zen habits : breathe

the tao of productivity

Post written by Leo Babauta. Follow me on twitter or identica.

In this age of digital communication, we’re busier than ever. And yet, in all of our sound and fury, we seem to have no time for focus, for what’s important, for thinking.

To find this focus, we will need to completely rethink the need for productivity.

Think of our culture’s obsession with productivity: with the need for “hard work” and working long hours to get things done, with the need to be busy busy busy all the time, with the need to make lists and check them off, with the need to juggle countless projects and make more revenue and accomplish more and more. But for what? What’s the point of all this obsession? It leads to burnout, stress, anxiety, unhappiness, greed, confusion, and no time for family, friends, and yourself.

What would happen if we threw all that out the door? What if we said, “I want to get important things done, but the rest can go to hell.”? Let’s create a new creed: Simplicity, purpose, focus, silence, and joy. Let’s make beautiful and useful things, and love doing it.

With this “new” conception of productivity (which is actually as old as work itself), we can adopt some new principles. The principles I propose are inspired by Taoism, a philosophy that has deeply informed my life. I am not a Taoist, nor an expert at it, and many of the things I’ll write below are not exactly in line with it.

Be Content

Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
~Lao Tzu

This is the foundation of the Tao of Productivity: the old version of productivity was founded in the desire for more, to be greater, to accomplish more. But instead, let go of this desire, and realize you already have enough.

If you realize that you have enough,
you are truly rich.

If you’re already rich, do you need to make more money? Do you need to do more and more?

If you’re content, you do because it gives you joy, not because of a desire for more.

When there is no desire,
all things are at peace.

Master Non-Action

The gentlest thing in the world
overcomes the hardest thing in the world.
That which has no substance
enters where there is no space.
This shows the value of non-action.

Teaching without words,
performing without actions:
that is the Master’s way.

This will be the hardest principle to master, I believe, because our old obsession with productivity was an obsession with doing. It helps me to think of nature: it does nothing, it doesn’t hurry, and yet everything gets done.

Why does everything get done in nature? Because:

1. There is nothing that truly needs to get done — whatever happens is good.
2. What happens is a result of the actual nature of things — they will do what they do because of what they are.

Think of how this applies to your work: can you relinquish what you think “needs” to be done? And can you rethink things so that things happen because of what they are, not because you force them to happen? It’s not an easy task, but it can happen if you keep an open mind and contemplate “needs” and the nature of things.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Relinquish Control

The Master sees things as they are,
without trying to control them.
She lets them go their own way,
and resides at the center of the circle.

This is another difficult change: to let go of our need for control. We try to control our environment, control our behaviors, control our minds, control other people, control outcomes. And yet, it’s all an illusion: we have no control over what happens. Things go wrong all the time, plans fail, we fail, and we feel like failures because of it. Because we thought we could control something, and it didn’t happen.

Controlling other people is a huge source of conflict. Stop trying to control employees, co-workers, bosses, team members, loved ones. Let them do what they want, and work with you how they will.

So how do you work without control? It takes time to learn this, but the idea is to let things happen, and act (or not act) within the flow of those events. Let people do as they please, and find calm amid this swirl of activity and people.

The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.

Stop Planning

Other people have a purpose;
I alone don’t know.
I drift like a wave on the ocean,
I blow as aimless as the wind.

This goes hand-in-hand with letting go of control. Stop planning, stop trying to control how things will go and what the outcomes will be. Life never goes according to plan, so why stress yourself out worrying about the future and then worrying about the past when plans get disrupted?

Live in the moment, with no fixed outcome in mind. Let things happen, and be content with what happens. Do work, of course, but do it because it gives you joy.

My system for doing this: The One Thing System.

Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

Let Go of Success & the Need for Approval

Success is as dangerous as failure.
Hope is as hollow as fear.

What does it mean that success is a dangerous as failure?
Whether you go up the ladder or down it,
you position is shaky.
When you stand with your two feet on the ground,
you will always keep your balance.

Success is something that’s ingrained in our culture, and almost every moment of our childhoods and schooling are geared towards success. But it’s a hollow concept. Who defines success? Why is it so important? What happens when we don’t achieve it? And what happens when we do, and still want more, or realize it wasn’t worth all the effort, and that we’ve wasted our lives?

Keep your feet on the ground. Find balance, and contentment. Forget about “success”.

The Master does his job
and then stops.
He understands that the universe
is forever out of control,
and that trying to dominate events
goes against the current of the Tao.
Because he believes in himself,
he doesn’t try to convince others.
Because he is content with himself,
he doesn’t need others’ approval.
Because he accepts himself,
the whole world accepts him.

That quote says it all really. I have nothing to add. Give up the need for approval, and the need for “productivity” fades away.

Do Your Work, & Step Back

Fill your bowl to the brim
and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife
and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security
and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people’s approval
and you will be their prisoner.

Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity.

This is a lesson we have a hard time learning. We do our work, and then need to do more, and more. Instead, step back. You will thank me for it.


If you liked this guide, please bookmark it on Delicious or share on Twitter. Thanks, my friends.

Read more about simplifying in my book, The Power of Less.



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