The Search for the Ultimate Productivity System

I remember a day last spring, a frantic day. I believe we were gearing up to go somewhere and many things had not to be forgotten and other things still needed to be remembered. Everyone was nervous. The only one that was not moving was my Teacher.

Instead he stood in the middle of the room as a quiet centre. He looked at his watch and walked over to the old fashioned Frisian clock and started winding it up.

I marvelled at him. I viewed him in that moment as through a tunnel. As if another space had opened up. And he was there, a gatekeeper, opening further and further a new dimension of consciousness with every precise turn. First he dialed in the energy, and then he gave the hands the correct orientation.

To appreciate the strangeness of the situation you must consider how busy we were at the moment. We were getting ready to go off to a teaching place and many students were waiting for us. And it was of the utmost importance that we would be in time and have all the things we needed for three weeks of teaching with us. And here he was, in the midst of all that busyness and stress, winding a clock that no one was going to look at for the next three weeks.

I received this event as something of magnificent proportions. Of something with a symbolic value so deep it is hard to underestimate. If you want to know why, read on my friend, read on.

I have always been interested in many things. Way too many things to be mastered in one lifetime. My interests are like a wild fire that reaches everywhere, and so the problem of sustained focus is a natural one for me. I think that the first impetus I received was from a book called “Undoing Yourself”. The key sentence to achieve anything was: “Do it every day!”

Once I recognised the truth of this, I have attempted to apply the principle with religious zeal in my life.

Now this is all well and good, but if you pursue many interests, like me, there are many things that you must do every day. And life is already complicated. So how do you organise all of that?

I needed a system, and I believe it was over ten years ago that I started experimenting with different productivity systems. First I started carrying around a ‘hipster-pda’, a bunch of yellow index cards held together by an elastic band. On each card I would write a to-do and I would review these to-do’s twice a week. This is a system that was pioneered by a man named David Allen in a book called Getting Things Done, a book that is way more spiritual than it usually gets credit for.

I then realized how much better it could be if that system would be electronic and became an early alpha-tester of the software application Things by Cultured Code that is precisely aimed to turning the David Allen system into an electronic one.

I would have email conversations with the developers and bring in ideas how to create the best and easiest trusted system. A ‘trusted system’ is a necessary precondition for Allen’s approach to work. For every time something comes up in our mind, we will commit it to a system which will enable us to let go of it until the time comes that we actually get around to doing it.

Putting the stuff that is just milling around in our heads out of our heads and into a trusted system frees up mind space and makes the mind calmer. Except often it does not work that way, anyway for me. For three reasons.

One has to do with a basic unease. That is the feeling that I have, that is like a ground tone to my existence, that somewhere, somehow, there is something else that I should be doing. That there is something at the edge of my consciousness that I am forgetting to look at. It is a kind of suspicion with which I view my own mind. And it means that every time I try to come up with the things that I need to do, all I am feeding into is that somehow, somewhere, I am forgetting something.

I still use the system. But it does not deliver to me the promised peace of mind, since there is no end to the things that I could be, and indeed, want to be doing.

The other reason where I realize that many productivity systems fail for me is this: I can come up with however an intricate system to plan my days, my weeks, my months, but as soon as I nail it down, I feel trapped by my own creation. If I have my day laid out for me I suffocate. And this leads me to reason number three.

What I have discovered, or rather, what I have always overlooked in productivity systems, is the role of emotion.

What this means for me, is that I acknowledge that I am an emotional being. That is before I can even begin a work, I have to be in the right emotional state for it. This is especially true for things that I do not like to do.

I know that there is a strand of thought, that someone introduced me to years ago, that says: Whatever you hate doing, do that first, then you will be emotionally free of it when you do the things that you want to do.

It is the kind of philosophy that goes by the principle of ‘Eat the frog first.’ And it does work, but it comes with a price. Just like when you want to train your muscles, you must train the muscles that you want to develop most first and with the most intensity, so it is with productivity. When you bite into that task that you really hate doing with all the freshness that you can muster, surely you will get it done and you will feel good for having done it.

Except there are two things that go unconsidered. One is that you have now spent your best energy doing something you absolutely hate. And the other is that you have done it with an attitude of ‘Let’s get it over with.’

Now if you like me believe that everything we encounter in life is for a reason, this simply won’t do. From a spiritual perspective we must learn to love that which we hate. For it is only in overcoming our resistances that we can truly grow. So doing things with a ‘Let’s get it over with attitude’ must change into an attitude that approaches even the nasty tasks, like taxes and bills, with joy. This is the real learning in life, to be joyful, no matter what the task at hand.

For me, what I have discovered, is that the ability to feel joyful when doing something is being able to do it while I feel that my needs have been met. And my needs are physical of course, but for the most part they are emotional.

I divide things that I need to do into three types. They are things that have varying distances to my own heart. There are the things that are so close, I could call them ‘in my heart’. These things are the things that keep me up at night. The things I dream about, I write about and obsess about. They are the things that I MUST bring forth, the things I must manifest.

Then there are things that I do for my work, like creating a website or write a book about a topic, or research something, or teach. These things are very close to my heart. They are things that I love to do, but that I still have a certain distance to.

Then there is the third category. Those are the things that are furthest from my heart. Things like cleaning things that are very dirty, or throwing away leftovers that have been left in the fridge for too long. Or administration.

I find that the only way to even attempt any of these tasks is to first fulfil what is in my heart, and then, when my heart’s desire has been met, there is no longer a problem because I am already joyful as I set myself to the no-longer-dreary task at hand.

It sounds simple, but this approach has helped me more in my life than any productivity system that I have used. It is to acknowledge that when I feel a great resistance to something, there is a part of me that is stifled, that is being denied. That part must first be unstifled and acknowledged before I can move on.

I know not everybody is like this, and many people are perfectly able to momentarily set their feelings aside to get done what needs to be done, but for me this is very very hard. For me productivity and efficiency have to do much more with managing my emotions than they have to do with making lists or planning.

I think one of the reasons that productivity systems are so hot in this day and age (indeed, some people have spoken about ‘productivity porn’) is that they give the impression that if we can systematise our chaotic lives we are somehow more in control of them. Seen this way, the search for the ultimate productivity system is something that is motivated by fear, rather than love.

But now you still don’t know why my Teacher was winding the clock. Well, to tell you the truth, I think it was just such a powerful image. That even in the midst of chaos, there is a point of absolute stillness where time does not dictate us, and we are not its slave. And as long as we are aligned with this axis, we are, as Bob Dylan would say, in the dimension where it’s alright man, it’s alright. And that means we can get anything done, for we are limitless.

If we drop the feeling that we ‘have to do things’, many things change. If I ‘have to do something’ I may feel guilty if I don’t do it. And pretty soon, guilt may start to become the prime motivation to do anything at all. I myself have fallen for this trap more often than I care to remember. To act from love, not from guilt or fear, is the best way to act.

And if we cannot act from love, why act at all?