On 23 March, the UK went into lockdown to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. As a result, a large majority of people are forced to spend much more time at home either by themselves or with the immediate people they live with.
People have unfortunately lost their jobs, others have to work from home and some simply have much less work to do.
Unfortunately, this has lead to far too many articles on “how to be productive while you’re at home” or “How to start a business from home” articles.
Generally, it’s fine to want to be productive (whatever that even means…) but there is an unnecessary environment growing which pressures people to be productive simply because we’re now at home.
While time has been gained because we’ve lost our commute times (on average, we’ve gained back one hour), it doesn’t mean we can, or even need to, utilise that time “productively”.
There is a lot we do not know
Many of us have never had to live through a viral outbreak that shut down the world’s economy. We are learning more about ourselves and interactions with one another as lockdown’s around the world continue. It raises a number of questions:
Will the structure of the economy look the same after the pandemic?
What will the end of the pandemic look like?
Will remote working become more commonplace?
Will we learn anything?
Big questions that everyone will end up considering. It isn’t something we can ignore and “leave for the politicians and academics” because it directly impacts all of us.
Because of this, we will also figure out how we best adapt to long-term working from home. We are not simply “at home“. We are “forced to stay home during a pandemic“.
It’s an important distinction even though, right now, it often doesn’t feel like it exists in practice.
We are in unknown territory at the moment. Emotionally, socially, and physically.
If you feel pressured to be productive, remember, most of us won’t be. Especially at the beginning
And those who claim to be productive, will be far less productive than portrayed.
Prioritise family and self-care. Allow yourself to experiment with healthy coping mechanisms.
But do not get lulled into the idea that we need to boost our productivity by 1000% to be valuable.
Most importantly, wash your hands and stay indoors. Boring, but effective.
One question that has, for some reason, bothered me quite a lot is: what is productivity?
Throughout all the different personal development and productivity blogs I’ve read, I’ve learned a number of ways to be more productive. Eliminate distractions, exercise, don’t have long meetings and so on and so on.
However, I never really took time to understand what productivity is.
Perhaps this is because the first answer is quite mundane.
The ability to produce stuff.
It’s a keystone behind David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system which has sold millions of copies and inspired a host of productivity blogs out there.
The more productive you are, the more stuff you produce or complete.
Is this helpful? Anyone can be extremely productive if you take this definition because you can complete a lot of small, relatively meaningless tasks and say you’ve had an extremely productive day every day. This is why answering a bunch of emails or cleaning the house might feel productive even though you’ve put off something more important.
Simply producing more stuff isn’t a helpful definition in a lot of contexts we’re now in. What about…
The ability to produce important stuff.
This is a bit more focused. If complete more important stuff you’re going to be more productive than the person who just completes a bunch of meaningless tasks, right? For example, if you decide not to answer a bunch of emails and instead write the important report or calculate the important calculation, then you’re producing more valuable stuff.
While we’re getting closer to a more usable definition, we’re not there yet. What happens if the tasks you’re working on aren’t important to you but rather someone else? Am I being unproductive because the ‘important’ goals aren’t important to me?
Possibly. But many of us will work for other people and on important tasks that do not completely align with our personal passions. It’s a normal part of a working life in whatever capacity. The importance of the task depends on the context but then we may want to think in more depth about the kind of context we find ourselves in the majority of the time.
We may think about productivity in personal terms – getting stuff done that’s important to you. Doing this might be quite drastic because we could find that we’re largely unproductive despite doing brilliantly at your job or studies. We do want to make distinction between business and personal productivity because not everyone is at the luxury of being able to quit their jobs and focus on things that are only important to them. But it’s a helpful tool when coming to think about your priorities and how you can ensure you’re focusing on them as much as you can.
However, I don’t want to keep on twisting and contorting the definition of productivity. Working on and creating things that are important to you whether that is in a personal or business sense. This discussion leaves us a more important question.
Does your productivity matter?
The simple definition of productivity – getting stuff done – is unhelpful. Thinking about getting stuff done in terms of their importance is much more helpful. Yet, the more I think about it, the less I think it actually matters.
In the short term, of course it matters. You don’t want to lose your job or fail university because you’re too busy watching videos on things that barely interest you. In the long term, I think the value of an action might be better judged by its ability to help you live with integrity or overall satisfaction.
Focusing on things that are important to you isn’t good simply because they are productive. Instead, it results in matching the things that matter to you and the actions you complete every day. In doing that, we live with greater presence and a movement away from chastising yourself for “not being productive enough” or “lazy” or “wasting time”.
If we judge something as a waste of time because it doesn’t help us live in line with our values instead of whether it is helping us be productive enough, it helps us do a few things.
First, we stop micro managing our time. Doing this helps us stray away from being overly critical of how we spend our time.
Second, it gets to the deeper cause of our disappointment. We can spend a day with a very difficult problem and not write a single word yet still feel like we’ve done something useful. We can spend a day writing rubbish all day, and feel remarkably unsatisfied with everything. It’s the lack of personal importance that seems to drive this disappointment.
Third, we think honestly about the bigger picture – and make steps towards them. My yearly integrity posts are an attempt to slow down and reassess what is really important to me and how I can mould my life and my days in that direction. Doing this places a useful urgency into my days.
So, if not productivity, what is important?
Seneca complains that
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if you know how to use it.
we say life is short yet treat it as though we will live forever. Regularly returning to important values instead of getting lost in thoughts about what is productive and what isn’t, I think, is more helpful overall.
Thinking about productivity is useful but should only come second to thinking about actions that help us live in accordance with our values.
To do this, we have to slow down and remember what is actually important rather than going so fast you’ve been running in the wrong direction for ages.
They fade from black with one person as the focal point. The music is starts calm but it’ll build up to something. It’s a Hans Zimmer score, after all.
You see a fit person running up some stairs or someone boxing. If you’re lucky, you get to see scenes from The Pursuit of Happiness again with a speech from Rocky Balboa layered over the top.
As the video progress, more stuff about getting up after a fall and dreaming big is shown. You’re told you’re worth it and can do anything you want if you put your mind to it. You’re reminded of all the rags-to-riches stories that exist like J. K. Rowling living in a council estate to earning millions a day and getting rejected a number of times before finally being accepted.
You feel good.
But motivated to do what? Finally start on your goals? But only after one more video…
Stop watching motivational videos
They’re akin to depending on sugary energy drinks rather than a good night’s sleep to combat tiredness.
Motivational videos (and images) feed procrastination in a special way.
They make us feel productive without all the work required in between. They might lift our mood temporarily but do nothing to combat the problem. The problem might be perfectionism. It could be that you’re simply trying too much and the goals need to be broken down. Or a number of other things that continues procrastination.
Motivational videos do nothing to solve these problems. It’s far too easy to continue doing nothing at all to further progress.
Hell, there’s even a chance you’ll feel guilty because you still haven’t done anything.
Since the improvement in mood is temporary, we always need to be motivated to even consider working. That in itself is unsustainable. After a while, they lose their desired effectiveness and become boring like any other entertainment.
It leads to only doing work when we feel like it and waiting for magical inspiration to strike us on the head. Such things don’t happen. To work consistently towards something, you’ll have to do it when you don’t feel like it.
Depending on how we feel in order to start working is a poor strategy. With all the quick entertainment and instant gratification at our fingertips, when will we ever feel like working if we haven’t already become disciplined enough to make it a habit?
In this case, dependence on motivational videos is actually detrimental.
Clichés, clichés and more clichés.
If you’ve watched many motivational videos, you’ll hear many of the same things over and over again. You might repeat them a few times but if it doesn’t result in any action, it’s literally just an empty chant. For example: “When you breathe as bad as you want to succeed, then you’ll be successful” is a reasonably new phrase that’s creeped its way into motivational diction.
I don’t want to say it’s useless but it is somewhat unhelpful. It hides the work actually needed to be done in order to achieve those levels of hard work.
Let’s say you want to exercise and embodied that phrase.
Does it inspire feelings of moderation or extremes?
After hearing that, do you want to aim for a huge personal best every gym session? Or do you want to start running for a few minutes and try a few more the next day?
The first choice is inspired by these motivational videos. It’s unrealistic for a beginner and unsustainable. The second is achievable but doesn’t fit too well in a catchy phrase.
Small starts and consistent work isn’t shown in such videos because their nature isn’t to show you the hard work. They show the end result and say ‘just do it’.
Small starts and consistent progress is how we actually achieve our goals.
But of course, that isn’t as romantic. Discipline is rarely romantic. But it works.
What should I do instead?
Start small – Make the goal so small you can’t say no. Or work for 3 minutes and decide if you want to stop afterwards. For example, this article was started by simply writing the title.
Be kind – Don’t berate yourself with hatred and negative thoughts for not doing something. It only serves to make you feel bad and does nothing to further progress. It actually makes you less likely to do anything. If you feel like you’re worthless, why bother starting anything?
Be specific – A huge reason why we procrastinate is because we don’t know what to do. Saying ‘get fit’, ‘read more’ or ‘write essay’ doesn’t mean much. Saying you want to write 500 words by the end of the day or lose 10kg in 3 months makes the goal much more real and attainable.
Motivational videos aren’t helpful unless what we’re looking for is to feel good for a few minutes. If that’s the case, we should admit we watch them for entertainment rather than their life-changing abilities.
We simply don’t need to be intensely motivated for everything. It’s fine to just go for a run or write some words without becoming your own personal cheerleader in the process. It’s called being normal.
Consistent progress will beat motivational videos every time. That’s what self-discipline grants us.
Currently, the tagline for this blog is ‘becoming better one step at a time’.
I chose that because I thought it was the best way to explain how we get through any kind of journey whether it is long or short. We move forward one step at a time.
Over the past few months, I can’t confess to have forgotten that idea but to have lost the appreciation I originally had for it. Mainly because taking any purposeful step seemed painful, difficult and almost impossible. As I alluded to in my post ‘I’m 19‘, my mental health has taken a turn for the worse which paralysed my motivation and killed my slow walk forward. In fact, I feel like I’ve taken a few steps backwards.
I’m still in this position but having to force myself to move, write, and generally not become a complete recluse, I’m beginning again to find my appreciation of becoming better one step at a time. Although the appreciation often slips out of my hands as quickly as a bar of soap, while it’s here, I’ll explain the reason for my revived appreciation.
These steps forward need not be large, exciting or even particularly important. They can and probably will be very difficult at times. Sometimes it’ll feel as if you’re trying to walk through mud with bricks in your pocket. Nonetheless, it’ll still be a step forward.
These small victories are invaluable. Whether that victory ranges from putting on your shoes and stepping outside to writing significant portions of an important paper, remember them. Write them down if you must.
They’re a reminder that you can move forward.
It will take some time but you’ll get there and maybe even pick up a light jog along the way.
We’ll all face difficult times when we’re trying to reach whatever goals we have. If you feel that it is becoming overwhelming, remind yourself that you only need to take it one small step at a time.
Even if the step is tiny, it keeps us moving.
We’re all going to become better one step at a time.
This trap is extremely easy for people to fall into.
When we treat productivity like a hobby, we can fall into the trap of spending significantly more time reading and writing about productivity instead of being productive. If you find yourself learning loads about various productivity systems and how to make the most out of the day instead of being productive, there’s a problem.
You might not have even noticed that it happens because it feels like you’re being productive (you’re learning more about productivity) and you’re always looking at things related to being productive. This way, it reinforces the false idea that you’re using your time to accomplish important things.
Keep it simple
A large reason for this might be the increasing complexity of productivity systems. Trying to juggle two different calendars, three email accounts and one hundred to do lists is extremely overwhelming and actually detrimental to getting more done in the day.
You don’t need multiple aspects to whatever system you decide to use. When you look at the different things you utilise to help you get the most out of the day, ask yourself how much you can get rid of without losing any effectiveness. For example, if you have two apps that help you make to-do lists, get rid of one or both and use pen and paper. Also, don’t rely on apps to do everything for you.
A small reminder
Remember that reading about doing work isn’t the same as doing work.
Using all your motivation from motivational pictures to look at more motivational pictures isn’t a good use of your motivation.
Information about productivity is only useful if you go on to do something productive!
Do you find yourself reading more about productivity than doing what you need to do?
1. The comic is from xkcd.com/874. It’s a fantastic web comic. If you haven’t heard of it before, I strongly recommend reading through one or two or five.
2. If you found the post helpful, share it. If you thought it was more concise than War and Peace, you should follow the blog. Then get back to work, of course. Or be happily unproductive.
I’ve noticed that I don’t do all that much with my free time. I do mindless things like browse the internet and watch videos. I always link free time with relaxation so I disassociate myself from anything I perceive as work.
I’ve also noticed that this trend leads to more frustration that it’s meant to. I feel better when I’m making progress with work. However, it seems odd to exclaim I enjoy working instead of relaxing but that’s exactly what happens. Doing nothing constructive can be extremely boring and even tiringbut I almost feel obligated to continue doing nothing with my free time because I don’t want it to become like work.
Being in the flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has produced some great research on what makes people happy. He noticed that a surprising number of people are actually happier at work than during their free time despite saying they enjoyed their free time more. In light of this, the solution for some is to either fill up their free time with more work or do nothing about it. Neither are ideal. One just leads to burnout and a build up of resentment towards it. The other doesn’t help change your position in any way.
Csikszentmihalyi says that being in a state of flow is what makes people happy. There are a few factors present when someone is in the flow.
They’re completely focused on one activity
They feel in control of what they’re doing
It’s intrinsically rewarding
They essentially lose their sense of time
All these factors point to a situation where you’re so focused on an activity you enjoy that you don’t have time to be frustrated with yourself. You feel relaxed because you’re living in the present and very mindful of what you’re doing.
Best of all: you’re happy.
How to be in the flow
While you’ve probably experienced this feeling before, you might not know why it happens.
This chart shows what it takes for someone to be in the state of flow.
The difficulty level of the activity should match our perceived skill set. This means it shouldn’t be so difficult that you feel like throwing a chair through your window. Nor should it be so easy that you could fall asleep at a moments notice.
People usually feel happier while actually doing something (even if it’s at work or while studying) because of a constructive environment. You’re more likely to be completely focused on a project you want to work on, than sifting through pictures of birds with arms.
Why free time can make us unhappy
The reason why people can feel frustrated or unhappy with their free time is mainly because they don’t do anything with it. If you spend all day refreshing YouTube, then you’l probably feel extremely unfulfilled. Boredom will rise at an alarming rate, time will disappear and ‘damn, where did the time go?’ will be exclaimed.
Being happily unproductive
If you don’t feel like you enjoy your free time or have even found it draining (like I have!), here’s a list of a few things you could start doing:
Learn a new skill – There’s so much out there that can help you learn things for free or a small price. Online courses offered by websites such as Coursera, edX, Codecademy and Duolingo are fun and engaging. You don’t need to put pressure on yourself to complete them by a certain date.
Read a book – If you have a list of books that you’ve been meaning to get started with, actually do it. If not, there are over 800 new books published each day in the US. You’ll find something to read! Losing yourself in a good book is a perfect example of what it feels like to be in the flow.
Create something – At least try. It’s easy to dismiss this option because you’re ‘not a creative person’ but creativity is something that can be developed as well as anything else. Write, draw, make music or even build something! It doesn’t need to be a best seller but spend a small time creating something and you’ll probably find it fun and try again.
Have a hobby – That can be anything from maintaining a blog or learning something new to marking origami turtles. If you have no idea what you could do, try a variety of things and you’ll find something you’ll want to pursue more. (Try origami, it’s a lot of fun)
Do some gaming – This isn’t an excuse to game unconditionally for hours and hours on end but the reason why we can play games for so long is because of flow!
Enjoy your free time
After reading this, you might have realised that you don’t actually care for much of what you do in your free time. Switching through TV channels in an attempt to find something interesting is boring. Instead, do something interesting.
You don’t want it to be be mentally draining or become like work but doing next to nothing might not help you feel that relaxed either.
If you want to find out more about flow and where I got my information from, I’d recommend watching Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk on the topic and reading his book called ‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’.
Another thing you can do, if you found this post helpful, is share it. You can follow the blog too. It’ll put you in the zone if you do. (It won’t. Sorry)