How To Be Productive without Becoming a Productivity Freak

Productivity is usually a good thing. Usually. Not always.

Too much GTD or too much effectiveness in your life can become annoying at some point. Being highly productive can really help you become some sort of a freak, even if you obviously don’t want that. All those lists, thoughts capturing devices, advanced task processing systems. All those fancy words like “next actions”, “hipster cards” or “mind like water”. All those tasks carefully squeezed into your agenda, well, all that could give you a very hard time in a normal, non-productivity related, social conversation. To be honest, most of the people I heard talking about “mind like water” were doing it mostly like a waterfall, not like a still lake. I think you know the type: hyper-active, super talkative and proud of the last uber cool productivity gadget he bought or the last productivity blog post he read.

The good news is that you can still be productive while avoiding the pitfalls of a productivity freak syndrome. Here are 7 verified ways to help you avoid being left alone in the middle of a vivid social conversation in which you just tried to talk about – exactly! – nothing else but productivity.

1. Don’t Plan the Fun

Do you have items like “go out in the park with the kids” in your to do lists? Or something like “have a romantic dinner with my partner”? Ditch this. Immediately. You can’t really plan the fun in your life. It’s a contradiction in terms. If you plan it, it’s not fun anymore. It’s just another chore. Another task to be ticked off from your to do list.. Having fun is a spontaneous activity and cannot be confined into a productivity system. The very thought of productively increasing your fun makes me laugh.

How many times you attended to a party and had no fun at all? Well, I’m sure that behind being at that party there was a productivity “reason”.  Maybe you don’t call it “productivity”, but it was something like “cross out that thing from my agenda”. Mark the task done somehow. Which, of course, you did. Only there wasn’t any fun involved. How many lousy romantic dinners you had? I bet every time you had them you looked up every single detail in advance and made sure everything will be just fine. Only it wasn’t. You had no fun at that dinner.

Planning the fun in your life is the most subtle yet powerful attempt of productivity to kill your spontaneity. Your normal reactions to reality stimulus. You can schedule in advance to DO something, that’s true, but you can’t schedule in advance to FEEL something.

Instead of planning your fun activities, you should just make some time box in your schedule for yourself. If you want to spend time with other people, your friends or your kids, just make some space in your time schedule and be there. Show up. And see where it goes. Don’t plan it, just watch it unfolding ahead. If you want to throw a great party, by all means, do all the preparations. Just don’t expect the party to automatically rock just because you had fantastic food. Likewise, if you want a romantic dinner, just be romantic, don’t plan the next actions. Do something unexpected or extraordinaire. Which, by the way, it’s the complete opposite of being productive.

2. Share Your Learning

Share what you learned about productivity with your friends. Ask for their opinion. The first thing you’ll notice is that all that information is now filtered through your own perceptions and experiences. A lot of what you thought is important is now modeled by your own needs. While you’re talking with somebody else about all those new concepts or ideas you’re slowly getting rid of the initial hype and start to have a better understanding of the system altogether. (Generally speaking, sharing what you’ve learned is  great way to internalize everything you want to learn.)

The second thing you can realize by sharing is to inform your peers about the results you had by using that specific system. No need to talk about technical stuff now, just simple things like: I’ve done twice the things I was usually doing on a Tuesday so far. Watch for their reactions. You’ll be surprised to notice that being productive has little if no impact whatsoever in your close relationships. Yet you unconsciously hope that being productive will enhance your social or intimate life too.

The most important point here is to create a feed-back loop. A way to check out your social status every now and then and see if you’re not deluding yourself. Being productive is meant to do things faster and better, not to alienate you from your friends or colleagues. Don’t use the productivity hype as an identity creator: I’m the GTD guy, or the 4 hours work week guy. The more you do that, the more you’ll be identified with “the productivity freak next office.” Just because you’re updated to the latest productivity news and other people aren’t, doesn’t make you better than them.

3. Listen To Others

There is this cultural norm of associating productivity with pro-activity. Start new projects. Ignite conversations. Initiate new ventures. While this is certainly very important, it also creates a very nasty habit of not listening to other people. Listening is a fantastic resource. How many times you found a solution to something just by listening to other guys? I know I did this literally hundreds of times. Just listen carefully, because your question was certainly asked before and there is already somebody who knows the answer.

Listening is fundamental in identifying problems. Maybe you have the skills to do something faster and better, but if you don’t know exactly what you have to do, then what’s the point? I see more than often those productivity gurus offering ready made solutions to problems far more complicated than they realize. They have a limited set of solutions and they try to apply them to every problem they encounter., regardless of its complexity. Just because they “know” that works. Only, of course, it doesn’t.

Without listening and acknowledging the real problems your productivity skills are worthless. You’re just a talkative guy making more trouble then it solves, while bragging too in the process. Not the nicest personal brand you can build, right? Listening is not a productive activity in itself, although it can be enhanced: there really is an art of listening, you know. But listening, combined with your productivity skills can help you become a useful person too, rather then becoming just a freak annoying people around.

4. Keep Things Simple

The promise of productivity subtly invites you to bring more into your life. You can manage it, right, so bring more. More business, more relationships, more everything. You load yourself with tons of not really necessary stuff just because you can. Well, you could also run on a roof of a running train, with a little bit of training. But why would you do something like this on a regular basis? You could learn how to juggle with 5-6 balls at the same time, becoming better than a circus artist. Ok, but why would you do it?

Almost any productivity system out there puts a big emphasis on how to manage everything in your life. But why would you wanna do that to everything in your life? Why do you want to become productive on all the things in your life, including stuff you don’t need anymore? Instead of trying to manage everything, I think it’s better to get rid of the unnecessary entirely. Why trying to manage something you don’t really need?

This subtle invitation to bring more stuff into your life is the most dangerous thing you can do when you decide to become productive. You don’t really need that extra stuff. It’s like a competition between people racing on roofs of running trains, just because they can run on roofs of running trains. Who’s going to really win such a stupid race? The good side of being productive and effective is that you can do more in less time. Great, now go out and enjoy life, instead bringing more work into the system.

5. Accept and Manage Interruptions

The productivity flow assumes you’re there 100%, 8 hours out of 8, 5 days a week. If you’re a normal person. If you have a busier schedule, it means even more. Well, reality is different. You’re not there 8 full hours. At some point, life will get in the way somehow. You will be exposed to interruptions. It’s called hazard or the unpredictable. And the way you react to interruptions is almost always the key to a productive approach.

Accept them. Manage them. Respond to those stimuli, because there lies your real growth. Planning everything ahead will not make you grow. It will barely create a comfort zone around, but not more. It’s this constant stimulus-response dance that gives you new insights and perspectives. This is where you learn and do your real actions. A day with a perfect agenda is not a day that will make you evolve as a human being. It can give you a tricky sense of satisfaction, but if no “deranging” interruption occurred, you must start asking yourself questions.

“Life’s what’s happening when you’re busy making plans”, said John Lennon and I totally agree with him. Being productive is not always equal with being happy and fulfilled. I really don’t think the goal is to become the perfect business machine out there, but to live your life. A life filled with unexpected, interruptions, change of plans and contexts. Avoiding this by hiding under the “high productivity” blanket will not only make you lose all the fun, but it will surely create an almost visible aura of “freak”-ness around you.

6. Daydreaming Is Not Dangerous

One of the key principles of GTD, “emptying your mind” has become one of its biggest flops. Because when you empty your mind in GTD style, you’re not really emptying. Behind every mental throw up of an idea, of a potential project or task, there’s a continuous, humming thought of being productive. Every time you jot down something, you’re doing it because you want to be productive. So, even if you think you’re emptying your mind, you’re not really doing it: you continuously think about how to be more productive.

A productivity freak is a person who’s always in search of a new gadget or system. His mind is simply obsessed with the whole productivity process. Sometimes, those guys really make a business out of this, teaching other people how to become productive. They’re the lucky ones. They found an outlet for the obsession. But most of the times, the productivity freaks are just circling around, stuffing new productivity techniques in their head until they forget why they wanted to be productive in the first place.

Empty your mind from useless stuff. But do allow yourself to have thoughts that will never grow into a task. Imagine things. Picture new realitites. Visualize new contexts or situations. You may call this day dreaming. And yes, you will be right about that. But day dreaming is one of the most productive ways to empty your mind. To switch its focus from the glitches you encountered and allow it to regroup and find new ways to tackle an issue. One of the core qualities of a dream is its impermanence. Once finished, it will fly away from your mind. Leaving it empty, refreshed and clean.

7. Stay Healthy

Being highly productive is often associated with being a busy guy. In fact, you become productive because you are a busy guy and want to minimize that load. Alas, you end up by increasing it. It’s an addiction. The higher your productivity level, the busiest you become. You enjoy so much the thrills you get from being productive that you start putting more and more on your plate just to trigger that feeling again. Look ma, see how I slack those tasks from my task processing system! Am I the best, or what? Now gimme some more tasks, please! Man, that feels soooo good!

Ok, I’m being sarcastic here, but slacking tasks from your lists can really become an addiction. And just because is associated with productivity doesn’t make it less dangerous or less of an addiction. It’s on the same league with smoking or alcohol. Really. Staying up late to slack tasks from your lists is doing no more good to you than spending the whole night drinking in a bar. You won’t have a hangover in the morning, that’s true, but you will feel the urge to slack them again in the evening. And will do this again and again. The results: you end up stealing time from your sleeping hours, from your social hours, from your family hours. All that in the name of being productive, how ridiculous is that?

Eat well. Sleep well. Exercise. Engage in physical activities and change your focus. Being caught in a constant flow of productive tasks will most likely generate a flow of positive emotions too. You’ll feel good about yourself and that is usually a feeling you want to keep as long as you can. That flow of ego boosting emotions can keep you being productive for hours without a break. But it’s tricky. Just because it feels good doesn’t mean it does good to your body. You need a balance. Pack some time in advance in your schedule and get out of that nice, ego boosting flow of being productive and do some physical exercise. Take a walk in the park. Eat a healthy meal. Take a nap. Then you can get back on being productive, with a fresh perspective.


To be productive without becoming a productivity freak is an art. The art of living your life in peace and harmony while still doing everything you planned to do, enjoying abundance and feeling happy and fulfilled.

28 thoughts on “How To Be Productive without Becoming a Productivity Freak”

  1. ^_^ Hello: Dragos darling, Suphie,
    here. I do hope you will write me at some point; I am saddened that it seems you are too busy even to notice my comments. Please try to help out a struggling Blogger/sister. :))

    Thanks much, Spacibo (Russian, i know),

    Suph (Soo-Fee)

    Specifically, Drago: How do you become productive without going, you know, berserk, or killer-productive, as you say?? 🙂 ) ) Have a good day/take care!!! 🙂

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  4. Nice post, I definitely agree with staying healthy and thats something I got to do more regularly. Work out!
    .-= Dipankar´s last blog ..Blog Development And Launch Checklist =-.

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  6. Really valuable words here, and a bit dangerous with the hip timehacking crowd associated with personal development.

    I really enjoyed the don’t plan fun points, it’s true… “You can schedule in advance to DO something, that’s true, but you can’t schedule in advance to FEEL something.” so blocking out time to NOT be productive but not what to actually feel is important.

    Okay now the real stuff, I’m a productivity aficionado just like you…it’s like anything else, again reiterating some points you already shared…simplicity wins out here. Time management is a billion dollar industry…but there’s nothing like a good old calendar. I find the best productivity system is finding out what personally sparks execution and putting things in time, capturing and putting things on a calendar, NOT a to do lists…we don’t live in the 50’s…we can’t put everything we need to manage or do on a list anymore…FACT, so don’t try…kick the drug. I also like using selective ignorance…eliminate issues by training yourself that you don’t need them.

    I’ll stop myself there! Great points…thanks for the reminder that daydreaming is not dangerous…I haven’t spent enough time just appreciating life lately…certainly a challenge for the productivity hackers of the world.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..Preparing a Platform for Freedom =-.

    • Great points too, Robert, thanks for commenting. I too use only a calendar lately and the biggest list I’ve done last year was a shopping list. Nothing fancier. Fact is I internalized a lot of the GTD habits so I may not see some spots, but I do experience a lot more freedom than in my old, “productivity hype” days.

  7. You make great points, Drago. I totally agree that we can go overboard and get obsessed with being “productive”. I have been a coach for 10 years, am a big fan of GTD and this stuff sort of lives in my veins now. I recently realized I have probably crossed the line sometime back when my 9 year old started getting stressed when she would be playing with friends that she needed to get home and do her homework or she would run out of time. I found myself saying, “don’t worry about it. Just have fun! It’s not a big deal if you do your homework a little later”. But inside I was wondering, “wow! Have I somehow passed this stress to my child?” I never felt like I was but I think she’s picked up on it. So – now my challenge is to try to chill out myself so that I can give her a different example. I know this is totally overused but it fits in this instance “we’re human beings. Not human doings”.
    .-= Carmen´s last blog ..Are You a Lifestyle Designer or a Lifestyle Lemming? =-.

    • I didn’t know about this “we’re human beings, not human doings” thing so I guess is not too overused. As a GTD fanboy for several years I perfectly know what you mean. But what I don’t know is how it is to see your own “productivity wrongdoings” reflected in your kids. And I hope from the bottom of my heart I won’t.

  8. Not enough people take time to daydream. I’ve come up with some of my best ideas — and remembered why I’m trying to be productive in the first place — when I’m just sitting around with nothing more than pen or paper. I love metro rides and the like because it’s a perfect opportunity to just chill out and think, rather than do.

    Great post!
    .-= Thursday Bram´s last blog ..Too Young To Go It Alone? Part Two =-.

  9. As a recovering productivity addict, I still found some of your (good) advice hard to take. Not planning my fun!!! How would I get any fun done!! 😉

    I especially take your point about health. It is all too easy to work long hours and get loads of really important stuff done apart from sleep, eat healthily, see your friends and family and take exercise.

    Fundamentally I’m unlikely to completely break free as I develop productivity software for a living! (


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  11. Productivity has its place, but like with too many things it has gotten out of hand. If the systems and tools help you to get done what needs to be done so you can enjoy life, then that’s great.

    Unfortunately, in many cases people fall into the productivity trap that Dragos described in this kick-a$% post.

    It reminds me of the story where a businessman tries to persuade a simple fisherman to increase his effort and build a fishing business empire so that he’d be able to retire rich in a couple of years. Ironically, to then – after lots of hard and dedicated work – enjoy all the activities like siesta, hanging out with family and friends, playing guitar, etc.. of his current lifestyle.
    .-= Marko´s last blog ..Learn to Play Chord Melody — The Major Family =-.

  12. Absolutely spot-on post Dragos. It’s so easy to get caught up in following such-and-such productivity system to the letter, thinking that if you do that, you’ll attain a new level of productivity.

    At the end of the day, it’s all about perspective and expending efforts in the right places; it’s pointless to get 100 things crossed off your lists in an afternoon if none of those things take you a step closer to where you REALLY want to go.

    • I really like how you put it Andrew. It’s all about motivation and self-centeredness (I admit I didn’t invented the word, I saw it in a blog post once). Productivity is useless without a live inspiring goal.

    • Absolutely true, Eduard, life’s about living not about productivity. Too easu to get caught in this flow, I guess because at some point we’re enjoying it too much.

  13. Hey Dragos.

    I put commenting here on my to-do list. I will cross it off after I comment and then go enjoy an activity for 30 minutes, which is next on my to-do list, and then I can cross that off.

    I was joking there but your point in #1 sure is valid. I will remember not to write any fun things down on to-do material, because that sure does cancel some of the fun involved.
    .-= Armen Shirvanian´s last blog ..Motivation Related To Production =-.

    • Lol, that was the nicest thing I read today 🙂 Next time when you comment, can you please let me know in advance, I’d like to make some room in my agenda for this funny event 😉

  14. This is a great post and I think you are reaching out to an audience that really needs to hear this advice! We don’t want productivity tips to turn us into a Type-A, stress-driven, anxiety-ridden, work-a-holics.

    Instead, I would prefer productivity tips to help me free up my time, allow me to spend more of it by myself, on the beach, reading, and doing what I love. “Maximizing” my time – whatever that means – should be spending time how I personally see fit, and not cramming as many tasks and projects into one sitting as I possibly can.

    Really good post Dragos!
    .-= Steven Handel´s last blog ..Five Reasons Why Having A Blog Makes You More Productive =-.

    • Thanks for the nice words. I especially liked the variety of stress related words you used: anxiety-ridden, stress-driven work-a-holic. That certainly rings a bell for me. 😉

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