I laughed and suggested that my manager and director double-check their notes. There was no way I could have been the person they were looking for.
Why would they be asking the guy who comes in late, leaves early, and has no structure, routine, or process to give a presentation to the rest of the sales organization on time management?
Observing me throughout a given day would make Tim Ferriss nauseous. I have no system, and I eschew pretty much all conventional wisdom about productivity and time management. My work habits most closely resemble those of a giant panda: extended periods of lounging punctuated by bursts of effort, like foraging for food or building out a new product line.
No, they told me, I was the one they wanted.
I was outselling my peers by a large margin. I had the largest average deal size. I regularly led the region in weekly activity.
They wanted me to reflect on why exactly this was and to share my approach with the rest of the organization, a large data analytics company I was working for back in 2018.
Alright, so what the hell was I going to present? My mostly empty calendar and a bamboo shoot?
My answer at the time would miss the mark, focusing on tactics and strategy instead of the real heart of the issue: fear.
As I observed others, I was reminded of something very perceptive my dad had told me years before:
Don’t confuse activity with productivity.
Most folks correlate the two. They make fancy to-do lists, color code their calendars, use the Pomodoro Technique, batch their emails, time block, create focus playlists, build intricate processes, share best practices, make SMART goals, construct priority matrices, schedule meetings. All this activity feels good. Like that mobile game Candy Crush, it’s insidiously addictive, enticing you with the illusion of progress. You feel like you’re Getting Shit Done.
The one tiny detail that gets missed, though, is that all this productivity masturbation rarely leads to any meaningful accomplishment.
I outperformed my peers because I identified the actions that would be the most impactful, that would provide the highest return on my time. I then focused ruthlessly on those actions at the expense of everything else. Instead of making complicated spreadsheets organizing my customers into priority buckets or creating a bunch of folders for my email inbox, I figured out which customers and emails were the most important and focused my attention on those while ignoring the rest. All of the benefits, none of the theater.
Their failure to do this had to be a tactical error, right?
A few weeks later, I stood at the front of the main conference room as my Magnum Opus on Productivity flashed onto the projector screen: six rules laid out in elegant gray and white PowerPoint slides that explained how my peers could strategically identify and focus on the highest-value tasks involved in their work. I threw in a Bruce Lee reference—"be like water"—for good measure.
People nodded along as I gave my presentation, and my ego swelled when a couple folks at the front even started taking notes. My peers and some of the managers had a lively discussion afterward about how they might be able to implement my ideas going forward.
But my inflated ego began to hemorrhage air as I watched people continue to play with their calendars, organize their email inboxes, and build flowcharts. Their unchanged behavior was, of course, matched by unimproved performance.
My presentation hadn’t accomplished a damn thing.
The mistake I made was assuming that people’s inability to identify and focus on high-value tasks was a tactical issue. Most people haven’t been taught this approach to their work, I reasoned, so it was simply a matter of education. I saw my presentation as a teaching opportunity.
If Tim and Bernard asked me to give that presentation today (God forbid), it would look a lot different. Because I realize now that my tactical guide was addressing the symptoms of the problem, not the cause.
The productivity problem my peers were facing—that we all face—is emotional, not tactical.
People aren’t unproductive because they haven’t been taught the right approach. We’re smart and resourceful creatures. We already know all of this stuff, deep down.
People are unproductive because they’re scared, and the comfort blanket of busy work offers a warm respite.
It’s as if, in an effort to cook a great meal, you set up mise en place, sharpen your knives, chop up your vegetables perfectly, reread the recipe, and put on some music, but you never actually turn on the oven.
Because, deep down, you’re afraid.
You’re afraid of the heat,
or that you’ll burn the food,
or that your partner won’t like what you cooked,
or that your partner will love what you cooked;
that they’ll love it so much that you’ll realize you’re an extremely talented chef and cooking is your passion and the path you laid out for your life is now irrelevant.
Our productive impotence is the result of the emotional heat keeping us out of the kitchen, ensuring that we never actually cook the meal. Fear of uncertainty, embarrassment, failure, even success—all of these keep us from doing what we need to do.
I experienced this recently with one of my businesses. In the middle of my third straight day of “working” on the aesthetics and copy for the landing page of a product that was already far and away my best-seller, it occurred to me that I had accomplished precisely nothing in the way of actually growing the business.
Pretty embarrassing for the Time Management Guy.
I realized that my landing-page-flavored productivity masturbation was, of course, coming from fear. It was a response to the panda-sized pit I felt in my stomach when I imagined the potential failure of what I really should have been working on: a new product launch.
No amount of calendar color coding or time blocking or Pomodoro Techniquing was going to help me confront this fear. I needed only to acknowledge the fear and do the work anyway.
These days, I’m lazy. I work as little as possible, and I still have no structure or routine. I regularly sleep past 11am. I also have three businesses, am most of the way through EMT class, and write nearly every day.
This is not a superpower. I’m not special. I’ve just internalized an idea as embarrassingly simple as remembering to turn on the oven:
Productivity isn’t about getting things done. It’s about getting the right things done.
It’s about stepping into the fear.
I was reluctant to broach the topic of productivity. Most writing on the subject makes me cringe. It’s tactical, sterile, and impersonal, treating our species as a mechanistic vessel for production that needs to be tweaked and optimized for maximal output.
But in writing this I’m reminded that when we examine productivity through the lens of the whole person—messy, irrational emotions and all—we begin to access the true productive power of humanity, the life force that produced the likes of the Sistine Chapel, the vaccine, and the space shuttle. We access our innate ability to work on the right things, the right way.
Accessing this ability has made all the difference for me. It has allowed me to enjoy the life of a giant panda: a delightfully lazy existence punctuated by periods of working on what matters most.
A huge thank you to , , , , and for the thoughtful feedback on this piece.
But wait, what about my morning routine structured down to the millisecond and my time blacking including each time I will rollover in bed at night? You’re saying that to be productive I have to... do things that produce?
Great read brotha, I have struggle over the years on trying to grasp the whole time block thing and it never felt like it did much except make my calendar colorful. And most people I saw who did it, didn’t actually follow it. They just kept tweaking it.
Dang Alex, this is KILLER. Something I needed to hear for sure. Not because I rely on flow charts or spreadsheets (I don’t), but because I WISH I did. I’ve often felt like I’m bad at time management because those techniques don’t lead to a sense of hyper-productivity for me. But this makes complete sense (and makes me feel a whole lot better, lol). Your prose, as usual, is eloquent and imaginative. I love how you play with structure, too. Great job!!