Productivity and Happiness: Why Are We So Busy?

“Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” ~John Lennon

There have been times in my life when I believed all my happiness revolved around how busy I was. If I was busy, I was using time wisely. If I was busy, I was proving to myself that I was valuable. If I was busy, I was creating the possibility of a better life in the future. Any threat to my productivity was a threat to my sense of hope.

Being busy didn’t make me feel happy, but it created the illusion that I was somehow building a foundation for that feeling someday, somewhere, when I could finally slow down and be free.

Most of us are fiercely defensive of our busyness. We have processes to streamline, goals to accomplish, promotions to earn, debt to eliminate, exercise regimes to master, dreams to chase—and hopefully along the way, people to help and inspire.

We multitask, even when it means not truly being present in an activity we enjoy, and maybe even feel guilty for blocks of unplanned time in our schedules. We look for productivity hacks and apps, join forums to discuss ways to get more things done; and when we do aim to simplify our lives, even that undertaking involves a lengthy to-do list.

Productivity and the American Dream

Our obsession with productivity is partly a reflection on our beliefs about the American dream—the idea that our potential for happiness is intricately tied to our freedom to pursue wealth.

When you consider that 80% of the country thinks they will one day become rich, when in reality less than 10% will, it makes sense that many people live life like a race. We’re competing to beat the odds.

We think we must work harder and longer than the majority, squeeze more into our day than other people, if we’re to amass a fortune so we can escape the drudgery of work as we know it.

That perception turns the present into something to endure instead of something to fully enjoy.

Our working reality doesn’t have to be so painful that we can’t wait to escape it. If we follow our bliss, we can fill our days with work that stretches us, fulfills us, and endows life with a whole new level of meaning. And in terms of money leading to happiness, it only works that way if you’re already happy.

Take my friend, for example. She is a lovely person who unfortunately fills her time focusing on everything her life lacks. She frequently comments, “I’d be happier if I didn’t have to work,” or “I’d be happier if I didn’t have bills,” or “I’d be happier if I had my own place.”

She spins her wheels trying to create a world that allows her to kick back and breathe, but odds are, if she found herself in that place she’d have no idea how to appreciate it.

We all need to decide for ourselves what the dream really looks like. There are likely parts of it you have to work for, and parts of it that require no more than tuning into what you already have.

Productivity and Effectiveness

The irony in our tendency to do more to become more is that efficiency does not necessarily guarantee effectiveness. Completing the items on your to-do list does not inherently imply you’ve done them well. Getting more done is not an accurate barometer for measuring your impact.

In fact, squeezing more into your day often detracts from your ability to be effective in each situation. What would make a day more valuable to your intentions: twenty actions that moved you one foot closer to the change you’d like to see or five actions that moved you ten feet closer?

Whenever we expel energy, it’s important to consider the law of diminishing returns. This economic theory states that after a certain point, increased investment will not necessarily generate proportional returns.

So for example, if you run a telemarketing company, and you have five phones, hiring ten employees won’t yield double the sales because there isn’t enough equipment to go around. In much the same way, if you spend ten hours working, but every hour after five your performance declines, half of your time will be far less effective than you intend it to be.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you’re being effective in achieving what you actually want. Sometimes we can feel certain we know what we want to do only to later realize we were trying to please something else, or doing what we thought we should do, or failing to be honest with ourselves.

I grew up thinking I wanted to become a famous actress. It wasn’t until I got sick and spent a prolonged amount of time in a hospital that I realized what I really wanted was validation.

For me, time incapacitated was the most effective time of my life because I established what I really desired—both personally and professionally. The experience of not doing helped me better understand what I actually wanted to do.

Think about what it is you’re really seeking and what might be the most direct path to get it. Then realize that sometimes doing less can actually pave the path to experiencing more—more satisfaction, more ease, and even more effectiveness.

Productivity and Happiness

Contrary to conventional wisdom, research suggests that happiness leads to success, not the other way around, meaning it would benefit us to shift our focus from achieving future happiness to accessing that joy right now.

Think about how we experience life when we’re focused on getting things done. When you concentrate all your energy on completing tasks, how much of those chores do you experience mindfully? How much joy do you derive from an activity you see as an obstacle between where you are and where you’d like to be?

When we wrap our days around things we have to do we leave very little time for the things we want to do. Happiness requires a balance.

We need time with the people we love. We need space to do the things we enjoy without any agenda other than having fun. We need opportunities to disconnect our minds and experience the world with childlike curiosity and wonder. All of this requires us to whittle away at our busyness.

What is the Alternative to Busyness?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have and pursue goals. I’m also not suggesting we should find ways to avoid work. We can transform ourselves and our lives not just through the results of our labor but through the efforts themselves.

For example, the process of maintaining this site fulfills me regardless of who reads it. The doing is in itself the reward.

We can all create a reality that is not just a means but an end in itself. It starts by asking ourselves a few very important questions to be sure our efforts support our true intentions:

  • What is it you really want to accomplish?
  • What can you do today that supports your deepest passions?
  • If you knew your days were numbered, how much time would you want to devote to activities that have nothing to do with striving and achieving?
  • Our days are numbered, so why not start creating that type of balance now?

Photo by kellyv

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha. She started the site after struggling with depression, bulimia, c-PTSD, and toxic shame so she could recycle her former pain into something useful and inspire others do the same. She recently created the Breaking Barriers to Self-Care eCourse to help people overcome internal blocks to meeting their needs—so they can feel their best, be their best, and live their best possible life. If you’re ready to start thriving instead of merely surviving, you can learn more and get instant access here.

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