One of my core tenets is that I strive for regenerative productivity. But what do I mean by that?
For this discussion to make sense, let’s look at a few definitions.
What is productivity
One way to look at productivity is to measure output in terms of quantity. What you have produced during a certain amount of time.
Let’s produce moar
The popular quest then becomes a search for producing more in less time.
I see the calls for producing ever more as almost analogous to a factory line. On this level, we are competing with machines and robots. We measure things in terms of output. Output, output, output.
Let’s reduce waste – in order to produce moar
On the surface, increasing productivity means becoming more efficient. Wasting less and producing more. The risk with this approach is that of valuing quantity over quality.
Something we can do in order to increase our efficiency is to apply automation. I’m personally a big automation nerd and love when I can create a script or setup a workflow in tools like Zapier and Integromat to solve simple and repetitive tasks.
In fact, automation is very promising for us to remove inefficiencies and waste. We can let the machines take care of the routine chores and free us up for other things. Awesome, right?
Well there’s a hidden trap in hunting for (over)optimizing every single moment of our life. Sometimes it’s better to just do it manually.
Just because you did a lot doesn’t mean you did the right things
The other way to look at things is in terms of impact. Whether or not something is effective: if it achieves the right outcome or move in the right direction. In order to ascertain this, we need to know what “right” is.
Let’s produce better
This means that we have to have some kind of clear aim. A long term goal, vision or desired outcome when we do our activities. Otherwise we run the risk of going in circles, thinking that we have come far just because we have been moving for a long time.
From the perspective of effectiveness, producing one article that really speaks to people is more productive than generating 10 mediocre content pieces nobody wants to read.
Personally, I’d rather do the right thing in a way that has room for improvement, than doing the wrong thing perfectly right. I think effectiveness is more important to seek than efficiency.
Put them in the right order
Ideally, good productivity is both. I want to be effective and efficient at the same time.
Efficiency tends to be the low hanging fruit that is easy to see and attack. You know something is wrong so you try to streamline what you do, cutting waste and saving time.
But this is pointless unless you have established it’s effectiveness. Otherwise you spend a lot of energy completely unnecessarily.
Effectiveness is not as easy to tackle. Especially if your working in a complex environment rather than a complicated one. It can be more difficult to see and establish the most effective path forward but this kind of thinking work is one of the most important things you can do.
First establish effectiveness – then work on being efficient at it.
Why care about productivity?
For me then, productivity means choosing well what you want to do so that you are effective in moving in a desired direction. And then being efficient when you do it, so you are handling the resources available to you in the best way possible.
I think the reason why productivity porn is a thing is that it speaks to our quest of feeling useful. Ultimately, it’s part of our search for meaning. Nobody wants their life and how they spend their time to feel pointless and useless.
It’s easy to succumb to continuously searching for and applying different productivity tips because they give us short term feelings of accomplishment.
But my personal interest in productivity is not at all about producing ever more things, doing more, accomplishing more in less time. There was definitely an element of this when I was younger, but not so much any more.
In the end, productivity for me is all about being mindful and taking care of the time I have in the best way possible. I want to make the best use of the resources I have available to me in this lifetime. I want what I do to feel meaningful and have a sense of purpose.
A system for personal productivity
If I manage to find the holy grail of being effective in an efficient manner, I naturally want to keep it that way.
In order to achieve this productivity, you need a set of habits, routines, rules and principles that creates and supports it. That’s your personal productivity system.
I want this way/system/state of work to be reliable, consistent and stable. There’s no use in creating an elaborate house of cards that topples over with the first little gust of wind. I want my productivity to be able to withstand all the unplanned and unforeseen things that life throws in my way.
Are there any characteristics of an ideal system we can identify that makes it endure the onslaught of living our daily lives?
How do I want this productivity to be?
Let’s look at some different definitions of describing systems that don’t break down easily.
With regards to ecosystems, resilience is the capacity of a system – an individual, a forest, a city, or an economy – to deal with change and continue to develop. Within psychology, resilience is the capacity to cope with adverse events and quickly return to the pre-crisis state.
Put together, we get resilient productivity. A productive state that quickly returns whenever it gets displaced. An ability to bounce back to focus whenever distracted. To easily return to routines and habits whenever they are disturbed, like while travelling.
Sounds good I guess. It implies that you already have a good state from the beginning, and the focus is to return to that as soon as possible. It doesn’t say much about continuous development and progress, or how to find and create that good state to begin with.
In computer science, robustness is the ability of a computer system to cope with errors without crashing. Both errors during execution and erroneous input.
In case of a personal productivity system, this means that it wouldn’t be dependent on every single thing being performed exactly in the same “right” way. Errors in the input would perhaps mean a goal that is not well framed or that you have incorrect information.
In contrast to resilience which talks about recovering after failure, robustness focuses on not failing or breaking down in the first place.
This all seems very good but it doesn’t mention or even handle what happens if the system fails and things break down anyway. I think of the fable about the Oak and the Reed, in which the Oak mocks the Reed for bending in the wind and not standing strong. Until an enormously strong wind comes and shatters the Oak while the Reed simply rises again after bending down.
Instead of trying to make a system withstand anything, it’s preferable to make it bendable like the reed so it can adapt to the circumstances instead of shattering to pieces.
Created by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the concept and term antifragile means a system that grows stronger in response to adversity. If you haven’t heard of it, the idea is that while the fragile breaks under pressure the antifragile needs it because it makes it stronger and better.
The body is a perfect example of an antifragile system. Your muscles and bones grow stronger in response to external load. In fact, they require it in order to not atrophy. The astronauts in space who are in weightlessness lose bone density and muscle mass because of the lack of the stressor that gravity is on the body. The body needs these stressors in order to become stronger and better – and that’s something antifragile.
I think the term and concept applies chiefly to complex systems, not complicated ones. A complex system needs a good way to handle and respond to the inherent unpredictability involved.
By the look of it, the idea of having a productivity system that responds to outside shocks or disruptions by growing stronger is a good thing. We are getting closer to defining our ideal.
Looking beyond the system by itself
The terms resilient, robust and antifragile are all describing the system from the outside as a separate entity. They don’t take into account how your productivity system relates to and meshes with the rest of your life.
Say you can become super productive, but at what cost? If you find a path to this holy grail system of productivity, how hard is it to reach it? How much energy does it take to maintain?
This is something not seen from outside. Other people can view the output you generate and make judgements or assumptions based on that. But they have no idea of how much energy, effort or work that was spent in order to achieve that output.
Where your effectiveness might be measured in Return on Investment, the productivity system as a whole should be looked at through Energy Returned on Energy Invested.
I like to see things more holistically and take the big picture view. How productive you are is only a part of you, and your productivity system need to be well behaved in the shared space that is your life and attention.
How can I describe the ideal productivity system that takes the whole person and the whole picture into account?
Sustainable productivity means that your productivity system is something that you can keep on doing for a long time, without it breaking down and without it breaking you down.
While it all sounds good and well, I don’t think settling for sustainable is enough.
When I was coming back from my burnout, I was in a rehabilitation group that had yoga once a week. I remember a conversation I had with a fellow recoverer, where we both found ourselves at a similar situation on our respective paths.
At this point, I had been off work for about 8 months. And my progress had stalled.
I had reached a place where I could function as a normal human, as long as I did nothing extra apart from that. Preparing and eating meals, doing errands and some home chores. And being a parent with two small kids. That’s it. That was all the capacity I had.
Combining all the resting and restoring activities I did with all the things that drained my energy that I couldn’t escape or remove, after a full day I was +/- zero.
I had reached a place that I felt was sustainable. But it wasn’t moving me forward. How on earth I would be able to perform any kind of work again was beyond me. Every night I was at the same place as the day before. Me and my friend were comparing notes, wondering how long it would take and what we could do to make progress.
I think I stayed at this state for several months before finally crossing the line towards being net positive. If I had been satisfied with a sustainable routine, I would never have left that place. I could have stayed like that indefinitely.
Sustainable, just as resilient, kind of assumes that you already have a good state to begin with and are happy with. You sustain what you have. It implies staying in the same place without degradation but also without growth or progress.
Whenever you have something that is broken, you want to restore it back to the way it was before. In my case with my burnout, I wanted to restore my energy levels and my capacity back to health.
Using the term restorative productivity therefore implies that you have had good productivity before, somehow lost it, and now want to get it back. This means that restorative productivity from a holistic approach has a resilient productivity system at its core.
But I already concluded that being resilient is not enough. What we want is a system that incorporates antifragility.
Regenerative agriculture is a movement that recognizes that the way we humans have had an impact on the earth and its ecosystems the last couple of centuries have been devastating in some areas. It works towards not only having sustainable agricultural practices, nor being content with restoring the soil and earth’s capacities to what it was before man came in. They want to keep regenerating the land, so that it’s a process of continuous creation instead of destruction.
While this originally has to do with food production and farming practices, this inspired me during my recovery because I saw a direct parallel to the position I was in at the time.
If I worked on getting back on my feet as soon as possible, that didn’t say anything on what would happen once I was back. Resilience might be a good thing, but it’s exhausting to keep climbing up from a deep hole. Getting back up didn’t give any hints or clues about how to stay up and avoid falling down again.
If I was simply aiming for reaching the same level of health I had before and then tried to keep it stable there – that looked to me like trying to be the Oak in the fable. What said that I wouldn’t run the risk of ending up in the same crashed place once more?
Why would I be content with coming back to the place where I was before I crashed? Couldn’t I do better?
I needed something more. I needed something regenerative.
I hadn’t heard about antifragility at the time I articulated these thoughts. But the concept meshes very well with my view and my focus. A regenerative system is antifragile in the sense that it will respond to disruption by learning from it and creating something stronger in response.
At the same time it’s not antifragile in the sense that it doesn’t require disturbances to grow stronger, it does so anyway. Just like your lawn is rising by 1mm per year, by the very nature of perennially covered soil.
Can I create a personal productivity system that has a positive Energy Return on Energy Invested?
Can I setup my habits, routines, rules and principles in a way that they give things to the other parts of my life instead of taking from them (energy, time, attention, inspiration)?
A system that responds to disruption by bouncing back, learning from it, and setting things up for not being vulnerable against it again. A system that not only does what it does well, but also generates a surplus for the benefit of everything around it.
This is what I aim for. This is what I mean by regenerative productivity.