What is the difference Between Productivity and Flourishing?

3 min

Productivity gurus focus on life hacks that enable us to get more done. I like getting things done. But productivity is not the same as winning. You’ve heard the saying, if you lose money on every sale, you can’t make it up on volume. Similarly, you can’t win at life by crossing more of the wrong things off your list.

Writing for Fast Company, Drake Baer said:

“It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content withmerely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.”

Winning at life is more about flourishing than producing. So, why are we addicted to activity?

Busy is a Proxy for Status

Ask a leader (especially in the US) how things are going at work and there is a high probability the answer will be, “Busy.” We respond like this because busy is a more acceptable way of saying, “I’m important.” It’s a symbol of status. And it’s a negative feedback loop. I must be important because I’m busy. I have to stay busy to be important.

Philosopher Dallas Willard said, “God never gives anyone too much to do. We do that to ourselves or allow others to do it to us.”[1]

When is 8 Just as Big as 10,000?

A commonly referenced benchmark for the personal mastery of a skill is 10,000 hours of practice, as popularized in the book Outliers, by Malcom Gladwell. The original research Gladwell cites was on violin students, and was done by Anders Ericsson. The study highlights a counterintuitive data point I’ve never heard referenced in connection with the 10,000 hours. The highest performing violin students got on average 8.6 hours of sleep.

Pushing yourself toward a goal of 10,000 hours of practice in anything without rhythms of rest is counterproductive. The best kind of rest is sleep. Sleep allows the body to clear waste from the brain solidifying learning and memory. Lack of sleep undermines the very purpose of deliberate practice, regardless of how many hours you rack up.

Take More Breaks – Get More Done

In his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink explains the value of adding a break list to go along with your to do list. Pink suggests you should create a break list and give it just as much attention as you would your to do list. Why? Because taking the right kind of breaks will allow you to get more done.

To get started, make it a priority to take three breaks per day. Decide in advance when you are going to take them, how long they will last, and what you will do during each break. Then add your breaks to your calendar or set a reminder on your phone so you don’t forget. Then resist the temptation to believe powering through your break will result in higher quality or quantity output.

Where does Daniel Pink go for evidence of the importance of taking breaks? The same peak performance study of violin students by Anders Ericsson that was cited by Malcom Gladwell when popularizing the 10,000-hour rule. The top performing students took restorative breaks after forty-five to ninety minutes of intense practice. They were also more likely to nap in the afternoon.

Nappuccino… the Ultimate Break

Research by the Mayo Clinic suggests the optimum time for an afternoon nap is between 2pm – 3pm. You can chart your afternoon energy levels for several weeks to get more precise. If you go to bed and wake up at a consistent time, your afternoon lull will probably be around seven hours after you get up.

The ideal length of an afternoon nap is about twenty minutes. It takes about twenty minutes for the caffeine in coffee to take effect. So, give this a try. Drink a cup of coffee, then find a quiet, dark, comfortable place to lay down (much easier in our work from home environment). Seta timer for twenty-five minutes.

It takes most people about five to seven minutes to nod off, which means you’ll get fifteen to twenty minutes of rest and wake up just as the caffeine kicks in. Daniel Pink calls this a nappuccino. I’ve found it to be the ultimate break.

Work Hard… On the Inner Life

Show up a few minutes early; stay a few minutes later, is good career advice. Hard work is important in any endeavor. Read Ericsson’s research on violin students and you’ll see clear evidence of the work ethic of peak performers. But hard work and rhythms or habits of mindfulness, breaks and rest is not mutually exclusive.

In his book, Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman wrote:

“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”[2]

There is a difference between productivity and flourishing. Outward success brings a sense of accomplishment and for onlookers it’s the only metric that matters. But this is short-term thinking at its worst. If you want to finish well and leave a legacy worth celebrating work just as hard on your inner life. That will require routines reinforced as habits that enable you to win at life.

If you’d like to explore this topic in more detail check out this episode of our video blog, Learning @ the Speed of Life: A Road Map for Winning in Life.



[1] Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission (Kindle Locations 2020-2021). Harper Collins. Kindle Edition.

[2]Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks (p. 5). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

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