Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is …

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is …

Last fall I had too much going on. Some would call it an extremely productive season, in the sense that on any given day I was checking off lots of boxes on a long to-do list. I got a lot done.

But it wasn’t my favorite way to operate. I felt like a poorly calibrated machine, where the gears are jammed together too tightly for anything to actually move. It works, technically, but it’s a grind.

I don’t like to think of myself as a machine, especially a poorly calibrated one.

After being in a season that was too full, the past month has felt gloriously spacious in comparison. The whole experience has taught (re-taught) me the power of margin. Instead of being always in doing mode, now I feel like I can think.

And what I’m finding—as I sink into a season where I’m intentionally taking walks with no headphones, and going to the bookstore just because, is that these intentionally unproductive hours are actually opening the door to all kinds of good things.

Sometimes the most productive thing you can do doesn’t look remotely productive. Like you could maybe

  1. Walk the dog,
  2. read a book,
  3. flip through a cookbook,
  4. chat with a neighbor,
  5. phone a friend, preferably an old friend you haven’t talked to in way too long.
  6. Go for a run
  7. or a bike ride, and
  8. stretch.
  9. Make an extra cup of coffee
  10. or tea
  11. and sit
  12. or maybe walk, with no headphones
  13. and think.
  14. Find a park bench, or swing,
  15. or your most comfy sofa, and
  16. do nothing at all. And when you’ve had enough nothing, you might
  17. Go to a bookstore and look at every single blessed title on the hardcover fiction shelves.
  18. (or maybe the mysteries)
  19. or maybe the thrift shop instead, because you know what they say about one woman’s junk.
  20. Or Target, if that’s more your style (or you’re out of aluminum foil), but make sure you go down every aisle (or at least the fun ones).

and then, when you’re done goofing off, with your walks and your books and your friends and your lazing, you may find that the idea is there, that the next step is clear, that the problem you were puzzling over about your work or your kids or your wardrobe solved itself when you weren’t looking.

Are there days when I don’t have (or perhaps don’t make?) the time for a nice long walk with the dog? Absolutely. But too many of those days strung together and the whole thing starts to feel like a grind instead of a good thing. And if a walk or a thrift shop or just some time on the couch can keep things humming along? I’ll take it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on your unexpectedly productive hours in comments. 

P.S. That time when I told you about sitting on the couch and doing nothing, the spiritual discipline of the long walk, and the best book you’ve never heard of on the daily grind.

most productive thing

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54 comments

  1. Ioana Nan says:

    Yesterday I was sitting near the fireplace and in the background was playing a YouTube song. And I just sat and listened to it. It dawned on me that the last time I simply listened to music, without engaging in another activity in the meantime, was forever ago. This blogpost complements that thought of mine, so thank you!

  2. Nancey says:

    I really love this, especially now, it’s so easy to get lost in the craziness of this time. I am going to consciously take a moment or many moments to just be.

  3. Darci says:

    Thank you! I’ve been in my own head so much the last few weeks about issues I need to tackle, problems I need to solve, work I “need” to be doing and all the while not doing very well at any of it. You’ve reminded me that I ALWAYS have the biggest ah-ha moments or releases of internal stress and turmoil when I go and sit on my favorite park bench in Central Park! I’m grabbing my big down jacket and a coffee and heading to the park! Thanks again for the post!

  4. Katia says:

    Beautiful post! When we’re on vacation, doing a whole lot of nothing, ideas start to flow more easily. Yet, why wait for that vacation, which may come just once or twice per year for a few days at a time? We must make doing nothing a priority. The Italians (and all Mediterranean cultures, really) have the right idea with ‘La dolce far niente!’

  5. Debbie Snyder says:

    This is my therapy on many occasions, and I want it more and more as a result!!! It is refreshing to turn off the gadgets, the noise, and that voice in my head that always tells me, “There is something to do, don’t loaf around, this isn’t productive.” LIAR!!! That voice is WRONGO!!! It is extremely productive!!! It’s restful, peaceful, joyful, rejuvenating and SATISFYING. It opens my mind and my heart and my soul to wisdom from on high. To a still, small voice from my Creator that has been desperately trying to reach me but to no avail. My business, busyness, duties with home, family and community, though all good and fruitful, most times block the best thing, which is communion with my Maker and guidance for this awesome journey he has put me on called LIFE!

  6. Sarah R says:

    One of the best habits I got into over the past years was instituting bathtime for me! It’s my way to be alone and in a quiet space every day.

    • ConiG says:

      Bubble baths have been my de-stressors and “no think” think tank for years. I concentrated only on the warm luxurious feeling of being surrounded by fragrant bubbles.
      It takes awhile to learn to turn the thoughts off. As noted, it allows those subconscious ideas to surface often bringing needed solutions and opens the creative part of my mind.
      Now as a disabled senior getting in and out of the tub is difficult… no longer a de-stressor. Instead, I have tea time in my recliner and concentrate on the tree outside my window. Sometimes the birds entertain me, but mostly my drifts into favorite memories or the nothingness where my creativity resides.

  7. Chelsea says:

    I loved reading this today, Anne! Thanks for sharing this list. Margin for thinking, and all the things that inspire thinking, is so important! Love your blog, and just finished listening to you on The Happy Hour with Jamie Ivey- so fun!

  8. AL says:

    Love this. I totally agree.
    Thanks for confirming it… So I know I’m not alone. Working to strike a good balance … it’s the sweet spot of life.

  9. Terry says:

    We are caught in a culture of “busy-ness” and we women often feel guilty for not being in perpetual motion.

    One of my ways to just “be” is to sit and crochet – just in the silence. The repetitive motion of hook and yarn is very soothing, the beautiful thing being produced is a treat for the eyes. The gift that is being made (my projects are almost always gifts) is a way to think of, and pray for, the one I am giving it to. And when that time is up I am refreshed and ready to conquer the next tasks – often with a new approach.

  10. Yes. This. I can so relate to feeling like I’m not at my best when it’s really busy…even if I do get much accomplished. We had an unusually busy week last week. By Saturday, I was worn out. All I wanted to do was curl up on the couch, snuggle in a blanket, and read. And absolutely YES to going to the bookstore just because. It’s one of my favorite things to do!

  11. Libby says:

    I love this! It’s something that’s been resonating in my heart lately–especially as someone who has to be able to write for a living. You can just sit down and write and get something on the page, or we can do what it takes to get into our flow and let something just pour out of us onto the page. Sometimes, you know, you just gotta step away to do your best work.

  12. Ann-Marie says:

    I’m rewatching Downton Abbey. I just finished the episode where Mrs. Hughes takes food to Ethel. She walks, rides the bus, and walks some more to get there. And when she was on the bus, she just s-a-t. No book, no headphones (obviously), no conversation. It caught my attention because it’s been way too long when I’ve simply just sat.

  13. Gisela Scofield says:

    LOVED your blog today – sat down in the middle of a big project, chaos and confusion all around me, and took a deep breath. Another, and another. Suddenly I found myself getting up, flinging the French doors to the garden open wide and stepping outside. I love my garden, but due to all the craziness and drama of the Holidays etc., had completely ignored it. I took another DEEP BREATH and although the temp. was only in the upper 40s I started to walk. Imagine my amazement when I found Spring was starting to push and claw its way up out of the dark hard ground – the annual miracle of rebirth had begun.
    Thank you Anne – without your blog I would have been too busy and too blind to notice and enjoy it.

  14. Ana says:

    I thought the end of that sentence was going to be “…go to bed”. And sometimes that is the answer…when I am tired, and its late, and my thoughts are jumbled with everything I need to do. Sometimes its better to just go to bed. Get the rest. And tackle it in the morning.

  15. Lori says:

    Yes! I totally agree with you here. It is often the very best thing to completely unplug and just be. It’s also one of the hardest things to do. But I find that if I don’t take at least a little time to walk through an antique mall, or even just sit and watch people, I’m not nearly as nice as I could be. NOT thinking about things helps me solve a lot of problems, but my mind has to be intentionally fixed elsewhere, or in this case, nowhere. It’s a hard discipline, but absolutely necessary.

  16. sharyn says:

    This post reminds me of a saying from my paternal grandmother (and my father.). “Sometimes, the most Christian thing you can do is sleep.” You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.

  17. kelly says:

    What an excellent reminder. It is becoming way too common for people to do too much. It’s stretching us to a degree that kindness, understanding, real conversation, and enjoyment of life is rare. Glad to be slowing down with you and your readers 🙂

  18. Kimmy says:

    What a great post! Last evening I spent a couple hours volunteering at a domestic violence survivor program teaching women to use slow cookers. I’m a librarian who manages 3 libraries and I work A LOT. I’m usually running from one commitment to the next. Last night felt unbelievably different. It wasn’t just another thing on my to-do list. Even though it was time away from home during an already busy season I was engaging with these women: we ate, talked, and shared recipes. It felt restful in a productive sort of way 🙂 The time went by so fast and I believe everyone took something away. For the ladies, they got a slow cooker. For me, I got much-needed time to connect with someone in a meaningful way. Can’t wait to do it again!

  19. Melanie says:

    It’s funny, I usually don’t have a problem with over-committing myself. I can’t take chaos and I need a lot of recharging time. I’ve had to tell myself that I don’t need to feel lazy about spending hours each evening reading – I’m engaging in my favorite hobby! But these past couple of weeks I’ve been breathtakingly busy…mostly due to a ceramics class that requires oodles of time in the studio…and I’m desperately missing those hours of quietness and solitude.

  20. Janet Senk says:

    Yes, I totally agree. Sometimes you have to just be you, whatever you means to you. It works. I have worked hard all my life since I was 6 or 7 yrs. old, had good careers, and after almost 10 yrs. with my last job, our company was selectively and hostile bought, with my Boston office not picked up. So now on my 2nd year off I sometimes feel guilty for not working, and yet I do not feel ready to “retire”, but again not sure if I need a part-time job or not (maybe to pay healthcare). So you just learn to breathe deeper and not think over everything as critically hard as in the past. It all comes to you.

  21. Maryalene says:

    I’ve been trying really hard to slow down, and I’ve discovered that I can no longer laze around. It’s like I’ve forgotten how to do nothing. Even when I’m “relaxing,” I feel a compulsion to be checking off boxes on a list. Need to figure out how to get back to being comfortable being unproductive.

  22. Melodee says:

    Anne, your list reads like a free-verse poem! I love it! And it was encouraging today, as I am very late-term pregnant and finding it harder and harder to “be productive.”

    • Katy says:

      It is a relief that others can relate to this as well as me ! I think I was trying to force too much out of too little. I have taken some time out and not only am I enjoying my work again, but I can see a way through the fog! Thanks for the list – on point as usual.

  23. Laura Nelson says:

    Loved this post. As women, we are so programmed to push ourselves to do, and then do more. I’m retired and still pushing to do more. I too am working on taking time for me. My times are quilting, or just cutting our square of fabric. But, yes, I too get caught in this trap too easily and hate it.

    • Terry says:

      I am so glad to read this. My husband and I are moving into our retirement (not entirely voluntarily) and while we both still work part-time, it is nothing like what we did before. I’m having a hard time making the shift. Not because I don’t WANT to but maybe because I don’t know HOW.

  24. Betsy says:

    Deep Work, by Cal Newport, is an excellent book that discusses this very thing. Thanks for this post – I’m reading the book right now, and the post is excellent validation. I can’t recommend this book enough.

  25. Jess says:

    Lovely list. This has been one of those weeks (months?) where my brain feels overwhelmed and overworked, even though I’m barely getting anything done. Giving myself the freedom and the time to rest would probably help me out of this funk – but sometimes it’s just tough to tell yourself it’s okay to do that!

  26. Theresa says:

    Great ideas and list. I am more a doer and my husband has always taken time to just relax and not be productive. Sometimes he takes what he calls a “mental health day,” which looks like a lot of nothing, but nourishes and refreshes his soul. I used to think he was being lazy, but now I am joining him, or taken my own not so productive days.

  27. Rose Booth says:

    Love this! Every year I pick a word for the year. No resolutions because I break them in 30 days. My word this year is Renewal. I take at least one full day a month where I take time to renew myself emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually. My phone is used only for phone things – calls and texts – and no social media at all. January has already shaped up to be a better month because of this!

  28. Shawna says:

    Clearance shopping! I LOVE after Christmas clearance shopping. Not the crazy days right after Christmas but the end of January meandering kind. Where the clearance is 60% off and above and the inventory is whittled down so that it’s not overwhelming. I buy most all of my friend gifts and relative gifts right now!

  29. Amanda says:

    I walk every morning — rain or shine. Some people need their morning coffee in order to function; I need my morning walk. It’s my time to wake up and think. (I get really cranky if my walk is cut short or, if when I’m out of town, I don’t have access to a treadmill or easy and safe outdoor route.) No headphones, no conversations with friends, and, for a good portion of the year, no daylight. Some of my best thoughts happen during that half hour. Other days, it’s more mundane like deciding what to wear to work. But regardless of the thoughts in my head, it’s the meditative walk that sets me up for the day.

  30. Anna says:

    After a week of near breakdowns and feeling like a fish out of water in a world of super-teachers while I gasp for breath in between classes, this list brought happy tears to my eyes. I read it out loud to my husband as we commiserated about the week and planned (schemed?) a “productive” weekend (including a long run while listening to your podcast) 🙂

  31. Beira says:

    Yes! I do these things and I can be a more settled mother, and wife, and friend. It’s a lovely form of self-care and showing kindness to ourselves that we women need to embrace more. Thank you for the reminder!

  32. Beth says:

    This is so true! I’ve been pushing myself pretty hard at my new job and this week I realized I need to spend more time doing this kind of stuff or I’m going to burn out. Thursday when I got to work (early, of course) I spent an hour mind mapping and journaling silly stuff I’ve had rolling around in my head. My spring wardrobe, monthly menu plan/ideas, decorating ideas, etc.. It felt like a waste of time but afterwards I was more relaxed and able to focus on cranking out work.

  33. Jessi says:

    Ooo thank you! It is far too easy for me to push push push, rather than enjoy life. I walked out of church this afternoon slowly, happily, knowing I have an afternoon of NOTHING ahead of me. And it struck me, maybe that’s how I’m meant to live – slowly, enjoying the moments, rather than pushing for bigger Things and a sense of accomplishment.

  34. Colleen Higgs says:

    Oh, Anne, I’ve been writing about this very thing this week! We live in rural Argentina where it is summer. And it is hot. Sitting by the river is the thing to do in the heat of the afternoon, but that lasts for hours! I get frustrated at how unproductive I feel, but sometimes the best thing you can do is to be still, stay cool, conserve energy, and do it together.

  35. Marcy says:

    Your recent email to us book bullet journalers brought me here, so commenting late.

    What I’m really curious about, is what does the rest and “productivity” balance look like for us Nines? From the outside, at least, you look amazingly productive for a Nine. As far as I can tell, it’s rare for Nine bloggers to post regularly! How do you do it?! Is it the Maximizer in you? Having kids pushing you to learn how to manage it all, because we Nine mamas don’t have a choice but to figure it out?

    I love this post, and I think that, as Nines, we definitely need some space to think and be. But it’s so easy for me to fall into pushing away the things I need to do, avoiding them, pretending they don’t exist. Although I see that Nines under stress also can tend to over commit themselves. But when feeling secure we’re more goal-oriented. Hmm. To be active and engaged with life, while not being productive in a distracted busywork sort of way… Feels like a lot of stress management tips out there are geared towards calming things, and we Nines can be so calm we fall asleep! So what’s the answer? Doing the slow things like in this post, to help us prioritize what’s truly necessary, and THEN act?

    Do you have any specific routines, habits, or tips that help keep you on track in this process?

    • Anne says:

      That’s funny—I didn’t think I was a nine for a LONG TIME because I did not resonate a tiny bit with the “sloth” aspect. I finally, finally realized that Nines tend to be lazy about personal boundaries (guilty) but can be hard and productive workers (also guilty).

      Um, I feel like this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you I have a book coming out on this in September? I have a lot of thoughts about this topic. 🙂 http://amzn.to/2qZaZQb

      • Marcy says:

        Thank you for replying to me so quickly, and yay! I knew it was coming out, but I guess I should pre-order it, then! I’m going to selfishly hope you spend a disproportionate amount of time on Nines, compared to other Enneagram types. 🙂

        (I also thought of your previous eBook, *How She Does It*, but it looks like it’s not available on Amazon right now, and besides, my question is more “how do you do it with your personality?” and less “how do you do it with kids?” Not as much the time management and balance aspect as *How She Does It*, though that might be helpful, too…)

        I didn’t want to get involved in the Enneagram at all for the longest time, because I liked my other personality type systems just FINE, thank you very much, and what I heard of it didn’t sound all that intriguing at first. And then everyone started talking about *The Road Back to You*… Oh no, it was earlier than that. Tsh Oxenreider’s Upstream Field Guide made me wonder a little bit more. *Then* everyone and their mother was talking about *The Road Back to You*, and then hope*writers did an interview with Ian Cron, and I was hooked. Also I thought I was a Four. 😀 But every time I read a really good chapter on Nines or listened to a good interview with a Nine I kept crying, dang it!

        I was able to easily identify with the sloth aspect (ouch), I had more trouble with the idea that I have this “inner sea of tranquility,” or that my emotions weren’t as BIG and HUGE as a Four’s.

        I have a lot of thoughts and words on that topic. (Let’s just say that one explanation I found online for misidentification of Nines to Fours, that some of us think of ourselves as creative, and it’s okay, “other types can be creative too!” It does not cut it. Not at all. On the other hand, I think it’s pretty easy for us HSPs to think we’re having huge emotions and to feel like we need to avoid horrible awful things like conflict…)

        I think this may be the part where I try not to get defensive about why *I’m* not blogging regularly then, if it doesn’t have to be a big issue! 🙂 But then, maybe it’s relatively simple. I agree that we can be hard and productive workers, but weak on personal boundaries. So then it’s a question of realizing what we want to work hard on and following our dreams, if we don’t have other people pushing us in the same direction. (And when we’re working for ourselves, rather than for a company. Working hard for someone else is relatively easy! Though it has different sorts of challenges.) And we can have a really hard time prioritizing, which can make us distractible, as we see the value in ALL THE THINGS. So maybe the better question is, how do you *focus* enough to post regularly?

        Do you listen to The Road Back to You podcast? There was an interview with a Nine who’s a therapist (hello episodes that make me cry), and he likened the Nine “inertia” issue to being a big heavy boulder. Yes, it can be hard to get us going, but he said when he’s really into a project, he’s like a rock rolling down a hill. Maybe that’s part of the secret, too… Or maybe I just need to wait for your book. Dang it! 🙂

        Oh, you know what? Maybe I should give a tiny bit of personal background, just in case it changes your answer. (And in case this comment isn’t long enough already? Ha!) If your answer isn’t all in your book. And not just because I’m still being defensive, oh no, not at all! 🙂

        I’m 34, a little bit younger than you and other bloggers I admire. I started ages ago (end of 2004!), but just as a fun little personal blog — I didn’t realize I wanted to take it more seriously and actually serve readers until relatively recently, and by then I was in the middle of/recovering from a bunch of different stressful life stuff. And didn’t get into the Enneagram until even more recently! And now… now. I have a 4yo and an almost-20mo, and I’m pregnant with a baby with an extremely rare syndrome. Her case is looking relatively mild so far, but it’s still serious (Does she have a spleen? How old will she be before she needs a pacemaker?), and of course, stressful. After my now-toddler was born I struggled with chronic illness issues and depression/mood swings, though pregnancy actually seemed to help a lot with that, but then it was morning sickness, and now this.

        So I have a lot of excuses and reasons for not getting things done (stupid inertia!!), and it can be hard to sort out which is which (don’t we all?), and whether, if I’m really focused, it would be on blogging right now, anyway. Still, my novel-length comments and questions stand, and I’m looking forward to reading your book! Thank you again!

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