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Why Productivity Won't Make You Happy: Life Lessons From a Dying Man
More things, more quickly
I am not a pilot, brain-surgeon or rocket scientist. Nor am I planning the invasion of a small country, yet you could be forgiven for thinking so judging by my ruthless obsession with increasing efficiency and my compulsive habit of systematically breaking down everything I do into incremental, sequential (or parallel) steps. I have de-cluttered and re-prioritized, systematized and categorized.
I am doing more things, more quickly than I even thought possible. I have a full-time job, a part-time job, a small business and a private practice. I am communicating with more people, faster and better than before. I am LinkingIn, Facebooking, Tweeting and Blogging. I am OmniFocused and Evernoted, I have mind maps and action plans, to do lists and tickler files, 43 folders and a 5 year plan.
Even as I am dizzied by my own super-human levels of productivity, I’ve started to feel that I am surviving more than thriving. At the gym yesterday, as I dutifully clocked up my treadmill miles, I couldn’t help noticing that a large part of my life now closely resembles that of a plucky little hamster, sprinting gamely on its wheel. Last week, I spent my Thursday afternoon at the bedside of a patient who was dying. I met this man in the last months of his life, when he was suffering from end stage Alzheimer’s disease. He wasn’t the man he once was. Although he could no longer express himself, he communicated so much to me about who he was that truly inspired me.
“Have you eaten?”
When I would visit him in the nursing home at meal-times he didn’t recognize or remember me, yet without fail, as I sat down beside him he would pat my hand and say, “Have you eaten?” and offer me the food from his own plate. When I would get up to leave, he would look with concern out the window, checking on the weather and to see if it was dark, telling me to be careful as I bid him goodbye.
On the last day we were alone together for several hours. The stillness in the room descended like a heavy blanket of snow, pierced only by the sound of the oxygen machine and his breathing. Time slowed down at last and I felt a shift in my perspective and perceptions about what had been so important and urgent before I sat down beside him. I was holding his hand as he took his last breath and his heart beat its last. Accompanying someone to the end of their life is an experience that never fails to humble you but something about this experience has really changed me.
A glorious legacy
On Sunday, I was invited to a gathering of his family and friends. The house was full of people, eating and laughing, celebrating a life well-lived. Looking around, his daughter told me he would have loved this day. I sat down to look at a photo-album, eager to see glimpses of the man he had been. In this portrait of a life, I saw what was dear to him. As I turned the pages, looking at the photos of him playing with a grand-child or laughing at the helm of his boat in the Summer ocean, I saw confirmation of what I had felt intuitively; that this was a man who loved to spend time with his friends and family. A man brimming with generosity, fun, kindness and love. A man who brightened the lives of all those around him. A man who cared for, comforted and cherished those he loved. I remembered that I knew what he had done for a living and yet what struck me most was this. His glorious legacy was who he had been and not what he had done.
What I offer you from this experience is a reminder to stop and smell the roses and in order to do that, you may well need to employ some productivity techniques to clear yourself some space. Order is the antidote to overwhelm and I am certainly not going to be abandoning all the tips and tricks for productivity I know but I may just be adapting them. The real key is, I think, is to remember that productivity is a tool and that the ultimate goal is quality of life.
When you look back at your life, will you agree with current definitions of what is urgent and important?
(Photo credit: life after death via Shutterstock)
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