If you’re seeking more ways to be happy, being productive rarely springs to mind. That particular need tends to be fuelled by the feeling we’re not getting enough done – something that became even more apparent during 2020’s long days of lockdown. Productivity, according to experts, is more likely to be linked nowadays to stress-filled, task-focused busyness rather than a sure or swift path to happiness.
But perhaps that’s where the problem lies. Somewhere along the line, we made productivity all about performance rather than purpose. But shouldn’t the point of productivity not solely be to spend our time but rather to regain it – after all, does it really matter how many things we get done if we never stop doing?
Being productive can make us happier but our approach to what productivity means on a personal level needs a bit of a makeover for that to happen. So, if you’re working all hours to tick things off your to-do list and wondering why this is not making you feel better, it may be because you need to (re)consider these few elements:
Productivity isn’t the same as work
Some people feel that if they’re not working all the time then they’re not being productive. But if your time on the productivity hamster wheel has no purpose beyond “get more things done”, then it’s likely you’ll eventually be left more exhausted than effective.
So, think about the result that you want from the work you’re doing and understand that the more energised and engaged you are, the easier it will be to achieve that result. Burn-out is a very real and serious condition and can easily happen if you don’t allow your brain and body to both rest and rejuvenate. So, yes – that means taking time away from your work can actually make you more productive in the long run.
Focus on the flow
Most people equate productivity with doing more in less time. But this doesn’t need to mean churning out work as a human conveyor belt. Besides the fact that consistently working at a rapid pace can bring on panic attacks, high blood pressure and other ills, doing something just to get it done will also put you on a fast track to boredom. And boredom is a clear productivity killer. Think about it. How many times have you procrastinated over doing something because it felt hollow or pointless?
To be productive in a way that makes you happy you need to get into what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the “flow” experience. This is basically a state of mind wherein you’re so focused on the task at hand that you can lose a sense of time while effectively blocking out the distractions that might derail your productivity.
The way to get into flow is by doing work or an activity that feels meaningful to you. This is slightly different to having a purpose. The purpose of you doing a work-related activity, for example, might be to earn more money and buy the home of your dreams. But say that specific work involves entering data into spreadsheets, the meaning behind this could be that the data will provide better information for a section of society who will benefit more because of it. Knowing that you’re contributing to this may make you feel fulfilled and happy. Or, it could just be the pure pleasure of inputting correct data that gives you that meaningful boost (because come on, who doesn’t love a good spreadsheet …or is that just me?!)
Getting into flow and feeling an engagement with the execution or accomplishment of your task, is known to release a certain amount of the ‘happy hormone’ dopamine into your brain. Your brain will then stimulate you to seek out more reward-centred activities, increasing your productivity as a result.
Additionally, concentrating carefully on the work at hand is also a way of challenging yourself to understand and therefore learn more about a subject. This too can leave you feeling satisfied and successful afterwards, which, according to studies by Warwick University, will in itself make you more productive.
Quality over quantity every time
Productivity is typically defined as a measure of output per unit of input. That is to say, it evaluates what you achieve with the resources you have – i.e. time, money, materials and labour. Obviously, as noted above, if you can achieve more while putting in less, you’ll be more productive. But while that puts quantity at the core of productivity, what does it say about quality?
Science has proven again and again that a key element of happiness is pleasure and pride in our work and achievements. Therefore, while you could paint 100 pictures quickly and badly, and – lack of excellence aside – that would fit with the above definition of productivity, it wouldn’t necessarily make you happy.
On the other hand, if you took your time and created 10 beautiful works of art, it’s likely that on a personal level, you would consider that as being much more productive. Why? Because unless you’re happy with the outcome of your work, then the output itself doesn’t really matter. Why would you want 100 ugly paintings that you don’t want to look at and therefore can’t enjoy over 10 beautiful paintings that would enhance your home, your life and your sense of pride in yourself? In other words, if productivity is to be a tool to make you happy, then quality has to be a measure alongside quantity.
So, when it comes to being productive, think about the purpose behind your productivity, the meaning of the work at hand and the quality you want to deliver – and I promise you, you won’t just reclaim a sense of satisfying clarity around all that you do, but you’ll be so much happier for it too.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio