Why Getting Things Done Is Not The Answer

Awhile back, during one of the sessions in my Productivity Mindset course, one of the participants asked, “What’s the best way to use 10 or 15 minutes where you don’t have anything planned?” You should have heard the shocked silence when I said, “Well, you could just do nothing, you know.”

Do nothing!? Like, stand in line without checking your phone? Like, sit in a chair and stare out the window? What a concept. Most of us feel like we should always be doing something, as if getting things done is the key to happiness and we’re never doing enough.

It’s an illusion

The problem is, it’s all an illusion. We seem to think there’ll come a day when we’ll be able to clap our hands and say, “There! Everything on my to-do list — done.” When, in fact, we are never – ever — going to get everything done. I’ll repeat that: you (yeah, I’m talking to you) are never, ever going to get everything done.

So how did we develop this need to be so busy?

Well, as Tim Kreider said in his New York Times opinion piece, The Busy Trap : “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

And yet it is precisely because of this self-created busyness that we feel a constant undercurrent of anxiety and stress. In fact, as Kerry Gleason points out: “This constant, unproductive preoccupation with all the things we have to do is the single largest consumer of time and energy.”

What’s more, we’re often on edge, reacting disproportionately when things don’t go our way or we’re denied the instant gratification we’ve decided we’re entitled to.

Hmmm, doesn’t really sound like the recipe for a fulfilled, satisfying life, does it.

So what’s the answer?

Well, while you’ve been rushing around getting things done, I took some time out to sit on a park bench. Not only did my world not implode, I realized a few things:

1. It’s okay to just be.

Really, it is. As Neale Donald Walsch says, “We are human beings, not human doings.” There’s nothing we have to do to prove our worthiness. We knew this when we were three years old, when did we forget?

Oh, maybe it was when we learned to see our worthiness as conditional and equate it with how much effort we make: if we study hard, we get good grades; if we work long hours, we get a promotion. There’s nothing wrong with getting things done but do them because you enjoy the feeling of accomplishment, not as a hedge against being deemed not enough. (I’m still working on this one.)

2. Slow down to speed up.

A brain surgeon must perform a critical element of an emergency operation. He only has three minutes to save his patient’s cognitive functions. He’s frantically giving directions to the various medical personnel in the operating room when one of the hospital’s veteran surgeons enters and stands by his side: “Dr. Morgan, you only have three minutes. You better slow down.”

Or, as the Navy SEALs say: “Smoother is quicker.” Too often, we’re in reactive mode, rushing into action simply to be doing something, and then having to compensate with more effort because we didn’t get it right the first (second or third) time.

By adding more intentionality to your day – taking time to assess the situation and make conscious note of detail – you’ll get a better result the first time round.

“You should meditate every day for half an hour. Unless you’re really busy. And then you should meditate for an hour.” Buddhist saying

3. Savor more.

Do you find that you’re so bent on crossing things off your to-do list that you’re never really engaged in the moment? For me, this translates into things like snippy impatience with customer service reps when they don’t instantly read my mind or have the audacity to ask me to repeat my phone number. Likewise, we gulp down food without chewing, eating mindlessly past the point of hunger while surfing the Web or watching TV.

Newsflash: Your task list is not your life. Engaging your senses, experiencing your emotions, and expressing your creativity is.

So settle in and enjoy the interaction with another human being. Savor the texture and sensation of your food (as demonstrated in this chocolate meditation from Mindfulness: Finding Peace In A Frantic World, British accent optional).

4. Recap and review.

Ever have someone ask you how your day was and you can’t even remember what you did? It would be a shame to get to the end of your life and have the same thing happen, wouldn’t it.

So, as you’re winding down at the end of each day, instead of focusing on all the things you didn’t get done or have yet to do, why not take note of everything you did accomplish. Highlight and congratulate yourself for what went well, and recognize what you’re grateful for.

Are you doing things for the joy of doing them or because you don’t know how to enjoy doing nothing?

10 thoughts on “Why Getting Things Done Is Not The Answer

  1. Thank you for this, Renita. It gives me permission to just be. What an incredibly simple AND profound thing. It’s interesting that I even need permission to do what is so basic. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on that.

    1. It does seem basic, doesn’t it. Dogs and cats get it, and so do three-year-olds, why don’t we?

      I think it’s because as we grow up we learn to see our worthiness as conditional and equate it with how much effort we make: if we study hard, we get good grades; if we work long hours, we get a promotion. But it’s a faulty premise. Because if that’s the case — if you, in fact, do have to continue to prove your worthiness — what are you doing to make sure that your heart and lungs keep working, or that the world keeps spinning in its orbit?

      Other people may make their love or opinion conditional but our fundamental worthiness is always a given.

  2. Funny timing. A few weeks ago, I talked my mom into bringing me back to the house where we lived until I was finished with kindergarten. (I think that would have been around 1971.)

    My memories are a bit foggy, but I remember calling someone, and if they weren’t home, knowing you’d just have to call back later.

    I remember one, big color console TV in the basement and maybe a smaller b/w set somewhere else. If you wanted to see something, you caught it when it was on or hoped to catch reruns. Three networks, PBS, and a couple of local stations.

    I’m not going to say these were the good old days. But I did turn to my mom and ask her: With all the technology that makes us available 24/7, and all of these amazing entertainment options, do you think people are any happier?

    I was already thinking “no,” and that was her answer as well.

    There was one other important thing about this primitive lifestyle: Maybe you brought work home, but you were largely done when you left the office. There were no corporate extranets, no cell phones, no email to check at 8:30 p.m.

    I work in technology and love my toys, but they come with a cost. We are not built to be 24/7 working machines. Children weren’t meant to be raised by parents who don’t have time to spend with them. It’s a rare vacation where I don’t receive at least one business phone call — if not daily contact.

    1. It’s true. More choices and quicker gratification are a double-edged sword, aren’t they. Not good or bad — we just have to be more conscious in our approach to each moment and those instructions don’t seem to be included in the user manual with our technology. Well, these days, we don’t even get user manuals anymore.

  3. Good thoughts again, Renita. This puts ‘savour the moment’ in a whole different way!
    I think it can even be taken, for those inclined to do so, in a spiritual way, rather than just with another human being.
    An example from my personal life: my dad loves to be busy, and to work, to the point that his weekends are booked and at home, his comments are, ‘what can i do besides watch tv?’ he does get time to spend with his grandkids, and I am sure he enjoys that, but after a while, you have to ask – what memories do I have besides work?

    1. I agree, Sohaib — savoring can be a spiritual practice in and of itself, can’t it. Just you and you connecting with the moment. Too many people, like your dad perhaps, have gotten in the habit of always being busy so it must feel uncomfortable for them to not be doing something.

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