The existence of a world of productivity, the books, the articles, the talking heads (including myself), all point to an unspoken assumption that productivity is always a good thing. 1 While there is utility to learning how to focus, how to decide where and how to do work, and even learning how to get to the things you enjoy, perhaps there is a dark side to it as well.

When I first encountered Getting Things Done, I began to marry it to OmniOutliner’s kGTD (the OmniFocus precursor). The promises of deep focus and a way to organize work were quite appealing. I like to think I got pretty good at it. Writing the first edition of Creating Flow with OmniFocus in the process helped develop an identity for myself as a productive person.

However, at some point afterward, I noticed how I was continually focusing on how to improve things. Sometimes, I would probably do so to the detriment of actually doing the things that I wanted.

Writers often write about themselves. In retrospect, I believe much of my next book, Workflow Mastery, was about: How do I decide when to focus on I want to do and when to work on the system itself? What does efficiency even mean?

I separated the work into primary and secondary intentions. The term primary intention refers to a thing that I want to do. The secondary intentions such as organizing, writing tasks, and the like refers to what I might do to support doing what I want to do. For example, reading a sci-fi book could be a primary intention. Organizing for the time, writing tasks, setting the environment, and the like to get there are secondary intentions.

But working on the secondary intentions, trying to be “efficient”, could take a tremendous amount of time. It is fascinating how a focus on efficiency could take me away from actually enjoying being with the things I wanted to do. Was there a too efficient? The continual, perhaps obsessive, nature of doing better had me getting lost. Meanwhile, efficiency certainly has its place.

How these intentions related to each other became a central focus. In writing Workflow Mastery, I was writing my way out of my quagmire. I had a roadmap to develop my focus, but I needed the practice.

After periods of experiment, sometimes taking things to an extreme (what is the most efficient way to make coffee in the morning?), I began to relax. Not everything needs to be optimized. For example, I don’t have all of my bills automated. I’d prefer to feel the payments. I do a lot of task work with pen and paper, though much is in OmniFocus, too.

Eventually, I developed Being Productive (originally Zen & the Art of Work). There is a reason that the first lesson is that of making a decision. It’s the most important part in all of this talk of efficiency and the like. The individual’s ability to decide what to do in the moment is paramount.

Better said, the practice of work is not just to be with work. It becomes more about being.

One does not have to be efficient. Efficiency (aka “productivity”) is a decision much as any other. Efficiency is in service of developing a meaningful life, however we define that.

Perhaps this is a simple concept that I should have realized a long time ago. Or maybe, I already knew that in the beginning. But losing one’s way and returning is not an uncommon story.

  1. Many work environments even measure their employees in “productivity units”, whatever those are. I feel a revulsion even as I type those words—a dehumanizing process in the name of … what?