Essential, Meaningful Productivity

Do what you truly need to do—and with the energy the task deserves
July 27, 2020 Updated: July 27, 2020

I don’t care about being efficient and productive just to be a better person, to get more done, or to be more awesome. Cranking out more stuff for productivity’s sake doesn’t interest me the way it used to.

Today, I care about productivity only as it affects my mission.

I’m on a mission to change the world, and if I can be more focused, effective, and powerful as I do that—then it serves the mission.

What doesn’t serve the mission is burning myself out. I’m in this for the long haul, and rest and self-care are incredibly important.

I also don’t want to just have my nose to the grindstone. I care about the experience I’m having as I’m on my mission—it needs to be powerful, joyful, meaningful. I’m not just cranking widgets.

With that context in mind, let’s look at what is essential to this kind of productivity—what I think of as essential, meaningful productivity.

Essential

You focus on what’s essential, not just busywork, not what feels urgent, not on what other people are asking you for, though what’s essential might be some of all three of those. This should be essential for your mission or something incredibly important to you, like your health, loved ones, etc. Work on what matters. This means getting clear every day on what’s essential to you.

Meaningful

This should not just feel like the next thing on your task list—it should feel like the most meaningful thing on your task list. You might even open yourself up to feeling like this is your purpose, your joy. This is serving someone out of love, with devotion. It’s like when I made dinner for my wife and kids last night—this was an act of nourishing them, of taking care of them, of loving them. Writing this post feels like that for me. In fact, we can bring that kind of meaning to most tasks, if we practice this kind of devotion.

Productive

In this mode of work, I’m focused. I don’t turn away from difficulty, discomfort, or uncertainty. I don’t run to distractions or easier tasks. It’s important, it’s meaningful, it’s an act of love—and the people I’m serving are worth this discomfort. I clear away distractions, and go into full-screen mode, giving this my entire focus.

As you can see, these three parts overlap quite a bit. Each word is really describing a different aspect of the same thing, but each is useful.

So how do you do this? Let’s look at the keys to making this happen.

The Keys to Essential Meaningful Productivity

You can actually do this in an infinite number of ways, but here are some elements I’ve found to be important in my own exploration:

Work on what matters. Do you know your most important tasks for today? For the week? For the month? For your mission or life? This is something to get clear on. We don’t always have to be perfect, but the idea is to know what’s essential and to focus on that more of the time.

Structure sessions. Most of us just go through the day doing random things at random times, with no structure. Some people structure their days so rigidly that there’s no room for spontaneity or rest. The middle way, I’ve found, is to create structured sessions: 30 minutes for working on an essential task, for example. Or perhaps it is 90 minutes for writing, or 15 minutes to process your inbox or messages.

Here are two ideas to structure your sessions. Do your most important task for 60 to 90 minutes at the start of every day. First thing. Second, do focused Pomodoro sessions (named after a Pomodoro kitchen timer) in which you do 25 minutes of focus on one task six times throughout the day, every day.

Pour yourself into it. Put meaning and joy into each session. OK, you’re starting a session. Make this a meaningful session—first, by reminding yourself why this is meaningful to you. Second, by pouring yourself into it fully, as if this were the most important thing in the universe. The only thing in the universe.

Let yourself play. Find joy in what you do. Strive to tune in and feel alive as you complete your work sessions.

Turn toward instead of away. You will feel uncertainty, fear, or discomfort around some of your most important tasks. That’s what I call “groundlessness”—the uncertainty of not having solid ground under your feet. Instead of turning away, turn toward this task. Stay with the groundlessness, mindfully. Be present with the fear and uncertainty, but don’t let it force you to exit. Let it be an act of love and devotion to stay in the middle of the groundlessness as you do the task.

Put smaller things into focused sessions. It might be true that few individual emails or messages or errands are going to be essential—so under the guidelines above, you might think you should never answer those emails or messages, never do the errands. But doing errands, paying bills, answering emails—these are all important at some level. The juggernaut of your mission will grind to a halt if you never maintain the engine. So the answer is to batch less important (but still necessary) tasks into focused sessions. Spend 15 to 20 minutes processing email, for example. These batch sessions become essential.

There are other ways to work with these ideas. For example, you might spend half a day, or an entire week, focused entirely on something really essential. You might structure your day so that you are doing certain tasks at certain times—meditate and write in the morning, messages, and meetings and workouts in the afternoons, for example. But none of that is essential to the approach.

The main idea is to have structured sessions for essential tasks, turn toward the groundlessness, and pour yourself into it with meaning and joy. It’s that simple.

Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with more than 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net