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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  • 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!

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