I knew we’d hit peak productivity when I read a story espousing the benefits of hanging upside down. Whether you bought a special table or strapped on gravity boots, the article suggested that regular “inversion breaks” could help you achieve surgical focus and crush your to-do list.
Over the past decade, we’ve forged a complicated relationship with productivity. Experts, psychologists, writers, and even founders like me encouraged people to hack, optimize, and maximize their time to the point where terms like productivity fatigue and productivity shame began to flourish. Then the pandemic hit.
As we take the first tentative steps toward normalcy and emerge from lockdown, wide-eyed and a little wary of each other, what should productivity look like? Will we try to make up for what feels like lost time? Or will we finally discover how to embrace a slower life, including everything we missed during a year of isolation?
Now is the perfect time to reset our vision of productivity. I often return to author James Clear’s excellent definition: “We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently. And no matter what you are working on, there are only a few things that are truly important.”
I also remember that instead of hitting never-ending targets or pushing the bar ever higher, we crave consistent progress. “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work,” write researchers Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer in Harvard Business Review. “And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
I’m not a hard-core life-hack enthusiast. I’m more likely to talk about picking olives with my family in Turkey than my morning routine. My company doesn’t set hard deadlines; we urge staff to protect their downtime, and we encourage regular vacations. But after a difficult year of grief and loss, I’m trying to redefine productivity—and I invite you to do the same. Here are three simple tactics I’m using to support this shift.
1. GIVE YOUR BRAIN REAL BREAKS
Maybe you’ve tried a digital detox, like avoiding devices on Saturday. It’s a smart idea, but I’m convinced we need to drastically reduce what we cram into our heads all week long. In the 1990s, psychiatrist Nancy C. Andreasen coined the acronym REST (random episodic silent thought) to describe the free association our brains engage in during quiet relaxation. She’s currently studying a small group of artists, scientists, mathematicians, and others working at the top of demanding fields.
For many of the participants, “letting their mind run freely is a big resource for their creativity,” Andreasen told The Washington Post. In other words, productivity requires a steady supply of novel thoughts that arise only through rest. We need to restock our mental shelves if we want to do meaningful work.
2. EMBRACE “NIKSEN”
To replenish your mind throughout the day, consider the latest lifestyle philosophy to follow hygge, ikigai, and friluftsliv. It’s called niksen, which is the Dutch art of doing nothing. While it’s bewildering to think we need encouragement to watch the coffee brew or stare out the window, niksen is a rare experience for many of us.
When you finish a task, stop for a moment before starting the next one. Close your eyes and feel the sun on your face. Brush your teeth without scrolling Instagram. Make your lunch in silence, if possible, without calls or podcasts for company. There’s a reason so many people have brilliant ideas in the shower; your mind has a precious few minutes to roam free.
I know terms like niksen can feel gimmicky, but reclaiming small pockets of time can help to recalibrate your productivity. Observe people waiting in a lineup and it’s clear that doing nothing is almost a radical act. But watching the birds or chilling on a park bench makes it easier to remember that you’re not a machine designed to achieve and produce.
3. DISCOVER WHAT LIGHTS YOU UP
Notice I didn’t say “follow your passion.” When we obsess about productivity, we miss daily opportunities to experience joy, even in tiny slices. The pandemic reminded us that life is fleeting. We can’t take simple pleasures, like drinking coffee with a friend, for granted. Work is another chance to explore what makes us happy. It’s a privilege, of course, but when you follow your curiosity, stretch your skills, and take creative risks, stress diminishes and you’re more likely to enter a flow state.
Meditation is another great way to explore what matters. By now, it probably feels like a multivitamin or a should on your list, but there’s a reason everyone suggests it: Mindfulness helps. A few minutes spent following your breath or watching your thoughts flutter in the breeze calms the brain. What often emerges is a bit of perspective; maybe even a glimmer of clarity about how and why you’re working, and what could make it better. At the very least, it’s a whole lot easier than hanging upside down.
Aytekin Tank is the founder of JotForm, a popular online form builder. Established in 2006, JotForm allows customizable data collection for enhanced lead generation, survey distribution, payment collections, and more.