You Don’t Have to be Motivated or “Productive” Every Day

Somewhere along the line I absorbed the nearly universal belief that hard work is a defining value of a person’s worth.   Intellectually, I don’t buy into this meme – but emotionally I can feel its pull and weight for every hour “wasted” on “non-productive” work. Although the nature of work has changed dramatically since I was a child, the thinking that governs the value of hard work hasn’t changed much.  If anything, it’s gotten worse.
In the “halcyon” days of my youth, most people generally worked 40 hours a week.  Back then, white-collar “bosses” rarely asked workers to work late, and labor laws required hourly workers get overtime pay to compensate for their efforts.  Most people expected to eat dinner at home with their families and weekends were nearly always reserved for family life and leisure.  Hard work was expected, but the expectations of when and how it was done were very different.
In the highly publicized article, Nurse Reveals the Top 5 Deathbed Regrets – the subject of work shows up on the list at #2 – I wish I didn’t work so hard.
First, let’s define what work means.   In most cultures work is still defined purely by economic value.  When we work in a community garden, producing food for ourselves and perhaps a few neighbors, unless we receive payment for our lettuce, most cultures would not recognize this as work.
People, mostly women of course, who work in the home, care for children, prepare  meals  and do the housekeeping, but receive no remuneration  for their labor, are in economic terms not working.  We have mindless social policies in the U.S. that codify these beliefs; if you are a woman who receives benefits from the TANF program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and have a child under 6 you must work 20 hours outside of the home.  It’s not uncommon for women in the program to work outside of the home as child-care workers; while family members or other child care workers care for their children.  This particularly maddening catch-22 exemplifies that in 2013, our ideas about work still reflect early 20th models that don’t suit 21 century realities.
But let’s face it – most of us have to work to make money.
We seek self-expression through our work and for many people, work is meaningful and satisfying.  And while  meaning may be  a moot point for the majority of working people who earn so little that they must do multiple jobs just to survive  – how we think about our work still has a great deal to do with how we feel about it.  The late historian Studs Terkel captured the essential meaning of work when he said, “Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Everyone has a work mindset.  That mindset, the aggregate of all the beliefs, feelings and experiences we’ve accumulated in our work history, plays a major role in how we do our work.  One important question is how much of the mental atmosphere we create around our work is energizing and not overwhelming and enervating?
There are two words in particular that seem to reside in the background of work like a specter ready to measure and judge our every act – productivity and procrastination.

You Can Never Be Too Productive?

A quick Google search turns up 19 million results for productivity and over a million for procrastination.  Articles like, 12 Things Highly Productive People Do are common and very popular. We want to know how to do things faster and more effectively. We are living in a “time famine’ and in a race to cram more into every minute of every day.
No amount of productivity seems enough. We aspire to ever higher standards of work efficiency grabbing every time-saving tip and mechanism that comes along.  We measure our achievements by people we deem as more successful. We assign words like excellence to those who figure out how to eke out every last drop of activity in any given hour.  We live by hard work quotes like this one by Jose Ortega y Gassett, “Effort is only effort when it begins to hurt.”
We relish our war stories of ridiculously long hours and nights spent without sleep in accomplishing our goals.We adopt rules about the number of phone calls we must complete to make a successful sales call. We latch on to ideas like Malcolm Gladwell’s, 10,000 hour rule as formulas for success and miles to go that we must complete to get there (wherever there is).
What accounts for this ever-growing drive for personal productivity? Certainly the effects of the 2008 recession have disrupted and reorganized the labor market, mostly to the advantage of corporate employers, but these trends predate the recent economic downturn.  Increasingly, the drive for personal productivity in many cases is a drive to secure employment and this reality creates terrible stress for the growing pool of the unemployed, self-employed and the so-called contingent worker.
Certainly technology has increased speed and the expectations for speed, rendering yesterday’s productivity models quaint. Social media and the 24/7 world of work where there is no rest and no place to hide has also played a major hand in the new work mindset.  We know that cell phone addiction is real and studies with young users show that deprived of phones participants actually suffer “phantom limb” syndrome similar to that of amputees.  How much of the attachment to our mobile devices, technology and our productivity rate is emotional?

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” 

I’m sure we have all heard this quote or some variation of it sometime in our lives.  It’s usually attributed to the Christian theologian, John Wesley, but surely has its roots in Biblical scripture.  Moral prescriptions such as these helped to shape the mindsets of the Protestant and Puritan ethics that guided Northern European and American cultural imperatives.  The resilient memes where work is always meritorious and “idleness” is always an invitation to danger have formed the basis for the Western worldview of work that continues to influence corporate conduct today.
The truth is that some days, many of us just don’t feel like working. OK, I hear some of you groaning out there. “Some days – how about every day!” Others may be thinking, “Of course we don’t always feel like working, but we have to get motivated to make things happen!”  While there are always exceptions – and the more industrious readers of this article may be losing patience with my apparent defense of dawdling – everyone experiences days where they just don’t feel like being “on.”
I am not talking about “sick” or even “mental health” days or vacation days – I am talking about an average Tuesday morning when you just don’t want to produce anything!  You don’t feel particularly sharp or organized or interested in the work at hand.  Creativity seems a very tall order. Attention to detail feels impossible. What you tell yourself about those thoughts and feelings say a great deal about your work mindset.  The no-slack mindset is often ready with a deluge of judgments and get back-to-work propositions with a zero tolerance policy.
In this mindset there is little place to just Be.   In his article, Finding the Being in the Doing, Balanced Action blogger Phillipp Schneider writes, “In a society where mostly outcome counts, we run the risk to slowly turn into elaborate windup toys, spinning out of control through life, disconnected from the flow of life.”
I’ll admit that I’m good at procrastinating. I can pleasantly divert myself to many interests and activities that are not connected to my work, per se. I’m not necessarily proud of it, how could I be? But I will say – a part of me likes it. Naturally, it doesn’t serve me when I have looming deadlines or long-delayed projects that need my attention. But fortunately, I usually rally to work on what is truly essential and allow myself fun diversions without too much self-recrimination.
Procrastination’s a pretty dirty word in the land of Productivity. There are articles everywhere on how to beat it.  Seems that the act of “putting off until tomorrow” evokes really strong emotions and harsh criticism, often self-inflicted.  One theory is that because procrastination typically produces guilt, it serves as evidence of internal conflict.  I’m often quick to defend this much aligned emotion, but guilt can be free-floating and show up in places where we can most easily inflict self-punishment.
Psychological theory and neuroscience make the case that when we procrastinate we “give in to feeling good with short-term rewards but long-term pain.”
I know there’s truth in this theory. I believe that work, even hard work, can be enormously rewarding. I know that the honing of skills like discipline, tenacity and perseverance build character and reap unexpected results.
But I also know another thing. It’s great to take an unscheduled hour or even a day off from work, for no reason other than you feel like it – and not worry, or judge or compare your actions to anyone or anything else. In fact, it’s a bit of a luxury that everyone deserves!  In the words of another rebel of his times, Oscar Wilde, ‘I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do – the day after.”
Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.
Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants
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Related Articles: Reflections on the Busy Trap; How Many Hours Do We Need to Work to be “Productive?“; Work isn’t Life 


  1. Hi there, thanks for this great article! It is true that in our cultures we would have to re-define what work is. It already starts when you write something, like a dissertation or an article for a blog for example. People would say, well but you are not working, as you don’t get remunerated.
    In a work environment, it is interesting to notice that even those who pretend to work day and night, get pushed aside for no apparent reason. So it is actually much better to say ‘no’ directly, put some limits in place and openly commit to ‘having a work-life balance’ even if it means that people look at you in a strange way! At least you live your life mindfully, taking every day as a new one and only being accountable to yourself. Jenny

    • Hi Jenny,
      I read an interesting quote earlier that I was reminded of when reading your comment. To paraphrase it said, “The mistake we make is thinking we work for someone else.” We always work for ourselves, so the question is what to we believe about that? How does my work change (my thoughts, feelings and actions) change we I think I work for someone else – a company, a manager? While most workplaces today desire creativity, innovation and critical thinking – those come directly into opposition with the conformity that most organizations demand – in one form or another. So, yes, saying No and setting limits is a form of self-definition around work – and is also a challenge to the status-quo. We’re in the in-between of changing paradigms of work.
      And as I say in the article, in the final stages of our lives, the last thing we will be considering is the question of did we work enough? Perhaps did we love enough, or laugh enough, but not work enough.
      Glad you enjoyed the post – and appreciate your comment,

  2. John Wenger says:

    Great post, Louise….in the theme of reflectiveness, divergent creativity, insight….
    ..who says we are being useful, adding value, doing something of worth, whatever… if that is only measured by a time card that adds up to 40 (more like 60) hours a week?
    I have noticed in the last couple of years, that people sometimes greet each other, not with a “hello” or “how are you going?”, but with “you keeping busy?” Good old protestant work ethic eh? Something I have to watch in myself, having inherited good old Scottish work ethic.

    • Hi John
      Felt I had to make some kind of statement about the nearly unquestioned madness that prevails out there. Seems people are more concerned with the state of their inbox rather than the state of the world. This is absolutely systemic now. We actually have female role models (CEO of Yahoo – Melissa Mayer) having a nursery for her newborn built into her office so she can work. Perhaps a good solution for the 1% who can pull that off but a terrible signal for the average mother (and conscious Dad who wants to be an integral part of parenting) who is now wondering – what about me?
      I don’t know enough about British history to know whether I can blame the Scots (as much as I favor them) but this old, fossilized unexamined thinking still permeates the whole western world view of work – and its not sustainable. We can’t come up with innovative solutions for how we will address major global problems of growing chronic unemployed if every worker buys into the idea that they have to work 70 hours a week to maintain their “viability.” Not to mention the very desirable goals for greater creativity and insight as you mention.
      On a deeper level, busyness is often a cover for unresolved anxieties about uncertain futures (not that they were ever certain). So these trends serve two masters ~ the voracious greed of many companies to eke out every ounce of energy from each employee – and the second – fear.
      A bit of a rant here – or perhaps just procrastination?

  3. Ronnie Ann says:

    Enjoyed your post as always, Louise. While procrastination can become a fine art taken too far, there is much to be gained from selective procrastination. Loved John Wenger’s example of “you keeping busy?” Even if unspoken, the thought seems to sit there like a judgment for many, especially in this digital age, as you so wisely point out. And in the workplace, where some of the best ideas can come from not being actively engaged in busy work, that judgment can become counter-productive for all.

    • H Ronnie,
      Love the term selective procrastination! I also think judgment is the perfect description of what is often felt (even unsaid) when people think you are not “keeping busy.” Reminds me of the dilemma I felt when I started working at home (home/office phone) and the phone would ring at 6am (common work time for many now – not for me) and I’d be asleep and pretend I was bright and chirpy and at my desk.
      Thanks for the comment and glad you liked the post.
      Stay busy!

  4. Gurmeet Singh Pawar says:

    Nice Post Louise, I might say that I could relate to almost everything you say. I believe Productivity & Procrastination need to be seen from new perspective.
    But I do have a Thought about the matter, not sure if it will work out well. The major reason for the problem lies in three areas; Lack of Clarity of one’s Core Purpose, Core Values & Life long Goals; Second Attachment to one’s Goals or Achievements; Third Desire to increase the speed continously.
    I know from my own experience that Majority of problems in any sphere will vanish away if one can be fundamentally clear about the purpose he wants to assign to “The time given to him”. Clarity allows you to have the immense power to say “NO”, when you should.
    Another major area is, to not get attached to ones purpose to such an extant that when time calls for deattaching yourself from it, you have any emotional or rational difficulty to it.
    And If you can understand that “More important than how fast you are going, is Where you are going”, you can sit back and enjoy the life as you want.
    Thank you for another interesting post.

    • Welcome back Gurmeet!
      I believe you are essentially speaking about intention ~ a term we are very fond of here! I don’t know about problems vanishing – but I do believe clarity of intention and purpose does have a powerful effect on emotions and consequently action. To your point regarding attachment, I think “attachment” is often what drives us, often relentlessly, towards external definitions of progress. Most
      of us are not taught to internally define our own sense of progress as children and we often “attach” ourselves to cultural ideas without lack of clarity, as you’ve said.
      I appreciate your close reading – and comment.

  5. philipp68 says:

    Excellent post Louise,
    At a conference I recently learned about a model, which I now use at work to help colleagues (and myself) to find the balance between outcome (work) and personal growth. We first look what we have to do to make money (outcome). Then I ask: “How does it feel to focus 100% on these goals? Do you feel suffocated? What learning opportunities does this work offer?” Either we find some opportunities to grow in the work. If not I say: “Outcome is not everything. Let’s discuss how you would like to grow. Would you like to try something new, practice your social skills, have some time to play around, apply this skill you’re passionate about? It won’t be easy, growing never is. We have to find the balance between outcome and growth. Life is to short to only focus on outcome!”
    I know that I’m fortunate to work in an environment, where everyone understands that we can produce better results, if we find the balance between outcome and growth.

    • Philipp,
      Very pleased you commented. You said it well in your article that I cited in this post, we can find the being in the doing. Mindless, auto pilot work doesn’t do that. There are endless Buddhist writings about learning the ability to stay present – even when we are doing the dishes. This is how we don’t miss life – for what it is – in the moment.
      Recently a reader sent me a link on using relationships as a spiritual practice. Not to get too caught up in this as any kind of religious idea, but to understand that one of the greatest opportunities for growth we have as we work, or do anything in life, are relationships. Most people in the workplace find “dealing” with others their biggest challenge, therefore, their greatest opportunity for growing in self-knowledge, empathy and compassion.
      The point you made in your excellent article (which everyone should read) is that when we stay focused on outcomes, we miss life – the being.

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