential activities of wellness. However, a healthy need to balance burdensome pushes for productivity is much different than stigmatizing productivity as evil.
Some of the recent studies bashing productivity as a thorn in the side of wellness are ill-constructed studies designed to yield a predetermined result.
Dianne Tice, a professor of psychology, conducted an interesting study on wellness and procrastination that I feel more accurately reflects the benefits and costs of postponing productive activity. Tice interestingly discovered that student procrastinators enjoyed greater wellness (and health) than productive students at the beginning of the semester.
For a procrastinator whose deadlines are far off, life is pretty good. But eventually the bill comes due. At the end of the semester, the procrastinators suffered considerably more stress than the others. Now they had to pull themselves together to do the overdue work, and they reported a sharp rise in symptoms and illnesses. In fact, the procrastinators were so much sicker than other students at the end of the semester that it more than canceled out their better health from the early weeks (Baumeister and Tierney 2012, location 3521).
Tice's study was limited, measuring wellness throughout a school semester. We are left to wonder how these costs multiply over a life time. Does the impacts of procrastination reflect on future employment? Does patterns of procrastination weigh on relationships? I would presume that they do.
"Procrastination is one of the most common and deadliest of diseases and its toll on success and happiness is heavy."
Throughout human history survival has demanded work. Food, shelter, and relationships require productive behaviors. Just because survival (and flourishing) demands arouse some anxiety does not imply they are unnecessary.
We must productively accomplish some tasks to create a flourishing life. We usually have an inkling of some of the things necessary to improve our lives. It's not that we don't know what to do, it's we just don't do them.
Every time there is a chance to improve our lives, we find a trivial need to fill, allowing the nonsensical to take priority.
Life dramatically and dynamically continues to change, keeping up with the demands requires work to keep ourselves relevant.
Riding the Wave of Motivation
Part of our productivity woes is every time we commit to do something we have been procrastinating we reach for the same tool—willpower. Motivation is a complex creature. We usual commit during a spark of desire. I need to do "this" to make my life better. Our momentary hope for something better is sufficient to commit but seldom fuels motivation through grueling processes of change.
We commit, try for little while, backslide, and then return to old habits. The problem isn't insufficient willpower to productively accomplish desired tasks. The failure comes from misdirected use of those beginning bursts of desire for change. I refer to productively utilizing these momentary bursts of desire as "riding the wave of motivation." When motivated, we best take advantage of it by setting up structure, protection against depleting willpower, and gathering resources for assistance during difficulties.
Roy F. Baumeister, director of Florida State University social psychology program wrote in his book with John Tierney that "there comes a point when no amount of willpower will save you. But most people, even chronic procrastinators, can avoid that fate by learning to play offense" (2012, location 3548).
Productivity is the measure of our efficiency in accomplishing tasks.
Efficiency Tools for More Productivity
Next time you catch a wave of motivation consider implementing a few tools to make the most of the momentary desires for change. Here are a few tools worthy of consideration:
Gregg Krech, the leading American authority on Japanese psychology, has an interesting take on procrastination. He suggests that procrastination is a positive quality. We just need to prioritize what we do and what we procrastinate. He writes, "this is the art of procrastinating. Procrastinating isn’t something you need to stop doing – it’s something you need to get better at" (2014, location 307).
Early in the process of change, we need to identify the things we are doing that should not take priority over the things we want to start doing. Since time is limited, we can't just add without reorganizing. Somethings we need to move down on our priority list, other things we need to eliminate all together.
Getting started is one of the most efficient tools in my personal tool box. I routinely plan big projects that require substantial time and new skills. My plans, however, tend to lie dormant. Nothing happens as I constantly ruminate over the entirety of the project, making a mental list. Honestly, thinking can be exhausting, the entirety of a project is overwhelming and I slip into an activity much less demanding.
My best weapon against continued procrastination is just getting started an a simple piece of the large project. The first step leads to the next, and soon I am in the flow, whether it is building a new wall or writing an article on procrastination.
Pareto Principle (the 80/20 Rule)
The pareto rule theorizes that 80 percent of outcomes are the result of 20 percent of inputs. Basically, 20 percent of what we do has a substantial impact on the final outcome. We like to diddle around with the 80 percent that has much less impact on desired results.
Productivity requires shifting the percentages. Spending more time on the most impactful inputs and scaling down wasted time on less important details.
For me, as a blog content writer, this would mean spending less time formatting ten-year old articles and more time research and writing new articles.
Sharpening the Axe
Abraham Lincoln has been credited with saying, "give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." Most large undertakings require expertise. We waste time muddling through actions, learning from painful trial and error. Sometimes this is necessary and courageous. Other times, however, this is foolishness.
A task already mastered by others usually has published wisdom ready for our consumption. YouTube, books, and classes sharpen our skill, give knowledge, and prevent stupid mistakes. Time sacrificed researching often pays high dividends.
Research confirms that productivity suffers when we constantly borrow time from other wellness activities. We need nourishing food, plenty of sleep, relaxing meditations, and nurturing relationships. We need a well balanced life.
A recent study found that companies that implemented wellness programs that aided employees sleep cycles fostered healthier, more productive workers (Palo and Das, 2021).
Self care prevents devastating burnout. A complete collapse from over work and over stress destroys productivity, wellness, and can have lingering effects for years following the collapse.
See Burnout for more on this topic
Working without distraction is rare. Our world of social connections routinely pulls us away from focused attention to wandering nothingness.
Cal Newport in his must read book Deep Work writes, "to produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction" (2016, location 489).
Our stop and go approach to important work not only handicaps productivity, but severely harms the quality of our output. Undistracted work optimizes time and quality.
Multi-tasking is a farce. We can only focus on one thing at a time. When multiple calls for attention interrupt our top priority, we stop focused thought, redirect attention, and gravely damage productively. We spend more of our limited cognitive resources bouncing around and re-acquainting ourselves with where we left off then reaping the joys of polished, focused thought.
Protecting our minds from distraction is difficult. We need more than simple willpower. We must design a work area that protects against distraction. Newport adds, "efforts to deepen your focus will struggle if you don’t simultaneously wean your mind from a dependence on distraction (location 1739).
See Ignorance by Distraction for more on this topic
Productivity is not more work but, rather, smarter work. We can handle the onslaught of demands thrown our direction when we can separate what is important from what is not and give focused attention, tackling the work deemed most important. Through practice and effort, we can find balance, accomplishing many life blessing projects as we enjoy a flourishing life.
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Ariely, D. (2010). Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. Harper Perennial; Revised and Expanded ed. edition
Baumeister, R. F., Tierney, J. (2012). Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Books; Reprint edition.
Krech, G. (2014). The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology. ToDo Institute; First Edition
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing; 1st edition
Palo, S., & Das, M. (2021). Sleeping Well: The Gateway to Employee Wellness. NHRD Network Journal, 14(1), 103-114.