A More Positive Way to Think About Productivity

Signing up to co-author a book has revealed a new twist in my dysfunctional relationship with productivity. With an MBA and a 30-year career in pharmaceutical marketing, its not surprising that I take a bottom-line approach to self assessment.  My self worth monitor is calculating 24/7, measuring what I produce and achieve on a particular day.  Makes it hard to pause for a soul satisfying conversation. I have stuff to do.

I know better. I came of age as the budding self-esteem movement was shooting its roots deep into our culture. I go to church every Sunday. I know God’s love is unconditional. There is nothing I can do to earn it. But come Monday morning, the warm blanket of love I feel on Sunday is ripped off by some inner evil house mother from a Dicken’s novel. 

But I’m making progress. I even kept panic at bay (mostly) after spending a summer with few “billable” hours (I am a consultant).  During this “downtime,” I started a side-hustle, one with uncertain rewards. I was asked by an amazing Nigerian asylee friend named Edafe Okporo to co-author a book on making America a more welcoming place. While the project was born out of our mutual work with asylum seekers, the book is about building bridges between all people and creating a more compassionate society.

You would think that book writing would be a perfect way to soothe a scorecard obsessed person like myself. After all, you can count the words, the pages, the chapters. In the corporate parlance of SMART goals, writing is highly specific and measurable. Two pages today, Five pages yesterday.

But then came the unfortunate twist. Writing involves throwing out half of what you write. You go to bed thinking you nailed that early childhood scene only to wake up the next day to think, holy crap, is English really my first language?

As ideas form on the page, I can tell, they are already goners. In the perverted calculus of my mind, there will be no checkmark at the end of the day. Then self-doubt spreads like spilled coffee inching its way across the table in search of something to ruin. Before I can dab it up, a jagged muddy stain mars my confidence. The evil inner house mother returns and I think, “Writing my first book at age 60? Most writers have been writing for decades! All I have done is short blog posts, colorful powerpoint decks and marketing plans. No wonder I have to throw out half of what I write!”

But then I ran across the words of the best selling author Tea Obreht in a TIME magazine interview about the drafts she put aside before hitting on her next book. She said, “I threw 1,400 pages in the trash. It felt like failure a lot. But then I realized it was just a different way of measuring progress, that I was opening doors and realizing there was nothing in the room and then closing those doors and continuing down the hallway.”

My “empty rooms” take the form of tangential ideas that ping-pong around in my frontal lobe like a crazy asteroid. I must pin down the death star on paper before it blows up my ability to concentrate like some innocent planet. Once committed to the page, I can leave the idea behind. What Tea Obreht made me realize is that rather than being annoyed at the “wasted” time capturing the thought, I should be grateful for the rejected idea’s role in helping me move forward.  

One thing that does not help me move forward is my crazy decades old self worth monitor. Its incessant buzzing yanks my attention inward. I miss the life going on in front of me. Time to kick that outmoded device to the curb for recycling. Time to be more grateful for just being able to write a page. 

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