Productivity Spelled Backward is Self-Discovery

Earlier this morning, I was sipping a delicious cup of coffee and reading my favorite—yes, I’ve committed!—weekly newsletter by Austin Kleon.

He linked to a wonderful little blog post of his called 15 years of blogging (and 3 reasons I keep going). As someone who’s been blogging for 3 years (and aspiring to many more than 15), I was understandably intrigued…

His first two reasons were very good, but it was reason #3 that struck me:

Because I like it.

He went on to say something that I think is more profound than it might appear:

It is very easy to be disciplined when you like what you’re doing.

This kindled a thought of my own:

Every question about personal productivity is just a self-discovery question in disguise.

The more I think about what it means to be productive, the less I find myself interested in techniques, systems, hacks, or even habits, and the more I’m drawn to self-discovery.

The meaning of self-discovery

For me, self-discovery is the ongoing journey to learn more about yourself—your genuine interests, desires, dislikes, needs, preferences, aspirations, and values.

But it’s a surprisingly hard journey. And it’s hard, I think, because it’s so easy to end up unconsciously inheriting preferences and values from other people—family, friends, culture, society, etc.

Of course, who we are and what we value are always social or inherited to some extent. But the real question is one of intentionality:

Do we passively absorb these values and preferences or consciously and intentionally seek to discover them?

The meaning of productivity (and procrastination)

If you struggle with productivity, maybe the problem isn’t how so much as what

Maybe it’s not your productivity system or anti-procrastination app or even your mindset that’s the problem. Maybe it’s that you’re not working on the right things?

Maybe—just maybe!—you don’t actually know what you want. You think you do because you’re paying attention to what the people you admire want and—with less than full consciousness—you’re copying that.

Maybe you’re absorbing other people’s values instead of discovering your own?

If this was true, what might we expect your work to be like?

  • I’d guess you wouldn’t feel especially motivated or interested in what you were working on.
  • You’d start procrastinating quite a bit.
  • Then you’d start second-guessing yourself and beating yourself up for not being as passionate or motivated or focused as you “should” be.
  • And of course, all this self-flagellation would lead to even less motivation and more procrastination in the long run—and perhaps eventually, despair.

The virtues of following your nose

Whenever I really get to know someone whom I admire for being prolific, creative, and productive, the same theme keeps popping up: They just really like what they do.

And when I look even more closely, they have this wonderful tendency to follow their nose.

Like a floppy-eared hound dog, they stick their nose to the ground and doggedly follow the scent—blissfully unaware of what the maddening crowd of productivity gurus and creative consultants are whooping and hollering about.

Let me be a little less metaphorical and more direct:

The most productive people seem to practice self-discovery as a way of life.

It’s not even a skill or a habit (though perhaps it started that way). It’s just who they are. It’s what they do. They follow their nose and productivity seems to follow.

Which gets me back to the original idea:

What if every question about personal productivity is just a self-discovery question in disguise?


Add Yours

The best job is one you enjoy doing – whether it is writing a blog, going into the office (some day), or starting your own business (some day). It has to be something you want to do, and then “work” will turn into “fun”.

In a perfect world, I’d love to find that intersection of earning and living and finding something that I truly love. Unfortunately the “earning a living” wins out for me, so I at least try to do something I don’t hate. Still, the self discovery is useful albeit difficult.

That was an awesome read. I have to agree, once we do self-discovery we wish the day had more hours 🙂 the time fly with everything. Thank you for sharing.

You seem to have described my state of mind. Self flagellation has become a regular affair. Thank you for making me realize its not about efficiency.

Those of us who have the opportunity to practice self discovery as connected to working to survive are privileged and we need to remember that. Also, self discovered is not a dress pass to be self centered – keep that in mind if you have a commitment to a partner or child.

Interesting, but certainly not a new concept. My concern is that you have no consciousness around this “self discovery” being unattainable by most of the population. Self discovery doesn’t pay the bills.

I remember having suggested this once, what I get told is “you are just being lazy and trying to dodge the hard work when you say that you do not like this from your heart”. I doubt myself then.

Hey Nick, I feel like I’ve ended up unconsciously inheriting preferences and values from other people—family, friends, culture, society, etc while growing up but as of the last two years I’ve been intentionally honing in on what I like and have experienced a huge shift in moral. Additionally there are times where I have major FODO when speaking on my likes and dreams because the majority of people I’m around aren’t like that or at least the significant ones aren’t. Thanks for this article, reading things like this is a part of the things I enjoy.

Brilliant, once again! Erudite without overwhelm or over-indulgence! Can I say it again, please…brilliant!

I have to say this is true up to a point. I am retired now, and find that what you say in this article is very relevant to my life at this juncture. However, when I was working, earning a living, putting food on the table, making sure I had good health insurance due to chronic illness, etc., I was not pursuing self-discovery, I was just trying to survive. That was my reality. Just saying.

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