Moving beyond personal productivity

Moving beyond personal productivity
Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!

I've been feeling a bit like this lately in regard to productivity, and I'd like to dig into why.

In case you hadn't heard, I recently put my whole side business on hiatus because I've been wrestling with a combination of COVID burnout and feeling that pursuing productivity as hard as I have been for years is in such vanity. Where is the end of this pursuit of efficiency? What does it get me? The questions burn in my heart all of the time.

The idea of productivity is something I've pursued for over a decade. It started way back when Mac Power Users first launched in 2009, which led me to Merlin Mann, 43Folders, OmniFocus, and Getting Things Done. My college-aged brain grappled with these concepts as I moved from broke student to career-minded adult, so much so they took root in how I viewed and undertook the actual process of work.

In 2019, after a decade of work in small businesses, corporations, and management, I launched my first podcast, Process. The main idea was to help people on their productivity journey. In a lot of ways, I began to explore what productivity meant to me along the way as well. So far, I've loved podcasting, as it's an amazing way to connect with others and share thoughts.

Over time while recording shows and processing my own thoughts, I started to realize the very thing that was pitched to me as a way to remove stress began to be the very thing causing it. Tasks, projects, and todo lists started to become anxiety producing. At first, I thought I wasn't doing productivity right, so I started trying new things, new tools, new approaches. I was seeking a form of calm productivity.

Oftentimes, we thinkers in the productivity space show off our overly complicated systems. I don't know how many times I'd show off my system on a video or something of the sort, then review it afterward and did a major facepalm. It was so convoluted even I couldn't make it work! Some of these tools are so powerful that they enable amazing, complex workflows. But for me, that complexity became an increasing bundle of stress and anxiety.

I discovered the Bullet Journal, and immediately began to feel a sense of stress lift from my shoulders. Something about using paper helped my mind and emotions feel at ease, but paper has its shortcomings, too. That started a multi-year journey into building a hybrid system -- starting with OmniFocus, on to Things 3, then fully embracing Obsidian and it's incredible plugin ecosystem.

But that journey ultimately led nowhere. Instead of finding a workable way to use a digital tool alongside paper, I found myself lost and anxious in a pile of todos and ideas.

Some may say, "Well, Justin you just need to do better at reviewing." Others might say, "You didn't do a great job capturing and processing that information properly."

I say, "Isn't there some bigger, more important thing here?" I've spent countless hours building systems only to change them a few months later because they caused me stress. It's so easy to get focused on the possible outcome of a marginally higher efficiency or getting stuff done a few minutes faster. But in the grand scheme of life, does working just a tiny bit faster even matter?

I'd contend it doesn't.

This is productivity in a nutshell: Write things down, then go back and look at them every once and a while. If you do this, you've gone further than other people who wander aimlessly from day to day, reacting to everything that comes their way. But I'm questioning if going any further with productivity is healthy or holistically productive.

I also have a number of other related questions:

  • Where does discipline and hard work fit into the mix?
  • Or the limit of hard mental work people can actually do in a day?
  • What about building about a rhythm of work and rest so we can avoid burnout and actually recharge?
  • What about the mindset that everything becomes a tool to become more productive, including our rest?
  • Otherwise stated, why do we put everything in our lives in service to work? Is that really the highest end?

To sum up what I've been feeling: there's more to life than being productive, and I am aiming to explore it.

For those interested, I don't think this means I'm giving up making helpful resources for the work world, but I desire to pursue a more holistic view especially in regard to remote work. It also doesn't mean I'm fully giving up on the basic ideas of productivity (a la Bullet Journal, personal knowledge management), but emphasizing it so much in our lives I think is having detrimental effects. I want to counter that.

We can't keep working hard all the time without a break and expect we'll end up in a healthy, sustainable place. That's been my experience, and why I'm making a change.

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