Productivity as Empowerment

(No time to read? I’d like to create a free product on how to get work done while traveling the world. If that sounds like an interesting offer to you, please scroll down or sign up here!)

After three months of exploring cities and forests, towns and villages, lakes and rivers in the interior of Germany, I knew I had to see the ocean.

The original plan had been to pack my bags in Cologne and travel South, visiting some other places in the midland before heading to the French Cévennes mountains.

But then, I somehow found myself day after day staring at the Rhine river, wistfully following the stream with my eyes: From Cologne, the water would pass Düsseldorf and Duisburg, reach the Netherlands, and then split up into several rivers before opening out into the North Sea.

As tempting as the Cévennes were, I knew I didn’t want to see the mountains.

I desperately wanted to see the sea.

[¶]

Standing there looking at the river, I felt this well-known urge to move.

This urge to abandon all previous plans.

There were hordes of skaters practicing behind me, and the sun was shining into my face. For a moment, I thought about how lucky I was; even there, far from the sea: Having the ability to just stand there and enjoy the weather on a Monday afternoon, instead of sitting in a cubicle. I thought about how all this had started.

In 2009, I had graduated from college, investigating the creation myths of an indigenous tribe in Northern Colombia. When I decided to go on a long journey before considering my options in the working world, I didn’t know where all that would lead me.

I spent a couple of months exploring the Orinoco river and the Great Plains in Venezuela, followed by the jungle city Manaus and the Amazon in Brazil, traveling upstream back to Colombia.

As I sat in scuffed bus seats and slept on the concrete floors of transportation terminals, as I lay in squeaky hostel beds and in my marvelous green hammock, I noticed how much I enjoyed this kind of life.

But what would I do after this trip came to an end?
And how the heck could work fit into it?

To be sure, I knew pretty well what I did not want:

  • Boredom
  • Busywork
  • Burnout
  • Bearish bosses

This left me with little chances. All I could tell was that I wanted to do things my way, like in the good old DIY fashion: Do-It-Yourself – with the small difference that I didn’t just want to build a cupboard but configure my whole life accordingly.

Somehow, though, I didn’t really trust myself I’d be able to do that.

In the end, we all need money… so we all need a secure source of income… so we all better apply for jobs… or, do we?

After I got to the next bigger city, I spent a lot of time reading well-written philosophical vindications of idleness. In some sense, becoming an idler would be the logical first step to revolt against a world of aimless and blindfolded busy-ness.

As I got deeper into the matter, I wondered why these ideas weren’t more popular. I thought that other people might benefit from them, so I decided to create a blog where I could share what I learned with others.

The Friendly Anarchist was born.

[¶]

Unfortunately, the money issue slowly was transforming into an ever-growing elephant in the room. I had some 3000 dollars of savings to my name, but this wasn’t exactly the amount necessary to retire at 27.

It was around that time when I started to revisit some productivity blogs and books that I had stumbled upon earlier.

Even though most approaches to productivity still seemed like a riddle, there was one thing that got increasingly clear to me: Productivity isn’t just a stupid office metric. A real and from-the-heart approach to productivity is pure empowerment for creative people working on their own!

The idea behind this was obvious, but it’s only rarely expressed:

If we know how to be productive, we will not only be more relaxed during our days of idleness. We will also be able to make money whenever it’s necessary. We will live in an atmosphere of trust to ourselves – and if we manage to do that, we’re pretty much off the hook!

Of course, it wasn’t all that clear right from the start.

The problem with many systems to “get things done” is that they, indeed, are nothing but the kind of “stupid office metric” I wasn’t really interested in. Whenever I looked at those approaches, all I could think of was protective sleeves and dusty filing cabinets.

Not my cup of tea, to be honest.

Then, there were alternative approaches, like Leo Babauta’s Zen To Done. This was looking much more likable. But it still wasn’t a great fit: Leo advocates complete focus on one single project… How could that possibly work for someone as ADHD as me, who also happens to have at least a dozen things going on at any single moment, accompanied by another dozen projects that anxiously wait for kick-off? What’s more, Zen To Done relies so much on routines and stability, it didn’t really seem to fit in with my desired life of permanent travel: If I wanted all those routines, I’d probably settle down already…

I still learned many things from Leo and others.

I understood that, if I wanted to lead a life that enables me to move freely, work freely, and idle freely, I would have to learn to be productive anywhere – without too many rules and routines to restrain me, without bosses cracking their whip.

I decided to give it a shot.

During the next two years, a couple of interesting incidents occurred:

  • I traveled and lived in Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, Germany, Austria, Britain, Belgium, Denmark and Switzerland.
  • I wrote more than a hundred articles for TFA, and grew the site to almost 3000 regular monthly visitors.
  • I slept at dozens of hotels, hostels, apartments, beach hammocks, tents, and the occasional airport terminal.
  • I published my first book, Beyond Rules, that attracted more than a 1000 readers in less than two months. (Thanks for that, and thanks for all your comments!)
  • I worked locally and remotely as a writer, translator, photographer, web designer, interpreter, grading assistant, tour guide, and probably a couple of other things I forgot about.
  • I played with caimans and sloths, walked with flowers and compliments, bathed naked in the rain and the sea, drank the cheapest vodka and the finest super premium rum in the world, started documenting the extreme metal community in the Caribbean, and made a rule to never use an alarm-clock unless I have to catch a flight.

Honestly, I have no intention to stop anytime soon.

[¶]

The good thing is that, during all these incidents, I learned. I learned by doing, but I also learned from other people! I learned from other writers and bloggers, from business consultants, from teachers and professors, and I also learned from the occasional bus-driver, barkeeper and beach-bum. They all had their lessons to share, implicitly and explicitly. And they all led me to experimenting more, dabbling with new systems and approaches, new productivity tricks and life hacks.

The other good thing is that people started to care, and they started to join in. Suddenly, I got mails from kindred spirits all over the planet, and they were all up for doing some interesting things. Many of you emailed me, telling me your own stories of how you left your job and embarked on travels far beyond your antique horizons – or your intentions to do so. Many asked for some advice:

  • How could we get many different projects sorted?
  • How do you manage to get stuff done when there’s so much distraction on the road?
  • How can I balance work and travel?

As I exchanged thoughts and ideas with you, I noticed that there probably could be a more comprehensive way to share this stuff – so I decided to do that. This time, the intention wasn’t to create one single post for the blog, but a complete e-guide on how to get stuff done on the road.

The result will be called Productive Anywhere.

It’s the biggest thing I have ever done on The Friendly Anarchist.

[¶]

Productive Anywhere will be the first product I’ll put for sale here on the site, and that’s a pretty big step for me. I believe it will be both fun and useful, and I hope it will help others to become productive anywhere.

That said, I would like to create something for everybody interested in this topic, no matter if you end up buying the guide or not. TFA is an open site, and even though I enjoy to earn some money with it, I would like to keep it that way.

The other day, I was talking to my friend and mentor Jonathan. We chatted about productivity and about the guide, and I was telling him what I was up to. I was basically laying out an overview of the content, and of how a typical day looks like for me. (Hint: There ain’t no such thing as a typical day.)

Unfortunately, we didn’t record that conversation. But maybe we could repeat it. What I would like to do is an exhaustive Q&A, providing a great introduction about the challenges and opportunities of working on the road, and the underlying tricks and twists.

It would be a free overview on how to become productive anywhere, made precisely for you!

Here’s the Deal

I’m writing the e-guide, and time is a bit short. But I would love to create this Q&A for you – and give it away for free! The thing is that I wouldn’t want to feel stupid and bother Jonathan with it if nobody’s really interested.

This is why your action is needed:

I’m making a list of everyone who is potentially interested in getting this free recording. If that’s something you would like to see, please enter your email address below.

If enough people show their interest, we’ll do the Q&A and I’ll send it to you at the email address you enter below. (And if there’s a really high demand, I’ll create yet another freebie that will set you up to become productive anywhere!)

Update, September 16th: Signups are closed now!

[¶]

Let’ get back to the situation at the Rhine river, for a moment. The good thing about this story of yearning and desire to see the ocean is that it took a fortunate course:

The next morning after my river ramblings, I bought a train ticket up North. I left a few days later, visited my family for a night, and then hit the road the next morning at 6am for the last part of the trip.

At 10am, I embarked on a ferry, and less than an hour later I saluted the seals on a sandbank we passed by, on my way to a wonderful small island harbor. I was finally seeing the open sea!

[¶]

I am writing these lines as I am sitting at the beach. Heavy North wind is blowing, and a wonderful late summer sun is caressing my face. I couldn’t feel more blessed.

Generic productivity advice would send me right back to my desk, cranking at my computer.

But I prefer to be right here.1

If you ask me, productive work isn’t about sitting in an office for 8 or 10 hours straight.
Nor is it about sitting 8 or 10 hours at your computer in some stylish coffee shop.

Productive work is about identifying what’s on your mind, organizing that stuff so you get a grip on it, and then focus on doing whatever it is that needs to be accomplished – so you can go out and enjoy the beach (or whatever place you’re at!).

While I don’t know what will be tomorrow, I do know that I can trust myself, that I can trust my own productivity, here and now.

Wherever “here” is.

[¶]

Ready to become productive anywhere?
Enter your email address here to the free Productive Anywhere session! Your email adress will never be sold or shared with anybody! (And if enough people sign up, we’ll take it even further!)

Update, September 16th: Signups are closed now! Thanks!

  1. Truth be told, I am *now* transferring this text onto my laptop, sitting on my bed after a great couscous dinner! []

Comments 13

  1. Jonathan Ziemba August 30, 2011

    Wow Fabian,

    “Productive Anywhere” will resonate to all those seeking a stop to this perpetual productivity gesture machine, exuding lots of motion and very little action. All of this GTD nonsense hinders real choice. Choice that you captured so well:

    “… move freely, work freely, and idle freely … to be productive anywhere – without too many rules and routines …”

    Really looking forward to its publication.

    • Fabian August 31, 2011

      Thank you, Jonathan! It’s a small contribution, but a big step for me. GTD has its merits, but only if we apply it in a way that helps us to do things that matter rather than working off senseless to dos…!

  2. Mark August 31, 2011

    I confess: I’ve just book-marked TFA on my kindle so I can read this elegant post more mindfully.

    After living in North(western) Colombia, I try curious about the myths and legends you collected. I have a book on the stories from Quindío (the Coffee Zone), and a deep and everlasting love for Garcia Marquez.

    Here’s truly hoping you have enough momentum to break into orbit, os you can continue to through Molotov bouquets for a living. You live well; people need to know :D

    • Fabian August 31, 2011

      Hey Mark, thank you so much for your kind words! :)
      I wasn’t collecting the myths, but I tried to understand them. My thesis is about the creation myths of the Kággaba in the Sierra Nevada… stories that are very hard to gather, because they are part of the secret knowledge of the tribe. My main interest was to investigate in how far the experience that lies behind these sacred stories becomes transparent. It was a piece of work that opened many doors for me; both intellectually/spiritually and in the material world.

      Quindio is a wonderful area! And where did you live in the Northwest?

  3. Jonathan Mead August 31, 2011

    Man, I’m so excited about this. Already from what we talked about this morning I created an extra 4 hours of idle time by getting everything I wanted done before noon. Can’t wait for this to launch.

  4. Fabian August 31, 2011

    Thank you all for your comments, guys! I really appreciate them… your support is my best and constant motivation! :)

    @Jonathan: Haha, that’s great my friend! Productivity really is my secret weapon for my idleness!

  5. toluene September 7, 2011

    i’ve been following this blog for a while now and i would see myself in a position where i constantly live with two of your mentioned b-words.

    i can see the greatness in the ‘productive everywhere’ approach, however, i think this can only be applied for a small amount of persons/fields of expertise. for myself, i work in science and i rely heavily on equipment and coworkers, for the sake of being able to do my work (which i like – otherwise i wouldnt do it) and – more importantly – for simple safety issues. i would like to imagine myself carrying out experiments/measurements in a diferent environment but i have trouble to come up with a realistic scenario, then.

    the beautiful your approach to work and live in balance is, at the same time it is very closely related to “work” or productivity than actually *can* be carried out in different places. there are some jobs, though, that do rely on more things than just on books and a computer with internet access. and i would argue that these are – if not in the majority – a large portion of all jobs. for those people like me, unfortunately, i guess we have to stick with your general thoughts on a work-and-life balance if we want to continue what were doing (and like doing).

    • Fabian September 10, 2011

      Thanks for your thoughts, my friend!

      I’m well aware of the problem you describe. There are of course many jobs that cannot be done from anywhere. I certainly focus more on the knowledge workers who don’t need to carry out experiments or need complicated equipment, laboratories, et cetera.

      At the same time, it would be interesting to think some more about possible solutions for people who need work contexts environment like you do… I will keep that in mind during the next weeks.

      The main problem is probably that it will be hard to change this situation bottom-up, which is what I’m mostly advocating. As I said, I’ll need to think some more about it, but I really appreciate your input!

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