Don’t be productive: Lessons from my Taoist experiment

Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/taoism/

This month was an interesting one for me, primarily due to a major change in my work situation. I left my company as an employee, and I’m now working on a project for them as an independent consultant. The project is the same one I was working on as an employee, so it was an easy transition. I now have more autonomy in the way I work, less employee nonsense (no more performance plans!), and I don’t work on Fridays anymore. More money, less hours, less nonsense.

This was a particularly appropriate event for my Taoist month. I’ve tried a few different times to start my own business and my efforts failed. I don’t regret them, they were good experiences, but required far more of my energy then I was willing to give in order to be successful.

The opportunity to become an independent consultant was far more serendipitous. It took a minimal amount of effort on my part to leverage the circumstances that presented themselves to me, a very Taoist maneuver.

Modern productivity culture emphasizes a lifestyle the Taoists would hate. Productivity culture values getting things done as a fundamental good in one’s life, an end in and of itself. It is a perverse sort of detachment, one that cares about the motion of work for its own sake, which is under one’s control, but rarely questions the premise of why one needs to be productive at all.

The Taoists value a life balanced between action and non-action as circumstances dictate. A Taoist would say that in my previous business ventures, I was attempting to force the universe to bend to my will. To the Taoist, having an ambitious goal without momentum is a warning sign that maybe you are doomed to fail. An American entrepreneur would view that as the start of an epic quest that is likely to end in success and riches.

Though the American vision of work, action, and success is compelling, I wanted to see what Taoism could offer. Taoists don’t believe in a successful end state per se, rather, they believe that success is determined by how well you live in harmony with the circumstances that you find yourself in.

So, I adopted a few Taoist behavior for the month. I tried to teach myself Tai Chi, I increased the number of walks I took, and I stopped forcing myself to get things done at work. Here are a few lessons I learned from the process that I believe provide a solution to the problems of productivity culture.

Ignore Deadlines: Work with circumstances, not against them

Do you think you can take over the universe and improve it?

I do not believe it can be done.

The universe is sacred.

You cannot improve it.

If you try to change it, you will ruin it.

If you try to hold it, you will lose it. 

So sometimes things are ahead and sometimes they are behind;

Sometimes breathing is hard, sometimes it comes easily;

Sometimes there is strength and sometimes weakness;

Sometimes one is up and sometimes down.

Therefore the sage avoids extremes, excesses, and complacency.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 29

I’m not sure if this is particular to government work, but I found that most deadlines and time constraints for projects are not based in reality. It is more likely created by a project manager who, in observing the sacred principles of time management and accountability, made up a random deadline that sounds good to him and her for a particular task, which may or may not be of dubious importance.

For example, the particular client I work for created a project plan filled with deadlines before we started our project. Admittedly, the project was vague and was understood to be as such, but the client still felt compelled to create one.

6 weeks later, the tasks in the project plan have become mostly irrelevant, and the timelines are no longer applicable.

I think it was Eisenhower who said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

That was the case in this scenario. But I find that many people stress out about deadlines without discerning which ones are real and which ones are fake. I hypothesize that in most office or corporate settings, most deadlines are nonsense, and that to attempt to meet them without fail will eventually kill you.

This is not to say there won’t be consequences imposed on you for not meeting these fake deadlines. For example, if your boss is a believer in rigidly adhering to a schedule and you don’t meet his deadlines, you are likely to receive a swift kick in the butt.

However, this can be mitigated by working on only what’s important for the project given the circumstances at the time. If you don’t know what’s important (and this is likely the case), just wait and observe.

This is, admittedly, vague advice, but it works. On this project I worked on, our first goal was to find an appropriate customer for our product (the project was somewhat experimental). We thought it would be customer A at first, so we developed a prototype of the tool we were building and set up a meeting with Customer A. However, there was a gap between the time we finished the prototype and the meeting with customer A.

In that gap there were several other things that I could have been working on, according to the project plan, but in the spirit of my Taoism month, I decided to do nothing.

Once we met with Customer A, we discovered that Customer A was not the right customer at all. Then, we found Customer B would be a better fit!

So, we retooled the prototype to fit Customer B!

The tasks I was “supposed” to be working on during the time before we met with Customer A became irrelevant.

This process repeated itself a few times (and is still ongoing).

We are way behind schedule, according to our initial project plan, but we’ve made more real progress simply by letting circumstances dictate our actions. When we have new information, we modify our actions accordingly. In the periods of downtime, I don’t force myself to do anything. I chat with people over coffee, try to teach myself new Excel tricks, or just read. It’s a much more relaxed way of “working.”

Again, I work in a particularly relaxed environment (at least, relaxed for me, everyone else seems stressed), but you can apply this advice to your personal projects or your broader career goals. If you have a sort of career plan or timeline with various milestones, I would just forget about them for the most part. [Note: There are such things as real deadlines. For example, there may be a certain age limit to becoming a firefighter or astronaut or something, but these will be fairly obvious].

Instead of being temporally focused, you can instead become more circumstance-aware. Instead of thinking, “I want to make $5 million in 10 years” and then creating a plan by working backward, you can say, “hmm, I think I can automate this process at work.” Then, as you start doing more things that seem immediately and obviously useful, different opportunities will present themselves to you. You may get to work on new projects or even switch companies. You may discover a way to make a few extra bucks in a side business.

I’m attempting to apply this approach to this blog. Instead of setting a huge goal of getting a million readers, I’m watching out for smaller opportunities to expand my readership. I admit this approach does test my patience, but it is certainly less daunting than the “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” method.

You can’t force productivity

Better to stop short than fill to the brim.

Oversharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven. 

– Tao Te Ching, Chapter 9 

Around 2 PM or so, I usually get this incredible urge to take a nap. Apparently, this may be the natural inclination of most humans. Unfortunately, the work day extends to 5 PM or so.

As a result, most people try to force their way through the afternoon at work, usually with the aid of our old friend caffeine. They will attempt to get through any work they have, but usually, their efforts are in vain. The afternoon is shot.

For my Taoism month, I decided instead of trying to force myself to work, I just wouldn’t do anything. And by not doing anything, I mean doing anything but work. Over the past month, I spent a good chunk of my afternoons in the cafeteria just sitting and reading a book, or getting a coffee with a friend. Sometimes I just sat and did nothing at all. I would just sit and think.

It was fantastic!

Though I felt a little guilty for not getting more work done, that feeling dissipated after a week or so, when I realized I wasn’t getting less work done overall. The amount of work I did stayed constant

Just as we must work with external circumstances and not against them, we should also work with our natural energy rhythms. Not in an obsessive way, but rather, in a more observant and opportunistic way.

This is often quite difficult to implement though. You may pressure yourself into looking busy during times when it is optimal to rest or reflect, or, you may be resting and reflecting during times when your energy levels are high and have the ability to plow through your to-do list. Mastering the ability to align your external circumstances with your natural energy levels seems like a powerful way to both get things done, reduce stress levels, and make life more pleasant overall.

The productivity paradox is the point

Yield and overcome;

Bend and be straight;

Empty and be full;

Wear out and be new;

Have little and gain;

Have much and be confused.

Therefore the wise embrace the one

And set an example to all.

Not putting on a display,

They shine forth.

Not justifying themselves,

They are distinguished.

Not boasting,

They receive recognition.

Not bragging,

They never falter.

They do not quarrel,

So no one quarrels with them.

Therefore the ancients say, “Yield and overcome.”

Is that an empty saying?

Be really whole,

And all things will come to you.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 22

I haven’t really written anything this month about the nature of paradox in Taoism. You have likely encountered the famous “Yin-Yang” symbol, which represent conflicting but complementary forces.

In the Western religions and philosophies I have studied to date, there is an explicit acknowledgement of conflict between good and evil, both in the material world and within a person. Christianity reminds us that human nature is divided and broken, and that we must redeemed. Judaism teaches us that the world is broken and that we must repair it. Islam advocates a lifelong struggle, or, jihad both within the self and outside the self. There is a desirable or winning side to be on in these conflicts, the side of God or virtue or whatever.

In Taoism, there is no winning side, only complementary forces. It advocates a flow or circumstance based approach to living life that can’t be reduced to universal right and wrongs. There is no “right path” to be on, no end state in which you are redeemed. The only wrong path is to deny the path that is right in front of you, to deny the Tao.

I’m not sure what I prefer. It’s attractive to psychologically attach yourself to a moral crusade. It is energizing, and I think Western philosophies and religions excel at this. Eastern philosophy and religion however, seems to flirt with nihilism, which, without the guidance of an experienced teacher, can lead to emptiness.

Fortunately, since this month was primarily about productivity, and not about a greater ethical or moral issue, I think it’s safe to say I prefer the Taoist approach to getting things done, which says, sometimes it’s better to get things done, and sometimes it’s not.

Taoism doesn’t excuse us from sloth, but it does a much better job of removing the moral judgment that activity and industry is always better. If Yin and Yang represented work and rest, productivity culture would say that rest is only a means to work, Yang is a path to Yin. Taoists would find this absurd, and I think most office workers like myself could easily point to everyday examples in which it would better for the office to shut down for a while than to do the pretend work that ultimately only serves to make us look more industrious than we actually are.

Taoism still teaches us that we will struggle, but the struggle is not against sloth. The struggle is against struggle! When we work against the Tao or circumstances or our natural energy levels, we will suffer. We suffer when we force ourselves to think when we should probably take a nap. We suffer when we waste our peak productive times on trivial tasks, when it would be much more appropriate to get hard and significant things done. We win when we respond appropriately to the Tao.

This struggle isn’t trivial. It’s hard to force ourselves to behave “naturally.” Though the industrious side of our natures would tell us that taking a nap in the afternoon is easy, it does requires quite a bit of fortitude and disregard for what others may think about your ostensibly slothful activities. It takes discipline to work when you know it is optimal to work. It requires both awareness and the ability to act (or non-act) as appropriate.

Take this morning for example. For whatever reason, I couldn’t sleep, so I just browsed the interwebs on my phone scouring websites for interesting credit-card sign-up bonuses (one of my hobbies). I woke up at 4AM, and by 5 AM, I was debating whether or not I should try to sleep. Leaning on my Taoist insights, I figured since I do have the energy now, I should go for a run. So I did. It felt good. Then, still feeling good after the run, I decided to continue to write this section of this blog post.

Productivity culture says I should try to force this behavior every day, that I must resist the urge to go back to sleep and make sure I get the worm.

The Taoist approach says to acknowledge that because I’m unlikely to go back to sleep, I must as well do something that takes advantage of this increased energy. If I did have the ability to go back to sleep, that would have been fine too.

To sum up this Taoist paradox, we must force ourselves to behave naturally, work hard to rest, and struggle to not struggle.

The effectiveness and replicability of my Taoist practices

I chose three primary activities for my Taoist month.

  • At work, I stopped trying to be productive, embracing the concept wu-wei
  • I increased the number of “nature walks”
  • I practiced Tai Chi using a home video

Here’s what I learned:

Wu-wei

When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making peg; fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.

The Tao of Pooh

Wu-wei, I believe, was a success in the sense because it flipped the way I think about the goals of productivity and how it should fit into our lives. If you seek to replicate my experiment with Wu-wei, you will have to tailor it to your own situation. Your work hours and company culture may be far more restrictive than mine, but I’m sure there will be at least a few opportunities to practice it.

Nature walks

Nature walks are excellent. I live in an urban environment, but my neighborhood has lots of trees and sidewalks that make it ideal for taking a stroll. I also live pretty close to an actual National Park (Teddy Roosevelt Island), so I would walk there on occasion. I can’t recommend walking highly enough. Walking of course, is not an exclusive Taoist practice, but there is something very Taoist about walking for no other purpose than to walk. Productivity culture emphasizes walking as a form of exercise, and thus, often advocates a program of walking, ideally culminating in a 5k race.

But I say just walk! And don’t bring your cell phone or watch. Read a few passages from the Tao Te Ching, or don’t, and just observe. After a half hour of walking your mind will relax and you will enter a sort of observing-thinking-walking rhythm.

It seems trivial and simple, but it is highly effective. And of course, Taoists would have nothing against the simple but effective.

Tai Chi

Now, Tai Chi on the other hand was a complete failure. I could not get into it. I purchased a video off of Amazon, tried it for 4-5 sessions, and abandoned it.

It wasn’t the practice of Tai Chi or the video, rather, it was my own harried mind that couldn’t tolerate it. It is incredibly slow, and I found it completely hard to focus on performing the movements correctly. Of course, I believe this is the whole point of Tai Chi. It is like an active meditation, designed to train your mind to focus on moving naturally. It was just too difficult for me.

It’s interesting to compare Tai Chi to my experiment with Bikram Yoga. Bikram yoga felt far more like a typical workout than Tai Chi. For example, in yoga, you are basically required to hold a strenuous pose in good form for a determined period of time. If you have a productivity culture mindset, it can feel very much like doing sets and reps in the weight room, or intervals on the track. It’s just more static.

Tai Chi though, requires a constant focus on movement, without any sort “repetition” to know that you are making progress. You can have good form and everything, but there doesn’t seem to be a point where you can say, “oh man I totally nailed the ‘repulse the monkey’ form.” The best I experienced was the occasional, “oh, now I see why my arm moves this way while my leg moves that way.”

So, for me, Tai Chi mainly exposed how unfocused my mind can be, and how difficult it is to move naturally, in the way your body is supposed to move. This is also an apt analogy for how coarsely we move through our lives, always trying to force things to happen, not moving smoothly or with the circumstances we find ourselves in.

You can certainly replicate what I did. The video only costs $10 bucks or so, and I think it’s on YouTube. But, if you were choosing between nature walks and Tai Chi, I’d take the nature walks.

Book Recommendations

I only used a couple of books in doing my Taoist research and study, but they were sufficient for getting a sense of what Taoism is about.

  • Tao Te Ching – The essential text of Taoism
  • Tao of Pooh – An excellent, accessible explanation of Taoism through the lense of Winnie the Pooh stories
  • Te of Piglet – Like the Tao of Pooh, an exploration of the feminine or submissive side of Taoism through the lens of Piglet from the Winnie the Pooh Stories
  • The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Taoism – A handy reference guide to the core concepts and history of Taoism

Final Thoughts

If you’re one of those people who feel there is a certain emptiness to modern productivity culture, or have been frustrated by modern productivity techniques and practices or some way, I highly recommend studying Taoism for a bit. Though some may argue it will lead to a sort of lazy bum lifestyle, I think it will actually give you a more holistic and reasonable view about work and how it can better fit in the context of your life. Taoism is incredibly counter-cultural, at least, to American productivity culture, and may lead you to adopt changes that will allow you to put your mind more at ease.

  • Magicub

    “If you don’t know what’s important (and this is likely the case), just wait and observe.” Thank you

  • Aaron Latchaw

    There is probably dozens of e-mails I’ve deleted before sending which were started as a result of some over anxious emotional monkey brain reactivity. A good majority of these inactions inevitably led to the issues resolving itself in an almost frustrating simple way. I’ve become a fan of the idea of growing to be a “world class noticer”, awareness (of actual environment in addition to ones own inner mental state) seems to be quite underemployed these days.

    I can’t help but feel that the idea of “mindfulness” in Buddhism is quite similar to the “awareness” employed to recognize “the way” in Taoism. Not so much the buddhist principles of internalization/leaning in/etc.. that follow but the act of noticing/awareness. This “presentness” seems to come up quite a bit in theology of cultures that run counter to the prevailing “default setting” of productivity cultures (those cultures exacerbating our past or future oriented inner voice).

    • Being a “world class noticer” is a good skill. Mindfulness seems to pop up in various forms across the different philosophies and religions I have looked into so far. The Jesuit practice of “discernment” for example seems like a Christian version of it.

      • Aaron Latchaw

        Follow up question- It sounds like practicing non-action for your month lead to a more relaxed form of working and things were still accomplished (without over emphasizing productivity). Did it have any effect on your ability to do the needed work? IE did it blunt your mental sharpness or “over relax” you in a way that negatively affected you?

        • I don’t think so. The “worrying” was generally unproductive, so removing that didn’t have any negative impact. At least, as far as I can tell.