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Productivity Shmoductivity

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BurnOut Kuel Category Expert: Liza Baker

There is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.

I took two weeks off in August. For many of you, the totally understandable reaction to that is, “Big deal.”

But no, you have to understand: I’m 56, and the last time I took two consecutive weeks completely off from work was when I was 25.

“Yes, he worked harder in the summers than he did during the school year—and that was his choice.”

Productivity And Summers Off:

Ever since I graduated from grad school, I’ve worked in jobs where “summers off” are not a thing. I watched with envy as my husband (an academic) ended his school year in April or May, then traveled to China for two to three months—first to visit his family, then to do his own research.

Yes, he worked harder in the summers than he did during the school year—and that was his choice. Once he made full professor (at a very young age, because he’s like that), he didn’t have to keep producing book after book.

Our kids had summers off from school as well, so it felt like I was the only one who— not existing on an academic schedule—had to either watch the rest of the family relax or go on vacation with them and get up ungodly early to stay on top of the work that had to be done.

When I became a full-time health coach/entrepreneur—well, you probably know how that goes: when you own your own business and wear all the hats, there is always something that needs doing. And productivity is key. Or is it?

Judgment + Curiosity:

How many items are on your to-do list? Ever notice how this question can lead to a pissing match? We each want to prove that we are the busiest.

And how often does that to-do list get to-done?

When we don’t get through our to-do lists, our reaction is most often to judge ourselves: Why can’t I get through this? What’s wrong with me? I must be the only person who can’t get through these tasks? How does she manage so well?

(So here’s a secret: She is—like you—just passing. She is looking at you and thinking, “How does she manage so well?”)

As I tell my clients, judgment never leads to a productive inner dialogue; most often, once you start down that path of “UGH, WHY CAN’T I DO ALL THIS?!?” there’s no turning back.

Curiosity, on the other hand, is productive.

“Huh, why can’t I do all this?”

Let’s get curious.

“Do, defer, delegate, don’t do.”

The (Endless) To-Do List:

What’s on your to-do list? If it’s anything like mine, there’s a combination of domestic and work tasks, and they likely fall into one of Covey’s four quadrants: some urgent and important, some urgent but not important, some not urgent but important, and some neither urgent nor important.

We can spend time categorizing all those tasks and referring to the Eisenhower matrix on how to deal with them: do, defer, delegate, don’t do.

The point is, though, they’re still not likely to all get done, which makes me wonder, are we perhaps asking the wrong question?

As much as I dislike the word “should” (no, seriously, my clients are so well trained that when that word comes out of their mouths, they clap a hand over themselves and start apologizing), perhaps the question really is, “Why should I do all this?”

“The mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.”

To-Do, To-Done, To-Don’t:

As Sydney Ember writes in the New York Times, “Want a can’t-miss productivity tip? Forget about being productive.”

Or perhaps reframe what being productive looks like. Instead of trying to get the greatest number of tasks done, consider doing fewer tasks better.

As Ryder Carroll writes, in The Bullet Journal Method, “Productivity is about getting more done by working on fewer things.”

(BTW, I love the tagline on his website: “The mindfulness practice disguised as a productivity system.” Nothing like stating upfront that he’s going to sell you what you think you want and give you what you really need.)

If that to-do list is never going to be to-done, we have two choices (and sometimes the answer is “both A and B:”

a. Figure out what we need to excise from it (i.e., make a to-don’t list)
b. Accept that it will never be to-done and be okay with that

“They’re the “nice to have dones” rather than the “need to have dones.””

The To-Don’t List:

What goes on the to-don’t list?

Covey and Eisenhower would tell us it’s the not urgent/not important (don’t do) and urgent/not important (delegate) quadrants.

Similarly, Carroll would tell us it’s the tasks that don’t align with our values and/or lead to our greater goals.

Want an easier way to tell what to delete from the to-do list? I find that there are tasks that continuously get shifted to another day’s list and never get done. They’re the “nice to have dones” rather than the “need to have dones.”

Honestly, for me, that usually includes dusting—and I’ll bet there are a few of those on your list as well. At some point, the dust bunnies under the bookshelf will let me know that the tops of the shelves need some attention, and copious sneezing makes it a “need to do.”

“One of the most basic boundaries we benefit from is deciding, when are we available to others?”


Setting and holding boundaries is an area I spend a lot of time coaching clients through, whether it’s boundaries at work or at home. (Ever noticed that we can be really good at setting boundaries and delegating at work—and we pretty much suck at it once we walk in the door at home?)

One of the most basic boundaries we benefit from is deciding, when are we available to others? And those “others” include the incessant email and text and other notifications on our devices—as well as our to-do lists.

Two years into being a full-time entrepreneur, I finally decided that if I’ve handled the most urgent and important tasks for the day and spent a reasonable amount of time on the important-but-not-urgent larger project/s for the week, I’m done for the day at 3pm (no, I’m not a slacker—I generally start my day at 4am and my work at 6am), and I generally don’t work weekends.

It’s my way of being okay with the list not being done.

Reframing Productivity:

A lot of “industrial complexes” have come to light in the past few decades, none more so than during the pandemic and social unrest year of 2020: the beauty industrial complex, the medical-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical industrial complex….

I would venture to say that all of them are nurtured by—and in turn nurture—our capitalist system, under which the economy must continuously be in a state of growth and the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider.

“Productivity,” as Ember notes, is a child of the industrial revolution and fits neatly into all these complexes.

How My Family Story Changed:

If we want to opt-out of this system—and the burnout that plagues it and us—reframing productivity is the place to start. The solutions are as many as there are individuals willing to do so, and the pandemic has given us the opportunity to stand up and say, “No”—and make it a full sentence.

(And if you want to know how my family story changed: my husband is now an administrator at a university in Hong Kong and only gets four weeks off a year. This year, he took his PTO all at once and came home to help the kids move to their respective schools—then had to spend three weeks in a quarantine hotel on his way back into Hong Kong. When you add up all the time spent in a 200-square-foot room, the bad meals delivered in, and having to work from the hotel while jet-lagged…. Well, let’s just say things even out in the end?)

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Liza Baker

About the Author:

Liza Baker is an Integrative Nutrition® health coach, author, blogger, podcaster, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Her favorite women to support are the under-appreciated, under-listened to, under-taken-care-of, under-valued, overwhelmed, overworked, over-scheduled, overtired, and OVER. IT. ALL. women 40+ working (and burning out) in the mission-driven/nonprofit sector. Put more simply: she helps women be well while doing good.