Why productivity? 5 reasons that motivate me daily

Why am I so obsessed with productivity? Taking a look at this blog, most articles are about my experiments on doing things fast, and doing them well. Even then, I’m not satisfied until I iterate and improve on my productivity approaches; I want to do things faster, and do them better. In this article, I explain the 5 reasons that urgently drive me to use my time to the fullest.

5 reasons for productivity

First of all, here are the 5 reasons, in logical order. Take your time and reason through this with me - your personal interpretations of these points may vary a lot, so I’m hoping you can make these reasons your own.

The reasoning is as follows:

  1. We have limited time on this world.
  2. Hence, time is our single most valuable asset. On a very high level, it is the only asset we have, apart from our very life.
  3. We can do limited things in a fixed unit of time.
  4. Spending more units of time than necessary on a task is a waste of our most valuable asset, an irreversible dent on our very lifespan.
    1. Similarly, spending any unit of time on low utility tasks is a waste of our most valuable asset.
    2. Not “giving it our all” in most units of time possible is a waste of our most valuable asset. We are spending the same unit of time, but getting less “bang for buck”.
  5. Utility and return on time spent can always be treated as a long-term investment problem, and can be approached by thinking about present value and future yields.

How I see productivity

I see making the most of my life as a constrained optimization problem - given a limited endowment of time, how can I maximize my return? Now, this sounds like I only think with my logical mind and not my emotional heart, but that’s actually not true. Spending time with loved ones brings incredible return. Spending the same unit of time half-heartedly and distracted while with loved ones is a waste (see reason 4.2). In this case, I see being productive as a way I embrace being more human.

Doing things inefficiently is also a waste of time (see reason 4.1). This might be where the common definition of productivity comes to mind: for example, the act of studying for exams efficiently, such as by focusing on high-impact tasks and avoiding low-impact tasks, allows us to spend the same or less time for better results.

Reason 4.2. is why I’m mindful of whether I am spending quality time. For example, if I know I will be tired after work, but there is a social gathering, I might decline simply so that I can rest. This is so I can spend the same amount of time with the same friends at a later date where I can be more attentive and have deeper conversations. Hence, managing my energy and time is my way of being a better friend or coworker, though perhaps unorthodox…

In fact, just some time ago, when I was focused on a 12 week sprint, I felt that I didn’t have enough time to chat with my family. In a more recent productivity experiment, I reduced the time needed to complete some 12 week sprint tasks, and now I have a dedicated slot each week for a long rambling phone call with family. Thanks, time efficiency!

How I do not see productivity

Now, it might sound like if I want the most return, I’d have to spend most of my units of time at full mental and physical capacity. But with the above reason 5, it actually means that selective unproductivity is actually very productive.

As an example, if I’m trying to blindly maximize short term return, I might overload on focused work for several weeks, but then burn out. The consequence is that my return in subsequent weeks might be zero, or even negative. This could be even worse than passively wasting time on trivial activities - I’ve learned the hard way to avoid the mental and physical anguish of burnout.

Hence, when I make a choice today on how to spend my time currency, one key consideration is how I can maximize my long term productivity, which justifies planned unproductivity (see reason 5). The key is that it’s planned, with the deliberate purpose of returning to work or meaningful activities at one’s best energy level, rather than sinking back into a mindset that only seeks out short term return or pleasure.

Why I choose productivity

For me, making the choice to live my life to the fullest, by practicing productivity, was quite a personal journey. In 2017, I had just started graduate studies at the University of Toronto; everything felt fascinating, like I had stepped into a whole new world to explore. From the admissions process, to getting accepted into my top choice… it was a dream come true, and it had just begun! My future could not have seemed brighter to me at the time, rich with possibilities.

Then, only a few weeks into the grad program, as I biked on the way to my first ever tutorial as a teaching assistant, I got hit by a car. I still remember the point of impact. The movies and survivor accounts weren’t exaggerating: it really felt like slow motion as my body flew onto the pavement. The car continued to drive, running over my arm! It missed my helmet-less head by centimeters.

On the ambulance, I looked at the tire marks on my arm and everything just seemed surreal. I could have died. Never mind my arm, the part of me that I take the most pride in, my mind, my intellect, could have physically been crushed to a pulp! Regardless of how many possibilities had just opened to me, no matter that I had just entered my dream grad program, all my accomplishments could as easily all disappear at any moment.

Now, where I’m going isn’t only “live every day like it’s your last”, a phrase repeated so often it loses its gravitas. Have you ever had a goal that was the thing you wanted the most in the world? Something that you really, really wanted to accomplish, and a burning desire to achieve it, that near desperation will drive you to think of creative ways to squeeze every last drop out of every last second, at all costs, because it seemed like there wasn’t enough time?

After the accident, and some other life lessons, I always have that feeling that I won’t have enough time to do something I want, because of the limited lifespan I am endowed with. Hence, the best way I try to solve this constrained optimization problem is with productivity, because of the reasoning outlined at the beginning of this article. It’s not even really about what I can do faster, just to be faster, but rather, I want to reclaim some of my most valuable resources so I can spend the saved time on experiences meaningful to me.

Daily motivations for productivity

To sum up, here are the things I constantly remind myself throughout each day.

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