Taoism and the Art of Productivity

The best ideas come from unusual sources. And some of the best productivity ideas I’ve come across lately come from a now-dead, 2500 year-old Chinese philosopher. Lao-Tzu, founder of Taoism may not be remembered for lifehacking, but with a few modifications, some of his ideas will help you get things done.

Central to the Taoist philosophy is the concept of the Tao, or Way. This Way is a force that underlies the universe. Humans have free will, so they can follow the Way or depart from it. When they depart, however, they suffer because they are no longer aligned with nature.

The Way and Peak Productivity

As I mentioned in a previous article, you don’t have to view the Way as a mystical force. Another way to view it is like the peak operating state of a machine, when there is no internal friction between the gears. For a person, this is when all of your internal mental states are working without friction. Also, all the areas of your life are supporting you towards your goals instead of competing against each other.

This frictionless state of peak productivity and the Taoist concept of the Way are very similar. Taking this metaphor further, I think there are a number of ways you can apply it to your life:

1. Productivity Isn’t Within the Office

It’s not enough to focus your productivity efforts to your workspace and software gadgets. Your health, family life, social surroundings and other goals all play supporting roles. If you are highly organized within your job, but your home situation is creating friction, you can’t be in a peak productivity state.

The reverse is also true. If you work to bring all the different areas of your life into alignment on a few key goals, you’ll be more successful. The term shouldn’t be work/life balance, but work/life alignment, making sure all of the gears of your life are running smoothly.

2. You Won’t Be Productive at a Job You Hate

Alright, maybe this idea is little comfort to people who feel stuck in a crappy 9 to 5. But, it should offer more incentive to find work and goals you can feel driven towards. If you hate your job, that will create a lot of mental friction which is the opposite of a productive Way.

In this recession economy more than ever, people should start looking to other means of income generation: entrepreneurship, freelancing or alternative employment. Even if the work is harder, if you become twice as productive from being aligned with your Way, you may end up being more successful.

3. Productivity and Happiness Aren’t in Conflict

There’s a myth in popular culture that productivity means working eighty hours a week and that only the most ambitious workaholics can become successful. Luckily this myth is slowly being debunked as concepts like energy management replace the broken ideals of time management.

I think the Taoist concept of Way tears down this myth even further. In a frictionless mental state, happiness and productivity should be the same thing. If you’re working without friction and you’re working towards your true ideals, fulfillment should be the result.

Burnout, distress, frustration and fatigue are symptoms that you’re falling off the Way, not a side-effect of true productivity.

4. Wealth Can Be Worse than Poverty

Lao-Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching that too much money can be worse than poverty, especially if it is ill-gotten or distracts one from following the Way. A similar lesson can be applied to productivity. You don’t need to already be successful to work and live in a peak mental state, you just need to align the different parts of your life to your true goals and ideals.

Success often has its own complications and challenges. Instead of focusing on a lack of resources, friends or encouragement as the limiting factor, focus on internal alignment.

5. Productivity is Defined by Time Spent Not Working

Paradoxes are a theme in the Tao Te Ching. Strength comes from weakness. Leadership comes from service. Force comes from softness. I think a similar productivity paradox could be stated: productivity comes from not working.

The time you spend not working often defines how successful you are when you do work. I make it a habit of taking one day off per week without any work. I also don’t allow myself to keep working on a project once my daily to-do list is finished. These prohibitions create greater productivity because they allow me to rest and they allow me to focus on work when I should be working.

The Tao of Productivity

Work has an unfortunate connotation. Work is often viewed as a necessary evil of living in the world, something that distracts from the better things in life. I think that this is probably a sign that few people are working within the Tao of productivity. They hate their job, their work doesn’t reflect their true ideals, or they mismanage themselves creating internal friction.

This definitely isn’t a problem that can be cured overnight (although perhaps in 279 days). However, by working towards greater alignment we might be able to move a little bit closer.

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  • http://vladdolezal.com/blog/ Vlad Dolezal


    There’s a lot of ways to phrase the same concept, yet you somehow always find a better way. For example, I’ve heard about alignment many times before, but your analogy of a well built and maintained frictionless machine really hits it home.

    By the way, taking one day off per week is surprisingly productive.

    The only two times I really did that – took a whole day off and didn’t use my computer at all… I effortlessly wrote three blog posts the next day. Normally it takes me several days to sweat out a blog post.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  • http://concious-growth.com William Womack

    Taking rest periods is such a wonderful prodcuticity tool! We skip over this idea too much.

    The problem arises when we half-work all of the time. We are kind of working, kind of watching TV, kind of listening to music, etc. It works so much better to work and rest in focused spurts.

    It is important to remember how important this present moment is, because it is the only reality we can effect. If you want to accomplish something, it must be done now. Your accomplishment could range from sleep to running a marathon. But if we want to actually achieve those goals we must do it in the now.

    I have explored these articles in depth at conscious-growth.com

    A proper view of time management and 9 easy ways to set goals you will actually achieve.

    Great article!

  • http://www.stepupandlive.com Niro Thambipillay

    Hi Scott,

    A great post. I had two favourite lines:
    “Burnout, distress, frustration and fatigue are symptoms that you’re falling off the Way, not a side-effect of true productivity.” I know I use this as an internal indicator that I need to recharge my batteries, or I need a break. To perform as well oiled machines, we need to ensure that we are taking time to recharge our batteries.

    Productivity is Defined by Time Spent Not Working
    I’ve never heard productivity defined like this, but I like it. I started taking one day off a week several weeks ago and it increased my productivity substantially. However, I sometimes tend to keep working constantly for the six days leading up to it, which can sometimes mean that by days 5 and 6, my productivity is not so great. Time for me to consider shorter breaks during my week as well.

    Cheers, Niro

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  • http://www.photogruphy.co.uk Colin Hall

    If there’s nothing to do … do nothing 😉

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  • http://www.4hourlife.com/ Stephen

    You are ahead of most who learn these lessons late in life. But, I don’t believe that these are paradoxes, especially the idea that productivity comes from not working. When you are persuing your passion in many ways you are always “working” just not in the sense most of us who punch in to a time clock may think of the word. As a writer or a blogger the best insights come at times of peace and with a lack of distraction, in this case relaxation gives you time to “work”. A lifes “work” is not always defined by action as we may see it, it does not need to be blocked off, or organized. This is where happiness lies, when lifes work is not work but life! Sounds like you are on your way… thanks for your thoughtful insights!

  • http://www.artistnos.co.uk Colin Hall

    Since posting last I have met with many people who would have been more constructive during their time in business had they taken Lao Tzu’s advice and remained inactive 😉

    Of course, if we believed all of the teachings of this lovely book we would not be bothering to talk about it at all … 😉

    All the best

    Col :-)

  • http://bajisden.blogspot.com Balaji

    A good write-up. Just reflecting your words: if work is a true reflection of ones ideals i.e. that work is a ‘way’, then why does one need a day off work?

    It can be only because that he or she is still seeing work as work, but as a barrier so one could take a day off and ‘liberate’ for a day?

    me thinks!

  • Rob

    Wealth Can Be Worse than Poverty?

    That is a stupid comment. Ask a poor person how they love their life. Ask someone living on the street how happy they are.

    Then ask Trump.

  • http://www.mbaglue.com/ Hector

    Hi Scott,

    The biggest problem that I face with my productivity schedule is ‘stretching’. I do have a to do list but very rarely do I estimate the time required for a task, especially for things that I am learning. For e.g. I am not too good at CSS, so editing it, let’s say I give it 20-30 minutes but then I am reading some tutorial, applying it, editing, re-applying it etc..normally stretches it beyond it, especially since I don’t know how complex that thing is but not doing it is not an option.

    So, how does productivity apply in the case where you to do list can be stretched without you having much control over it??

    Would love to hear your thoughts on it. Decent article btw.

  • Fukitol

    Fuck self-development/self-help. The only person who can help you or tell you what to do is yourself. Stop following and listening to so-called “experts” or “gurus” or “life-coaches”. It’s all pathetic mental masturbation. Do the f*cking work and man up if you got a pair of testes for f*ck sake!

  • Charlie

    Hi Scott,

    This is quite an old blog post now but as a newcomer to the world of self-employment it seemed very appropriate. I think the biggest problem with productivity is avoiding not only life’s distractions but the little distractions inside your head. It often seems easier to check our email or do a quick job, giving us the sensation of productivity without actually ever being productive.

    I try to set my day out with just 2 or 3 of the most important things I could possibly do for that day. Until I’ve finished those tasks I don’t let myself check email, answer the phone or be distracted by anything that may seem like it could be productive… I know that it would actually be counter productive and therefore avoid it.

    Anyway, great post. Definitely going to be looking into Lao-Tzu a bit more!