I am the “Queen of Productivity.” To paraphrase the Lady Gaga lyric, “I was born that way.” And according to my mother, I will die that way, too. When I was nine years old, my mom and I sat on our plastic-covered dark-green couch with the uncomfortable back buttons and stared at the TV. The TV was a corner monstrosity with tubes that kept popping—but we loved to watch soap operas together. One plot twist was the revelation that a young girl had only a few months to live.
Sad. My mom looked at me and said, “I bet if you were sick, you would still do your homework.” You might think this was a bizarre, even cruel, comment to a little girl who just got a glimpse of another kid, albeit fictional, on her death bed. But to me, it was the ultimate compliment.
Of course, I will be my productive self to the end. People do not change that much.
Or do they?
If you struggle with productivity, you can change…and I aim to give you the tools in the next few paragraphs.
Unlike my usual blogs, you will find very few references to experts, as I am the ultimate authority on this topic. I have read a dozen books on productivity…followed the work of a corporate trainer who is the guru of getting things done…and looked at the psychology of proactive accomplishment. I did this all for you before I wrote this blog.
From them I discovered why so many people have struggles with inactivity, procrastination, lack of focus and doing-it anxiety. It is because the advice out there is….
If they were right, then there would not be so many projects unfinished, dishes unwashed and bucket-list items never experienced.
Mostly the “get it done” gurus are a boon to calendaring, Magic Markers and reminders from Alexa. One guru charges $5,000 for a weekend retreat and teaches you how to color-code every aspect of your life and make a daily calendar in which you write down tasks such as “play with my kids”…“take my supplements”…etc. Just shoot me.
Before I unravel the true secret of accomplishing anything you want, I ask you to contemplate this parable.
Three men were digging deep holes in the ground. A fourth man passed them by. “What are you doing?” he asked the first man. “I am digging a hole,” was the uninspired reply.
He asked the second man the same question. “I am digging a foundation,” came the more informative reply.
“What are you doing?” he asked the third man. “I am building a Cathedral,” came the answer.
The fourth man learned well. You can be doing the most menial task, but if the reason is lofty, anything you do toward that purpose is elevated.
Advice on productivity is wrongfully focused on the “what” and the “how.” This is the mistake. The secret of productivity is to focus on the “why.”
Many of us are aware of Marie Kondo’s ability to stay tidy. For her, it is innate. While she may train you on how to fold a sock, you will notice that her principle is to not even own that sock if you do not love it.
While making lists…breaking tasks into bites…and doing the harder things first all are good how-tos of productivity, they will not make a lasting habit if you miss the “why.” Many people are required to be productive at work. They may not love or even like their jobs. Some perform well…others slack off.
What is the difference?
The slackers have low-quality “whys” for being at work. Perhaps they have no dependents to support…or they are there for the extra pension another year brings but are not excited about retirement. I cannot tell you how often I meet a preretiree going through the motions at work as if he/she is in a coma. I usually discover that the big “why”—retirement money—is of no real interest because they have no passion for retiring in the first place.
If you are passionate, you will get it done.
Parents of teens know this. The same child who cannot do dishes can put a motorcycle together or make a film…that’s passion. Yes, all accomplishment is divided into minute tasks, mostly menial such as digging a hole. But when your higher purpose is before your very eyes, those tasks are accomplished smoothly and spiritually. After my father died, my mother worked at some low-level jobs. One was stapling the paper cover around toilet paper rolls at a Harlem warehouse. Was she stapling toilet paper? No. She was putting her daughter through college.
I live in farm country with folks who are passionate about clean, environmentally safe and sustainable food. I observe them throughout their days on the farms. A significant percentage of their time is spent with compost, animal feces and, yes, digging holes. They sing happily. They are not shoveling sh—…they are saving the planet.
At this moment, I am in a home filled with productivity. My daughter-in-law is in a Zoom meeting about corporate IT advancements. My son is crafting a speech for the CEO of one of the most important corporations in the world. My husband is writing a sublease, and I am writing to you. Even my two-year-old granddaughter is being productive—along with her friend Cherry, she is being taught to count by a hired teacher because daycare is closed due to COVID.
Let us unpack what is going on.
Part of each of us wants to be on the beach. I am in sunny California, and the day is splendid. We all could be doing other things or nothing at all. If you were here, you would feel an unmistakable vibe of concentration. We are all in the Zone. Time is flying. Minds are focused.
You cannot…indeed, should not…try to be productive if you have no higher purpose then just getting the work done. Reread, if you will, the title of this blog. Notice the words “You Want.”
Marsha Sinetar, author of Do What You Love and the Money Will Follow, wrote an enduring book on life purpose.
Unfortunately, especially with my daughter in theatre and film, I have not always found that money follows purpose. Sometimes money must be secondary to purpose.
I have found that when you do any task toward what you love, accomplishment—money or not—does follow. Moreover, the to-do list makes itself and gets done. Confusion and bumbling fade away. You get riveted to the task and rewarded just by its culmination.
The great science fiction writer (now sadly passed) Isaac Asimov is said to be one of the most prolific American writers of all time. Dr. Asimov wrote in his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, “Life goes on minutia by minutia.” So does accomplishment. And the minute tasks are worth the time of your life if you are building a Cathedral.
There is no need for a roadmap, a copious blueprint or any insight into the future. So do not spend hours preparing to be productive.
Even great edifices were planned as the work went along. Adin Steinsaltz, a Rabbi who wrote a 45-volume assessible translation of the Talmud, said of productivity…
“Sometimes when a person knows too much, it causes him to do nothing. It seems it’s better, sometimes for a man, as for humanity, not to know too much about the difficulties and believe in the possibilities.”
Adriane Berg is an influencer for successful aging, healthy longevity and lifelong contribution. Sh