I’m the kind of person who always has a million ideas. And with all of those ideas comes a sort of obsessive excitement. I think everyone gets a kind of this excitement around New Year’s. The planning of resolutions and everything that goes with it.
I used to go to a public gym – and in early January, after everyone was back from vacations, the population would boom. We’d go from pretty busy, to ‘free lunch at McDonald’s’ busy in an instant. Each squat rack and bench press and every machine would be in use – some with line-ups, waiting to go next. But it wasn’t just how many people were in the gym, it was something else that always struck me as interesting.
A lot of people had new shoes – which were designed to increase stability and balance. New shorts that were able to stretch and move with you as you squatted, jumped, or anything else. New shirts that wicked away sweat from your soon-to-be perfect body. Everyone but me had beats by dre headphones and fitbits. And there I was, in old cut off track-pants, a raggedy t-shirt, and a smelly hoodie, looking like a poor man’s Rocky Balboa.
Give it a few weeks though, and that booming population of decked out gym goers decreased. Normally, population decline is brought about by famine or disease or war, but there was nothing like that going on in Toronto. People just got off the wagon. And, to my ( in part ), joy, by mid march, the gym would be back to normal – and I could get that squat rack whenever I needed it.
Even with all that sweet gear, most people didn’t reach their goals ( I assume ). All that swag and workout loot didn’t mean they were going to be able to stick it out and get hit the target they set out for. But they thought they would.
Because the shoes and shorts and shirts told them they could.
The advertisements had shots of jacked dudes and lean girls, sweating gatorade and throwing tractors. And subtly, the ads told them that if you had those shoes you could run like Usain Bolt. That if you had those shorts, your legs would be as strong as David Beckam’s. That if you had that fitted shirt, you’d eventually have biceps that would make Arnold jealous.
Now, I’m not against good stuff, I’ve got a few things that I spent decent money on. But I do think that there are a handful of things that keep us from being productive. I’ve fallen for them before, and I probably will again. And as I’ve tried to learn about what it means to be productive, I’ve come up with these three things as a basis for it :
- Diverting Tools
- Pragmatic Ambition
- Elbow Grease
Just this past week I attended a Webinar on writing. More specifically, The Busy Person’s Guide to Writing a Book: 12 Easy Steps to Completing Your Book Twice as Fast With Half the Effort. I didn’t like it.
Here’s why :
The guy shared maybe two things of value – the rest of the hour was focused on general overviews of tools. And as I sat there, drinking my coffee, getting bothered by the seven minutes of formatting tricks, I had a mini epiphany.
Sometimes tools divert us from what we really want to do.
It is really easy and feels really good to get a lot of little things done. Download this app, get this program, list out your next five steps. It feels great. There’s that satisfaction that we’re so many steps closer to the goal. And we can envision it. Just like the gym clothes above. You go and get all the gear, you get the workout plan, you put on all the clothes and take a sweet picture and post it on instagram. You get a bunch of likes. Man, success tastes sweet. And then you go to the gym. And it is hard work. It sucks having to squat and shoulder press and run. It sucks even more being sore the next day. And, most sucky of all, is eating broccoli and chicken breasts.
So, in time you quit.
I think being productive is A LOT like that. It’s getting the right stuff, but not doing much with it.
For me it looks like this :
I love to write. Every time I decide to write a new book, start a new blog, come up with an idea for a board game or comic book, I want to get a new journal and new pens. And sometimes I go and spend the $30 for a Moleskine and some fancy writing utensil. And the journal ends up half full and the pen half empty.
Tools, while beneficial, are sometimes tricky and get in the way of being productive. Tools give us this little jolt of completion, this internal sense of accomplishing a lot without actually doing anything. I’ve got my journal and pen, nothing can stand in my way. Except for 50,000 original words.
So. The first way to be productive is be cautious about the tools you’re using. It’s to realize that just having the tools does not ensure success. In fact, a lot of times, the tools keep us from really getting things done.
When I was a kid we would go to Chinese food buffets every once and a while.
And buffets, for me at least, were a sort of crucible. A way to test myself – to see how much I could consume, to enjoy it all. Plates of sweet and sour chicken balls, fried rice, everything. And then bowls of ice cream.
But I never ate everything I wanted too – and I always felt sick. I’d stuff my nine year old body into the van, buckle up my seat belt, and pass out with MSG on my breath.
I had ambition – I had the hutzpah! to get it done, it just wasn’t realistic or pragmatic. It was more than I could handle.
When we set out to do something, like start a business or blog or get the best body, there’s often a biting more off than we can chew. And people market to that. Get six-pack abs in three weeks. NOPE. There’s this feeling like when we start we need to go from novices to masters in a few days. That we need to build huge followings or hit massive sales targets or deadlift an elephant – and that you’ve got to do it in a week. There’s pressure to try to start out doing everything the experts are already doing. Pressure to eat the whole buffet.
That’ll kill you.
We need to take all our ambition and make it pragmatic. To take our energy and hutzpah and put make it reasonable and realistic. To recognize that success isn’t really attained buffet style – you’ve got to go after it for the long haul.
My wife is an amazing example of this. She’s started an art business ( check it out here ) and had bucket loads of ideas and plans. And on top of that, she’s got her MBA, so she knows she can get it all done. Add a few weeks, and she quickly realized that she couldn’t do it all. We’d sit and chat in the mornings over a coffee, or in the evenings over some wine, and she’d talk about how behind she felt. About how much there is to do. etc etc etc.
Then she learned that it’s really more about doing a few things really well. Taking her time and taking the small, realistic steps. To take all the ambition and make it realistic.
Our productivity gets killed by trying to do too much. You’re just one person. And you can only output what one person can output. If your goal is to change the world, don’t expect it to happen in a week. Make realistic goals – have your ambition be pragmatic.
The last way to be productive is get some work done. There’s really no way around it. If you want to be productive, you’ve got to produce something.
I’m currently writing a novel – and even though its destiny is either in the online abyss of lame publications or professional dust-gatherer, I’m still going for it. Each day, when I sit down to write, there’s a realization that I have to put words where there were none. Each day has it’s own blank canvas, and if I’m going to be the one to write the book, I’ve got to fill that canvas.
Some days I fill it with garbage. A literary mess.
Other days it’s a bit better.
But it’s almost always hard. And I love writing.
Producing is not easy – it takes work and effort. That’s a tough lesson to learn. At least for me – because I wish producing was as easy as eating a bag of chips. Then I’d be famous.
To be sure, there are people getting rich of the productivity of others. They market and sell amazing things done by other people. Maybe that’s you – and if you can do that, who am I to stop you ?
But that isn’t me. I want to put in the hard work and reap my own rewards. Elbow grease, or hard work, is important to productivity because it legitimizes it and makes rewards worthwhile.
There’s this two pronged truth when it comes to hard work. One, if you want to accomplish anything, it’s going to cost you effort and it will be tough ( at least some of the time ). Two, hard work is awesome. Earning something is rewarding.
Wrapping It Up
This post was inspired by frustration. Frustration in myself for not sticking to my goals the way I want to. Frustration in others for tricking me into being productive when I’m really not. And frustration with how much effort I put into a lot of small things instead of one big thing.
To be productive you can’t be distracted or diverted by tools. Some tools are really powerful. But they can trick you into thinking you’ve done a lot, when in reality, you haven’t. And, just having the tools doesn’t mean there’s going to be success on the horizon. Productivity is more than the tools.
To be productive you’ve got to have pragmatic ambition ( or, realistic goals ). Success and production isn’t like a free for all at the buffet – it’s more like a healthy, balanced, deliberate meal plan. It’s taking one step at a time and setting good goals and accomplishing them. And recognizing that takes time.
To be productive you have to put in hard work. Maybe this isn’t as flashy. It definitely wouldn’t make me money on an infomercial. But it is true. If you want to be productive you have to do something. There’s got to be the proverbial sweat on the brow. And even though it starts slow, and it’s tough going, it makes the successes richer and more personal.
Anything else you find important to productivity ?
What’s something that has kept you from being productive ?