rebelling against low expectations

The Pursuit of Productivity: Finding a Healthy Balance in Life


People often see how hard I work and think I must be a naturally healthy and productive person. I’m not.

I used to sort eggs on a chicken farm. The hours were great and gave me lots of time at home to do whatever I needed to. Yet even though I knew how to be efficient and utilize mental energy, I seemed bogged down by day-to-day activities and could never find time to do anything important like write, study or regular fitness.

Then I became the supervisor at a resort in the mountains that was ranked as one of the top three hotels in Canada. I was often working 12-18 hours a day. As soon as I was forced to, I realized that the daily things I used to do each day weren’t that important. Unfortunately, I focused so much on work that I neglected sleep, meals and even drinking water.

No, I’m not a very good example of someone who has figured out how to live a healthy balanced life. But I have learned from my own failures.

Often productivity is defined by how efficiently we can work or the quality of our work. It’s more than that. I think that productivity is achieving a healthy, balanced life through rest and efficiently focusing on the tasks that will most effectively help us achieve our goals.

How Do We do it all?

I constantly feel like I have too much to do and not enough time. I am sure I am not the only one. Often, this busyness leaves us with two options.

The first response is to work until we complete our to-do list. But this wears us down and prevents us from doing other activities. I learned the hard way that neglecting rest isn’t healthy.

Our second option is to do more at once. If we can do three things at once, we will finish in one-third of the time. It makes sense!

But we can’t “multi-focus.” When we try to do two mental tasks at once, our brains are switching from task to task. The more we mentally switch tasks, the harder it gets to actually focus on one task at a time. The busyness makes us feel frantic, stressed and exhausted.

Rethinking Our Response

When we feel like there’s too much to do, what if we could make a third option? What if we could simply do less?

When I was working 18 hours a day, I had to make sacrifices in life. I didn’t spend any time on social media and stopped responding to emails. My room was a little messy, but it was more important to get proper rest than make sure all my shirts were perfectly ironed. I realized that a lot of activities that used to fill my days weren’t that important.

There are a lot of activities we spend time on that aren’t necessary. To avoid getting distracted by daily fluff, I’ve learned to hold each activity up against my goal. This has helped me limit what I do so I can have more time to enjoy life. If an activity is not pushing me toward my goal, it is not the most effective use of my time.

Use Time Effectively

Watching Ted Talks on YouTube can seem like a great use of time (I can learn so much!). In reality, it’s a poor use of time because it is not pushing me toward one of my goals. It is better than watching pointless viral videos, but it’s not the best use of time.

Each person’s goals are unique. If you want to be better at music, you may need to evaluate how much time you spend shooting hoops. Reading great books is helpful if you want to be a great writer. But does your reading exceed the amount of time you spend actually writing?

How can you limit your activities so that each thing you do adds value to your life and pushes you closer to a goal?

In addition to keeping my goals in mind, I also try to think about how each activity lines up with my values. I value learning, being physically active and being mentally nimble. Travelling, reading, running and writing essays all fit my values well. Something that doesn’t fit my values is hunching over a laptop or phone. If it is on a screen, I can skip it without much worry.

You may be extremely hard working, but if you get distracted by trivial issues like washing the kitchen floor, responding to emails and social media, you will not make much progress on your goals. To be effective, we need to choose activities that will provide the most positive impact.

Crafting a Strategy

Most of us have goals we want to achieve. Our mind is at war though. One part of our brain wants to work hard to succeed. The rest of our mind just wants to enjoy life and have immediate satisfaction. A few tricks can help balance these competing parts of our minds.

When we invest in an activity, it becomes more important to us. Even the reward part of our brains is motivated to put a little effort in because it is scared of the consequences if we don’t succeed after we have invested.

You can strategically use this knowledge to provide extra motivation for the activities you want to focus on. If you enroll in a programming course, you will be more likely to practice your coding. Do you want to run more regularly? You could try buying a pair of running shoes. Offering to go out for a coffee with your friend may make you more likely to catch up. The time commitment and possible monetary price of the coffee will give the meeting a higher significance than any regular meeting.

When I wanted to get better at swimming, I bought a pass for the pool. The monetary investment helped, but I still struggled to motivate myself to go swimming. I began to tell myself that I just had to go to the pool and do one lap. Once I finished my first lap, I often felt pretty good and did 20-30 more.

MOtivation One Moment At a Time

Most writers also struggle to motivate themselves to write lots every day. To combat this, they will often make small, but attainable goals, such as writing 100 words every day. The goal is attainable so it doesn’t require much motivation. Because they can do it every day, it helps them develop a habit.

Whatever you are working at, whether it’s school, a job or personal skills, work at it with intense determination for as long as your motivation holds out. This will help develop a habit of hard work. If you put that much effort into it in the first few months, you will achieve great success.

Success is important to provide mental rewards for your work. The initial success will also set expectations. Your teachers will expect good grades. Your friends will know you as the person who is good at music. Your neighbours know you as “that hard-working kid.” And all those expectations will help push you to continue, even when your initial motivation fails you.

Being motivated is not easy. If we can hijack our mental powers and work with our own nature, things will go much better. All of these tips are pointless though if you never actually progress and work on the things that would cause the most benefit for you.

Why We Work

When we finish one task, what often happens? We realize we have time and do something else! This happens to me all the time. Our goal in being more effective and efficient is so that we can rest and enjoy life. But I never seem to get around the resting part.

I have found that when I do not rest properly, my mental health goes downhill. Often people associate “mental health” with “depression”, “anxiety” and other serious issues. But mental health relates to our whole being, our quality of life and our outlook on life. When I do not rest well, I get moody, I work more than I should, and I stop writing and running. Most sad of all is the outlandish ideas that make me unique stop flowing. I need focused rest to fuel me motivate me to work.

True Rest

I have learned that rest is not just doing whatever I want. Watching YouTube is easy, but it does not fill me up – in fact, it drains my mental energy and often leads to distraction. Running or hiking on the other hand is exhausting. But it is rest. I may physically wear myself out, but mentally it helps me think and improves my outlook on life.

My definition of rest is any activity that recharges you mentally, emotionally, physically or spiritually, improves your outlook on life and returns you to a place of balance. I must force myself to rest well.

Making Progress

I often feel overwhelmed by everything I want to do. I need to clean the bathroom, do my laundry, prepare a training plan for the hotel guides, respond to emails, write an article, have a nap, go for a run and much more.

The things to improve in life feel equally pressuring. I should practice my penmanship and typing skills, I need to get better at focusing and mental energy recovery, I should be working out more regularly, I should be more patient.

I have (slowly) learned that trying to change everything all at once does not work. I just get discouraged by the lack of progress. So instead, I have started focusing on just one thing at a time. One small win is better than one hundred near misses.

Often when focusing on productivity, we think about ways to be more efficient and sometimes we even think of ways to limit our activities so we can focus on the most effective ones. But we rarely remember that we cannot work if we never fill ourselves up through rest. Productivity is the balance we need to find between choosing the most important tasks, working efficiently at them and resting well.

And no, it is never easy or natural.

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About the author

Duncan Poulsen

is a writer who intentionally pushes himself into experiences that force him to grow. He thinks deeply and likes to ensure that all ideas are considered before reaching conclusions. Duncan grew up on a goat dairy in Alberta, Canada but now lives in the mountains, just steps from massive glaciers and works at one of Canada’s top hotels. During the winter months, he writes regularly on his blog at Duncan Poulsen.

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