Mindfulness makes you more productive


I'm in the midst of dumping my happiness obsession for something else, but I wonder what is the key to a good life if I'm giving up on happiness? I thought maybe it was interestingness, but I am a little worried because I confess that I'd rather fall asleep in the farmer's arms than solve the meaning of life. Or maybe I am doing them both at the same time? I don't know. I just know that ideas overwhelm me sometimes, and until I go to a doctor to get medication to calm my head down, I'm not convinced I need more interestingness in my life than my already-spinning head.

Then I thought maybe I needed expertise: striving to be an expert would be my obsession. Which it might be. But I don't think it replaces happiness. It sort of sits next to it. Like, obsessing about being an expert comes naturally to me, but I'm not sure why.

So I'm still looking for what can replace happiness as my what-am-I-doing-here thing. And I'm thinking that maybe it's mindfulness. It kills me to even write the word, because for the last decade, while I was busy turning Ashtanga yoga into a competitive sport, my teachers kept talking about mindfulness. I kept thinking to myself, I wish they'd shut up and just rank us so I know if I'm best.

But I'm convinced that mindfulness is what gives us the self-discipline to do all the stuff the happiness researchers say will make us happy. And it makes sense, because my yoga teacher always told me mindful would make me happy, if I'd just try it.

So I get about ten zillion books in the mail because publishers ignore the fact that most book reviews on this blog simply say why I didn't like the book. But. Whatever. So I get this book in the mail — The Power of Slow: 101 Ways to Save Time in Our 24/7 World — and for some reason I find myself reading it during violin practice. This is very bad because we are in a Suzuki program, which means I'm the teacher.

I said to myself, this is crazy, I'm reading a book about slowing down my life as a way to multitask while I am teaching my child to love music. I forced myself to put the book down.

But I liked the book. And I asked the author, Christine Louise Hohlbaum, to write a guest post on my blog. Which is something I never do. Because I end up hating all guest posts and spending way too much time editing them.

The first thing I did when I saw her guest post is I said no. I said this cannot be a guest post. But I think it was okay because that's her first piece of advice:

1. Learn to say no with panache.
So instead of spending way too much time going back and forth editing, I am just going to plumage through the guest post for stuff I like. I like no. She says, “One of the biggest time sucks in our lives is saying “?yes' to something we should have declined. Taking on that extra project at work, organizing the blood drive (again), or accepting yet another party invitation can eat up your time you could have spent doing something you truly love. We have been conditioned to believe “?no' is an evil word, when, in fact, it is a complete sentence.” This is how I know she won't mind that I dumped her guest post but took her best material.

2. Watch your words.
This is the advice that initially hooked me: Hohlbaum says, “Busy is the new fine.” It's true. Someone asks, “How are you?” and you say, “Busy.” Can you see how messed up that is? It's a script, right? The person doesn't really care how you are. The person wants to just hear that you're fine and move on to the meat and potatoes of the conversation. So if you say busy, you are either saying you do not understand the social convention of opening niceties (very bad to say) or you are saying that busy is the new fine (also very bad to say). Busy is not fine. Busy is too much going on to be your best self. So stop talking about it and fix it.

3. Honor Set-Up Time.
You know the feeling. You return from a week's vacation to a mountain of work that piled up in your absence. It takes you three days just to slog through it all, and you wonder why you even bothered to leave in the first place. We have the expectation that we should be able to jump right back into what we were doing at a rapid pace. Not so. Every project requires set-up time. Honor the time it takes to get started. It is not about procrastination. It is about wading into the task at hand. It is no wonder you get your best ideas in the shower. You are relaxed and stress-free. Set-up time allows you to tap into your deepest thinking. Make room for it in your life—it will contribute more to your success than pushing through with no stops.

4. Save the best for last.
“Procrastination is a huge time-killer. You spend most of your time worrying about what you haven't started, pushing it into the recess of your mind. Instead, start saving the best for last. Tackle the hardest project earlier in the day. Reward yourself with your favorite project at the end.”

I love this advice in a book about slow, because it's not just a way to get your stuff done. It's a way to slow time down. If you are procrastinating, time goes so much faster than if you have your most important stuff done.

I am trying to figure out what mindful is. And I'm pretty sure it's doing this stuff. It's making little rules for yourself throughout the day that force you to check in to make sure you are living a conscious life, purposefully guided. These might not make me happy—that might be impossible—but they might make my head spin slower.

141 replies
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  1. musikproStL
    musikproStL says:

    With my son, it took 5 years of daily cello practice, weekly lessons, twice monthly group classes, 2 weekend workshops per year and a week of summer camp each summer before he internalized his love for music/cello and learned to practice on his own. That’s a lot of “being present”! And all of it certainly didn’t make me happy. I could’ve been doing a lot of other things. But, after 11 years of study, he has professional skills, composes, performs and makes a living with his instrument. And, he’s told me many times how much he appreciates the time I sat with him and helped him struggle through the early years. Am I happy to see him so happy? You bet! I don’t think happiness has to be an in-the-moment state; it comes and goes, as does interestingness and mindfulness. It’s all part of the flow of life.

  2. M. Goerig
    M. Goerig says:

    Above all, please forgive my use of caps. I'm not shouting; I just don't know how to use italics on here.
    So, I think your logic for picking apart the guest blog might be a little manipulated to suit your needs. That is: YOU asked HER to write it, which is not the same as HER asking YOU if she can write it, so to use it as you wish does not seem to be an example of saying No to something you should have declined; it seems to be an easy way of getting around synergy. It would have taken more time, sure, but you could have worked with her, told her what you needed, what you wanted to see, and let her go back to the drawing board as many times as necessary, until you got to a point where you were both happy with the work. It’s like when you are in an argument with someone and the two of you resolve it, each saying his piece and getting his anger off his chest, so that you are both smiling and hugging in the end. It takes longer than just shouting what you want to shout and leaving the room, and you might have to hear some things you don't want to hear, but the lasting effects from the love, empathy and mutual respect you showed last longer than the quick fix pressure valve release from saying your piece and running away.
    I have this sneaking suspicion that if you stopped trying to answer all your e-mails, which I am assuming you still do, THEN you'd be saying No to something you should have declined. You said once that you were insane for doing that and I disagreed, calling it something like admirable. Well, I still maintain that it is just that, but it is also completely time sucking and it must take so much out of you, not to mention those around you. Really. I do actually ponder how you could do this, because I know that the e-mail I get every day is a tiny, itsy-bitsy fraction of what you must get, and I do not manage to answer all of mine, because I know that if I did, I would be taking away from my time for people here, the ones right in front of me.
    So how do you do it? And is that something you really want to do? I mean, we love hearing from you. It's a high, really, but we're just readers; we're not your family and friends.

  3. Robert (but not that Robert)
    Robert (but not that Robert) says:

    Perhaps someone has said this already, but I don’t have time to read all the comments. Apologies if they have.

    The term “mindfulness” is now being used in mainstream clinical psychology. The techniques that are being employed to achieve derive from meditation practices of South and South-East Asia, but stripped of their religious context (or baggage, depending on your point of view). What it means to the psychologist is simply to reconnect ourselves to our direct sensory perception of the outside world, to get ourselves out of our own heads in other words, as a way to pull back from extremes of mood. It’s a very useful thing to do for a lot of people, but it won’t solve all your problems.

    Sometimes people who have been thwarted in their quest for happiness choose stoicism as a way to pretend they haven’t actually missed out on anything, but this is just self-deception. Everyone wants to be happy, and we stop living the moment we give up on it.

    Mindfulness meditation is derived from the practices of Theravada Buddhism, one of the two main streams of Buddhism. Mahayana broke away from Theravada a few centuries after the death of Shakyamuni Buddha over precisely this issue. Theravada set as its goal the extinction of desire. The Mahayana people argued that this goal was in itself a desire and that this goal was inherently self-defeating – €“ self-defeating and life-defeating. They argued that rather than extinguishing the self, our desires, we should seek our own greater self through taking action for the happiness of others, because compassion gives us the courage to transcend through our own fears and limitations. We all know this already of course, but we all also get confused about it and need someone else to remind us.

    As for mindfulness practices, the one that I find very useful is one that a psychotherapist taught me a couple of years back. Go outside (if possible) and take in everything your senses tell you. Describe it to yourself mentally. Right now I can hear a bird with very simple two-note song. I can hear tyres whooshing around the corner. I can hear the breathy hum of my laptop fan. I can feel a breeze across my left hand. Etc. Five minutes of this can do wonders. The reason why this works, I was told, is that animals who are not under threat give relatively equal weight to all sensory data, but when under threat they will focus intensely on certain stimuli to the exclusion of all others, like a gazelle who has smelled a lion.

  4. Sara
    Sara says:

    Occasionally, when I find myself alone in my car (without husband or 3 year old toddler) I simply ask myself (as if it was my deceased mother asking)….”So, how are you doing?”

    Nice and simple.

    Started out as a way to feel like I hadn’t lost my mother’s nuturing after she died. And now, I just simply ask myself – out loud (no judgement please) – “So, how are you doing?”

    And then I simply answer.

    It’s amazing how many people don’t honestly listen to people. We just don’t find the time I guess.

    I don’t answer “fine”. I answer honestly. But it’s usually kinda like….fine. And busy. But fine.

  5. JillPR
    JillPR says:

    I think your title, and the way you consider mindfulness in this post, is like you’re looking for a return on investment in your life. And now maybe you’re not sure whether happiness is its own ROI. Maybe that’s why you’re disillusioned with happiness and why you link mindfulness to productivity – everything needs a payoff, everything should be useful.

    I think this because I am the same way. I didn’t think I had anything to say on this post at first, but yesterday I wrote a blog post about the ROI of life. Apparently my thoughts just hid in a corner of my brain and popped out in longer form. The post is at http://jillpr.wordpress.com/2010/02/22/investing-in-your-life/ if you (or anyone else) want to read.

  6. Alina
    Alina says:

    Hi Penelope,
    The “new happiness” is fulfillment. It can come from so many activities so many times a day! Happiness seems bigger and less tangible. Also, get to know your inner community (inside of you, there is a Mom, an Etrepreneur, a Lover, a Friend, an Athlete, a Daughter, a Driver, a Reader, a Writer, a Winner, a Worrier, a Warrior, etc.). Each member of your inner community may experience fulfillment differently, each has her own priorities, agendas, etc. Consider which one is ruling your day/hour, figure out if that’s the one you want in the driver’s seat, and find activities to experience fulfillment. All the best,

  7. QuinnCreative
    QuinnCreative says:

    Thanks for this post. I love Christine (yeah, I know her) and her book is desperately needed. Here is something I tell all my crazy-busy coaching clients and it might be something you can chew on: We don’t FIND meaning in life, we MAKE meaning in life. That’s your action. We give up being past-story tellers or if-only future dwellers and make meaning. It works.

    That’s enough for now. I’ll get back and explain how we live our life most successfully by living it backwards some other time.

  8. jenna
    jenna says:

    have you ever thought that what you are doing here doesn’t have to mean anything to YOU… but maybe just raising your children the best you can will be a ‘legacy’ enough??

  9. chris Keller
    chris Keller says:

    Penelope, you are an entrepreneur who must “drive” a business. How can you ever let-go and just be? You must always be driving, wary, looking for the next opportunity, the next creative thought, the next new direction . . . Have you ever imagined extricating yourself from this pressure-cooker setting? (And going to live on a farm, perhaps???!!!)

    Watch the children and the animals. They do mindfulness quite well . . . They don’t strive for, long for, scheme for, plan for happiness. They are themselves and are pretty much at peace with that, until they become over-socialized. They drift. Whatever is in front of them takes them. Remember those glorious carefree days?!

    Your humility in laying bare your not-getting-it and your procrastination and the disapproval of management–I love this. You admit to being confused and making mistakes . . . this gives you a guilelessness. It makes us, your readers, trust you and call you approachable.

    I am not happy just now either. I am trying to talk myself into NOT overanalyzing, nor striving, nor longing. I am trying only to wait and watch . . . I know I don’t need anything (more), that I have everything I need already within me. (So I don’t think I really need more of anything to be happy . . .) I am trying not to blame anyone for my restlessness and unhappiness. I think that I just have to watch for a life-lesson that I need to learn during this process.

    Maybe I will learn the real meaning of peace or finally understand mindfulness. I am watching the children and the weather and learning from them . . . mostly, just watching. Maybe I will not-learn: maybe I will unlearn or forget and that will be the trick. Who knows . . .

  10. Lane Ellen
    Lane Ellen says:

    Sometimes, I really think our definition of happiness is too narrow, or perhaps it is our understanding of it. Because I find that when I am mindful of something, I am not immediately “happy” as in, my desires were immediately met, but overall, I tend to be happier due to that decision. There should be a difference between the existence of being happy, and the satiation of desire that we deem as “happiness”.

    I have two quotes on my wall that I should read more often, and maybe they will be helpful for you too:

    “There are different species of laziness: Eastern and Western. The Eastern style is like the one practised in India. It consists of hanging out all day in the sun, doing nothing, avoiding any kind of work or useful activity, drinking cups of tea, listening to Hindi film music blaring on the radio, and gossiping with friends. Western laziness is quite diffrent. It consists of cramming our lives with compulsive activity, so there is no time at all to confront the real issues. This form of laziness lies in our failure to choose worthwhile applications for our energy.”
    –Sogyal Rinpiche


    “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the question now. Perhaps then, some day far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way to the answer.”
    –Ranier Maria Rilke “Letters to a Young Poet”

  11. HonestChitChat
    HonestChitChat says:

    Sweet woman! I wasn’t inspired by any of the blogs in my blogroll today, then I came upon yours and voila! I am inspired! I loved what you said about procrastinating making time go faster and doing the hardest task first. Genius! I will do. You made me have a sweeter day. Thank you. Ciao bella!

  12. Kat Wilder
    Kat Wilder says:

    I find it interesting (now THERE’S a word!) that you see being mindful as “making little rules for yourself throughout the day that force you to check in to make sure you are living a conscious life, purposefully guided.”

    I only did yoga once (too expensive at a studio, but it’s on the list to learn on my own), but I did practice mindful meditation for a while and I know a bit (from reading) about Buddhist practice; still, I’m not expert. But I always thought being mindful meant being open to experience what’s before you at that moment (which is really all we have), and not reflecting on the past or future.

    Mindful is being 100 percent present … now.

    And, as a bonus, it really does help with orgasms (trust me on this one)

  13. Nancy Imperiale
    Nancy Imperiale says:

    “I kept thinking to myself, I wish they'd shut up and just rank us so I know if I'm best.”

    Oh girl. You slay me! I’m with you. Fuck the mindfulness shit and just declare me Queen of Everything. :D

  14. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about the fact that you’re giving up “happiness” as a pursuit. At first, I was sad, because I’ve learned so much about “happiness” here.

    I’m reading a book called Solitude by Anthony Storr. It’s almost an anti-positive-psychology book. Basically, he says that current psychological thought places a lot of emphasis on happiness through relationships, especially marriage. This way of thinking neglects other sources of happiness: friends or minor relationships, work, hobbies. Some of his examples of happy-through-work people are great creative thinkers, but he also makes the case for ordinary people finding meaning and happiness in their lives through things like gardening, or even (gasp!) their jobs.

    This strikes me as being at the heart of the interesting/happy question you are asking yourself (and that I am now asking myself). Maybe some people just are happy doing work. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I am. Just a thought.

  15. The Facetious CIO
    The Facetious CIO says:

    Much of the same advice can be found in Neil Fiore’s “The Now Habit”. The book focuses on the sources of procrastination and how to overcome them. Procrastination is a huge time waster. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

  16. John Soares
    John Soares says:

    I’m a strong believer in tackling the difficult tasks first, and usually I do it.

    However, sometimes I find that by pushing into the afternoon I get it done faster and better, assuming I have an actual deadline to finish it that day.

  17. Ed
    Ed says:

    I have to say I disagree about mindfulness – in my experience mindfulness is exactly about not following little rules, but instead completely about listening really carefully, to your environment, and to your inner thoughts and feelings as they surface. If I relax and trust in what I hear, the right approach to work just seems to follow automatically. The brain is magic :)

  18. Ryan
    Ryan says:

    Good Post! I agree that we as Americans rush too much…just take a drive down the highway and see how many people ride your tailpipe honking at you because you are going “too slow”. We never stop to smell the roses. As for mindfulness and happiness, if you do what excites you, that leads to a more fun and productive life. So it IS good (and essential) to say no sometimes. Everything ties in here.

  19. Clay Ward
    Clay Ward says:

    Having gone to a school where people wear their swampedness as a badge of honor (MIT) I find the “busy” answer to be somewhat of a cop out. Just because we’ve graduated doesn’t mean that we’ve lost the habit of acting busy as if that justifies the way we spend out time.

    If you’re really busy then you shouldn’t be chatting with me. My time is valuable too and hearing “busy” just robs both of us of the experience we could be having talking together. So when I ask you how you are, and you’re feeling like you’re busy, then tell me something real about that. Blow my mind with how cool your projects are. Ask me to rescue you from your sinking ship. Or just look at me and smile.

  20. Susan Cassell
    Susan Cassell says:

    I find practicing mindfulness to be helpful. I got turned on to Jack Kornfield a few years ago via the Joe Frank radio show. It keeps me calm and focussed on the days tasks, all while avoiding an ‘end of the world’ mindset when something goes wrong.

  21. Chris
    Chris says:

    I believe what you said is true. I always take a good care of my customers and they always come back to our shop (an online shop selling shiroi neko tattoo t-shirts).

  22. Jon
    Jon says:

    I like this post, i often find myself trying to figure out what i can do now to ensure happiness for the future, however i have recently realised that life is to short to constantly worry about how happy we are going to be, instead of always searching for happiness for the future why not just do what excites you in life.

    Find something you find really exciting and do it, and then move on and do something else, live a life of excitment and adventure and surely then when you are old and grey you can look back on your life with the realisation that you lived it, and ultimately will this not bring you happiness.

  23. Tim Love
    Tim Love says:

    I like this post. It’s been one of my New Year’s resolutions to relax before the start of the working day and try to focus my mind on the coming day’s work load. Since starting this I seem to be using my time more productively whilst working and have seen an increase in sales as the result.

  24. Dianna
    Dianna says:

    “while I was busy turning Ashtanga yoga into a competitive sport, my teachers kept talking about mindfulness. I kept thinking to myself, I wish they'd shut up and just rank us so I know if I'm best.”

    This made me laugh so hard. I have been there and sometimes still fall into that competitiveness trap. I have been working on being ‘mindful’ and my life is better for it.

  25. David Rogers
    David Rogers says:

    The difficulty with mindfulness, like a search for happiness, is it cannot be an answer in itself. You can use it to enhance pleasures you get, increase their intensity, but it won’t necessarily bring greater meaning.
    The more you search for happiness, the more elusive it becomes. To me, you need to engage in occupations that are meaningful and fulfilling, and happiness is a sort of “side effect” of that process.

  26. Michael Arnoldus
    Michael Arnoldus says:

    The difficulty with searching for greater meaning is it cannot be an answer in itself. You can use it to support the stories you tell yourself about how this this will make you successful, this will make you happy and that will make you mindful.
    The more you search for meaning the more elusive it becomes.
    The more you think you need anything, the more you reject what’s actually here – and now.
    The meaning of life of life that can be named is not the true meaning of life ;-)

  27. oilandgarlic
    oilandgarlic says:

    I think mindfulness is a good goal. (Although why do we always need a goal? Can’t we just enjoy life?) The obsession with happiness is very naval-gazing in my opinion. We’re so focused on our own happiness that we don’t bother with doing anything political or social that could help others. I also get the impression that middle-class white women seem the most obsessed with the pursuit of happiness.

  28. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    Sounds like you need to stop with the violin lessons.

    I think happiness is having a daily routine that let’s you achieve what you desire in life.

    I thought internet marketing would make me happy by increasing my income but after over 3 years I’m not making money and owe more money than when I started.

    I’m still striving for a daily routine that will help me achieve my desires.

    I’m almost sick of internet marketing because it seems like a never ending battle for a spot on the web that attracts targeted traffic. Over 3 years of work for nothing but wasted time and more debt.

    Makes me depressed just thinking about it. I keep believing one day my marketing skills will catch up with my desires.

  29. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    From the article: “I am trying to figure out what mindful is.”

    Mindfulness is being here now, wherever here is at the moment. It’s also about having a presence of mind at all times, not allowing one’s mind to wander from the subject of attention.

    How does this translate into more productivity?

    It helps one to facilitate the work being done (whatever that may be), so that it can be done in a more efficient manner. When you’re actually able to get some things accomplished, taking you closer to achieving the end goal, it can translate into a pleasant (or happy) feeling that things are moving right along in the way that one has initially envisioned that they might.

    Of course, then one must watch out that they do not become too attached to the outcome of their efforts, as this can introduce an element of dissatisfaction into the mix if the efforts don’t go rewarded as one had initially planned. Having an even-mindedness about outcomes, then, is crucial to preserving a positive (or wholesome) state of mind.

    Equanimity, then, is the ultimate goal of mindfulness practice. It makes for a contented mind. And a contented mind is generally a happy (or tending toward happiness) mind.

  30. Linda Allen
    Linda Allen says:

    Oh to find your happy place. I personal can have a pretty darn good day if I start with a little yoga and meditation. Stay focused on how grateful I am to be healthy and to have two great kids who are also healthy. I have life and I choose everyday those actions that bring mindfulness or not.

  31. Jim Ferror
    Jim Ferror says:

    Penelope,well thought-out post. Makes you think whether mindfulness is directly linked to productivity. Personally, I think that it is. I am a spiritual person who enjoys yoga and meditation, from my personal experience I can vouch for the fact that mindfulness does make you more productive. Since I have been ‘mindful’ (if I may put it that way), I have noticed in incredible increase in my productivity. I can work longer hours and ultimately get more work done. Make no mistake, it is not easy to begin, but once a pattern sets in, its like a breeze! Just comment on this is you have anything else to add, I’ll be checking up on this daily to view responses.

  32. ANTWAN Eustace
    ANTWAN Eustace says:

    I like your topic. I have a grate passion for yoga & meditation. Yes, mindfulness increase people productivity. I have interest in religion. Some religious Scripture also said that yoga & meditation increase productivity.

  33. Jose Borges
    Jose Borges says:

    I totally believe that mindfulness increases productivity and enhances quality of life in general. Yoga and exercise can definitely make you are more focused person, which goes along with being mindful. I get a definite form of meditation from jogging.

  34. Steve
    Steve says:

    I totally agree with this article. If we think what we do then we can use out 100% of our potential and be productive as we can be.

    The point I especially like is “Learn to say no with panache”, this one is true. I have problem with saying no to my clients and friends before and I end up wasting my time. Life is short, we must use it wisely.

  35. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I’m just getting caught up with comments to your blog posts.
    Dumping your happiness obsession for something else?
    Please tell me it isn’t so.
    Actually I’m surprised you have embraced happiness to the extent you have for as long as you have done so.
    Here’s something that I’m being more mindful about lately – place greater trust in instinct and “gut” feelings.
    There’s a reason for your “gut instinct” which many times is not readily apparent and requires time to decipher the reasons why it may be the correct course of action to take. I’m not saying to act impulsively or give more weight to instinctive feelings but to be aware of them for what they are.

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