Productivity: How I Am Cutting the Busy from My Life by Pursuing Less

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang |

Photo credit: Maisoue Yang |

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“Yep, I can do it.”

I remember saying this proudly at my organization’s staff meeting.  I remember feeling a rush knowing I can do something, that maybe I’m the only person who can do this one specific thing to help my organization.  I am making a meaningful contribution.  I am important.  

Yes.  I can do it.  

After a handful of these “yeses” I found myself constantly going to meetings, swimming in paperwork and emails, and working harder than ever.  I was crazy busy, and my to-do list wasn't getting any smaller.  In fact, it was getting longer!  I remember thinking, How is this even possible? It totally goes against the laws of physics or chemistry or whatever, doesn’t it?  You put effort toward something, it gets done.  Right? 


Bogged down by work, I began to ask for time off.  Four-day weekends spent away from the office writing my novel, binge-watching full seasons of shows I had put on hold.  Re-watching The Gilmore Girls so I could watch the remake on Netflix.  Just relaxing.  Refueling.  

I’d come back from each of these mini-vacays refreshed and ready to tackle my to-do list...only to find myself busy and exhausted and wishing for another four-day weekend.

Clearly, my system wasn't working.  


I was raised to be a people pleaser. 

Remember in grade school when teachers had you make everything and anything out of your handprints?  Turkeys, reindeer, Valentine’s Day cards, et cetera.  Then you write your name in the corner and proudly take it home to show your parents, and they’d beam at your artwork and put it on the fridge for everyone to see.  Remember those days?

I do.  Except in my memories my mom would look at it, narrow her eyes and say, “What is this?”  Then she would set it aside and never look at it again.  

This was actually quite normal in my family, and I venture to say that it was and is common in a lot of Hmong households.  My parents were raised in Thailand where they worked on the farm, not to sell the crop, but to eat and live.  If the crop failed, they would go hungry.  There was no room in their world for handprint turkeys.  And yet, if I had to be honest, I still wanted to my mom to put that handprint turkey on the fridge.  

My yes-I-can-do-it attitude comes from growing up with few to no pats on the back.  Little by little, I became a people pleaser.  I was the perfect student in school.  I set the example in class.  I over-achieved in order to get that pat on the back.  To this day, I feel like I’m still trying to please people.  

Yes, I can do it.

In January, when I decided to start this blog, my best friend asked me, “How are you going to do everything?  You’re already busy as it is.”  I told her and I convinced myself that I could do it.  I could do it all.  I even worked out a schedule.  I’d leave work at work and spend my evenings working on my blog.  Then I would do yoga and write my novel on the weekends.  It was totally doable.  Totally.  


My yes-I-can-do-it attitude screwed me over.  

A few months into balancing all my activities, I stopped doing everything.  I didn’t post anything on Twitter.  I stopped writing my novel.  I stopped posting on my blog.  I was drained.  

At this time I began to hear the word “productivity” everywhere I turned.  Leave it to The Universe to provide what you need, right?  

A-ha!  I thought.  That’s it!  I'm exhausted because I'm obviously not being productive enough.  If I just learn how to be more efficient with my time, I’ll be able to clear my to-do list.  Easy as that.

For a week I consumed as much information as I could on productivity.  I read blog posts and listened to podcasts--OMG, I can't even tell you how many episodes I listened to about productivity.  What I learned was that everyone was busy and everyone was trying to get more stuff done.  

I realized, then, that I was part of a gigantic machine.  The machine of the modern work day. Even the word “productivity” is heavily tied to industry and input and output.  Don’t believe me?  Pick up a dictionary or go online and look it up.   


I was approaching busyness from the wrong angle.  

I didn’t want to be part of a machine.  I wanted to be free, like Neo from The Matrix.  Even if it meant I would have to leave behind all the stuff that made me feel good.  Even if it meant not pleasing everyone.  

It can’t just be black and white, I thought.  We can’t just be productive or not.  There has to be a more human side to productivity.  

In one of Natalie Eckdahl’s  episodes of the Biz Chix Podcast, she mentioned the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.  The title of this book was like a beacon to my lost little soul.  I gotta have it, I thought, and did everything and anything I could to get it.  I ended up purchasing the book on Audible.  I’ve listened to it twice so far, and I know that I will be returning to it a lot. 

This guy Greg said everything I needed to hear.  In a British accent.  (What more could I ask for?) 


Here are my key takeaways from Greg’s book.

Say no so you can say yes to the things that matter.

When we say yes to everything, we stretch ourselves so thin we might as well be saying no to everything.  When we say yes to everything, we open up the floodgates.  People start to get used to our yeses and they’ll come back when they need that same thing done again.  But if we say no to the things that are not essential, we keep the floodgates closed, and we then will have time to really focus on the things we say yes to.  

“When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone will step in to choose for us.”

Would you ever let someone else decide what’s important in your life?  I hope your answer to that question is no.  In the book, Greg discusses the importance of keeping control of your own calendar whether that means scheduling your own appointments or blocking out times where you don’t want appointments scheduled.  He also goes over some tips on how to speak to your supervisors when you are being bombarded with projects.  

“If you have limits, you will become limitless.”

When Greg started talking about limits, I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Greg.  Now you’re getting into my space.  You want me to have limits?  But my blog is all about having no limits.”  And Greg said, “Pa, when you have boundaries (i.e. limits), you let people know what your ‘deal breakers’ are.  You let people know what you will and won’t do.  And you ultimately give yourself more freedom by setting these boundaries early on and sticking to them.”  And I said, “Oh, I see!  How ingenious!  Plus, love the irony, Greg.”

"Don’t rob people of their problems… When we make their problem our problem...we’re enabling them.”

 This is especially hard if you’re a people-pleaser like me.  Or if you’re a helper, a do-er.  A person who just likes to solve problems.  Raise your hand if this is you.  I am this person through and through.  So I’ve had to change my habits.  I’ve had to tell myself not to raise my hand when people are needed for a committee at work.  I’ve had to practice not being the first person to answer a group email.  When students email me over the weekend, I’ve had to remind myself not to respond until Monday.  And guess what?  The world didn’t end.  Things got done, questions got answered, and everything worked itself out.

Stop glorifying busy.  

Busy doesn’t equal successful.  Busy doesn’t equal important.  Busy doesn’t equal productive.  

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less isn’t just another book on productivity or mastering busyness.  It’s about slowing down and redesigning your life so that you put the important things first.  It’s about putting a new practice into place.  Greg provides actionable tips that you can start using right now to lose the busy.  


Since listening to this book, I’ve scaled back on my yeses.

I’m an officer for a professional organization, and our meeting fell on a day I had off.  The president suggested I come to campus for the meeting, and for a second I thought I could, but I didn’t.   

I’m one of the mentors for a student organization on campus, and they had activities all week for Asian and Pacific Islander week.  They asked me to go to support them, and I really wanted to, but I said no.

I designed our organization’s T-shirt last year and am doing it again this year, but after listening to Greg, I committed to not doing it again next year.  I have mentioned it to my boss and a colleague and plan to stick to this decision.

Instead, I’ve said yes to planning a trip with my husband to Seattle (something I’ve been wanting to do for years).

I’ve said yes to attending a close friend’s graduation with my husband at the end of May.

I’ve said yes to quiet times for myself.  

I’ve said yes to writing blog posts with more intimate and authentic stories.  

And I plan to say yes a lot more deliberately.  I plan to stop pleasing other people just to get a pat on the back.  Instead, I plan to do what is essential in my own life so I can give myself a pat on the back.  

This post is the first of a series I’m writing on mindful productivity.  

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