4 Ways to Boost Your Productivity

The Secret to Unleashing Creativity*

Although we are all different, we all spend our days being human.

The good for us as human beings is the same.  As Aristotle argued, it is not necessarily the same as what is good for a star or an ocean or a tiger or a rose.  I don’t think there’s any serious dispute about that.

Nor is there any dispute about what it is called:  ‘happiness.’  Happiness is what is good for a human being.

There is, though, a great deal of dispute about what constitutes happiness.  It seems that there are a variety of different goods that people value and pursue.  For example, power lifters value physical strength and train to increase it.  Physicists value the truth about matter in motion and strive to understand more about it.  Renunciants value the divine and surrender to becoming one with Being.

In fact, disagreements about what to value or prefer are ubiquitous.  Different people value different things.  A list of (abstract) goods should include life, friendship, awakening (enlightenment), consciousness, health, activity, fitness, physical strength, pleasure, enjoyment (satisfaction), erotic love, contentment (serenity), truth, knowledge and understanding, wisdom, beauty, aesthetic experience, virtue, harmony, peace, justice, power, creativity, freedom, security, adventure, and honor.

I assume here that you understand the chief ideas presented in my book Getting Things Done and would like to test them to prove to yourself whether or not they work.  That’s an excellent idea!

So, first, if you haven’t yet read the book, please do so.

The question is:  “How can I test those ideas?”  Once you have some understanding of them, you may want to do more intellectual investigation by, for example, reading additional appropriate books or listening to relevant talks (such as those listed in its Bibliography).  That’s fine, and I certainly encourage you to do so.

Again, it’s good to be skeptical of the ideas that I present in Getting Things Done and that’s particularly true if they are new to you.  So, by all means, increase your understanding.

Still, at some point, however, you’ll want to stop reading recipes and taste the food.  When you reach that point, I offer you some specific suggestions in what follows.

I’ve been a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, for over half a century.  I’ve focused very hard on trying to figure out how to live life well.  This is a concentrated set of recommendations based on my research and on my own personal experience.  These practices are working for me and each one of them has worked for many others.

No-thought is the secret to unleashing creativity.  (If you have no clue what that means, I suggest that you read, or re-read, Getting Things Done.)

Many people in many different fields have realized this.  For example, suppose that you write stories and sometimes get stuck.  How is it possible to get ideas flowing again?  Here’s Joe Bunting’s advice from his very useful book Let’s Write a Short Story:  “the most important thing you can do for your creativity is to quit, to relax, to give up. . . as with every creative act, there is such a thing as trying too hard. . . Free write.  Don’t think.”

A classic way to put the same idea is to think of thoughts as noise.  Silence is the way to free yourself from noise.  Silence is the language of Being.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:    “How else express glory in the presence of eternity, if not by the silence of abstaining from noisy acts?”  Silence is the wellspring of creativity.

The four practices recommended here should not be simultaneously instantiated.  If you are not now doing any of them, just add one.  If you are doing one of them, either improve that one or add another one.

It is not necessary to change a lot of daily habits all at once.  In fact, it would almost certainly be counterproductive to do so.  Instead, one by one integrate them into your life.  If you integrated one good habit a month for the next twelve months, that might make a huge positive difference in the quality of your life in just a year!  In your eagerness to become more productive, please don’t bite off more than you can comfortably chew.

Furthermore, it is not necessary to do everything I here suggest.  Some habits you may simply be unable to do or others may simply rub you the wrong way.  For others you may want to substitute similar habits of your own that you have already found work well for you.  That’s fine.

Furthermore, it is not necessary to adopt the order I suggest.  Experiment with the ordering to determine which works best for you.  After all, for example, although most people are naturally morning people, perhaps one in ten are not morning people.  Some people may prefer to do fitness exercise before breakfast and some form of meditation an hour or so after breakfast.

In other words, these are suggestions.  They are certainly not to be understood as commands.  If they make sense to you, test them for yourself.  If they don’t, don’t.

Note well:  With respect to suggestions about improving your dietary or exercise habits, never make major changes without the explicit consent of your personal physician or other qualified medical professional in advance.  Don’t take advice about such physical habits from anyone, including me, who is not a licensed medical professional who has access the your results from a thorough physical examination.  Otherwise, you are unnecessarily risking injury, illness or even death.

The best way to enjoy an evening is to have had a productive day.  The best way to have a productive afternoon is to have had a productive morning.  So, I’ll here concentrate on starting each day with a great morning.  Why not give yourself the gift of a terrific start to each day?  Why not develop a morning routine that works excellently for you?

A good morning starts by having sufficient, high-quality sleep.  [If you are not doing that or if you think you could do it better, Anna Wright and I offer some specific suggestions about how to sleep better in Chapter 7 of Belly Fat Blast.]

Morning begins with waking up.  As soon as you begin to awaken, you may experience pure alert, waking consciousness for a few moments before the usual heavy avalanche of thoughts rushes in to bury you.  If so, just be there for as long as possible, in other words, postpone those initial thoughts for a while.

That’s tricky.  Obviously, if you think “Good, I want to postpone this state of mind” you are already thinking!  If possible, whenever you find yourself in that state, just be there for a while by delaying the next thought.

Next, even before you get up, try reciting the following poem (gatha, mindfulness verse) to yourself.  It’s from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Present Moment Wonderful Moment.

“Waking up this morning, I smile.

Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.

I vow to live fully in each moment

and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Actually smile!  I’ve been doing this every morning without fail for over 15 years and it does seem to help me begin each day by being grateful.

It also helps to say aloud, perhaps several times:  “I am grateful for everything.  I have no complaints about anything.”  If you are not actually grateful, say it anyway!  After all you want it to be true and, once you breakthrough to Being, it will be true.  Practicing being grateful helps us connect to Being.  Remind yourself of what you really are grateful for (starting with being alive).

After you make your toilet, perhaps you’d enjoy a cup of tea or coffee?  In any case, I recommend sitting quietly and remembering the truths about being a self in Becoming:

            I am aging, and there is no way to escape growing old.

            I am subject to ill-health, and there is no way to escape getting sick.

            I am mortal, and there is no way to escape death.

            Nothing abides.  All that I value and everyone I love are impermanent,

                        and there is no way to escape separation from them.

            My actions, my only true belongings, are what make my life, and

                        I can neither escape their consequences nor apprehend in advance

                        what those consequences will be.

            Nothing is personal.

Of course, these are only relatively true.  They are not true in the fullness of Being, but they are true insofar as we are human beings restricted to Becoming.

As you are sitting quietly, try reviewing the answers to these questions:

What am I wholeheartedly committed to?

Who do I love?  How could I love them better?

What do I feel really good about?

What practices should I do today?

I don’t know what practices you should begin each morning with, but I do suggest starting with at least one of the following before breakfast.  If possible, you could do another one at least half an hour or so after breakfast.

Here are four suggestions for your first practice.  You might pick one of whichever kind most appeals to you and, later, try some of the others.  Initially, just select one. None is necessarily better than the others.  The best one for you is the one that works best for you.

 

MORNING PAGES

One of the best ways to increase your productivity and get more done is by becoming more creative.  The best way to become more creative is to empty the mind of unnecessary thoughts, which frees it to come up with fresh thoughts.

There are two steps to becoming more creative:  let go of stale thoughts and nourish fresh ones.

I am borrowing this practice from Julia Cameron.  It’s very simple and doesn’t require much time.  You can do it, if you want, every morning for the rest of your life.

To test it, commit to doing it every morning without fail for 90 days.  Then evaluate it.  If you skip a day for three months, you’ll have failed to give it a serious test.  So try it for three months and see if you don’t notice improvements in creativity and productivity as a result.  You may find it an extremely valuable practice.

Here’s how to do step 1:  sit quietly each morning before breakfast and write three pages of longhand writing, strictly stream-of-consciousness.

Do not stop before you have filled up three whole pages.  You may use a spiral notebook or a notebook with loose-leaf pages with college-ruled paper.  Put the pages away as soon as you have finished writing them and do not look at them again for at least three months.  Do not show them to anyone else (or you will censor your thoughts and counteract the effectiveness of the practice).

That’s it!

“There is no wrong way to do morning pages . . . The morning pages are the primary tool of creative recovery” (from Julia Cameron with Mark Bryan, The Artist’s Way).

This practice will enable you to empty your mind of all kinds of thoughts that block creativity and productivity.

Much of what you write may be about petty, inconsequential, daily life stuff. Much of it may be complaining, or angry, or bitter. Some of it may be hopeful. A lot of it will be negative, which is perfectly normal.  After all, we all have an internal critic, a perfectionist censor who is always belittling or mocking us. Your censor’s statements are not true, and, by writing them down, you are letting them go—thus freeing yourself from that tyranny.

Though simple, especially at first morning pages may not be easy. Just sit there and keep writing sentences until you have filled up three pages.

Remember:  you may write about anything at all!  You may write about your experiences with eating or exercising well. You may write about your feelings or your failures or your successes; you may write about your remembered past or your imagined future.  You may write about other people in your life or even just the weather. Write about whatever comes to mind.  Any topic is acceptable.

Do you initially resist this way of improving your inner environment? Cameron claims that those who are initially most resistant to a morning pages practice come to love it most.  I suspect that that is the case for each of these four practices.

Step 2 consists of nurturing embryonic thoughts whenever they arise.  Avoid pouncing on them and stomping them to death before they are able to blossom.

As the Abbe Ernest Dimnnet puts it in The Art of Thinking:  “An intuition is the mental act we produce the most naturally and with the least tangible alloy of extraneous elements . . . Treat intuitions tenderly.”

There’s no point emptying your mind of stale, recycled thoughts and enabling it to suggest fresh ones if you are immediately going to kill them by criticizing them to death.  Let them play out and see where they lead.  Eventually, many should be discarded, but you’ll never find the gems if you pounce too quickly.

 

ALIVENESS AWARENESS

I have described how to do aliveness awareness in multiple places, including in Chapter 10 of Getting Things Done.  Eckhart Tolle has also explained it in multiple places.

The key idea is simple:  by putting your attention inside your body to feel its aliveness, you are thereby drawing attention away from thoughts and emptying the mind.  That emptying of the mind is the purpose of all body practices.

Aliveness awareness works well anytime.  It’s the only one of these four practices that can be done immediately after eating a meal.  It works particularly well just before a nap or going to sleep for the night.

I don’t know why lying on your back or sitting back in a recliner fosters this practice, but it does.  Eventually, though, you’ll be able to do it when you are sitting up, especially if you keep your hands still and together.  Tolle recommends using it during conversations to keep yourself grounded.

 

STILLING MEDITATION

My own practice is zen meditation (zazen).  If you know how to practice some other standard kind of meditation, do that instead.  If you have never tried meditation and would like to, as I mentioned in Getting Things Done, I recommend zazen because it is the simplest kind of meditation.

The key to meditating is simple:  notice when you are lost in thought and immediately bring your focus back to awareness.

As I mentioned in the book, there’s a free online video available where I explain how to sit still physically using the kneeling posture, which is the easiest posture.  You can easily find other videos on YouTube that demonstrate cross-legged postures.  The idea is to sit still for a few minutes, which fosters stilling the mind.

Here’s an initial practice if you are impatient to get started after learning how to still the body physically.  Simply count your inhalations and exhalations from 1 to 10 and repeat.  So, inhale while thinking ‘one’ silently and exhale while thinking ‘two’ silently, then inhale while thinking ‘three’ silently and exhale while thinking ‘four’ silently, and so on up to 10.  If you get lost, just start again at 1.  If you go past 10, as soon as you notice that you are lost, just start again at 1.  When you notice that you have gotten entangled in some story made of thoughts, just start again at 1.  That’s it!

(It’s also possible to supplement stilling meditation with chanting.  For example, at the beginning of one of my daily “rounds” of zazen I recite out loud Sengcan’s “Affirming Faith in Mind,” the “Prajna Paramita Hridaya,” and “Master Hakuin’s Chant in Praise of Zazen.”)

 

MOVING MEDITATION

A moving meditation can be simply walking clockwise around a room in a circle with your eyes lowered and hands clasped in front of your chest.  It can be doing prostrations.  It can be a separate discipline such as t’ai chi.

A moving meditation can complement a stilling meditation or it can be done separately.

Before I began doing zazen, I took a course in t’ai chi.  The instructor told my class the first day that, although we probably wouldn’t begin to feel the chi more that day, we soon would if we practiced daily.  I was skeptical.  After all, I’d been alive for several decades and had never felt anything like chi.

Was I wrong!  After just a week or two of daily practice, I certainly did begin to feel the chi move.  The theory was that by rebalancing it we were calming and harmonizing ourselves.  I’m not sure about the theory, but there are millions of people who practice t’ai chi daily and they are not doing it while thinking that it is useless and not beneficial.

So, again, please pick one of those four kinds of practices and do it daily before breakfast.  Start with brief periods of time, perhaps just 2 or 3 minutes, and let the time increase naturally until, after a few weeks or months, you are up to at least 20 or 30 minutes daily.  By that time it is almost certain that you and others who are close to you will have notices that some of the secondary benefits (such as greater calmness) will have begun to manifest themselves in your everyday life.

Immediately after your initial daily practice(s), have a nutritious breakfast (I always begin with a high-protein shake).

Be kind to yourself as well as others.  For example, it’s an excellent idea to eat well every day.  I have a lot to say in books and elsewhere (for example, at http://www.lasting-weight-loss.com/ where I am co-webmaster) about eating well.  I suggest that, for most people, eating four nutritious meals spaced about evenly during waking hours (with the last meal not closer than 3 hours to bedtime) is the best practice.

For example, it’s an excellent idea to exercise well.  Proper physical exercise should be intense; therefore, it must be brief.  I recommend one brief strength training session weekly (see my Weight Lifting) and three brief fitness training sessions weekly (cf. Sears’s P.A.C.E.).  That’s actually very little clock time spent exercise, perhaps less than 1 hour weekly, and its rewards are enormous.

For example, it’s an excellent idea to practice giving aid to others without expecting anything in return.  Couldn’t you do that for an hour or two once a week?  There are lots and lots of ways to volunteer to help others a bit each week.  Why not find one that works well for you?

That’s what I promised:  4 ways to boost your productivity.

If you make it a point to begin following these (or similar) practices daily, it will soon become nearly impossible for you not to have a great, productive day.

Permit me to deal with one objection:  You may feel that these habits are too self-centered, that you should spend more time serving others.

As I explain in Getting Things Done, it is impossible to know right from wrong.  If so, obviously neither I nor anyone else can tell you for certain the right thing to do.

However, here’s an analogy that I find useful.  Suppose that you are flying with a child on an airplane and, suddenly, the cabin loses air pressure and the breathing masks drop down.  Question:  Should you first put the child’s mask on the child and then put on your mask or should you first put on your mask and then put the child’s mask on the child?  Answer:  Put your own mask on first.  If you don’t take care of yourself, you are soon not going to help the child.

Helping others isn’t as easy as it first appears.  In fact, it’s impossible to know how to help others.  One of the best ways of actually helping others is showing them how to live well.  Provide an example, let others observe you, and some may well try to emulate you.  Often, that’s much, much more effective than simply telling people what to do.

So don’t worry that you should first be taking care of others rather than yourself.  The Buddha himself argued that we should first take care of ourselves and then take care of others.  If you get the sequence right, you are going to more effective in helping others.

If you have not made such practices or habits part of your life already and begin to do so, you’ll not only become more productive but also you’ll soon begin to feel much, much better.

I wish you all the best.

 

 

*Publisher’s Notes                                          

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