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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 6: Staying on the Ball

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 6: Staying on the Ball

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the sixth part of a 12-part series running from 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…

    We are a society of stress junkies. We must be – it’s the only way to explain how we think about and behave with regards to work. This “go go go” attitude, this notion that everything is a competition, that everything is a test of our mastery, that we must strive to excel at everything – these are not the symptoms of a healthy relationship with work!

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    A lot of productivity literature encourages this unhealthy attitude about work. And a lot seems to discourage it, but is grounded in Western notions of work-as-spiritual-value. It’s practically inescapable in the West –it’s called the Protestant work ethic, but after five centuries of Protestantism, it’s become a dominating theme in Western thought.

    Work as a Value

    According to Max Weber, the turn-of-the-20th century German sociologist whose book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the great sociological works of all time, Protestant attitudes towards grace, labor, thrift, and sobriety were integral parts of the rise of capitalism as a socio-economic order – and centuries later, they have been internalized throughout the Western world, regardless of religious faith. For Protestants, work was something akin to prayer, and its products were valuable inasmuch as they celebrated God’s grace. Thus the accumulation of wealth was also the glorification of God, and wealth that did work – that is, capital – was doubly sacred. (This might seem odd to us today, but as recently as the mid-20th century missionaries at Indian schools were teaching that “property and wealth are signs of God’s approval”; see Mary Crow-Dog’s Lakota Woman).

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    Now, I’m not at all saying there’s anything wrong with work as a means to reach our goals. Where we go wrong, though, is in finding in work for work’s sake a sense of meaning, accomplishment, and ultimately of self. Our culture is littered with phrases like “Idle hands are the Devil’s playground” and Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it” that suggest that work is a value in and of itself.

    In the workforce, the elevation of work to the level of sacred calling manifests as a constant pressure to keep busy – or at least appear to keep busy, which is a particularly grueling kind of work. I remember slow nights at a video store I worked at in college, when my manager – a Marine sergeant in his non-video store life – would exclaim “If you can lean, you can clean.” True enough, I suppose, but cleaning for the sake of looking busy never struck me as all that meaningful – especially as the cleaning demands of a smallish video store with a fairly efficient staff were never all that great.

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    More problematic, though, is the way that this attitude towards work spills over into our leisure time – when we allow ourselves leisure time. Studies of US workers a few years ago showed that 35% of American workers do not take all or any of their vacation time each year (along with almost 60% of executives) adding up to 415 million unused vacation days in 2003. Work pressures, such as too much work or employees feeling disloyal if they take time away from their jobs, are the main reason given, but for many, it’s simply an inability to fill the time. If we’re not working, we wonder, then who are we?

    Stress and Selves

    There are a lot of explanations for stress, and I’m sure there are numerous and wildly various sources of stress in any individual’s life. But if I had to nail it down in one general statement, I’d say that stress emerges when a person’s work becomes out of line with their life. We rarely feel stressed out when we’re deep in the flow of a satisfying task (or if we do, it’s what psychologists call “eustress”, positive stress that leads to greater focus and motivation). But when we do work for reasons that do not relate to our own self-actualization (to borrow another term from psychology), stress emerges. Whether its work we do just for the money, or just to look busy, or because our job is on the line if we mess up, or because a dominating supervisor or manager is riding us, or for whatever reason, work under externally-imposed conditions seems to be the biggest source of stress.

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    So the question is, how do we bring our work in line with our inner, authentic self – and how do we cut out the work that isn’t? I don’t claim to know the answer, but I do know that to start with, we need to have some sense of what that inner self looks like – and in our society where work for work’s sake is celebrated as a primary source of meaningfulness, we have remarkably underdeveloped psychic tools for self-reflection. Self-reflection, in fact, feels a little too much like not working for us to be very comfortable with it, let alone for us to be any good at it.

    But it’s something we have to grapple with as part of a new vision of productivity, because being efficient at work that a) leaves us too stressed to enjoy our lives (or even to live them – stress not only kills, it maims), and b) creates open time that we desperately fill with even more work, is not being productive in any meaningful sense.

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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