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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity

     

    This is the fourth part of a 12-part series I will be posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    A Nerd’s Tale

    High school, Junior year. I admit it, I was a nerd. A whopping big one. I spent my lunch break in high school hanging out with my nerd friends in the Chemistry lab, which the teacher graciously opened to his nerdlings. We’d swap Tom Lehrer lyrics, discuss our latest D&D campaigns, or argue about whether Star Trek: The Next Generation was as good as the original. Like I said, nerds.

    One day, we’re talking math. “Listen, guys,” I’m saying. “If zero divided by anything is zero, and anything divided by zero is infinity, and anything divided by itself is one, then what’s zero divided by zero?” Truly a conundrum for the ages! The physics teacher walks in – his classroom is adjacent and shares an office with the chemistry lab. He overhears us and says, “Dustin, that’s really clever. You should be a mathematician, you have a knack for it!”

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    Fast-forward several months. Career aptitude testing. You answer hundreds of questions and they tell you what career you should pursue. Apparently I score pretty well at math – which fact would surprise every math teacher I’ve ever had, by the way, since I never got over a “C” in math – and very well in analytical thinking, too. According to the test, I should be a mathematician. Or at least an engineer.

    I’d already learned that with my awful eyesight, I was never going to be an astronaut, but I am still excited about space. Engineers design space craft! And the test said the same thing the physics teacher said – somehow, math and analytical thinking are my strong suits, so I should be an engineer. An aerospace engineer, in fact.

    Between the test and the physics teacher’s random comment, I was set – the classes I would take in my last year of high school, my choice of majors, my choice of universities to apply to, my career path, everything was laid out before me in golden letters.

    Three years later I would drop out of college and start drinking heavily.

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    What is your passion?

    I read a lot of career advice books. Some because their authors or publicists send them to me to review here on Lifehack, others because I review business and contemporary culture books for Publishers Weekly. While they all offer various approaches to the problems of career-building and career-change, they almost always start with the advice to figure out what you’re passionate about.

    This is a harder question than it seems. We haven’t really developed any kind of processes for determining or cultivating passions. My own experience in high school is probably shared by more people than not – we’re given a battery of tests to determine what we’re good at, under the huge assumption that what we’re good at is directly related to what we’re passionate about.

    This is reinforced by teachers who, I realize now that I am one, spend so much time teaching subjects to students who are bored and disinterested that they latch onto anyone with even an inkling of interest in the topics that, as teachers, they’ve dedicated their lives to. I wasn’t cut out to be a mathematician, or even an engineer, not because I wasn’t good at math, but because I hated math – I just happened to be a good analytical thinker who one day was playing with numbers. I might have been making puns or unpacking some turn of speech (like the use of “literally”, as in “I’m literally starving to death!” when of course, you’re not literally starving to death, you’re doing the opposite of literally starving) or playing with words in some other way and my future physics teacher wouldn’t have taken any notice.

    Schools are, in general, not equipped to help students cultivate passions. They’re structured around imparting a minimum body of necessary knowledge to as many students as possible, and cherry-picking students who show any aptitude for one topic or other to receive advanced instruction in those topics. Schools are, as Ken Robinson has noted, better at beating passions out of us than cultivating them

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    If a student is lucky, he or she graduates with some notion of a major to pursue in college – but ask around in any group of college freshman and sophomores, and you’ll find more “undecideds” than anything else. If those students are lucky, they’ll latch onto some topic in their four (or five, or six) years at college; a good number of them, though, will simply sit down with a course catalog their senior year, look over what they’ve taken, and figure out which major they’re closest to graduating in.

    And a surprising number of college students graduate with no idea of what to do next. With nothing guiding them one way or another, they fall into the first decent job they find, and thus begins the grind towards death.

    So they turn to one of the career guides out there – many of which are quite excellent – and somewhere in the first few chapters the author asks them what they’re passionate about – and they don’t know. How could they?

    Passionless Productivity

    Our productivity literature pays a great deal of lip service to the idea of a higher calling or higher purpose. In Merlin Mann’s Productive Talk podcast, a multi-part interview with David Allen, Allen repeats several times that people should constantly be asking themselves “Is this the most important thing I can be doing right now? Does this task help me fulfill my purpose here on Earth?”

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    Most people skip that bit in GTD, or in other productivity systems, because we honestly don’t know how to even think about the question, let alone answer it. But being productive without passion is a sure path to disappointment. Is it any wonder that so many people who pursue greater productivity find themselves burnt out and “fall off the wagon” after a few months of practice? Without passion, greater efficiency just means you end up doing more of the work you didn’t really care about in the first place.

    Of course, some of us get lucky and find ourselves doing work that is meaningful and deeply satisfying, often by accident. That’s another common theme in career books – someone stumbles upon an innovation that becomes their career and their passion. They invent something to solve some problem they happen to encounter, they do some favor for friends and are encouraged to do it professionally, or whatever.

    I have to believe that there’s a better system for the rest of us than luck, accidents, and hopeful thinking. Alas, I don’t know what it is – it took me 20 years to realize my own passion for writing. But it’s the first task in the journey toward a new vision of productivity, to figure out how to identify the kind of tasks that being really productive at would make us happiest.

    Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to figure that out in your own life, and to share with us or with others how you figured it out. If you’re one of the lucky few who has already found your passion, let us know how you arrived there.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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