What If I’ve Got This Productivity Thing All Wrong?
A story of how we’ve muddied the waters and how a heartfelt letter of resignation reminded me of an important little idea I’ve been overlooking
Whatever your thing is, whatever passion you have, it has an origin. It’s that place where for you at least, it all started. For me, since my thing is personal productivity, that origin was a site called 43 folders.
In its heyday, it was a place to find everything from wonky tips on how to use apps better to deep and insightful essays about the nature of work and life. But in 2011, that all came to a halt — at least as far as the website was concerned.
In April 2011, Mann posted what would prove to be his ultimate post. Entitled “Cranking”, it was a long, emotionally charged essay that read like a combination between a personal history and a break up letter with the editor of the book he was supposed to have been writing for the preceding two years.
It’s a long, winding, heartfelt post. It begins with a vivid memory of the hospital bed that Mann’s father was confined to shortly before his death, when Merlin was still a child. The only way to adjust the top half of the bed up or down was to use an old crank. Thus the title of the post.
Merlin reflects on his journey writing about what he thought was personal productivity, only to find that in many ways, he was just turning a crank — no longer sure if it was actually attached to anything. By the end of the post — after which most readers’ eyes are likely holding back a few tears — Mann admits that the book the internet had been waiting for him to write would not see the light of day. If a book did come out, it would be completely different than what everyone (including his editor) had anticipated. And while at one time, he may have felt like a failure — a supposed productivity guru who couldn’t write a book on productivity — his conclusion was that he was making the right choice.
It’s funny the things we read at certain times in our lives.
It was the right time for me to reread this article. Lately, I’ve been really into the weeds on my own productivity journey. I’m buried in projects, tasks, and long sessions of work. And I’m chugging along, and getting it done. But am I being productive.
So something about this essay — along with various other Merlin rants and raves throughout the years caught me. It’s something about productivity that we forget about as we bury ourselves in systems, apps, tasks and projects.
The key is to not forget who you are.
Know Who You Are
Productivity is what, in my days in academic philosophy I’d call a teleological concept. That means it only has meaning so far as it has a purpose — meaning it is attached to a goal. No one is just productive — full stop. A person is productive with regards to a certain goal. This goal is largely a product of, or may actually define who you are.
So…who are you?
The answer will usually be some combination of your desired profession and your most important personal relationships. I am a salesman, productivity writer, husband, and father. So, I am productive if I do the things that I set out for myself in those realms.
If I serve my customers and get them to want to do more business with my company. If I write about and create things that help people become more productive in their lives. If I support, empower, and encourage my wife, and do the same for my children. If I do those things, I’m productive. And if I keep those things in mind
I am NOT productive when I forget that I am those 4 things. This still happens. I procrastinate. I get distracted. I find myself on all sorts of internet odysseys in which I am learning all sorts of facts that it was not my goal to learn, and in which I have no interest. Then I lose track of where I was when I was on task (if I was on task at all), and I am not productive. And in those moments, I have forgotten who I am. I’ve hidden away in a masquerade ball — disguised as someone else for a spell.
This is not to say that you always have to be doing work that contributes to your life’s work. Well……actually, let me rephrase that. You will probably find that as you start working more — and here I mean that “heads down”, super focused kind of work — you will find that taking breaks and having fun and free time is actually a vital part of your work. But this isn’t something that can be broken down into a formula, system, or series of tips. Only you know when you’re being you, and when you’ve forgotten who you are.
It may sound a bit touchy-feely, but it really comes down to how you feel. If, when you really reflect, you feel productive — you probably are. It’s simple. But as I believe I’ve said before, simple does not mean easy.