Learning How to Be Unproductive

In my early 20s, I was a CPA working for Deloitte & Touche, a large international public accounting firm. My cubicle was directly outside the office of one of the coolest partners in the office. One morning he happened to mention that he had gotten a great deal of work finished the night before. I asked how and he explained that he couldn’t sleep so he got up and worked instead. He went on to say that anytime he has trouble sleeping, he just works.

I immediately copied his plan and dramatically increased my productivity.

Other managers at the firm began noticing how much work I was getting accomplished. You can imagine what happened next? They started giving me more work to complete. You know the old saying, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” I was the busy person.

I was getting great reviews and actually got a very large raise. Life was good, except I began using more and more of my sleep hours to work. I was very focused on increasing my productivity.

When I left the corporate world, I continued with this productivity focus. I worked hard to squeeze productivity out of every second of the day. This included…

1. Writing for 2 to 3 hours each morning before my family got up.
2. Meeting team members at the gym to workout and discuss business.
3. Listening to marketing and business building CDs in my car as I drove.
4. Scheduling conference calls at noon, so I could talk and eat at the same time.
5. Reading business books and newsletters at night before bed.
6. I quit drinking for 9 years because it wasn’t productive.
7. I didn’t watch any sporting events because they’re a complete waste of time.
8. I wouldn’t take calls from my friends or family when I was working. They had to wait…
9. I worked 7 days a week and on holidays.

All work and no play makes Rob a very dull boy.

My entire focus was on improving productivity. Clients would always ask, “How do you get so much done?” I would blow off the question like it was no big deal. Truth be told, I was working my ass off trying to build several businesses at the same time. It’s like driving down the freeway at 80 miles an hour with your hood up while trying to fix the engine.

This focus was rewarded as my income and businesses grew. The problem was that I was stressed all the time. I was incredibly impatient. I had road rage driving on a daily basis. I was an jerk to friends and family. I didn’t see any sunrises. I didn’t see any sunsets.

I had traded away every ounce of enjoyment for more productivity. This is what we’re supposed to do to be successful, right? More! more! more!

In 2010 my mother (who raised me on her own) was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. Life changed instantly. I made it a priority to be with her for every doctor’s appointment. One night I called her to see how she was doing. We had spent the morning together for her chemo treatment. The phone rang several times and just when I was about to hang up, she answered. She was gasping for air. The lung cancer had triggered severe COPD and she was also on oxygen to help with her breathing.

Once she caught her breath, I said, “Why didn’t you let the call go to your answering machine?”

She replied, “Because the call might be you.”

I still lose it every time I think of this conversation.

Here is this incredible lady, who is suffering tremendously, who would use her last breath trying to get to the phone because I might be the one calling.

And I’m too busy working to answer the phone when my family calls. I’m too busy working to open my home office door when my little girl knocks on it. “Remember Honey…. when Daddy’s door is closed, don’t knock because Daddy is busy doing important work.”

What a fucking asshole.

Those six words my mother said on the phone that day completely changed my life.

Her passing helped me to reevaluate my priorities. I began to realize being extremely productive isn’t how to you live an enjoyable life. Life IS so incredibly short and there IS a lot more to life than being productive.

Up until this point, I overvalued work, productivity, and money. I also undervalued time, people, and happiness. I undervalued the little things that make life so amazing.

The problem, and it is a BIG problem, is that unwinding this productivity mindset is not an easy thing to do. When you’ve been extremely productive for years, it’s very hard to become unproductive. You feel like you’re making a mistake. You’re losing opportunity by not working. You’re losing money by not working.

You turn on a football game and starting thinking… this is a complete waste of time. I should work instead.
You take a weekend off and start thinking… someone else is working right now and they’re getting ahead of me. I should work instead.
You sleep in one morning and starting thinking… I’m behind in my writing deadlines. I should write instead.

Deep down you have this constant feeling that you should be doing more. Everyone else is working and I should be too. It really is hard to shake.

And to be completely honest, it has taken me several years and a lot of work to learn to be okay with not being productive. Today, I still have to work hard to…

– Listen to music on my hikes and in my car. (Damn podcasts…)
– Read fiction. (Damn biographies, business and investing books)
– Avoid mastermind meetings and seminars
– Enjoy leisure

After working on being unproductive for a few years, I’m still not 100% there.

Just yesterday, I spent most of the day reading an awesome book (non-business) and felt guilty. I wasted the whole day on something completely unproductive. I didn’t learn anything. I didn’t improve anything. I didn’t make any new money. I didn’t write anything. I didn’t help anyone.

I simply relaxed and enjoyed the day reminding myself several times that this is what life is really about. I helped myself and this is good, too.

I’m sharing all of this because some of you reading this may be in a similar situation. You may be 100% focused on productivity and this focus is sucking happiness out of your life. You’re definitely not alone. Understand it DOES take work to learn how to be unproductive. Understand and constantly remind yourself that working less is actually good for you. You’ll be less stressed. You’ll be a better father/mother/spouse/friend. You’ll be happier. You’ll be healthier.

Opportunity does knock twice. (Actually it knocks every day)
You don’t have to answer the door every time. (You can let someone else answer once in while!)

A cold beer and a good football game = fantastic.
Watching a sunrise with your best friend = amazing.
Taking a nap in the afternoon = awesome.
Spending the entire day reading a great mystery book = fun.
Listening to great music makes life a lot better, not worse.

4 Comments

  • James

    Reply Reply August 31, 2016

    Great advice.I wish I could say the same. I am stuck in the 80/week rat race now and looking for a way to break free so that I may spend more time with my wife and children. Its definately easier said then done. And Im sure its a much clearer path looking back. The thing I find the most interesting is, it always seems to be the people who have become financially successful by putting in those 70-80 hour work weeks preaching how its no longer worth it. I cant say that I disagree. However, I cant imagine you would have accomplished as much as you have without one hell of a work ethic. Nor would you have the same gratitude.

    P.S. – I enjoy your blog posts and always look forward to what your going write about next. Its nice get real-down to earth advice. “F” bombs and all. Lol

    • Robert Minton

      Reply Reply August 31, 2016

      James, I think you’re right with everything you said. I’m thankful for every experience including the bad ones. They’ve helped me become who I am today. I also think being so productive in the past helps today. I can get a lot more accomplished in a short period of time. The trick is putting work down and living life.

      Wonder why you feel like you’re stuck working 80 hours a week? I think you could break free if you really wanted to.

  • matt makowski

    Reply Reply August 29, 2016

    I couldn’t agree with you more. right now, at 75 I am having the time of my life….my married days ( I am divorce of 8 years, fortunate for me, amicably…she’s a great lady and mother) I gave everything, tho maybe not effectively, to my family and my work. Now I give everything to me, which ripples through to my family, my work and my leisure (I play inline hockey for a sport/activity). I have a place in Paamul, Mexico and am working towards being a virtual realtor for 4 months out of the year. It’s a WIP still but moving forward. Loved your increased awareness of the fragility of life and the importance, to use an overworked cliche, of living the fullness of carpe diem.

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