Why work alone won’t ever fulfill you

Close your eyes.

Take a few deep breaths, inhaling through your mouth and exhaling through your nose. Expand your belly as you inhale, then notice it fall as you breathe out.

As you continue breathing deeply, feel the sensations inside your body — first in your toes, then your feet, and up your legs, back, and neck.

What do you sense with your body?

Note the textures around you. Perhaps you feel a leather couch or a smooth table. What do you smell when you breathe in?

Now, pause to listen. What sounds do you hear?

Try to engage your senses fully and quiet your mind as you continue to breathe, without judging or analyzing your surroundings. Just exist, right where you are, accompanied only by your breath and your five senses.

This is the present moment: your secret weapon in finding inspiration, living creatively, and cultivating a meaningful, fulfilling life.

The myth of productivity

In many ways, productivity is an illusion. And we’re buying it.

It’s an easy trap. Hustle culture dangles a carrot before our eyes, always tempting us with more: more money, more happiness, more success — if only we succumb to its demands.

So, with our eyes fixed on an ideal we may never attain, we work overtime. We network. We check everything off our to-do list, then we add more. We use up all our energy to chase our goals, our attention trained on the future rather than the present moment.

And why wouldn’t we? After all, as Elon Musk proclaims, “Nobody ever changed the world in 40 hours a week.”

Musk is right in one sense: achieving goals takes hard work. I know this from experience. I’ve put in the hours. Every day, I devote time and energy to building a company and a product I’m proud of.

Still, I’d beg to differ with Musk. Productivity is only one, minor ingredient in a well-lived life. Especially if the drive to “get somewhere” is actually pulling us in the wrong direction.

Is the rat race — constantly living “toward” these vague ideals — really worth it?

Productivity is making us anxious

Constantly “doing” without taking time to “be” may seem worthwhile, but the cost of hustling is far higher than its benefits.

Thanks to technological advances, we’re more connected than ever, but we’re also lonelier than ever before. 

And, collectively, our anxiety is at an all-time high: 39 percent of Americans say they felt more anxious in 2018 than 2017. There’s also good evidence that the pursuit of Musk-level productivity is literally making us sick.

Hustling stretches us between two worlds — the future we idealize and the present moment where we stand — and it’s wearing us thin.

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard aptly describes the pursuit of productivity as the source of much of our unhappiness. When we invest our energy in a far-off ideal, we become absent from our own lives:

“The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.”

When we’re working toward something, whether starting a business or doubling our 401K, we feel fulfilled, as though we’re on our way to something meaningful. The momentary lack of presence, we think, will pay off — so it’s worth sacrificing our time, relationships, and health.

But therein lies part of the problem. If we’re always working toward, we risk missing inspiration in the present moment. Which is exactly what we need to feel fulfilled and at peace.

Philosopher Alan Watts, who popularized the twin concepts of presence and mindfulness in western culture, wrote that our obsession with the future — essentially, our “self consciousness” — creates a painful rift in our identities.

“The self-conscious brain, like the self-conscious heart, is a disorder, and manifests itself in the acute feeling of separation between ‘I’ and my experience,” says Watts.

“The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of it.”

Our writhing and whirling, as Watts put it, steals us from ourselves. And if we’re seeking true fulfillment, we need to find our way back.

When was the last time you felt truly “with” yourself in the moment, deeply aware of an experience? 

When was the last time you listened to your favorite song without mentally scanning your to-do list, or vacationed somewhere beautiful without cracking open your laptop or scrolling your smartphone?

While the present moment is concrete and sensory — imagine savoring the foam of a cappuccino or belly-laughing with a beloved friend — the future is abstract and idea-driven. Escaping our senses in favor of an abstract future creates a rift in our identities, making us anxious and, in turn, less fruitful.

So while constant productivity may seem like the answer to our unrest, it’s counterproductive. When we’re constantly fraught, how can we create anything meaningful? How can we feel connected to our work if we’re not even connected to ourselves?

The answer isn’t to completely abandon our work ethic, or the desire to be effective. It’s recognizing the difference between empty, future-focused productivity and the fruitfulness of presence.

Presence: the antidote to productivity anxiety

If the future-focus of productivity causes us to withdraw from our daily lives, then mindful presence is the solution.

The physical and mental benefits of living in the moment are clear. Mindfulness, defined as living in conscious, mind-body awareness, can lead to greater emotional regulation, enhanced cognitive abilities, a longer attention span, and even a stronger immune system.

It goes without saying that presence is also deeply inspiring — because it involves noticing.

Anais Nin once wrote about taking a restorative vacation in Mexico to escape the hustle and bustle of life in New York:

“I am lying on a hammock, on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Mirador, the diary open on my knees, the sun shining on the diary, and I have no desire to write. The sun, the leaves, the shade, the warmth, are so alive that they lull the senses, calm the imagination. This is perfection. There is no need to portray, to preserve. It is eternal, it overwhelms you, it is complete.”

I remember the last time I felt this kind of inspiration: when I went home to Turkey to visit my family. One day, we spent an entire afternoon picking olives together, enjoying the golden warmth of the sunset as it shone on the grove.

While we harvested plenty of olives, I wasn’t exactly “productive” in business terms. My phone was turned off on my bedside table, and my laptop was packed away in my suitcase. Emails accumulated, and I’m sure I missed several calls.

To my surprise, the next morning when I went back to work, I felt inspired and refreshed. Ideas I was grappling with felt new, and ready to put into action. Problems that had been frustrating me no longer seemed impossible. 

And perhaps best of all, the “ding” of my phone didn’t get on my nerves. After a little break to engage the senses, I was excited about my work again.

The relationship between presence and creative fulfillment is well documented: research shows that even 10 minutes of mindfulness can boost creativity.

In one study from the Netherlands, students who completed a brief mindfulness exercise prior to brainstorming generated a much broader idea list than those who didn’t. The students who meditated also had a more positive attitude, which is thought to boost productivity.

Scientific evidence or not, presence is a choice each of us has to make daily. Will we obsess over the future or stay grounded in the moment, and all it has to offer?

The price we pay when we succumb to productivity culture is clear: we chase the carrot, but we miss out on the beauty that exists all around us.

I may have been absent from work that day in the olive grove, but I can see now I was cultivating something far more fruitful than just olives: a more creative and fulfilled version of myself. And that seems like a worthy trade-off.

Aytekin Tank is the Founder and CEO of JotForm. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from JotForm users. You can reach Aytekin from AytekinTank@JotForm.com

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