How To Be Productive without Becoming a Productivity Freak

Productivity is usually a good thing. Usually. Not always.

Too much GTD or too much effectiveness in your life can become annoying at some point. Being highly productive can really help you become some sort of a freak, even if you obviously don’t want that. All those lists, thoughts capturing devices, advanced task processing systems. All those fancy words like “next actions”, “hipster cards” or “mind like water”. All those tasks carefully squeezed into your agenda, well, all that could give you a very hard time in a normal, non-productivity related, social conversation. To be honest, most of the people I heard talking about “mind like water” were doing it mostly like a waterfall, not like a still lake. I think you know the type: hyper-active, super talkative and proud of the last uber cool productivity gadget he bought or the last productivity blog post he read.

The good news is that you can still be productive while avoiding the pitfalls of a productivity freak syndrome. Here are 7 verified ways to help you avoid being left alone in the middle of a vivid social conversation in which you just tried to talk about – exactly! – nothing else but productivity.
1. Don’t Plan the Fun

Do you have items like “go out in the park with the kids” in your to do lists? Or something like “have a romantic dinner with my partner”? Ditch this. Immediately. You can’t really plan the fun in your life. It’s a contradiction in terms. If you plan it, it’s not fun anymore. It’s just another chore. Another task to be slacked from your to do list.. Having fun is a spontaneous activity and cannot be confined into a productivity system. The very thought of productively increasing your fun makes me laugh.

How many times you attended to a party and had no fun at all? Well, I’m sure that behind being at that party there was a productivity “reason”. Maybe you don’t call it “productivity”, but it was something like “cross out that thing from my agenda”. Mark the task done somehow. Which, of course, you did. Only there wasn’t any fun involved. How many lousy romantic dinners you had? I bet every time you had them you looked up every single detail in advance and made sure everything will be just fine. Only it wasn’t. You had no fun at that dinner.

Planning the fun in your life is the most subtle yet powerful attempt of productivity to kill your spontaneity. Your normal reactions to reality stimulus. You can schedule in advance to DO something, that’s true, but you can’t schedule in advance to FEEL something.

Instead of planning your fun activities, you should just make some time box in your schedule for yourself. If you want to spend time with other people, your friends or your kids, just make some space in your time schedule and be there. Show up. And see where it goes. Don’t plan it, just watch it unfolding ahead. If you want to throw a great party, by all means, do all the preparations. Just don’t expect the party to automatically rock just because you had fantastic food. Likewise, if you want a romantic dinner, just be romantic, don’t plan the next actions. Do something unexpected or extraordinaire. Which, by the way, it’s the complete opposite of being productive.
2. Share Your Learning

Share what you learned about productivity with your friends. Ask for their opinion. The first thing you’ll notice is that all that information is now filtered through your own perceptions and experiences. A lot of what you thought is important is now modeled by your own needs. While you’re talking with somebody else about all those new concepts or ideas you’re slowly getting rid of the initial hype and start to have a better understanding of the system altogether. (Generally speaking, sharing what you’ve learned is great way to internalize everything you want to learn.)

The second thing you can realize by sharing is to inform your peers about the results you had by using that specific system. No need to talk about technical stuff now, just simple things like: I’ve done twice the things I was usually doing on a Tuesday so far. Watch for their reactions. You’ll be surprised to notice that being productive has little if no impact whatsoever in your close relationships. Yet you unconsciously hope that being productive will enhance your social or intimate life too.

The most important point here is to create a feed-back loop. A way to check out your social status every now and then and see if you’re not deluding yourself. Being productive is meant to do things faster and better, not to alienate you from your friends or colleagues. Don’t use the productivity hype as an identity creator: I’m the GTD guy, or the 4 hours work week guy. The more you do that, the more you’ll be identified with “the productivity freak next office.” Just because you’re updated to the latest productivity news and other people aren’t, doesn’t make you better than them.
3. Listen To Others

There is this cultural norm of associating productivity with pro-activity. Start new projects. Ignite conversations. Initiate new ventures. While this is certainly very important, it also creates a very nasty habit of not listening to other people. Listening is a fantastic resource. How many times you found a solution to something just by listening to other guys? I know I did this literally hundreds of times. Just listen carefully, because your question was certainly asked before and there is already somebody who knows the answer.

Listening is fundamental in identifying problems. Maybe you have the skills to do something faster and better, but if you don’t know exactly what you have to do, then what’s the point? I see more than often those productivity gurus offering ready made solutions to problems far more complicated than they realize. They have a limited set of solutions and they try to apply them to every problem they encounter., regardless of its complexity. Just because they “know” that works. Only, of course, it doesn’t.

Without listening and acknowledging the real problems your productivity skills are worthless. You’re just a talkative guy making more trouble then it solves, while bragging too in the process. Not the nicest personal brand you can build, right? Listening is not a productive activity in itself, although it can be enhanced: there really is an art of listening, you know. But listening, combined with your productivity skills can help you become a useful person too, rather then becoming just a freak annoying people around.
4. Keep Things Simple

The promise of productivity subtly invites you to bring more into your life. You can manage it, right, so bring more. More business, more relationships, more everything. You load yourself with tons of not really necessary stuff just because you can. Well, you could also run on a roof of a running train, with a little bit of training. But why would you do something like this on a regular basis? You could learn how to juggle with 5-6 balls at the same time, becoming better than a circus artist. Ok, but why would you do it?

Almost any productivity system out there puts a big emphasis on how to manage everything in your life. But why would you wanna do that to everything in your life? Why do you want to become productive on all the things in your life, including stuff you don’t need anymore? Instead of trying to manage everything, I think it’s better to get rid of the unnecessary entirely. Why trying to manage something you don’t really need?

This subtle invitation to bring more stuff into your life is the most dangerous thing you can do when you decide to become productive. You don’t really need that extra stuff. It’s like a competition between people racing on roofs of running trains, just because they can run on roofs of running trains. Who’s going to really win such a stupid race? The good side of being productive and effective is that you can do more in less time. Great, now go out and enjoy life, instead bringing more work into the system.
5. Accept and Manage Interruptions

The productivity flow assumes you’re there 100%, 8 hours out of 8, 5 days a week. If you’re a normal person. If you have a busier schedule, it means even more. Well, reality is different. You’re not there 8 full hours. At some point, life will get in the way somehow. You will be exposed to interruptions. It’s called hazard or the unpredictable. And the way you react to interruptions is almost always the key to a productive approach.

Accept them. Manage them. Respond to those stimuli, because there lies your real growth. Planning everything ahead will not make you grow. It will barely create a comfort zone around, but not more. It’s this constant stimulus-response dance that gives you new insights and perspectives. This is where you learn and do your real actions. A day with a perfect agenda is not a day that will make you evolve as a human being. It can give you a tricky sense of satisfaction, but if no “deranging” interruption occurred, you must start asking yourself questions.

“Life’s what’s happening when you’re busy making plans”, said John Lennon and I totally agree with him. Being productive is not always equal with being happy and fulfilled. I really don’t think the goal is to become the perfect business machine out there, but to live your life. A life filled with unexpected, interruptions, change of plans and contexts. Avoiding this by hiding under the “high productivity” blanket will not only make you lose all the fun, but it will surely create an almost visible aura of “freak”-ness around you.
6. Daydreaming Is Not Dangerous

One of the key principles of GTD, “emptying your mind” has become one of its biggest flops. Because when you empty your mind in GTD style, you’re not really emptying. Behind every mental throw up of an idea, of a potential project or task, there’s a continuous, humming thought of being productive. Every time you jot down something, you’re doing it because you want to be productive. So, even if you think you’re emptying your mind, you’re not really doing it: you continuously think about how to be more productive.

A productivity freak is a person who’s always in search of a new gadget or system. His mind is simply obsessed with the whole productivity process. Sometimes, those guys really make a business out of this, teaching other people how to become productive. They’re the lucky ones. They found an outlet for the obsession. But most of the times, the productivity freaks are just circling around, stuffing new productivity techniques in their head until they forget why they wanted to be productive in the first place.

Empty your mind from useless stuff. But do allow yourself to have thoughts that will never grow into a task. Imagine things. Picture new realitites. Visualize new contexts or situations. You may call this day dreaming. And yes, you will be right about that. But day dreaming is one of the most productive ways to empty your mind. To switch its focus from the glitches you encountered and allow it to regroup and find new ways to tackle an issue. One of the core qualities of a dream is its impermanence. Once finished, it will fly away from your mind. Leaving it empty, refreshed and clean.
7. Stay Healthy

Being highly productive is often associated with being a busy guy. In fact, you become productive because you are a busy guy and want to minimize that load. Alas, you end up by increasing it. It’s an addiction. The higher your productivity level, the busiest you become. You enjoy so much the thrills you get from being productive that you start putting more and more on your plate just to trigger that feeling again. Look ma, see how I slack those tasks from my task processing system! Am I the best, or what? Now gimme some more tasks, please! Man, that feels soooo good!

Ok, I’m being sarcastic here, but slacking tasks from your lists can really become an addiction. And just because is associated with productivity doesn’t make it less dangerous or less of an addiction. It’s on the same league with smoking or alcohol. Really. Staying up late to slack tasks from your lists is doing no more good to you than spending the whole night drinking in a bar. You won’t have a hangover in the morning, that’s true, but you will feel the urge to slack them again in the evening. And will do this again and again. The results: you end up stealing time from your sleeping hours, from your social hours, from your family hours. All that in the name of being productive, how ridiculous is that?

Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise. Engage in physical activities and change your focus. Being caught in a constant flow of productive tasks will most likely generate a flow of positive emotions too. You’ll feel good about yourself and that is usually a feeling you want to keep as long as you can. That flow of ego boosting emotions can keep you being productive for hours without a break. But it’s tricky. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it does good to your body. You need a balance. Pack some time in advance in your schedule and get out of that nice, ego boosting flow of being productive and do some physical exercise. Take a walk in the park. Eat a healthy meal. Take a nap. Then you can get back on being productive, with a fresh perspective.

***

To be productive without becoming a productivity freak is an art. The art of living your life in peace and harmony while still doing everything you planned to do, enjoying abundance and feeling happy and fulfilled.

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