The Non-Violent Practice of Productivity

There is a grand difference between being productive and being busy. Though most of us want to be productive, we get trapped in a cycle of busyness.

I’m not sure when being busy became such a definitive part of our culture. Somehow it’s synonymous with working hard, when truthfully it’s so toxic that busyness does nothing except beat us down.

The moment I got out of high school and joined the workforce, as a lowly hostess at the Peppertree Cafe, I remember being jarred by the urge to be busy. That confusion followed me forever after that first job.

What I learned was this. Look busy…even when you’re not.

Honestly, I didn’t understand the point. But because I was at the mercy of a paycheck, I played along. After all, anyone not looking busy would be terminated.

Later on in the corporate world, I saw another side of work. People were slaves to busyness.

It was a tragic competition to see who the busiest person was.

Whoever got there first and stayed the longest…won. Whoever forgot to eat and wasted away…won. Whoever was so overworked that they had a breakdown and had to take a leave of absence…won.

Yet, all they were doing was losing. Losing out on hours of their lives that could have been spent with family, or doing that creative thing that set them free.

waterfalls in oregon

At the beginning of my Yoga teacher training, we learned about the Yamas and the Niyamas. They are basic guidelines for life which help you know yourself and others.

One of the Yamas that really stood out to me was Ahimsa. The literal translation of this Sanskrit word is non-injury or non-violence.

When our focus in life is to be consumed by busyness, we are being violent to ourselves. It is not our boss who is making us do this. It is not our job that is making us do this. We are harming ourselves.

If you truly feel that your job is causing this deep unhappiness, then you should find a different one. Otherwise, you are not practicing Ahimsa.

What I’m getting at is the one thing I always aim for in my life. Balance.

How can I be productive while being kind to myself? How can I kick ass without kicking my own ass?

I get a lot of shocked expressions from people when they learn that I’ve written three books. The inevitable question always comes up: How do you do it?

Well, I practice productivity.

When I set my mind to accomplishing something, I do it. But it took me many years to learn how to be productive instead of busy.

I learned how to fulfill instead of deplete.

Lately for work, I’ve been attending webinars and reading blog posts about productivity as much as possible.

I shared this post on Twitter, which several of you also liked, so please check out Wanna Stop Working So Late? Do Your Most Exhausting Task First. It’s more business-oriented, but I learned a lot about prioritization—including working in sprints and rests.

Why did I go on this productivity rampage? Because I felt like I was slipping into the vortex of busyness.

I started a new job last winter and I had days at work where I didn’t know where to begin. I would stare at my to-do list until I wanted to cry, because I was overwhelmed.

So, I took matters into my own hands to incorporate Ahimsa into my work routine. This is what I’ve learned…

  1. Start your morning right. Take ten minutes for a little bit of meditation (or if you prefer, sitting still) and stretching. The computer distractions can wait.
  2. That thing you’re dreading most…do it first. Don’t worry about your emails, just knock it out.
  3. F*ck multi-tasking. Dedicate your full attention to one project at a time. Turn off email alerts if they’re too distracting.
  4. Schedule half-hour email sessions. You will never clean out your inbox. More will come after you delete the others. Stop trying.
  5. Group similar tasks together. While you’re in that mode, your focus will be optimized.
  6. Step away from your desk. Even if it’s for a short walk to clear your head, the break away from your screen will revive you.
  7. Hang it up. After your ninth hour of work, you’re done. Go home. It will all be there tomorrow.
  8. No matter what…exercise. Staying active will keep you energized. Not doing anything will have the opposite effect.
  9. Cook food. Instead of eating out all the time, make simple meals that have simple ingredients.
  10. Remember your creative side. Never ditch it because you’re drained. Spend a little time each week, and enjoy it.
  11. Lose yourself in sex. You’re not too tired to do it. Experiencing pleasure is vital to our sanity, so get some.
  12. Focus on your sleep. An hour before, shut everything off. Rub your bedding down with lavender oil. And dream, dammit.

Hey, I get stressed out just like anyone else. I’m not perfect, and I stopped trying to be.

Each day I wake up and strive for a balanced life, one where I can pay my bills but still spend as much energy as possible on the people and things I truly love.

It’s hard work…much harder than looking busy.

Alright your turn! How do you practice productivity?

43 thoughts on “The Non-Violent Practice of Productivity

  1. Carrie Rubin says:

    I love that you separate busyness from productivity. Definitely food for thought, and I think your tips are wonderful. I agree–get the most dreaded thing done first. Makes the rest of the day brighter. Of course, many times our jobs dump new dreaded things on us as the day goes on, but since we already got one dreaded thing out of the way in the morning, it should be easier to handle. And I agree about the exercise. So important for maintaining our strength, stamina, sanity, etc.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Absolutely! It always feels SO good when you knock out the dreaded thing. Any time I procrastinate, pushing that thing until the end of my day, it puts me in a crap mood because it weighs on my thoughts.

      I know you’re all about the exercise, honey. So important to keep our bodies healthy. That was one of the coolest concepts I learned in Yoga. The body has to be healthy in order for the mind to function. It’s true, man.

  2. danniehill says:

    What a great post, Britt… and good advice. One of the things I learned living in Thailand was how to relax and go with the flow. Now I’m back in the States and it amazed me how people spend ALL their time being busy and accomplish nothing except to spend money on ‘stuff’. I try to keep my attitude from Thailand but sometimes feel like a stone in a rushing river. I’ve promised myself to one day learn some yoga techniques for my back and my life.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I have to go to Thailand one of these days, Dannie. It’s a popular vacation destination for many Portlanders, I’ve noticed. Seems like everyone has been there at least once.

      It must have been a shock to come back here. I can’t even imagine. But I love how you’re hanging onto that attitude. That’s the most important thing we can do, right? Hold onto that goodness.

      P.S. Get your ass (or should I say “fannie” from our Twitter convo) into Yoga, pretty please.

  3. RMW says:

    Some wonderful ideas… I know so many people who are merely busy and use that as an excuse not to do anything productive.

  4. Les Petits Pas de Juls says:

    I haven’t taken time to practice yoga in … 3 weeks! and I feel bad about it… I need to stop turning that computer on before I do yoga. That’d be pretty productive! (more so, I need to find a place to do aquabike, in order to get in shape to climb the Mont Blanc this summer!). You said the words I needed to hear, because my own little voice doesn’t speak loud enough. You’re my loud voice. You’re right. I’m off the computer! Now!

  5. Gallivanta says:

    I hope you are involved in staff productivity mentoring! Your 12 steps are great. As for me, I am hopelessly unproductive, and take each day at sloth pace, most of the time. Like Dannie, I try to go with the flow, otherwise I end up wasting my energy on irritation, which is very unproductive.

  6. Zen A. says:

    Those steps are great – I make it a point to stop working right when the day is over, and I love cooking my own meals. I need to pick up exercise again though because I’m definitely slacking.

    I’m usually happy with my job, but lately I had a falling out with one of my coworkers and the negative vibe in the office can feel stifling. Gotta deal with that I guess (with chocolate, of course!).

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Good for you, Zen doll! I shut it down at the end of my workday as well. Even though my work laptop is so much nicer than my personal one, I prefer to use my old guy because it doesn’t remind me of work. I’m also not tempted to check my work email.

      Sorry to hear that! I’m all about the chocolate, and the exercise to counteract the chocolate. 🙂

  7. Letizia says:

    I loved the video about productivity you tweeted a while back and this follow up post is just great. I love all of your tips. I also find having little “rewards” can help as well when having to complete a difficult assignment (ie. I tell myself “as soon as I finish this, I will play with my dog for ten minutes”).

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      We already discussed this on Twitter, but yay for rewards! I knew I was forgetting something in this piece. It was already pretty long though. 🙂

      I just have to be careful with the dessert rewards. I went through an editing phase that got out of control. Can’t remember which book, but I managed to stay in the same jeans size somehow.

  8. Sheila says:

    Good timing with this post because I’ve been insane lately (but I guess I’m always insane). 🙂 I’ll have to put those tips into action. I’ve mostly been trying to remember to breathe during the day job – sort of like office yoga. That’s great that you’re out enjoying those waterfalls!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      It’s all too easy to get stressed out in the spring. We’re releasing the winter blues, ready to embrace summer, but there are a lot of physical and emotional transitions that have to happen. I always feel chaotic this time of year…never fails.

      We’ll go see some waterfalls when you come to visit! xo

  9. Jilanne Hoffmann says:

    My favorite line: “And dream, dammit.” Aye aye, captain. Seriously, I’ve been trying to be more productive. I’m getting better at that. Still hard for me, but I’m trying. Thank you for the pep talk!

  10. Minuscule Moments says:

    Great post Britt i think if we are aware of the balance and try to achieve it we are half way there at least. Being kind to yourself is hard sometimes. But I try and i try to slow it all down when it gets too much. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Totally agree, honey! We are very hard on ourselves, so it’s all too easy to get caught up in that “must work” or “must be accomplishing” mental cycle. Slowing down is always a good thing.

  11. Karin Van den Bergh says:

    Great post Britt and totally agree with you! It’s funny cause this past winter when I found myself a bit in a rut -which was inevitably slowing me down anyway – it forced me to observe and notice how people actually get some sort of pride and acknowledgement out of busyness or preoccupation without necessarily accomplishing anything meaningful. Sure, there are days I don’t feel productive a t a l l and then I usually beat myself up for that (hmm) but being busy just for being busy, not when it’s work related. I do feel the days are always too short though. Always so many wonderful, fascinating and interesting things that tickle my curious mind. So, maybe yes when it comes to incorporating mini-pockets of rest and mindfulness throughout the day I definitely still got a lot to learn. Thanks lovely for the reminder love. (especially nowadays with my new business taking off – busy yes, but so happy 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I hear ya, doll! Many people fall into the busy trap. But when we’re busy all the time, we’re missing out on the simple pleasures we should be enjoying. I do it too, so I need the mental reminders constantly.

      Haha, I agree with you on the short days. I would love to have more time to look around. But hey, we do what we can.

      So excited for your business…woot! 🙂

  12. Roy McCarthy says:

    Yes indeed Britt. First industrialisation, mechanisation and later computers have fed the new urge to be rushing ahead, achieving more, producing quicker. Long gone are the days when one could carry out a solid day’s work and everyone was happy. I blame the American Dream and the scramble to the top, doing everyone else down in the process 🙂

    Interestingly – and slightly off the point you’re making – I read that the life of emails is under attack as the new modern curse. Places are having No Internal E-mail Fridays, deleting incoming emails to an employee on leave (with a message of course), generally inviting people to reconnect in a better way.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I totally agree with you, Roy! There has been so much rushing throughout our modern history, and now, everything just baffles me. It truly does. I find myself not trying so hard to keep up with it. I’ve scaled back my social quite a bit. Of course, I do it for work now and that makes me not want to look at it in my free time.

      We had some “no email” days back at the non-profit I was at some years ago. I should bring that to our company. We’re just as small, but the daily emails are absurd!

  13. jmmcdowell says:

    Thank you for spreading the word that busyness and productivity are not synonyms! My first part-time job in high school was at a small local store that sold just about everything (where no one in my part of the country had ever heard of “WalMart” or knew the behemoth it would become). But even then, clerks had to look busy when we weren’t helping customers. There’s a longer history of thinking that we should always be busy than we might think. After all, just how old is the old-saying “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”?

    But healthy productivity is a much better path for all of us, and healthiness includes downtime!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      It drives me crazy when people won’t stop, look around, and notice the dang difference! There is a ginormous difference.

      True, there is a long history with busyness. It goes way back, so it’s challenging to change our mindset. Healthiness absolutely includes downtime, and that’s different for every person, but it’s crucial to our sanity.

  14. Andrea Stephenson says:

    Great advice Britt. I’ve become pretty good at balance in my day job in many ways, but I can see that lack of balance in colleagues, which means I sometimes feel a little guilty slipping out the door when others are still working – but that’s their choice and it’s not one I want to make at this point in my life.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Yeah, it’s tough at work. Most of the time we feel that we have to work our asses off, staying later or even working on weekends, when really the human brain is only productive so many hours each day. I think it’s pretty low…like 4-5 or something.

      So the 40-hour work week isn’t really productive at all. Hopefully one day this will change. Until then, we just have to take care of ourselves.

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