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Reexamining Productivity with Mindfulness

Mindfulness can challenge our glorification of productivity toward wiser being

Key points

  • We can all get stuck in compulsive, automatic, and mindless productivity.
  • This can easily leave us in a spiral of anxiety, exhaustion, and depletion.
  • We can take the power back by mindfully and purposely practicing letting things be as they are, instead of engaging in automatic productivity.
  • The more we're OK with things as they are, the better we'll be at completing our tasks—saving more time and energy overall.

We all want to live with more calm and ease, yet unfortunately, many of our ingrained habits can produce the opposite. Mindfulness is the practice of observing, discovering, and letting things be as they are; it's actually doing less than this all-too-usual default mode of being busy and constantly productive.

I'm one of those people that loves self-distraction, getting things done and crossing them off my to-do list, seemingly so I can relax after. Maybe you can relate? A long to-do list can make me anxious, especially if I'm not mindful and attentive to my inner state. At least that's one of my main default mindsets.

The unfortunate truth is that I don't usually get to relax after unless I'm conscious, purposeful, and intentional. By default, my mind will usually want to focus on the next thing that will need to be completed or done. This leaves me in a never-ending loop of obsessive productivity that can all too easily burn me out and deprive me of joy after a while.

I know I'm not alone because I see similar patterns in others. This pattern is in fact all too rampant in the U.S. and many other Western nations. Here, we worship productivity. We have chased "productivity hacks"; many productivity gurus have millions of views on their videos.

Big tech companies have been profiting handsomely off our obsession with productivity, as I noted last year when I wrote about compulsive phone use. How do you feel when you know you know you have unread emails, texts, comments, and messages waiting for you? If you're like most people, you probably feel uneasy. Ever wonder why there's no "mark unread" feature on your iMessage app? Apple may want us to answer each other quickly—and may not mind that we feel anxious if we don't. The more "plugged in" we are, feeling "productive" by answering people quickly, the more we'll purchase hardware and software, and the more data they'll collect to understand us and profit off us.

This post, then, is about bucking trends in tech, materialism, and other cultural norms and default emotional patterns that weigh on us, and taking the power of our minds, attention, well-being, and mental health back. So how do we do this?

An Ancient Un-Productivity Hack: Mindfulness

Well, we can start by stepping off the train of mindless, obsessive, and compulsive productivity, and let things be as they are more frequently, when possible. To do this, of course, we can use mindfulness. In this sense, mindfulness is more about unlearning than learning. You aren't adding anything to your experience, just noticing what the mind is like when you aren't lost in thought.

Paradoxically, mindfulness meditation is essentially dropping everything to just notice what is already here. You’re actually doing less during meditation because no action is needed. As you realize and feel into this truth, you can protect yourself from compulsive productivity. In meditation, productivity-based obsessive thoughts reveal themselves as mere and transient appearances in consciousness.

Mindfulness is not about being peaceful or understanding concepts, it is about experiencing pre-conceptually more accurately and deeply. It’s knowledge by experiencing. It is an underused form of intelligence that can promote psychological freedom instead of the automatic productivity and burnout we've often promoted instead. After all, what's the point of productivity if we're not present and intentional in our being, and don't live with sufficient simplicity, ease, joy, and patience? Also what's the true quality of our productivity or non-stop doing if we rarely rest? Resting actually can enhance creativity and productivity. For me it does.

The more we practice, the more we're in charge of our productivity, and the less it is of us. This way, you can learn to only prioritize the tasks that are urgent, not the ones that you want to mindlessly cross off your to-do list, thus enhancing the quality and efficiency of everything you do and the joy it brings you. Wiser doing for you may mean only checking email twice a day, or periodically turning off notifications to current apps. It's different for us all. It's ultimately about wise action and choosing what is best for us instead of automatic habits running our lives. Who and what do you want in charge of your life?