Intentionality, not productivity

“Productivity” is not up to the job.

The concept of “productivity” was invented in the late 1800s as a frame for measuring standardized output among laborers all doing the same job. It’s since been reapplied to refer to any kind of output, including creative or intellectual work, but it still only asks: what is produced?

If you try to maximize productivity, any success comes at the expense of eliminating what makes life worth living: play, rest, health, serendipity, social connection, or even the extra care involved in adding those unnecessary touches to your work, that delight you and others.

More and more people are noticing that productivity isn’t really what we want.

It seems to me that what many of us want is intentionality.

Intentionality is not about output, but about the connection between what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. It’s not about working as much as you can, but about fully working when you’re working, fully playing when you’re playing, and fully resting when you’re resting.

It feels good to do good work. We get into flow states—we dive deep into the problems we’re solving and see ever more clearly the landscape of the system we’re sculpting. Focused work is viscerally engaging: we talk excitedly about tackling or grappling with a problem.

It feels good to relax into rest. We get lost in a novel or a forest or our loved one’s eyes, trusting that whatever we’ll need to take care of tomorrow or next week, we will take care of that then. Pure rest is wondrously expansive: we talk about being rejuvenated—literally “made young again”.

It feels good to play. We get the hang of a new game, we get to know each other better in surprising ways, and we get around to tinkering with a project we’d always wanted to poke at, not really sure where it’s going and not really caring. Play is open-endedly serendipitous 🙃

What feels awful is when we don’t know what the fuck we’re doing. When we’re supposed to be working but we’re fighting a distracting environment or internal resistance. When we can’t relax during “time off”, because of looming deadlines or feeling we haven’t done enough.

Intentionality is about knowing what you’re doing at a given moment and doing it. It’s about being present to your actions and feeling the satisfaction as you allow yourself ever more fully into doing what you love doing, whether work, play, or rest.

Intentionality is about noticing when your intentions conflict: when doing what you set out to do isn’t quite so simple, because some other part of you has other plans. It’s about finding a new approach where you don’t have your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time.

Intentionality is about connecting the dots between the actions you’re taking right now, in each moment, and the big picture future you want to live in, that those actions are helping bring about. It’s about seeing exciting new opportunities appear as you get clearer where you’re going.

Intentionality is about experiencing whatever you're doing as part of a learning process that will inform the rest of your life.

A productivity system has tasks—often more than you can remember. Within an intentionality system, you have intentions. Intending is internal & embodied—unlike tasks, intentions don’t exist “out there” somewhere. The system just helps you clarify what it is you’re intending to do.

A good intentionality system therefore needs to also have a lifecycle by which things you intended to do awhile ago but haven't done get composted to make fertile soil for new fresh intentions, rather than building up a pile of stale tasks.

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