Sometimes Productive Isn’t Productive At All

Every Monday in my private community for women writing nonfiction I make a post sharing my goals for the week and inviting members to share theirs. It’s turned into this really wonderful way that members can stay accountable, but more than that they support and encourage and cheer for each other. It’s one of my favorite things.

I also do a check in on the previous week’s post so that everyone can report on how they did with their goals. Last week someone shared that her goal of 5-7 writing sessions is hard to achieve and 2-3 productive sessions is more realistic, but to get there she still has to aim for more.

My response was that those other sessions are probably productive in different ways.

Here’s what I mean:

  • Sometimes the intention of spending time with your work is enough.
  • Sometimes thinking about the work is enough.
  • Sometimes taking a walk because you feel stuck is enough.
  • Sometimes sitting there doodling in the margins of your draft is enough.
  • Sometimes cleaning your desk or reorganizing your office is enough.

Of course we usually require metrics to measure how productive we are: number of words, number of pages, number of minutes or hours. And, sure, none of the things above equate to numbers of words, pages, minutes, or hours.

But just because we can’t measure the productivity of those activities doesn’t mean they aren’t productive at all. 

I think it’s Elizabeth Gilbert who says in her book Big Magic that it’s not the work that is sacred, it’s the time that is sacred.

To me, that means it doesn’t matter what does or doesn’t get accomplished. All that matters is that you spend the time.

It also means that we can’t always know how truly productive our time is, because we will never know how something we do today affects an outcome tomorrow.

  • What if that intention makes it easier for you to sit down with your work?
  • What if thinking about the work brings about a connection that you hadn’t thought of?
  • What if taking a walk means that tomorrow when you sit down you get through twice as much material as you normally do in the same amount of time?
  • What if doodling in the margins of your draft allows you to see the words differently and find a better way of putting it?
  • What if cleaning your desk or reorganizing your office allows you to focus more clearly or brings a sense of calm to the room that previously was missing?
Sometimes productive isn’t productive at all, at least not in the way we usually measure productivity.

And here’s the key: Understanding that being productive doesn’t always look the same means learning to trust yourself and your process. It means trusting that your time is always well spent, even when you don’t get the outcome you expect or want or think that you need.

It means being gentle with yourself and telling yourself “good job,” no matter how much you accomplished; no matter the outcome.

It means not beating yourself up when you weren’t as productive as you had hoped.

Look, I get it. This stuff isn’t easy. And I’m the worst culprit. I get so angry and frustrated when I feel like my efforts are not generating results—and as someone who’s constantly managing her energy, I HATE to feel like I’m wasting it. Why should I bother working out if I’m not losing weight? Why should I bother taking these calls if I’m not making the sale? Why should I bother going to these events if I’m not meeting new people?

But if I’m out here telling you that sometimes productive isn’t productive at all, then you better believe I am preaching to myself.

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