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Better than Busy: The True Benefits of Productivity

Productivity benefits us through more than a checked-off to-do list. The meaningful actions we pursue often satisfy something deeper within ourselves.
by Joshua H. Phelps | Aug 19 2020

When you’ve reached the end of your day, you might feel a certain elation alongside your tiredness. Or, in some cases, you feel you could keep working through the night. Other times, you just feel drained, wondering where the time went.

That kind of satisfaction is often one of the benefits of productivity. Those activities or projects we’ve worked on speak to a passion or need that lies deeper within us. Or maybe there was a task we’d put off for months, and we finally took it on then crossed it off the to-do list.

It could be saying hi to someone you’ve been meaning to reach out to for a while, cleaning up your living space, tending to the garden, or working on an artistic hobby. The Blinkist library’s productivity section offers multiple perspectives on the topic and can help when there are those tasks you know need to be done, but feel daunting.

Once they’re done though, there’s a real sense of achievement.

Of course, there are still the day-to-day items that must be done, and that is why time management is important. It is easy to become caught up in busy work. And there always seems to be more of it to do. We spin our wheels without feeling like we’re going anywhere. And that is when we start to burn out.

Productivity’s benefits come in many forms. Checking off an item from your list is just one.

Productivity as Self-Perpetuating

We like to have tangible things we can point to when we talk about being productive. There is something new or changed we can show someone. Yet questions and remarks from others about our productivity rarely touch upon how we feel about what we’ve done.

However, this underplays the importance of that sense of accomplishment and meaning. Without it, productivity would just be busyness. That deeper emotional satisfaction propels us forward.

And that feeling can spark a chain reaction. Productivity injects us with a boost that we can apply to other tasks. Meeting a goal in one area provides the confidence to take on challenges elsewhere. Plus, this doesn’t only apply for large-scale goals.

Sometimes we hesitate beginning a project because of how big it appears to be. No matter how hard you work at it, there’s hardly a feeling of progress. By breaking it down into smaller goals, you can leverage the benefits of productivity.

Stephen Guise’s book Mini Habits explores this concept further. Completing each step forward you have set for yourself lights up the reward center in your brain. Even if you’ve completed something that doesn’t seem particularly fulfilling on its own, you’ll see how it fits into your greater goal.

Think of it like a long-distance run. The idea of traversing all those miles can put you out, especially when you’ve just begun. Your muscles might feel uncooperative for whatever reason. The end goal still stands far off. But, you can string together features along the route. Make it to the next bench or stop sign or whatever’s around. Eventually you start to find you’re jogging without needing that self-encouragement. The flow simply carries you.

Improved Output

The personal nature of what we want to work on can also hinder us from pursuing it in the first place. We worry what we might do or might make won’t match what we envision. A whole host of anxious and depressive attitudes stand in the way of striving towards our goals. One’s own mind can be a safe place for an idea, but it can also be a cage.

Fortunately, one of the benefits of productivity is in providing the momentum to push through these mental walls. Earlier successes help build self-confidence and courage. When we see we can come out on top of a challenge, we’re more likely to take on new ones. We know we can take what we’ve learned and apply it down the road.

When you’re working on a project, new ideas begin to pop in. You recognize connections that open up possibilities for experimentation. Your mind continues to work over problems even after you’ve stopped thinking about them. And eureka moments occur unexpectedly. You realize which aspects are important and which can be downplayed or set aside. These kinds of things might happen on their own. Engaging with the material speeds up the process.

Finding a group of trusted peers can aid this further.

This is why devoting time for thought is such a key part of productivity. It clarifies the overall vision behind your goals. Certainly, one can easily overthink a decision or imagine how well something might turn out instead of acting towards it. At the same time, allowing your mind some free space to wander may just be what yields the solution to a problem that’s been a thorn in your side.

It might seem like a contradiction, but these kinds of challenges contribute to a sense of playfulness or joy in their pursuit. There’s a fine line though. We want enough of a challenge that we can stretch our abilities. But we often fear making mistakes when we tread into unknown territory. Finding a group of trusted peers helps here too. And an anecdote from jazz musician Herbie Hancock can offer some perspective.

Early in his career, Hancock played in the band of renowned jazz trumpeter Miles Davis. During a European tour, they were playing a live set when Hancock landed on the wrong chord. He thought he had ruined the song. In a moment, though, Davis played a few notes that took what had felt like the wrong chord and made it right for what they were playing.

When we’re productive, there’s always a chance to make it right.

Productivity as Self-Engagement

We like to think of productivity as a straight shot ever upward. But the process is messy. Exploration new ideas and trimming away old ones can leave the mind feeling cluttered. There are periods when you’re moving forward. Sometimes you feel stuck. And you might even feel you’re sliding backwards. You’ll wrestle with less-than-pleasant emotions in matches that leave you wondering if the fight is worth it in the end.

As Todd Kashdan’s and Robert Biswas-Diener’s book The Upside of Your Dark Side argues, those unpleasant aspects of ourselves can be beneficial in the long run. They allow us greater insight into our personality. And they point us towards more meaningful and productive pursuits. And this is perhaps why productivity benefits our sense of self in a way busyness does not. It aims beyond what our ego wants.

When people work on projects at that level, they’ll talk about pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into it—maybe literally, depending on what’s involved. They’ll also add they wouldn’t trade it for anything else. You have likely felt it yourself, along with the satisfaction once you’ve placed the finishing touches.

Productivity appeals to more than its tangible results. The feelings of joy and accomplishment frequently extend into other tasks and aspects of our lives. Hindrances to our productivity send us sliding on a downward spiral. But the momentum established by engaged, meaningful action ofte. We might pump out more when we are busy, but that does not always lead to a feeling of achievement.

And when we are productive, we tend to find that the things we had been afraid to pursue were not as difficult as we first imagined. We might even be able to make them, and ourselves, better than we had originally envisioned.

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