Why Productivity Without Presence Is a Recipe for Burnout and Misery

“Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living.” ~Maria Popova

I was high on productivity. I had one full-time job, two part-time jobs, and a side hustle. I was getting everything done. Sounds perfect, right?

Then I started hating my life.

I had read enough books and articles to tell me how I was not doing enough. Enough self-help gurus had told me that what I needed to do was max out every single hour I had to be minutely close to being “successful.”

My co-workers often got intimidated by my jam-packed calendar. I don’t exaggerate when I say that every minute of my life was scheduled. Sheldon-level scheduled, with dedicated “bathroom breaks” and everything.

I ran three to-do lists: daily, weekly, monthly. This was my way of setting out for maximum efficiency. I said “yes” to my boss so often I had become his favorite. Work-life balance, what’s that?

Tasks were flying off my list like never before—so many horizontal breakthroughs! I wore this as my badge of honor for a while, this art of getting it all done. And why not? I was rewarded for it in money, praise, promotions, awe.

But then it didn’t feel so great. Instead, I became downright miserable.

Why Busyness-Productivity Is A Mirage

I don’t claim that productivity is bad. Doing fulfilling work by minimizing distractions and getting deep focus is truly rewarding.

But it is crucial to stop and question why you’re doing what you’re doing. It is necessary to pause and reflect on the value of your tasks and actions. Otherwise, productivity translates to useless busyness.

When I became this productivity freak, I never stopped to ask if any of the things I was doing were giving my life meaning. I was doing a demanding full-time job that didn’t provide me any purpose. My days became a blur of mindless task completions. My mind, heart, and soul were absent from my work. Any given Monday didn’t look so different from a Tuesday three weeks prior.

And it wasn’t even like I was happy.

I was meeting all my deadlines, but I was spending no time with my family. There were enough accolades to prove all my achievements but not enough art to fulfill my soul. I answered every email I received within twenty-four hours, but I hardly focused on long-term self-growth.

On the outside, my life never looked better. But on the inside, I was worse than I had ever been. Distraction, schedules, irritability, and deadlines were the monsters that ruled my life.

After a month-long burnout, I hit the problem nail in the head. I knew I needed to move on. But how? I resolved to take a calculated leap of faith. I found a client willing to pay me for my freelancing services for at least two to three months and made a thick emergency fund by cutting out on expenses. Then, I quit the unfulfilling full-time job and gave my heart to work that I truly found meaning in. I stopped making productivity my goal. I opted to choose presence instead.

Presence > Productivity

I read Annie Dillard’s, The Writing Life, in which she memorably wrote, “how we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.”

After reading this book, I realized that productivity would only be fruitful when coupled with presence. I knew then that presence was what would make my rewards meaningful.

What is presence? Presence is the art of being in the moment, the luxury of pausing, the virtue of stillness. It is being alert, aware, and alive to this moment.

There’s a reason why our culture runs for productivity instead of presence. Productivity helps us shut away from reality. It keeps us “busy” into a future that is yet to manifest.

It is so much easier and convenient to take the shield of productivity against the beautiful, buoyant, and sometimes disruptively painful present.

Performing one task after next gives us an excuse to not fully live, not completely concentrate, not unbiasedly accept.

I used to be that way—trying to avoid the truth that I was not finding my work meaningful. I wouldn’t accept that this job was emptying me slowly, living in denial of a reality I was living. Was I not getting things done? I was, more than ever before. But was I happy? I had never been more unhappy with my own choices.

Being productive every minute of every day meant I could avoid the fact that many of my friendships were depleting, toxic, and unhealthy. I was lying to myself that it was all to have a good social life. In reality, I would go out of my way to avoid being alone, to avoid answering the big questions pertaining to my life that can only be answered in solitude.

But coupling our actions with productivity and presence can have an astounding effect on our lives. It can make every task we do driven with intention, purpose, and meaning. Presence is what helps us reap the internal rewards that come with doing fulfilling work.

Choosing Presence

If you are anything like me, choosing presence over productivity can take some practice. Productivity was my normal mode of operation. It was easy; it came naturally. But opting for presence in my actions wasn’t so simple.

The art of being present and intentional in all my tasks was like writing with my non-dominant left hand. I searched for help and stumbled upon Tim Ferris. He often says to think of your epitaph to cut through all the noise and maze of productivity. It is a way to find out what truly matters to you by getting a super-zoomed out version of your life.

As morbid as it sounds, that is what I did. I imagined what I would like to carve on my epitaph, and the important stuff came into a laser-sharp focus:

I needed to write. I needed to make time for solitude, for serendipity, for hobbies. I wanted to create more memories with my family. I wanted to let go of draining friendships and put all my energy into relationships that filled me with fulfillment, meaning, and growth. Taking it one step at a time, I decided to hand in my resignation. I landed my first writing gig in under two weeks.

And hey, it’s not like I don’t struggle to write with my left hand anymore. But I am growing each day. It takes some practice and effort to make room in your calendar to “be present.” I am learning to be uncomfortable by turning the volume down of “getting things done.”

I have noticed that it is the minor changes that count. It is taking a little more time to craft that email mindfully. It is that courageous “no” to a project that can help you surpass your quarterly KPIs but take away from your family time. It is choosing to take a soothing fifteen-minute walk break over checking off another mindless to-do list task.

Presence is a process. It requires the discipline to focus on the present moment when productivity pushes you to see a non-existent future. Presence is your un-busy existence of utterly unadulterated joy. It is your creativity’s cradle. It is your time to just be.

So do it. Make the hard choice. Live your life with presence to help you find joy in the now instead of pushing toward some destination in the future. None of us really know where the future will bring us, but we can all choose to enjoy the scenery along the way.

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