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Most of us are living with broken productivity brains. 

When it comes to productivity, we’re typically given 2 options:  

In Productivity option #1, it is worshipped, holds us up as “good” when we do lots of things, and we get shamed for our “laziness”. (This is most of us underfulfilled overachievers).

In Productivity option #2, it is vilified, makes us “bad” when we do anything at all, and we get shamed for being “too” productive.

We all end up with “productivity whiplash” that leaves us swinging back and forth from one extreme to the other, and staying in a broken black-and-white, all-or-nothing, baby-bathwater see-saw of stuckness that robs of us of the opportunity for doing things of meaning (AKA productivity that actually feels good). 

But, I personally refuse to be condemned to those two unsavory options. 

Because here’s the thing, kids: productivity isn not all good, or all bad. 

There’s a third option that I’d like to invite us all into, a new productivity paradigm, in which not all productivity is created equal

In the new productivity paradigm, there are 2 distinct kinds of productivity: 

Programmed Productivity and Pure Productivity. 

Programmed Productivity is exactly like it sounds: producing, or “doing”, that is generated from the external programming we’ve received throughout our lives. It comes from those broken productivity brains mentioned above. 

Pure Productivity, on the other hand, is the opposite of Programmed Productivity (duh), and means producing or “doing” that is generated from inherent internal instruction. Note that “pure” here doesn’t mean “perfect”, and it isn’t precious in any way–only that it is unpolluted by our trained programming and therefore is uniquely true to us. 

News flash: the programmed kind is the only one that is making us all burn out, feel like crap, be depressed, anxious and unfulfilled all the time, and apparently even (more so?) in the midst of a pandemic. 

Why is that? If unchecked, our programming unconsciously drives our decisions and runs our lives behind the scenes. That’s great if the programming serves us and aligns with our true selves, but it’s problematic when it distorts, or worse subverts, our most authentic selves who we are all longing to become.

And, sadly, when it comes to work, careers and The Productivity Programming in 2020, it’s pretty much always squarely on the problematic distortion side of things. 

In most of our cases, this (late-stage capitalism) problematic programming, or as Glennon Doyle calls it “the language of indoctrination”, at its simplest sounds like:

 “Always be doing. Do more things, produce more things, do it more efficiently. 

Doing proves that I matter, have impact and worth. 

“Doing” means I am valuable and worthwhile and important (even implied: loveable). 

Valuable and worthwhile and loveable and important equals (deserving of, having earned) getting my needs met…AKA safety and security.”

 Programming summary: Doing more—>more safety and security. 

My prescription for this Productivity Pressure is not to stop being productive or doing stuff, and definitely not endlessly doing more blindly, but do more Pure Productivity (healthy) and less Programmed Productivity (unhealthy).

There’s a direct throughline from the type of productivity we engage to the levels of fulfillment and meaning we experience. 

Want a more meaningful and fulfilling life? Realign your productivity.

Conversely, realign your productivity and find greater fulfillment.

So, yea, this matters.

The opportunity of this moment is for Radical Re-alignment, in every single aspect of our private and public, individual and collective lives. We can start so simply with realigning our productivity from programmed to pure, just one playful, true, aligned action at a time.

Making the Shift: “The 2 Truths and a Lie” Method

So, we’re all on board that Programmed Productivity is lame, and Pure Productivity is awesome, if for no other reason than the former feels like crap and the latter feels fab (though there are many wonderful philosophical, and even political reasons this is true as well). 

But, how do we actually apply this to our lives? 

Let’s get out of the abstract and into how to actually practice this is your daily life. No extra time, or special skills required.

  1. ASK: What is the why underneath the action? (Motivation)

In practice, the distinction between the two–programmed and pure–is not in the how or the what of the “doing”, the (perceived) quality and definitely not in the quantity, or even the result, but in the why. Ask yourself: what is underneath this action?

Before you get overwhelmed, this isn’t a deep, complicated, existential “why” about the meaning of life. As we see from our fancy graphic, there are only 2 options when asking yourself why you are taking an action: 

Programmed or Pure?

A “should” or a “want”?

Anxious or aligned?

Forced or fun?

Pressured or Playful?

  1. ASK:  How does it feel while I am doing it? (The Process)

If you aren’t sure of your why, how it feels while you are doing it (or even when you think about doing it) will give it away. 

Pure Productivity feels good while you are doing it, when you are in process with it. It feels playful and fun and “light and right”. It will give you energy and fill you up. 

Programmed Productivity feels pressured, forced and “heavy and hard” while you are doing it. It will drain your energy and leave you feeling empty. 

Let’s take a couple of timely examples:

Cooking everything Alison Roman at the moment? 

Is it because you simply cannot think of anything else that would delight you more? And just the thought of THE shallot pasta makes your heart skip a beat? 

Or because you feel like if you don’t, then you will have somehow failed #QuaranTime, and just thought of chopping one more shallot actually makes you want to eat a whole bag of processed, store-bought cookies? 

Sewing tons of COVID face masks from scratch? 

Is it because you feel engaged with learning a new skill, get lost in the relaxing meditative repetition of sewing, and it’s a connective project that your whole quarantine fam can work on together? 

Or because you feel guilty watching more Tiger King, and this seemed morally superior, you want to “value signal” your altruism, but secretly resent every stitch?

Sending out a newsletter to your email list? 

Is it because you woke up in the middle of the night with a new framework that you scribbled down and couldn’t wait to share and you can see how helpful it will be for your people? 

Or you’re afraid that if you don’t, you won’t be “relevant” in a post-Covid world? Or maybe even that sending things means you don’t have to feel the sadness and the grief that’s just under the surface? 

  1. DO NOT ASK: What will the result be? (Outcome)

…which brings us to the Programmed “lie”.   

You may notice that, at first glance, all of the above outcomes (the shallot pasta, a homemade mask donation, a newsletter) seem “productive”, or “good” and maybe even admirable. You’ll probably get some accolades for each of them, and if someone showed you a list of those 3 things, you’d likely say that all of them are “productive” ways for one to spend her time. 

And, yet, what does the additional underlying context in each example reveal to us?

Outcomes are actually irrelevant to *true* productivity. 

Motivation (why) and process (felt experience) are the only real indicators.

In other words, the key to making the shift to healthy, Pure Productivity is to become process-oriented, not outcome-oriented. 

If you want Pure Productive outcomes, you must have a Pure Productivity process.  

A client might say to me, “Aren’t you so proud of me?! I taught myself to code and then I built an app that will save the world from COVID!”

And I would say, “I don’t know if I’m proud of you yet! What was the why underneath the action and how did it feel while you were doing it?” (Ask my clients. I would truly say this.)

She also might confess, “I did not attend this seminar on {insert thing that is widely considered important and valuable}”, and I might say, “I’m so proud of you!!”

The Myth of Certainty + Navigating Productivity in “Uncertain Times”

There’s another crucial reason for us to drop this outcome-orientated decision-making programming. Not only is it less effective in the pursuit of fulfilling, truly productive careers and lives, and therefore just a sound best practice, but it is actually impossible

The 21st century so far has lifted the veil on a lot of things, but especially the myth of certainty. If there’s anything that COVID-19 taught us, it is that the outcomes of our actions are simply not knowable. This has always been the case, but it’s now been made abundantly clear. This productivity planning based on anticipating outcomes is not, and never has been, a real thing.  

We gotta re-program.

Pure Productivity is the solution to navigating successfully and meaningfully in uncertain times (which, tbh, is all times). 

And, to become Purely Productive–no special training, no extra time, no contraband vanilla extract, or not even a trip out of your home–all you need is your 2 Truths: 

a) What is your (binary) why?

b) What is your felt experience? 

That’s all that the work of re-programming is. 

The Challenges of Reprogramming

On the other hand, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how challenging making this shift actually is, in practice. 

This the most common response that I get to the topics of Pandemic Productivity Pressure and the reprogramming solution that we’ve been talking about the past few issues goes like this:

Week 1: “Cool, cool…sounds pretty straightforward. Make the shift from “Programmed” to “Pure” productivity and the results will be glorious. I’m in! Consider me Pure-d!”

Week 3: “Ummm…why the hell is this whole reprogramming thing so much harder than it sounds?! Maybe I’m just meant to stay programmed?”

If this sounds familiar, it’s not just you! It’s true that it is So. Much. Harder. Than. It. Sounds.

Naming and knowing why helps, so here are the 3 main reasons this reprogramming is so damn challenging:

1) Pure Productivity doesn’t look like what we traditionally think, or have been programmed to think, “productivity” is supposed to look like, so, at first, our brains tend to get confused and stall out. 

Sometimes Pure Productivity will indeed look like writing that novel that’s been rattling around in your head, or updating your LinkedIn profile, or making a PPT deck, roasting a chicken, doing laundry, a HIIT workout, cleaning out your closet or watching a TED talk. 

And, sometimes, it will look like taking a nap, binge-ing Law & Order: SVU, researching the softest sweatpants, or the next book you may or may not read, watching a comedy special, reading GOOP emails, eating chocolate covered strawberries, or just crying in the fetal position, and many other things that we’ve been taught are “unproductive”.

When people talk about “The Work”, this is what they are talking about. This is the hard work of restarting after the stall out, or RE-programming. Re-programming takes time and regular and repeated conscious, intentional effort. Think about how long it took to become programmed in the first place! 

It requires us to change the default neural pathways that are determining all our ‘productivity’ decision-making. 

Think about your mental programming as a stream that has a well-worn path, that it has smoothed over and deepened into its groove over time. The stream isn’t going to decide to suddenly take a different route, unless it is forced to, and unfortunately, you can’t just yell at the stream to re-route. In order to re-route the stream, you have to put up some dams and blocks to its path, so that it has to create a new path. And one time may not be enough. It may still be so forceful and determined to continue on its old path that it may just go around the hurdles you put in its path to “go back to normal”, if you don’t continue to stay vigilant and diligent about your re-routing.  

2) There is no universal “correct” categorization of Programmed vs. Pure Productive actions. What belongs in the “Pure” bucket and the “Programmed” bucket can only be self-determined.

There’s no action that is inherently, or universally, “programmed” or “pure”, but rather only actions that are uniquely and in particular “pure” for you, in your individual snowflake self. 

In other words, the same action can be “programmed” (unhealthy) for one person and “pure” (healthy) for another. 

If it’s completely customized to you, this means that there’s no reliable external compass. There’s no cheatsheet to reference. No one can tell you what is “worth” your time, because there is no one universal “right” way, only your particular right way.  And  this makes us very uncomfortable. That means it’s all on you.  And that is terrifying. Because part of our programming is that we are safest when we outsource our decision-making externally, so what happens when we take that away? We are lost and scared and confused and don’t know how to ask, let alone trust, ourselves to know our own “right”, authentic, aligned, “pure” path.  (Pretty clever catch-22 programming, isn’t it?!)

But also…it’s all up to you!! No crowd-sourcing of opinions and advice necessary. What a GD relief!! There’s nothing to “figure out”. Remember that all you have to do is return to the “2 Truths”: 1-what is your binary why, and 2-what is your felt experience? And this information that only you have, but it is readily available information as soon as you know to look for it. 

3) We not only must reprogram our thoughts and beliefs, but also our physical nervous system threat response. 

This is not just this mental, thought-pattern reprogramming, but it goes even deeper than that to our nervous system programming.  

What that means is that it actually feels in the physical body like we might die if we “be less productive” or “do less” (and that’s not an exaggeration for dramatic effect). 

When it is suggested that we “do less [programmed productivity]”, we instead hear a command to “BE less [in all of life]”. To a distorted “Productivity Programmed” system, this codes as less safety and security, and quite literally feels like a destabilizing and dangerous threat to our survival that we must defend against at all costs. When you consider, “maybe I will do less [programmed stuff]”, your nervous system sees it as a suicide mission and hears instead “prepare to die” and responds with “fight to the death”.

This is why it felt SO scary to be asked to stay home during COVID, with less access to the places and resources that allow us to be “productive”: it cuts us off from our (programmed) main source of safety and security. 

Productivity is indeed an adaptive coping mechanism for fear, but not as a “distraction” as we usually think of it. It’s more like productivity hoarding: we are collecting as much productivity as possible as a means to both stave off insecurity, and ‘earn’ more safety and security.

It is a hugely courageous act to be ‘unproductive’. 

There’s no denying that reprogramming is hard, but NOT reprogramming is way harder.

Becoming yourself is hard, but NOT becoming yourself is way harder.  

Other Pure Productivity FAQs

Why did my productivity problem blow the hell up during a pandemic, of all times? Don’t I have enough to deal with!?

It happened right now precisely because of the pandemic, not in spite of it. The pandemic and “Stay Home” orders confront the core of Productivity Programming, and expose its fatal flaws, making it pretty much impossible to ignore.

I’ve touched on some of the Programmed Productivity mechanisms before, but I’m going to go into more detail here. 

Here’s how Pandemic vs. Productivity showdown unfolds: 

Our ‘broken productivity brains’ have been programmed to believe that if we are “hard” and “productive” workers, then we will be successful, or at the very least, not be fired, and therefore have the protection of our employer, not only with income but with other essential “benefits”, like health insurance, 401Ks/pensions etc.

According to “Programmed Productivity”, 

We “win” safety by working harder than everyone else. 

When we are productive, we are safe. 

When we are the most productive, we are safest. 

SO, when we are feeling unsafe, we believe that the best strategy to achieve safety and security is to “be more productive”. 

(PS: this is not by accident, but rather by design, and I encourage you to think about who benefits when we are programmed this way…)

Then…

Pandemic hits. 

Everyone is afraid and feels/is unsafe. 

Default programming kicks in. 

Where is the first place we all seek safety? You guessed it…

Productivity. 

“I feel scared and unsafe”–>”I know! I will be more productive to “earn” more safety!” 

That also means that if we can’t clearly see ways to be productive, we make them up! 

Hence, “we must all set self-improvement goals!” and “everyone must launch a new side hustle!”

“I will earn more safety by being by reading a new book every day, learning a language, and developing a new exercise regime.”

“I will earn more safety by doing lots of insta lives and taking all the classes.”

“I will earn more safety by pickling onions and preserving lemons.”

Also, remember that part of the programming is that we must be more productive than everyone else to be more safe, so it quickly became a race of comparative productivity, driven by the same fear that drives the toilet paper fanaticism, and made possible by social media. 

Enter the Banana Bread boon! And in normal times, the “first one in, last one out” office philosophy. 

There’s another layer of this that I’ve discussed previously but is worth revisiting because it is deeply ingrained in the “underfulfilled overachiever” brain: it has to do with our self-worth.

It goes like this:

If we are productive, we are “good” and we are valuable to others. 

If we are valuable, then we are a worthwhile investment, and our needs will be met and we will be taken care of (by a parent, or an employer, etc.) AKA we are safe. 

Therefore, if we are not productive, then we are worth less and worthless, which means we are not safe and secure.  

In other words, we feel we must earn our safety by proving our worth through socially-sanctioned productivity. 

It’s a really delightful never-ending cycle that we’ve been handed: we have to WIN safety and security by being most productive comparatively, and then we also have to continue to earn it to prove that we actually deserve it. 

This has always been true, but it’s easiest to see in time of crisis when the intensity on the fear is dialed way up and when everyone is dealing with intense fear, all at once.

You can probably see many instances of this in your own life B.C. in “normal” times. Think of a time when you felt insecure, about your work, or your relationship, or just in general. Perhaps a time of transition, or of particular uncertainty. 

As always, it is NOT our fault that this is how we were programmed, but it is each of our responsibility alone to REprogram ourselves towards “pure” productivity.

Wait…How could something so altruistic like donating homemade masks ever not be “Pure”!?

A lot of us get confronted by the idea that donating homemade COVID masks may not always be “Pure Productivity” for every individual in every case. How could that ever be “wrong”!?

The outcome of making face masks is indeed a valuable contribution to the community and definitely not “wrong”. It will never be a “bad” thing to spend your time doing. I want to be clear that there is zero criticism or shaming going on here. 

But, again, that’s completely beside the point when it comes to Programmed (unhealthy) v. Pure (healthy) productivity. There’s no objectively inherently “productive” action or outcome, even making masks 

The choice is not “donate homemade masks”, or “do nothing and be selfish”, or worse “donate homemade masks” or “go around carelessly infecting people”. There are an infinite number of ways in which one can contribute meaningfully to the pandemic response and recovery, large and small, and just generally in life (many of which have never even been conceived of yet!), and you can’t do all of them.  

The question to ask ourselves is not, if mask-making is A potentially meaningful activity. It is if that is the most meaningful–the most full of self-determined meaning–activity for the particular person that is you at this particular moment.

There’s an opportunity cost to everything. If you’re stuck doing the “good” thing you think you “should” do, you’re missing out on doing the equally “good” thing you actually want to do that will both contribute in the most meaningful way possible and fill you up and be uniquely well suited to you and no one else. 

What if it isn’t the most valuable thing that you, personally, with all your unique talents and experience and insight, could spend your time doing? (Yes, you are a unique and original snowflake!)

What if a world-saving app doesn’t get built because the person who actually has the idea is busy “being productive” somewhere else because she thought she “should”?

If your “why” is not aligned, then it is “anxious”. 

If it is “anxious”, then it will keep you stuck in the underfulfilled overachiever loop of lostness, no matter how freaking “good” it makes you look. 

Period.

For some people, sewing masks will make them feel so full, and for others (who will likely be berating themselves), it will be draining the crap out of them. 

The freedom, and the most impact, is in your particular Pure productivity.

It’s a win-win: you feel best, the world gets your best. 

 

Want more help creating habit change? Learn about the Mind-To-Matter (MTM) Method

Encountering Resistance and Fear? Check out the Resistance Re-Routing Guide

Now that you’ve realigned your productivity, interested in doing the same for your ambition? Get it on blind vs. aligned ambition.