It must be THAT time of year – because the word "productive" has cropped in a couple of physician executive coaching conversations this month as we head into fall. And each time I heard it, my gut clenched with the heaviness of the word. It seemed to drip with the sweat of overwhelming to-do lists!
One physician executive client described her version of productivity this way: "It’s about having to meet other people’s expectations" and "it’s doing all the stuff that is a building block to something else". It was even about "the stuff I’d never do if I had oodles of free time and the free will to choose what I wanted to do with it" . Ouch – and that is productivity?
Somehow the idea of productivity (the simplest non-economics or physics definition I could find is it’s a measurement of output per hours worked ) as using the time you spend on a task in the most efficient manner has become subverted to mean "having to be in production mode the whole time".
I suspect this thinking is the culprit behind the habit we tout so proudly – our ability to multitask.
Well, guess what? Multitasking has been demonstrated over and over again to produce poorer overall results and takes longer than had you separated each task and completed them one after another. Especially if tasks are complex or unfamiliar.
In contrast, being in the "flow state" results in higher productivity and creativity.
What does this mean? The most well-known researcher and author on the topic of "the flow state" is psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-high CHICK-sent-me-high-ee).
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, he describes Flow as "a condition of heightened focus, productivity, and happiness that we all intuitively understand and hunger for".
Csikszentmihalyi discovered that the times when people were most happy and often most productive were not necessarily when they expected they would be. Passive leisure activities such as TV-watching consistently ranked low on participants’ scales of satisfaction — even though they often sought out these experiences. Instead, people reported the greatest sense of well-being while pursuing challenging activities, sometimes even at work, and often while immersed in a hobby.
In the flow state, Csikszentmihalyi found, people engage so completely in what they are doing that they lose track of time. Hours pass in minutes. All sense of self recedes. At the same time, they are pushing beyond their limits and developing new abilities. Indeed, the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to capacity. People emerge from each flow experience more complex, Csikszentmihalyi found. They become more self-confident, capable, and sensitive. The experience becomes "autotelic," meaning that the activity actually becomes its own reward. "To improve life, one must improve the quality of experience," he says. One of the chief advantages of flow is that it enables people to escape the state of "psychic entropy," the distraction, depression, and dispiritedness that constantly threaten them.
What I conclude is that true productivity is NOT about scratching items off to-do lists (although I do confess to getting a thrill out of tossing a completed list!), or being in a constant state of motion and "busyness", or flopping into bed in a state of exhaustion after a day of work and an evening of dish-washing and laundry-folding.
Instead, I understand productivity as being immersed in the task at hand, experiencing a surge of competence, and aligning your actions and your awareness. This describes a way of Being, in relationship to the task at hand, instead of Doing (how much?, by when?, for whom?).
After all, we are Human Beings, not Human Doings – correct?