The Art of Productivity

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April 16, 2014

“It's not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” - Mary O'Connor

There is no real connection between work done and productivity. Some of the most productive things people do, which bring the most joy, money, insight, efficiency, or whatever, take very little time and effort.

And some of the most useless things take all day to do.

Americans glorify work, and there is a certain aura around people with an 80 hour workweek, but the amount of work doesn't actually matter. How it's applied--and the results achieved--that's what matters.

If you're familiar with the 80/20 Principle, you know what I'm talking about.

Awareness Supports Productivity

The key is to constantly be asking yourself, "Am I accomplishing something real here or just keeping myself busy?"

To do that, you must know your goals and keep them in mind.

"Furious Activity Is No Substitute for Understanding" -- Rev. H.H. Williams, Bishop of Carlyle, 1861

If your goal is to make money, whenever you're doing work, ask yourself if you are engaged in something that will actually bring in cash. Spending hours refining your workspace probably isn't going to do that.

If your goal is to learn a skill, always ask yourself if you're moving forward or simply idling and rehearsing the stuff you already know. It's so easy to get complacent because growth is scary.

If your goal is to travel to Nepal, are you doing the things that will move you in that direction or just dreaming about it? (There's nothing wrong with dreaming, just self-delusion ;-) ).

This requires a lot of self-awareness. You must know what your values are, how you work best, how you duck out of work, and how you lie to yourself. What does distraction feel like, compared to fascination?

Know What You Need to Be Productive

Everyone's different. I need to plan. That's how I make sure I actually do things. If I follow my system, and put my plan somewhere prominent, it happens. So for me, it's worth investing a good amount of time into planning.

For some people, planning is a form of procrastination.

You need to learn how you best make things happen.

Whenever things aren't happening, take a step back and check if you are doing the things that YOU need to do for you to move forward.

Productivity is the art of turning your ideas into reality. Just like any other art, there are universal principles, but the true artistry comes when you express those principles in your own way.

Ironically, you can be more productive by keeping your schedule clear and protecting the time, energy, and money you need to be creative. When you have a full day or errands and busywork, you have no time to actually create anything important.

This is why you can be too busy to get anything of value done. Don't fall into that trap.

This week's exercise will be identifying your priorities and taking the first steps to make sure your daily schedule is lined up with making them happen. Sign up for the newsletter to make sure you get it.

Photo credit: Bill Ferriter on Flickr


"Now we're going to do front flips from high up." My coach pointed at three platforms and the crash mat below them. "You can do either the 2 foot, the 4 foot, or the 6 foot, whichever you're comfortable with."

We all went for the 4 foot platform. It wasn't so high and scary as the 6 foot, but it was bigger than the 2 foot so we felt like we were pushing ourselves a bit.

After a few decent flips, my coach stepped in. "Ok. From now on, you can use any box except the 4 foot."

My first instinct was to go for for the lower box and call it "working on my form." But I knew my form was fine. I was capable of the 6 foot.

It was fear holding me back.

I climbed the tallest platform and looked down. It was a long way to flip. My heart was racing. I made a few false starts. I just couldn't commit.

I was about to step down to the 2 foot when I remembered something.

I didn't come to APEX to play it safe and be comfortable. I came to learn Parkour.

The goal wasn't to get through the classes as comfortably as possible. The goal was to get better, to learn new moves and to push past my boundaries.

I told myself, "I'm not playing to avoid losing. I'm playing to win."

Then I jumped.


There's a difference between playing to not lose and playing to win.

Playing Not to Lose

  • Avoid risk as much as possible
  • Live based on what's feasible, reasonable, safe--not on what you believe in
  • Only travel to countries with paved roads, or stay in resorts
  • Never try to start your own business
  • Focus on arriving safely, avoiding the detours and the scenic overlooks
  • Stay in the lines

Playing to Win

  • Understand that risk is unavoidable. Manage it and weigh it against reward
  • Pursue your dreams, even if they aren't guaranteed, safe, or easy. Nothing is.
  • Travel to experience all that the world has to offer, good and bad
  • Start your business and fail. Start again, and fail. Keep failing until you don't
  • Have the guts to pull the trigger, to commit to a course of action

There's nothing wrong with the other approach, but there will always be risk and we can never protect ourselves completely from loss or failure.

Everyone knows this, but people who play to avoid losing spend their lives denying it and trying to run from it. They never learn how to deal with failure or how to grow past it.

People who play to win see failure and loss as feedback. They use it to improve and grow stronger. They are comfortable with discomfort.

As a result, they become more resilient, so when something truly catastrophic happens that nobody can escape (like the stock market crash), they have the skills and experience to bounce back.

This has nothing to do with thrill-seeking or rash behavior. That is a form of avoidance as well, except that the thrill-seeker is running from what they think is a mediocre life. Just like those who are avoiding loss, thrill-seekers try not to see the truth, hoping they won't ever have to deal with it.

Playing to win means looking for the truth, good or bad, accepting it, and accounting for it.

How will you play?

Photo credit: Torben Hansen on Flickr


An asset is a resource that can create value.

The formal definition by the International Accounting Standards Board is a resource controlled by the enterprise as a result of past events and from which future economic benefits are expected to flow to the entity.

Robert Kiyosaki, the author ofRich Dad, Poor Dad, defines an asset is something that puts money in your pocket, like an investment or the royalties you get on your book, or even the time you spend working at your job (which provides a 1-to-1 exchange of value).

So, what's you're greatest asset? What is the one thing you have that can create an infinite amount of value in the world, both tangible and intangible?

Your mind. …Read More


As long as you truly respect the other person, you can say whatever you want without hurting them. - A friend

It's not a compliment, being called a nice guy. "Nice guys finish last" means that being nice is giving up ambition and assertiveness.

Or maybe you've heard, "No more Mr. Nice Guy," meaning, "I'm done holding back my true abilities," or, "Now I'm going to say what I mean."

If you've ever been told by the woman you love that you're 'nice,' but she's just not interested, you know it feels like a punch in the gut.

Niceness, in general, is overrated. It is not the same thing as kindness, or compassion, or understanding. It doesn't even mean courteous. It simply means unoffending.

People are Nice Because they are Afraid

Nice guys hold back because they think that speaking their minds or acting from a place of power will alienate others.

Being nice is a cop-out. It's what you do when you have nothing else to offer. Being nice is lazy and cowardly. It assumes that simply not bothering others is a substitute for integrity and solid beliefs.

Pickup artists realized this and made the obvious (if uninformed) decision that doing the complete opposite was the way to attract women and dominate social interactions. But being a jerk is no better than being nice. Others eventually get sick of the idiotic behavior and see past the illusion of confidence.

It's like the sheep-wolf-sheepdog distinction. Most people think they must either be pushovers or predators without thinking about the middle ground.

There is a third choice.

The Good Man acts on his principles, not others' expectations

These third choices often blend two ideas we think of as mutually exclusive. If you believe power corrupts--a cultural stereotype--it is a paradox to have a person who is both powerful and gracious.

I see it another way. Power, like money or fame, simply magnifies what's already there. That's why spiritual development is such an important aspect of human endeavor. Call it what you want--religion, secular humanism, spirituality--there needs to be a sense of value and principle informing your drive to self-actualization.

And that is what makes the good man more potent than the nice guy and more respected than the jerk: he acts from a foundation of integrity so his actions, even when they might seem harsh or aggressive, are directed towards bettering the world and the lives of others.

  • The good man is self-assured enough that he doesn't have to be 'nice'.
  • He is considerate without being pandering. He has kindness to spare.
  • He doesn't need to be nice because he isn't so desperate for others' attention that he can't afford to offend people.
  • He doesn't go out of his way to offend people or step on toes, but he realizes that there is a big difference between offending and harming someone, that politeness is hollow without real compassion. He knows what's important and what's just shine.
  • He is assertive and confident because he has invested in himself by doing good work, so he knows what he is talking about.
  • Others follow him because he empowers them.
  • His concern and his respect is authentic, not offered just to gain approval.

Not Just for Men

I see this distinction in women a lot as well. Many try to be agreeable all the time. Violent men take advantage of this to get women to drop their guard; too many women won't scream or hit an attacker because it would be offensive.

In my self-defense classes, I teach that there is a difference between consideration for others' feelings and politeness. It is important not to confuse consideration with agreeableness.

I encourage people to be everything they want to be and not to fall into the trap that they cannot be both powerful and kind. Be a good man or woman and live by your principles. That will earn you far more respect and liking than trying desperately to win hearts by being easy to get along with.

Photo credit: Clark Kent vs. Bruce Wayne, by JD Hancock on Flickr


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Go eagerly where the fear is.

You are at a party. Across the snack table, you notice a small crowd gathering around an underdressed guy in jeans and a t-shirt. He turns out to be a well-known science-fiction book agent. Just the person you are looking to meet since finishing your novel. You want to talk to that person. But he looks busy, probably wouldn't appreciate another awestruck peon, and you wouldn't get much talk time anyway. You are convinced it would be a waste of time. So you decide to ask the host for his e-mail address on your way out and write later. You have very good reasons not to introduce yourself.

But you turn back to the friends you came with, you wonder, why are you even making reasons? You aren't making that effort for anyone else in the room. Just this one guy who it would be a great idea not to talk to.

And that's when you know: if you leave this party without introducing yourself, you will leave defeated. You will have found exactly the thing that you need to do to move forward, and shied away from it.

The things you need to do to move forward are always the things you fear doing. …Read More


As the young shepherd lay asleep in the sun, his flock grazed peacefully on the lush slopes of the valley, nibbling on clover, alfalfa, and fescue. Their round bodies dotted the mountainside like so many clouds, merging and parting like the real things.

Without warning, two young wolves burst out of the forest and loped towards the flock. Sheep started bleating in panic and colliding in their panic to escape. The wolves drove right to its center, hoping to scatter it so they could pick off one or two stragglers who got caught in the open, but when the sheep parted, the hunters stopped dead. Waiting for them in the space they'd cleared was a beast of a dog. It's white shaggy coat blended in with the sheep and so it had been guarding the herd from the inside.

The sheepdog rose to its feet and stared at the wolves. Though it was big, it was still only a dog, and these wolves were wild and dangerous. Muzzles wrinkled back in growls, the three sized each other up. Two to one was not good odds, but the sheepdog did not back away. The wolves, realizing their advantage, stepped forward, heads held low to the ground, long yellow teeth bared. Still the sheepdog did not move but only raised its hackles. …Read More


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