Reason Why Productivity: A Simple Guide to Getting Things Done, Lasting Happiness and Saving the World

The bad news first: Of course we don’t save the world when all we do is filing boring papers, sitting in senseless meetings, and doing the busywork other people throw at us. Of course we aren’t all too happy doing that neither. As for productivity – let’s not even talk about it! In the end, what’s productive about killing time doing things that don’t really matter?

The short and sweet diagnosis of what’s wrong with our working world: Senseless busywork done without any good reason. And if we take a serious look at the typical tasks of today’s average office employee, there are more good reasons to procrastinate than to actually get anything done.

I believe this has to change.

Reason-Why ProductivityAnd this is where the good news jump onto the stage, laughing, joking, confetti-throwing and all: I am convinced that this is totally possible, and it is possible here and now!

Yes, we can work less and still be way more productive than before. By doing so, we will be happier than ever. And at the same time, we can make this world a little bit better each day instead of a great deal worse – by making other people happy as well!

This is no hippie dream. It’s what I call a win-win-win situation. Or maybe, inspired by Leo Babauta, Win to Done. Or simply: Reason-Why productivity.

Reason-Why Productivity: The Happiness Approach to Getting Things Done

There are two big secrets to lasting happiness, and they are both tightly related to the way we work and to our approach to productivity:

  1. To be happy, we have to do things.
  2. To be happy, we have to help others.

Doing things makes people happy. Beware of blindfolded productivity evangelists, though: Doing anything just to keep us occupied will do more damage than good. Acting blindly on unimportant or even damaging tasks leads to burnout, warfare and discontent. The real solution lies in Reason-Why productivity.

No more eerie meetings. No more water-cooler talk with people you despise. No more zombie apocalypse in your office building. Reason-Why productivity is the easy1 way to actually get things done and become a happy person on the way.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of “reasons why:” Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivation refers to motivation that comes from outside us, i.e. things like money, fame, etc. It’s basically working for rewards, and extrinsic motivation of different kinds is what keeps us in our boring jobs.

As so often, the old Greeks already knew that these motivations weren’t enough! As early as 330 BC, Aristotle noticed that whenever we pursued an external good, we did so with the desire to achieve something else. What could it be, that ultimate goal, that “highest good” that the philosopher describes in the Nichomachean Ethics? Enter Aristotle:

Now such a thing happiness (eudaimonia), above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for self and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.

Ultimately, we do things to be happy, to flourish as a human being. If we are happy doing whatever it is that we are doing, it allows us to really burn during our work, to do it effortlessly and with a big fat smile on our face.2 We will be better when doing it, and we will get results way easier than before.

There are different forms or expressions this can take in practice – curiosity, autonomy, play, flow – but in the end, it’s always about happiness. This is what we want to pursue: Tasks that fulfill us as we do them, not just when we receive a paycheck!

The Strange Case for Egoistic Altruism

We have seen that pursuing happiness can take many forms. One particularly beautiful approach is doing good things to other people. Interestingly, there’s both an egoistic and an altruistic component to it, so this is really a no-brainer, no matter how self-obsessed or how philanthropic we are. The latter component is self-explaining: If we do good things to others, they will feel better than before. Happiness will spread among the planet, and this is pretty amazing on its own.

The egoistic component, in contrast, is counterintuitive: It is based on the simple matter of fact that serving others will make us happy. Doing something good to another person triggers the same response in the reward centre of our brain as does eating chocolate!3 In England, Richard Layard launched a huge movement a couple of weeks ago based on this fact, and it has been proven again and again in scientific studies and philosophical inquiries on the topic: Do good things to others and you will be happy.4

This is Reason-Why productivity: Do something because it matters, do something because it makes you happy, and do something in order to make others happy as well. Simple. If, in contrast, you don’t have any good reason for whatever you are doing, you better change your job as soon as you can. Seriously.5

Burn Your To Do List!

The single most useless, dangerous and soul-destroying item for any creative person is a daily planner. Honestly, there are few things that have hindered us so much from getting our creative work done in a happy manner as these annoying bastards.6

Just look at any typical daily planner like the ones popular in many offices: We are provided with plenty of white space to fill the hours between 7 in the morning and 10 at night, and in consequence we tend to think that during these 15 hours it should be possible to change the world.

We get excited as we plan our day – but at night, when we lay down to sleep, nothing has worked out as foreseen: The novel wasn’t advanced (7-9am), the email inbox isn’t down to zero (9-10am), we didn’t go with the kids to the park (4-6pm) or with our buddies to have a few drinks (8-10pm), nor did we cook our own dinner (6-8pm) or found the time to read Proust (10pm+). The only thing we managed to do was getting to the office, but even there our work was mediocre at best. 15 hours slipped, and we don’t know what happened.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution for these problems: Burn your planners! Trash your to-do lists! Bury your productivity anxieties! And instead, become your own energy manager! As you do this, you allow yourself to go with the flow and stay happy with whatever task it is you are currently working on.

Energy Management 101

Time management simply doesn’t work for most of us. As it turns out, creative persons are thriving on a maker’s schedule rather than a manager’s schedule: The manager is used to working in clearly allotted time-slots – the maker isn’t. Now, the creative can ignore this fact, because managers are the cool shit and all, and force herself into adapting to the manager’s schedule. The end result, though, will most likely be tears and anger and no important work done whatsoever.

Alternatively, she could start to manage her energy rather than her time! Fortunately, managing our energy is simple and especially useful and enjoyable for creative workers. Here’s a quick how-to:

1. Identify how your energy flows during the day.
Are you a lark or a night owl? What food gives you energy, what food makes you feel tired? How about exercise, movement, fresh air? Also, consider your environment: Do you prefer heat or coolness, being alone or with people, silence or music or street noise, and do some of these work better for some tasks than others?

2. Experiment with sleep cycles.
Are six hours really enough for you? Try sleeping seven, eight, nine hours. Or, if you already sleep a lot, try reducing it a bit. Sometimes, oversleeping might suck your energies. During the day, then, take that nap. I am currently experimenting with biphasic sleep, i.e. sleeping one or two hours in the afternoon and only six hours at night. It feels wonderful so far, more on that soon on TFA!

3. Organize your tasks according to their energy requirements instead of simply filling a daily planner based on unrealistic fantasies of super-productivity.
Some categories you might want to consider:

  • Thinking and intellectual tasks
  • Creative and manual tasks
  • Household chores
  • Errands
  • Emotional tasks (Discussions, etc.)
  • Active leisure (Take a walk, cook with friends, sports, etc.)
  • Passive leisure (Watch a movie, sit in a café, etc.)
  • Sleep

4. Pause and switch between tasks regularly.
One common mistake is to reserve our high-energy hours for exclusively one single task that we deem to be important. While this is a nice idea that can work at times, our body often will not be able to pull through with it – even during the four hours reserved for writing that novel, even during the six hours reserved for coding that web site.

Consequently, be sustainably creative, as my online friend Michael Nobbs recommends! Plan to rest from time to time, and also switch from intellectual to physical to creative tasks in order to keep the momentum going without getting drained of all your energies.

5. Don’t freak out!
Plan your day according to these categories, but don’t freak out about building a perfectly synchronized list. Just go with the schedule. Find out what works for you, follow that grand scheme, but be ready and willing to adapt as you go through your day!

Save the World by Working Less

I already hear you protesting: “WTF, at first you advise me to do things in order to be happy – and now you’re pretty much saying the opposite?” Yeah, but not quite: The thing is, you shouldn’t entirely focus on your serious work! If you do that, you’ll probably find that it makes you neither happy nor productive – no matter how intelligently you handle your energy flows.

As I have written before, creative work is more about consistently staying on track than about drudging away 12 or 14 hours a day. Throughout history, many great writers and artists were actually “working” a mere three or four hours a day, and this seems to be a natural period of working time for many creative souls.

Consequently, work less – but do more! Here’s how:

1. Take advantage of Parkinson’s Law.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Try to reduce the amount of time you have for any thing you are working on. You will finish faster than ever!7

2. Overcome your perfectionism!
Accept that when it’s done, it’s done – even if it isn’t perfect. Just take the time to compare a Big Mac with an ad for a Big Mac. Do you notice something? Okay, don’t lower the quality of your output as much as Mc Donald’s does, but accept that your creative “Big Mac” will look different in reality than in your perfectionist dreams. Yes, that’s fucking hard to accept if you’re a perfectionist! I know it from personal experience. The trick is this: You don’t have to overcome your perfectionism in a perfect way! 8 Just start by being a little less perfectionistic, and then continually improve!

“Okay, so the work is reduced – and now what? I’m seeing myself again sitting bored in front of my TV or reading every of the 2.000 new tweets that were posted since an hour ago!” This is where my last point enters:

3. Do more, not less – but have your reason why!
The trick to staying happy is to still do things – but not necessarily work-related stuff!

It is here where you can save the world: Become a volunteer at an organization in your neighborhood. Teach young people some of the things you know and care about, or learn from the elderly and at the same time entertain them a little with your presence. Clean a park. Plant some trees, or plant some food. Give a concert at your favorite pub, even if there’s just the barkeeper listening. If we want local culture, the best thing is to create it on our own! Walk with flowers, give free hugs, organize a techno/country/metal party under a bridge. Assume the task of inventing a delicious veggie barbecue and invite 10 of your best friends and 10 total strangers from the street to take part in it.

Do you notice something? This is not about work. It’s not about busy-ness. It’s about doing things that are fun and fulfilling – and about doing good things to others. It’s doing things that are intrinsically fulfilling, both in your work and in your free time. It’s a simple guide to productivity, lasting happiness and, ultimately, saving the world. Go try it!

If you liked this post and want to help me out a little, please retweet it or share it with a friend! I’d appreciate it! :)

  1. …and probably the only! []
  2. Just as I am writing this post. []
  3. And it doesn’t make you fat! []
  4. For example, check this study on giving money to others opposed to spending it alone or The How of Happiness by research psychologist and University of California professor of psychology Sonja Lyubomirsky. []
  5. Even if it sounds hard. []
  6. Oh yes, I am totally polarizing here for your entertainment purposes. Why do you ask? []
  7. It sounds weird, I know! But it really works – just give it a try! []
  8. It’s totally okay to be imperfectly imperfect! []

Comments 9

  1. Ali Dark May 18, 2011

    Hi Fabian

    This is great. I can see you helping offices and progressive companies sort their stuff out.

  2. Betsey May 18, 2011

    Hey Fabian,

    Really enjoyed this post, as well as your other writing. I think it’s really important to trust your intuition, as well – what do you really FEEL like doing at any given moment? Over time, things will sort themselves out. When I get too stressed out, I like to remember that Truman Capote described himself as “a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis.”

    Also, point well taken about perfectionism. I just wrote about this today, as part of a post about how handle juggling lots of exciting projects all at the same time (my biggest tip is to avoid getting into that situation!)

    • Fabian May 19, 2011

      Love that Truman Capote quote, Betsey! Thanks for sharing. :)
      As for perfectionism, it’s certainly a challenge for many of us. Enjoyed a lot reading your post on managing multiple projects. I think it can work our to switch between projects during the day or week – but again, it really depends on the necessary energy involved…

  3. Maaike Quinn May 19, 2011

    Hell yeah! Thanks, Fabian :). (Now I could say a lot more applauding things about this post, but you convinced me it’s better to DO something, so goodbye for now!)

    • Fabian May 19, 2011

      That’s the spirit, Maaike! Thanks for dropping by! :)

  4. Luana May 19, 2011

    Hi Fabian,
    As an obsessive list writer and foolish perfectionist I have to say I agree with you. Earlier this year I chucked, not without difficulty, my beautiful pink (yes, pink!) planner. I now use post-its: if it don’t fit, don’t do it! That’s been working for me.
    As for reducing the amount of time to work on things, could this be the reason why I study and work better closer to deadlines? I have never been able to study for a final exam months in advance. It just doesn’t happen! I feel I am much more efficient when I have less time to get things done.

    • Fabian May 19, 2011

      I like your post-it idea, Luana. Reducing to-dos by reducing the physical space where to jot them down seems like a wonderful approach. You could probably even get pink post-its in order to keep the atmosphere! ;)
      As for deadlines, I think they work for many of us. The trick then is to find a way to establish deadlines on our own, even when there isn’t any external pressure. For me, it works well to invite friends over to my house in the afternoon – I then know I have to get my stuff done in the morning, and it generally works!

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