There is probably very little I can tell any of you about productivity as a “goal” or “set of habits” that you cannot learn from the wealth of literature, talks, and courses already available. I don’t tend to dabble much1 in what I am sure is a veritable treasure trove of potential wisdom because I am horribly alienated by the dominant productivity discourse. As a result, my personal productivity has largely become a noisy demon with its claws, and sometimes its teeth, sunk into my butt. It frequently drags me down and out of the parts of the world where one can get stuff done. Whenever it is not mercilessly fighting back any flash of joy or inspiration I might feel to get going on something, I picture it chain smoking unfiltered Gitanes, occasionally picking tobacco from its teeth, and eating bonbons made from my hopes and dreams.
A distinction must be flagged, however, between my personal productivity and the productivity levels I achieve when I am working with, or for, other people. This has included all school and work-related projects for as long as I can remember. My Productivity Demon has almost no sway when I am working for others (on projects, with or without money involved, for grades etc.). Other delightful demons chime in and can derail things, but ye olde Productivity Demon stays mum.
When I am beholden to someone else, I tend to get things done early and to as high a standard as I am capable of at the time. Moreover, I cherish genuine creative collaboration, feel like I’ve been seeking a sustainable version of it with my whole soul for as long as I can remember. I also generally want to be able to help and serve, even when it exhausts me or makes me swallow parts of myself whole for years at a time. (YeeEEAaaaah… I am definitely working on that last part…) My personal productivity, though – the things I do from and for myself – are endless fodder for the butt-first demon-drag-down already described. If I do manage to start something, it rarely gets finished. Productivity Demon clings to my posterior in a cloud of second-hand smoke and weighs down anything born only of my spirit, no matter how awesome it might be if I just sustainably and meaningfully did the thing.
The trouble begins because, at worst, I experience contemporary definitions of “productivity” as colonially-flavoured, industrial blind-spots in a would-be post-industrial world. These definitions tend to ignore wholeness, privilege compartmentalization, and narrow our collective definitions of success to quantity-based metrics measured mostly by the accumulation of wealth. (Yup. I totally go there and could defend the position for a few rounds if you ever want to throw down.) But, let me tell you, viewing productivity in this way does not make me want to be conventionally productive. Worse yet? With the sneaky help of my demon, I can feel intellectually and ethically superior avoiding any brand of productivity that seems to fit that model. Inadvertently, I’ve created an equation where failing to commit to any of my more personal projects makes me some kind of social activist. (Yes indeed. That is utter and complete, gibbering nonsense.) Add in the current weirdness of global realities, and I have whole other productivity sinkholes in which to fall if I’m not careful.
On the flip side, when I seek an “at best” perspective about contemporary definitions of productivity, I can squint my eyes, tilt my head, and turn my self-defeating, judgmental silliness into conversations about creativity. Creativity, for me, is an essential, physical force of the universe. It is abundant and infinite. It permeates everything we ever do and while I can obviously imagine a difference between “productive creativity” or “unproductive creativity,” I mostly just squint harder, tilt my head further, and wait until that binary disappears. Binaries rarely help me. What does help me – much to the likely irritation of some of my friends and readers at this point – is my love of word origins as a way to rethink everything.
As it turns out, at the etymological heart of the words “produce,” “product,” and “produced” appears to be the late 14th century Latin prōdūcere, meaning “lead or bring forth, draw out.”2
This, I can live with.
This dovetails nicely with the idea that the ultimate form of productivity is, in fact, creativity.
For, what is creativity if not the bringing forth or drawing out into the world of previously nebulous ideas, understandings, inventions, techniques etc.? The literal (re)production of plant and animal babies in their various forms? It seems that Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the first to use “productivity” in this more process-oriented way in his writings2, 3 which adds potential fuel to my argument about the industrial origins to our more contemporary definitions of productivity given Coleridge, and the whole Romantic movement, were generally not über-fans of Industrialization. Support for this idea can also be found in etymology where the economic sense of “the ratio of output to input”2 (definitely the way my Productivity Demon defines productivity and why I’m a perpetual failure) was first recorded in 1899. This was, of course, not long after the first Industrial Revolution had peaked and left so much complex change in its wake.
Loathe as I am to admit it, I suspect real growth as a person compels us to embrace both creativity and “the ratio of output to input” in our approaches to productivity. Creativity without production tends toward hollowness. As essentiallly creative beings in an essentially creative universe, we need to do. We need to make. We need to do and make if only, my weary, self-battered heart tells me, so we can share; we need to be there to “lead forth” and “draw out” things together in what might be a rather messy shared form of creative midwifery. Unavoidably, doing, making, and sharing bids productivity demons to hush and to gnaw on some lesser delicacies for a while, such as “technical details” or “where exactly have I put my good pen?…”
What is the point of this ramble, you ask?
I’m going to write a little series about ways in which I have learned to live with a Productivity Demon attached to my derrière. Some of these ways-of-being/thinking/doing are concepts I work with alongside the individual needs and personalities of my clients and friends. Person by person, each little way-of-being/thinking shifts in bespoke ways to support each human exactly where they are. It’s meaningful work and I enjoy it. Mostly though, I wanted any past or future client – and any other soul seeking new ways to consider productivity – to know that I never offer what I know from some lofty, perfect place of “productivity” or of “creativity.”
I’m not ahead on some magically linear progressive road. I’m in the glorious, energetic muck with you.
I have earned what I know. Diligently. Purposefully. Lovingly. And through oodles and oodles of very hard work.
I have to learn it over and over again, it seems, and find – unsurprisingly – it always sticks around a little longer if I share it with others.
Bottom line: If you can learn any tiny, useful, nugget of a thing from this post and the series of pieces it serves to introduce, I am grateful. If you want to come back and read this new and growing “Productivity Demon Series,” please do. If you wish to take things further then a bit of bloggish browsing, please come join a community of people just trying to get things done in good ways; come play with the LAMs (a.k.a. Loving Accountability Meetings: Online). If nothing else, though, and assuming some of you also have persistent Productivity Demons who snack on the things you most need/wish to do or make, please know that you are not alone.
(The first piece – COMING SOON – will be about “Perpetual Motion” and “JOY”)
1 Thirty years ago, I was given a copy of the book Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. I can safely say it changed my life and that I return again and again to its teachings. Goldberg is exceptional at finding ways to simply work with demons rather than thinking the only answer is to battle them. Twenty years ago, I also found a certain kind of “productivity learning” when I faithfully followed Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way through its full 12 steps. Early in 2019, I also read little bits and bobs from Ruth Soukop’s book Do It Scared: Finding the Courage to Face Your Fears, Overcome Adversity, and Create a Life You Love. I was definitely taken by a concept she herself seems to have learned from elsewhere called “stretch-goals.” It was also humbling to take her quiz and learn that according to her research, my biggest hurdle to getting anything done is perfectionism. It wasn’t entirely revelatory, but at the time I took the quiz, it was a useful and potent reminder that “perfect” truly is the enemy of “done.” Later in 2019, I also read Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was a fun ride. What felt to be a primary thesis, namely that creativity is abundant and needn’t be harrowing and fuelled by despair, drugs, and booze to be “good,” was a place I already live. Some of her stories and arguments still struck deep chords and I was glad to have read them. Other than those few books, I have watched a few Brené Brown Ted Talks and have also learned a lot about creative process from various Buddhist teachings and mindfulness practices. As you can see, none of these resources are specifically about “productivity” but I wanted to be as transparent as possible about some of my enduring and recent influences.
2 Barnhart, R. K., & Steinmetz, S. (Eds.). (2012). Chambers dictionary of etymology: The origins and development of over 30,000 English words. Chambers.
3 Can’t be sure it is the quote to which my etymological dictionary is referring, but an online search turned up this:
“The first object, (or subject matter) of Greek philosophizing was in some measure philosophy itself; – not indeed, as the product, but as the producing power – the productivity.” – Samuel Taylor Coleridge
It certainly fits the etymological interpretation. I retrieved it from:
Coleridge, S. T. (2017). The complete works of Samuel Taylor Colreridge: Poems, plays, essays, lectures, autobiography & personal letters. Musaicum Books. Retrieved March 19, 2020, from https://books.google.ca/books?id=BVBODwAAQBAJ&pg=PT2680&lpg=PT2680&dq=Coleridge+poem+that+uses+word+productivity&source=bl&ots=ZzNBcFCBFp&sig=ACfU3U1v7TFQFFXPrk_3x7OsNtbkI3YU2w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjUjeijjqjoAhV7CjQIHeyDB1IQ6AEwAXoECA4QAQ#v=onepage&q=productivity&f=false