Looking at the number of books and articles on organization and time management available today, one would think the market for productivity strategies was close to saturation, and the demand for more would be dropping. But this doesn’t seem to be true. Instead, it seems like a new book, article, or seminar on productivity comes out every day.
Why are people still hungry for productivity advice, even with so many techniques on the market? I suspect one reason is that the existing literature doesn’t address one of the biggest obstacles to our productivity — the patterns of thinking and feeling that limit our ability to get things done.
Here’s a common example. As I’ll bet you know firsthand, it’s hard to get much done when our awareness keeps drifting into the past or the possible future — replaying arguments we had with a loved one, worrying about how much the bonus in our jobs is going to be this year, and so on. The “tips and tricks” productivity gurus offer us — more efficient ways to organize our e-mail inboxes, make to-do lists, hold shorter meetings, and so forth — can be useful, but they won’t do much to help us get more done if we can’t focus our attention.
The good news is that what I call “inner productivity” — the mental and emotional state we need to work at peak efficiency — can be cultivated. Many of the methods for doing this have been recognized in Eastern spirituality for thousands of years, but are just beginning to enter the mainstream in the West. I’ll describe what I see as the three essential elements of inner productivity — Attention, Intention, and Foundation — and some exercises we can use to develop them within ourselves.
We’re most efficient, and produce our best work, when our work has our full attention. Too often, our awareness is only partly focused on our task, and the rest of it is lost in memories and possible futures. As I said, rehashing painful moments from the past and dreaming up potential problems are common mental pastimes. However, a less obvious example comes up when our attention keeps drifting to the product of our work — the money we’re going to earn, the vacation we’ll get to take, and so on — rather than focusing on the process of what we’re doing in this moment.
How can we build our capacity to hold our attention on our work? One way to return your attention to the task in front of you is to notice the sensations you’re feeling in your body — whether it’s a warmth, tingling, pulsing, or something else. As Eckhart Tolle writes in The Power Of Now:
“If you keep your attention in the body as much as possible, you will be anchored in the Now. You won’t lose yourself in the external world, and you won’t lose yourself in your mind.”
A great way to do this is to train your awareness on a part of your body that’s in contact with another object, such as your feet on the floor or your pelvis on your chair. Focus your attention on the pressure of the object against your body. This practice tends to quickly clear away irrelevant thoughts and let us focus on our task again. As you practice this exercise over time, you may find that, when distracting thoughts arise in your work, you begin naturally, unconsciously bringing your attention back into your body and thus into the present.
Another reason we commonly find our attention floating away from the task at hand is that we aren’t working with a clear, compelling goal in mind. Perhaps there’s no overall vision behind what we’re doing — we’re just working to pay the bills, or because we feel like “we’ve got to be doing something.” Or, although we have a definite goal in our work — maybe, for example, buying a bigger house — that goal is just based on a desire to meet others’ expectations, and doesn’t actually move us on a deep, physical level. In these situations, motivation is harder to come by.
A great intention exercise is to focus on what you’re contributing to others with your work. Sometimes, we get sidetracked by a sense that we’re being selfish by pursuing our goals — that we’re working solely for our own gain, and not to benefit humanity. Or maybe we’re plagued by the feeling that we aren’t serving anyone — even ourselves — with the work we’re doing. When we’re paying our work-related bills, for instance, it may be hard to keep in mind that we’re accomplishing anything at all, much less serving anyone, with what we’re doing — even though it’s a necessary part of running our business.
If you find yourself getting discouraged this way, try pausing for a moment and focusing your attention on how what you’re doing is serving the world. Picture the peace, productivity, and other gifts you’re bringing into people’s lives. Even something mundane like organizing your files ultimately works to help others — after all, if your files are more organized, you can serve your colleagues and customers more efficiently. I believe that, as human beings, we have a natural desire to help and give our gifts to others, and keeping this desire in mind can be a great motivator.
An important, but often overlooked, factor in our productivity is how comfortable we feel with ourselves. Do we love and appreciate ourselves unconditionally — even if we make a mistake or a setback arises in our work? Or is our appreciation for ourselves conditioned on whether our work receives praise or blame from others?
Many of us assume the best way to stay motivated is to condition our appreciation for ourselves on our work performance. Because we feel unpleasant when we don’t love ourselves, this belief goes, the threat that our self-love might be withdrawn will motivate us to do a good job. Interestingly, many psychologists suggest the opposite is true — the more our love for ourselves hinges on our success, the less focused and motivated we’re likely to be.
For instance, in The Tomorrow Trap: Unlocking The Secrets Of The Procrastination-Protection Syndrome, psychologist Karen E. Peterson argues that we use procrastination as a means of protecting ourselves against the shame of failure. Because we know we’ll withdraw our self-love if we fail, we understandably find it easier not to try — or we get stuck in “analysis paralysis,” trying to produce perfect, criticism-proof work. This suggests that building what I call a solid inner foundation — a sense of unconditional appreciation for ourselves — is key to meeting our productivity goals.
One way to start developing this type of foundation is to get familiar with the places where you condition your love for yourself on your work performance. In other words, where are you telling yourself “if you don’t achieve this goal, you’re worthless?” For example, some of us can’t bear the possibility that a colleague or client might get angry at us. Others can’t stand to be less than “the best” in their field, and if someone else’s work gets more attention they feel inadequate. And so on.
Notice how just becoming conscious of how you refuse to love yourself unless you accomplish certain things begins to transform your relationship with yourself. Before, it may have seemed obvious that your value as a person depended on your work success, but when you look squarely at that idea it starts to look less convincing. You begin to realize you can choose to appreciate yourself no matter what happens in your work, and that making that choice gives you the inner strength you need to meet your goals.