We’re obsessed with productivity and it may be doing more harm than good.

How this ever-present desire to do more may be a negative symptom of how we relate to our experience.
Handsome business man sleeping on a laptop

Why are we so obsessed with productivity?

I have always felt like I am undeserving of my experience. I don’t remember exactly when that belief was planted in my brain, or when it began to take over my perception of self. All I know, is that those 4 words have been bouncing around in my head for as long as I can remember.

“I’m just not enough.”

That feeling still makes itself known on occasion.  I’ll feel the tension in my chest and my back.  I’ll feel my mind start to race.  Negative words that people have said to me or I have said to myself, or some that my mind even made-up start popping into my head.

Memories of rejection, isolation, and failure flood my mind to validate this feeling.

“ I am not enough.”

I stand up and start pacing.  One of my unconscious habits I only became aware of a few years ago but have been doing for much of my life.  Twitchy and fidgety I begin to take really deep sighs to try and dissipate some of the pain in my chest and back. (This habit was pointed out to me by my best friend & roommate at the time who noticed I deeply sighed 20+ in a matter of minutes one day.)

“You’re not enough.  You weren’t enough for them. you weren’t enough for her.  You weren’t enough for that.  You failed at that. Aren’t you ashamed? You’re letting him down. What did you expect? I wish I was enough…”

There’s an energy here in my body and I can feel it.  I “should” do something with this energy right?  I know what happens when I don’t and I can not go back to that place. Never again.

“Not enough.”

I can only pace for so long.  Now I’m wasting time that I could be doing things. That’s it!  I’m going to channel this energy into cleaning and organizing and getting things done.  I’ll do something meaningful, or create something profound.  I’ll become so efficient, machine-like, with my focus.  I’m gonna get so much done.  I will complete so much today.  

And then…I will be complete.

Then I will be enough.

Some variation of this exact experience happens on occasion. I can’t say that I remember the last time I fell into this trap, but I have fallen into it countless times before.   

Severe depression; severe unconscious depression in my youth to young adulthood nearly caused me to destroy myself on multiple occasions in every sense of the word.  

“I’m just not enough” are words that I branded in my brain over and over again for years. Mental, emotional, and physical self-abuse. 

This pattern of self-abuse went undetected for almost all of my experience growing finally coming to a head in my final year of college. Spit out the other side of a lifetime of school, barely getting out of college alive, here I was in “the real world.” 

You go to school.  You sit in a very uniform arrangement of chairs, with a fixed desk.  A teacher more or less talks at you for an hour, and then you are shuttled by the few minutes you have to another classroom.  And you sit. In a very uniform arrangement of chairs.  Someone talks at you. They might even be saying something really important. But you’ve sat in a very uniform arrangement of chairs with a fixed desk staring at a screen, staring at a board for most of the day now.  

All preparation to join the workforce. To work.

What is the purpose of the modern work force?

To produce.  Just like an assembly line in a factory.  

The modern education system is still a remnant of the post-industrial era and it reflects in the health (physical, mental, and emotional) of the American people. Depression, anxiety, addiction, self-violence, confusion, apathy, and lack of fulfillment are pandemics we can’t lock ourselves inside for.  

You yourself, are a “product” of a system that places tremendous emphasis on production because we are in a consumer culture where we consume; *drum roll…* products!

The bottom line of every company is growth.  Did we make more money than last year? No? Welp, that just means we must produce more.  Do more, produce more, to sell more, to consume more.

Even those in nontraditional creative professions feel the pressure of having to constantly produce and produce, sometimes at the expense of the quality of their work and their own true creative expression.

How does this relate to my personal story above? 

What problem does the solution of producing more fix? Why is production programmed to be a goal?

We live in a society where marketing and media project onto us that we are not enough as we are, with what we have, with who we are.  

In turn, we are sold products, stuff, ideas that will give us the sense of completion we’ve been sold.  Finally, we will have enough.  Finally, we will be enough.  I work in health & wellness (not to be confused with medicine) so I know on a visceral level how much marketing goes into making people feel like they are not enough.

Part of the “productivity movement” especially in the realm of personal growth, is people sharing techniques that have allowed them to gain efficiency in their lives. 

Great. Fantastic. I’m a fan.

To be perfectly clear: There’s nothing wrong with producing.  Nothing wrong with being productive.  I myself have a system that I’ve developed that allows me to be more efficient. 

 So I can, yes, get more things done.

However, when unaware, the deep desire or need to be productive can become a sneaky outlet for our insecurities.

There’s a sense of accomplishment in getting things done, right?  The more we do, the more fulfilled we feel.  

But is that really what we want though? To rely on getting things done to feel a sense of fulfillment?  Isn’t that just feeding into the idea that we are not enough as we are? 

Maybe. Maybe not.

Personally, that’s what my instinct is when I get into a sense of not feeling enough as I outlined above.  

My mind, and the minds of many clients and individuals that I have worked with that have struggled with mental, emotional, physical and even spiritual health usually boils down to just a few basic feelings.  When we dig below the surface and get to the root of our problems they manifest as one of these:

Feeling: I do not accept myself as I am.

Reaction: I will seek acceptance from others to validate myself.

Feeling: I do not respect myself as I am.

Reaction: I will seek to garner the respect of others.

Feeling:  I do not love myself.

Reaction: I will seek affection and intimacy from others to feel love.

Feeling: I feel unworthy. 

Reaction: I must do something to prove my worthiness.

Feeling: I am not enough.

Reaction:  I will do more, to become more, to be enough.

Why do we really want to lose weight?  To feel like we are enough.

Why do we really want acceptance from others? To feel like we are enough.

Why do we binge eat? Because it gives us a momentary sense of fulfillment.

Why do we do our drugs and drink our poison? Because it gives us a momentary sense of fulfillment.  

This sense of lacking can so easily hide in productivity because on the surface, getting more done, being more productive is a good thing.  Right?  

For sure, it can be.  Same as losing weight can be a good thing.

But understanding the underlying mechanism behind why we have the desire to be more productive, as I’ve seen with many clients I’ve worked with and myself, is to fill a hole with this sense of accomplishment.  

When we so desire “to be more productive” we are desiring “to be more.”

 As we identify our sense of worth with what we do, we eventually find out that there is never enough we can do.

Radical Self Acceptance

In her book, Radical Self Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha, (Which is a recommended read) Tara Brach describes her own experience with this seemingly innocuous trap of productivity.

“Ever since I was a teen, my drive to be productive has been a key strategy of my wanting self.  When I feel insecure, producing — whether it is a finished article a stack of paid bills, or a clean kitchen — is my most readily accessible device for feeling worthwhile.  This producing is not simply the natural urge to be creative and contribute to the mix of life, it is energized by fears of inadequacy and the need to prove myself.”

Tara Brach, Radical Self Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

Again, I’m not poo-pooing anyone that has read a productivity article ( I have read and saved a  bunch) or is actively looking for more ways to be productive.  All I ask of you is to go deeper into the root of your desire to be productive.  Tara again illustrates how this desire of the wanting self,  can hide in the parts of us that are creative and fulfilled.

“Even when we are engaged in activities that are meaningful to us, that are creatively and spiritually gratifying, they can be “co-opted” and used to satisfy the unmet needs of the wanting self.”

Tara Brach, Radical Self Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha

My writing, my business, my health and fitness routine, my relationships have all been at one point or another, internally hijacked by this sense of desire.  The sense of desire sparked by the feeling of “I am not enough.”

“This happens to me most often when I’m rewarding talks or workshops for meditation groups or writing articles on Buddhist practice.  When I remain aware that the Buddhist teachings are precious to me and I love sharing them with others, I can throw myself into what I’m doing with enormous passion.  When anxiety or frustration arises, I am able to meet it with acceptance.  But sometimes that voice of insecurity and unworthiness arises, and I listen to it.  Suddenly writing or preparing a presentation is linked to winning or losing love and respect and my entire experience of working shifts… I’m anxiously striving to be “good enough” and to reap the rewards.”

Tara Brach, Radical Self Acceptance: Embracing Your Heart With the Heart of a Buddha

Now take a moment, and pause here.  Put down this article and give yourself 5-10 minutes if you can, to reflect on where your desire to be more productive, or any of your desires really, have been “co-opted” by a sense of lacking or low self-worth.  

Maybe you don’t feel that at all.  Maybe you’re always and only productive from a creative and loving place.  Maybe all your desires are from a place of unity consciousness and you only ever are in a state of truth and conscious intentional action.

That’s sure not the case for me. 

 Most of my life has been a grueling never-ending path to gain acceptance, respect, and love.  From others or the world.  From myself.  To feel like I am enough.  That If I just do this, If I only did that… And I know for a fact in a society plagued by depression, anxiety, apathy, listlessness, division, violence and confusion on the meaning of life, that I am not the only one.  

Okay, reflection period over.

Now how can we break free from this spell? This illusion of doing more to be more?

Let’s take a look.

“Stop measuring your days by degree of productivity and start measuring them by degree of presence.”

Alan Watts

If you haven’t heard of Alan Watts, finish this article and go to youtube and pick any lecture and give it a good honest listen, even if it feels like it’s over your head. (Especially if it feels like it’s over your head.)   Also, Alan Watts and I share the same birthday, so I’m not saying that makes me as wise as him, but I’m not saying that It doesn’t not make me as wise as him.  Just saying.

This is one of my favorite quotes by Alan Watts and one that has made a majr impact on how I relate to my experience.  

We already went over how and why we measure our days by production.  What does it mean to measure our days by degree of presence?

What do I define presence as?

But what is presence? Presence is derived from present, and while I enjoy breaking down Latin roots, but for the sake of simplicity we’ll go with the Merriam-Webster definition which defines present as:

“Now existing or in progress.”

Highlight the “Now.”

Presence is a state of existing in this moment we are in. Right. Now. Which can be a hard concept to really pin down.  So instead let’s look at what is not the present.

If you are thinking about the future, you are not in the present.

If you are thinking about the past, you are not in the present.

If you are thinking about an imaginary scenario where you save Ryan Reynolds from being hit by a train, and then the city erects a statue to you and you and Ryan become best friends forever and you get featured in Deadpool 3, then you are not in the present.

If you are thinking about what you have to get done, you are not in the present.

If you are feeling sad about something that happened a month ago, you are not in the present.

If you have feelings of resentment towards someone who wronged you in the past, you are not in the present.

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

If you are in all of these places in your mind, it’s impossible for you to be right here.  That’s what the main point of meditation is. It’s not to “not think”, it’s to be entirely present with your experience.  That doesn’t mean not thinking or feeling, it means not being attached to thoughts or feelings because our attention is anchored in the immediacy of this moment as it is happening.  Hence, “Now existing or in progress.”

Meditation gives us an opportunity to return to the present moment.  I say return, because this moment is all there is, was, and will be.  It’s only our attachment to our thoughts and feelings that pull us away from this moment. To be present is our inherent nature. We are born into the present moment as newborns, experiencing all of life for the very first time. 

While the major benefit to meditation is returning to the present moment, it also allows us to become aware of where we are not present. Notice where you are not present and you’ll notice where most of your stress comes from. Where most of your problems lie (save for the person who is not actively in a crisis or experiencing trauma.) 

That all sounds nice, but being productive still sounds more important than “presence.”

Presence actually allows for increased productivity.  When you see an artist, musician, or athlete in a “flow state”, what you are witnessing is someone who is entirely immersed in their present experience. We want to be able to produce from that space.  We envy this level of focus, and seek to emulate it.  

However, when we say we want to be more “focused” what we mean is more “present.”  

“No valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.”

Alan Watts

When we are present with whatever it is we are doing, we are able to direct 100% of our attention to it.  Which is what focus is.  

This heightened awareness we experience as a result of resting in the present moment is what allows us to operate at a higher level of consciousness. To not just “do” more, but to tap into the depths of our creativity.  Not to make “more” but to make better. To innovate, not replicate.  That is what presence allows us to do. Which in a world driven by innovation is much more important than an increase in production.

How do I increase my level presence?

Shooting an arrow into a target from yards away takes a certain level of specific skill.

Sprinting in a 200m dash requires a certain level of specific skill.

Playing any instrument at a high level requires a certain level of specific skill.

Presence is a skill, that like anything else can be developed.

How does one “increase” skill?

Practice.  Seems so simple, doesn’t it? ( The truth always is.)

All practice is, is the continual preparation for change.  

If you are a runner, and in your mind, you’d like to really be a ‘runner’. Like marathons. Fuck it, gimme that double Ironman. But you’ve never run in your life and are terribly out of shape. 

Well, okay. 

The first experience may be running around the block and focusing on breathing. That is quite different than running 26.2 miles (or 42.195 kilometers for my metric friends.) However, that first run is preparation for that moment, that 26.2-mile run.  It doesn’t need to be that moment. Or even the moment preceding the marathon. But the consistent continual preparation that moves us into a deeper level of skill, is practice. 

What are practices that we can easily integrate into our lives to increase presence?  To develop the skill of presence?

And I’m making this an open challenge to you reading this: choose one of these practices from the list below, and try it for a week.  Just pick one, keep track of how much of it you did in the week, and reflect on it. Make note of how you feel, what your thoughts are, the sensations in the body.  Awareness is what we naturally cultivate when we remain present.

Micro Meditations

Micro meditations or pausing is a powerful way to immediately return to the present moment.  Tara Brach refers to this as “The Sacred Pause” in reference to the story of The Buddha. 

The Buddha’s pause

For those that are not familiar with the story of The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was not born enlightened.  He was a prince born into a wealthy family in India.  Despite living a lavish lifestyle and experiencing the trappings of luxury, Gautama eventually renounced the opulence and excess that defined the lifestyle of the wealthy elite in India after observing the amount of suffering in the world.  

This caused him to move in the exact opposite direction of this lifestyle and become an ascetic (one who rejects all forms of worldly pleasure.) After living in the woods with the ascetics, Gautama found that this opposite extreme did not provide him with the truth he was seeking. Having lived lavishly and lived with nothing, and still in search of meaning in life, Gautama came to rest under a bodhi tree.  It was at this moment that he slipped into a deep state of meditation. A state of non-doing and non-attachment. A moment of pause. 

It was during this pause from the experience of the world, that The Buddha came into the space of nirvana, or enlightenment.  

Pause for presence

Pausing or taking micro-meditations during the day represents our conscious ability to be the leader of our experience; not our thoughts.

Take a moment to visualize your mind as a dog on a leash.  Your dog sees a rabbit and starts chasing the rabbit.  Do you start sprinting with your dog, now yourself, chasing the rabbit? Unless you are out in the wilderness hunting for food with your dog/wolf hybrid that you raised from a pup, that’s probably not going to be the case.  And there’s a good chance that your dog(mind) chases after squirrels, rabbits, birds (insignificant and distracting thoughts) which make up a large quantity of the animals in the woods.

When you stop and pause you hold onto that leash, stand your ground in the present space, and recognize that your mind is about to go chase as thought. 

The sacred pause is a moment to breathe ( changing nervous system response.)

The sacred pause is a moment of detachment (from the attachment that is likely causing some sort of suffering.)

The sacred pause is a coming into the power of who we are.  

I can stop if I want to. Stand here, and before I go into the car to rush somewhere, I can take 3 breaths, and those three breaths will feel empowering.  That we were not chasing something.  The recognition that we don’t have to, while still being able to pursue whatever it is our path is taking us on, is freeing.

Active Practice

I have found micro-meditations to be an extremely simple yet effective way to step out of the jetstream of our mind into a space where we can slow down. For those that “don’t have time” to meditate or have never practiced meditation, micro-meditations are a great way to build some momentum towards a formal meditation practice.

  1. Make note of the times of day where you find yourself to be most distracted, unfocused, and overwhelmed.
  2. pause what it is you are doing, close down your eyes, and take three long inhales and 3 slow exhales.
  3. Resume activity.

This may seem like very little or “meditation-lite”, but these 3 breaths are extremely powerful when done continuously throughout the day. It is that holding onto the leash of the mind, and regrounding.  

This technique is also really effective when transitioning between tasks. The to-do list can seem endless and our desire to continue producing can take over our mind to the point that we’re effectively on autopilot.  

As soon as you complete a task, or even transition between experiences (getting in and out of the car, walking into a new room) take those same 3 breaths. 

Once you begin to do these micro-meditations, it becomes such a part of your normal day that it feels really good to take these moments because of how present you will feel. All of it builds on each other and you start shifting the ratio of the unconscious to conscious behavior in your day.  That’s the first step to creating profound change.

Presence Tracker

I have a bullet journal.

And I am a tracker.  Like a bloodhound with the nose to the ground, catching a whiff of some elk poo.  Bullet Journaling or “BUJO” as it is sometimes referenced as is a system of organization by essentially creating your own planner.

I track about 7-8 major “habits”, every day over the course of a month. Which I then track over the course of the season, and the year.  

That may sound like crazy overkill, but it’s really not once you take the time to set the journal up one time.  It’s a great practice in increasing awareness by being able to observe trends. For you guys that are visual learners and love data, this technique is a game-changer.    

The key here is that I am merely observing.  Not shaming myself for not completing tasks. Not getting anxious when I miss habits. Detaching from expectation and allowing myself to simply collect data. Some things are automatic in my life, and some things are not.  Some things that if were automatic would greatly free up a lot of mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual energy.

And that energy can be better spent growing, learning, creating, serving, loving, experiencing.

Not planning, measuring, remembering, being anxious about forgetting, being caught in the past or the future.

But a major part of my daily journaling, bullet or not, is reflection.  I look at my long-term goals, I see my personal mission statement, I see my monthly goals, I see my weekly goals, I see my weekly intention. Every day in my daily log, I write an intention for the morning. And a reflection in the evening. Along with rating my presence on a scale of 1-4. I have it on a grid that gets shaded in ( the visual is more profound and impactful for me than a series of numbers, the same thing as seeing an engaging graph, vs reading a spreadsheet.)

There is nothing “being done” when I rate my presence; versus my habit tracker, which is tracking the completion of my habits.

The rating of my presence is completely subjective.  So along with my reflection throughout the day, I not only reflect on what happened.  I reflect on how present I was, give myself a rating of presence, and observe the pattern of presence.  Usually, along with the pattern of presence, there is a positive trend of habits being completed.  There is no benefit to giving myself “4” across the board for the sake of appearing to be on point in my life.

What’s interesting to observe, is that on the days where I am more present, I almost always get more done.  Not just on that day, but it will spill over into the next day and have a residual effect.

Conversely, on the days where I am at a 1, it reflects in the rest of my log. 

Making presence something that can be tracked, observed, and then reflected upon daily, frees up all the problems of why I didn’t get something done or am “behind.”

We’ve all had those weeks where something goes “wrong” or a wrench is thrown into our schedule on Monday, which ends up throwing off the entire week.  Daily reflection, is an opportunity to be present in and of itself and can be the reset button we need to catch ourselves before the train goes off the tracks.  

 Reflection throughout the day can prevent the whole day from being derailed. Reflection on Monday evening can prevent a whole week from being derailed. Reflection in each moment allows us to see that the only thing derailing our experience is our attitude towards our experience.

Pick a toe, any toe

I’m just using toes because they highlight the point very well, but you can pick any obscure body part.  You could even pick your nose ( *waits for laughter that never comes.)

What I mean by “obscure” is that they are often out of our general focus of attention.

Asana ( the physical practice of yoga, which is only 1 of 8 limbs of yoga), Qi Gong, or martial arts like Tai Chi all allow us an opportunity to feel into our body, specifically parts of the body that get no love. 

During the day, what many people feel in their body, are the aches and pains they have.  Or their leg if it gets numb from sitting on the toilet seat while reading this article. Occasionally we use our arms and legs and kinda feel them doing things like walking and opening a door.  

But how often do you consciously or bring your attention to a spot like your pinky toe, with intention?

My guess is not very often, at best.

Just like the sacred pause, here we are redirecting our attention from whatever it is we are doing or thinking to our pinky toe.  Not wiggling it, trying to make ourselves feel it.  But directing our mental attention to our pinky toe. (Heads up: all the nerves in your body communicate with your brain, so by bringing your mind to your pinky toe, you are essentially bringing stimulation to the nerves that allow you to feel your pinky toe.)

What you’ll notice if even just for 5-6 breaths, is that when you direct your attention to a body part, even one that is difficult to feel like a pinky toe when you continue to do it over and over, you can feel it more.  

Once again, a very subtle practice, but with time and frequency, can create a profound shift in how you relate to your body( especially when most of us only pay attention to our body when it’s in pain.)  When we experience those chronic aches and pains that seem to pop up out of nowhere, there’s a good chance, at least with most of the people I’ve worked with including myself,  that a lack of awareness of the body is the primary culprit.

We think that because we are born “with” a body ( as in not being our body, but having a body), and born “with” a mind (as in not being our mind, but having a mind), we know how to use them.

When, why, and how did we ever get that idea?  With all you know right now if I gave you the universe’s most complex supercomputer and asked you to tell me how it works, what would your answer be?

Unless you are the person who invented said supercomputer, chances are you wouldn’t know.

Shoot, I literally have no idea what the actual fuck a circuit board does.  Like I see there are wires, and it’s green and I get that. But like, how does that create the sound of Despacito coming out of my phone?

The same goes for your mind and your body.

Everyone’s got legs so everyone thinks they know how to run.  Most people who run don’t run in any way that’s healthy for their body or efficient for their performance ( which is why so many people experience stiffness and pain during running.)

People don’t even have conscious control of posture. ( since the lockdown, this one hit me hard, as I’ve never had a job where I’ve sat down before, and I sure feel it now.)

What these three things all have in common is that they come from a place of curiosity.

“By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity, we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility.”

Alan Watts

Get curious.  How does my pinky toe feel? Can I stop in this moment?  Can I take a second? Was I actually “there” for my experience today? Did I take a minute to just be?

Curiosity can only exist in a space of non-judgment.  So by being curious, we are effectively taking ourselves out of a space of judgment of ourselves, others, and our experience.  We are releasing our attachment.  

How are you?

Our desire to do is so strong because getting things done is part of how we’ve all unconsciously agreed that society is going to work ( some of us at least.) I do this, I receive value for what I do In the form of money. Money can create a lot of things.

 But it cannot recreate the feeling of oneness.  It cannot replicate what it feels like to be united in mind, body, and soul.  It cannot complete something that is already complete.

Those things only happen in the present.


Productivity is what you do.

Presence is how you are.

Productivity is doing.

Presence is being.

In the twilight moments of your life, will you run through your to-do list of things to get done? Of all the things you checked off of your list? Of all the things you didn’t do?

Or will you reflect on how you felt? How present were you for the ups and the downs of your life? Were you truly available for your experience? Did you allow yourself to be there for your life? 

Or did you spend it running around trying to do more? Was your time constantly looking for acceptance through external validation, for what you accomplished, worth it?

Life is short. It really is. We spend so much of our energy trapped in the illusion that our self-worth and our success and significance is reliant on “doing more.” Doing more to feel like we are more.

Because we feel like we aren’t enough. If I leave you with anything in this article, it’s the same words I have on my wall.

“You are enough.” 

Spend more time being enough as you are and less time trying to be enough. Stay here in this moment and savor it. Enjoy the feeling of accepting, respecting, and loving yourself because you are entirely complete in who you are.  Be present.

And the next time someone asks you “How are you”, before you answer…


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