There are a million productivity pitfalls I see discussed regularly, but I believe there are only two. Yes, I think there are only two things to avoid if you want to be productive. They are both about mindset, not lifehacks, not apps, not anything else. Two. And here they are:
One: caring too little.
Two: caring too much.
I have an internal battle between nihilism and obsession. If you’ve ever laughed at the joke that anxiety tells you everyone is thinking bad things about you and depression tells you that no one thinks about you at all, you understand the concept. When I’m stressed about the things I have to do—too stressed to do them—I care too much. Then I start telling myself that they don’t matter that much, that I shouldn’t be so stressed. But if they don’t matter, why do them? Why do anything? Then, I care too little.
My thought process in trying to find a middle ground goes like this:
First, we must start with the idea that nothing we do really, really matters. On a grand scale, one day the sun will swallow the earth, and, very likely, eventually wherever we’ve fled to, if we get there; doomsday will come one way or another, and all mortal human matters will be for not, and all that will be left is the cosmos or the heavens or whatever you believe is Beyond. Right?
Okay, but then why do anything here on this mortal plane, on this mortal time scale?
Because the sun will swallow the earth so far in the future that I cannot truly fathom it. No one I have ever met or will ever meet can truly fathom that kind of time scale. We are all not even a true blip on the geologic time scale. The human who lived the very longest is not a blip on that scale. (And maybe we’ll all get wiped out by a freak asteroid tomorrow, but that’s such a big if, it’s not a great concept to live by. If you believe the end is that close, eh, adjust the lifetime thing I’m about to discuss accordingly.) So why, exactly, are we thinking on this scale?
Okay. So let’s think about time on a human level. My life expectancy is close to ninety years. My grandmother lived to be eighty-eight. I have a family friend who is notably over one-hundred. So let’s stop talking about billions of years. Nothing I can do will matter at that point in the future when the earth becomes star food, or doomsday comes however it does. Honestly, anything I can do will probably stop mattering an unfathomably long time before that, anyway.
But can I do something that will matter eighty years from now? Ninety? A hundred? Sure. How many things have you read that were published eighty years ago? Ninety? A hundred?
Perhaps you’ve read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. It was published in 1831. Or maybe you pretend you have, but you’ve only seen the Disney movie. Still, that goes back to something Victor Hugo did almost two hundred years ago. (And that movie? It’s older than I am.)
So I can do things that matter for a pretty long time. Like, a few times my lifetime. Things that will last a long time on the time scale that I or anyone I’ve ever met can fathom. So the things I do matter.
But they’re also not world ending. The odds the human race survives that long on the geologic time scale, that anything I can directly do will possibly matter that long, are so slim, it’s worse than planning on winning the lottery tomorrow.
And which things should I do? Ultimately, that seems up to me. If nothing really, really matters, but we have the ability to make things that matter for quite a long time, then we should pick things that we think we can make matter for a long time. Things we love enough to want to make matter that long, things that might matter to many other people one day, things we are good enough at to make a difference with, things that will outlive us.
And there’s no big scale harm in doing something that just makes us happy or fulfilled, in taking breaks, in making a mistake now and then.
This is what I tell myself to balance out between caring too little (why do anything, ever, if the world will end one day?) and too much (I have to do everything, now, or the world will end).
Being productive is about that balance. It’s about caring the right amount, about the right things. Some things still matter more than others. Some things are still more urgent than others. Creating works that will outlive me is more important than if my office is always spotless, and putting out a fire that might kill me is more urgent than outlining my next book. (See also: the Eisenhower Matrix.)
If you don’t know what you care about, if your priorities are in the wrong place, if you care too much or too little: productivity flounders. And there is no app, no lifehack, no list that will save you from that. That’s all mental work. That is why I believe in values based productivity.
After balancing nihilism and obsession, after choosing what you value and therefore what to do, getting your priorities in line, after sorting your way through why and the big whats that serve your why, then, and only then, can we really start productively worrying about how and details.
Our values are the final destination. We may meet deadlines and reach milestones and achieve goals along the way, but we never really arrive at our values. But when we’re gone, people will be able to tell what we valued by what we did, and hopefully remember us as the values we had in mind. I will never achieve creativity or innovation or storytelling; I’ll post a chapter, finish a piece, publish a book. But publish enough books, and when it’s over, people talk about you and your creativity and innovation and storytelling.
Sometimes, on bad days, especially as someone with anxiety that sometimes acts like depression, I need to rethink my way through all of what I said above, to stop caring too little or too much or about the wrong things. But, eventually, I always do. And having thought my way down this same path over and over, I thought I’d write it all out and share it with you as a shortcut.
Because it’s at the end of that path that we can start talking about the typical productivity things. SMART goals and habit tracking and and project planning and calendar apps and filing systems and self reviews and all of that good stuff. And I love those things, but I like to emphasize that they do not come first, that part of why they vary greatly person to person is based on the whys and whats that come first.
After that, we can have the typical productivity nerd fun.