I had a horrible night a few days ago. I couldn’t fall asleep until 4 a.m. Then, I woke up full of anger and irritation. The last thing I felt like doing was sitting in front of a screen and writing.
Of course, the productivity-oriented voice in my mind told me to push through. I mean, this is exactly what is required for success, right? Grit. Discipline. Putting in the work no matter how hard it feels.
Fortunately, by now I have also developed a compassionate voice, too. One that knows my psychological wiring and mental habits. One that is aware of my inclination to victimize and pity myself.
It tells me that there is a very real threshold of feelings that is not worth pushing through — or else, I’m pretty much guaranteed to spiral down into negativity.
That day, I decided to do things differently. I skipped a part of my morning routine. I went for a walk instead of diving straight into work. Then, I just picked the easiest task from my list, which was to type some handwritten notes into my computer.
After accomplishing this, I stopped working — and allowed myself plenty of time to read a book and leisurely prepare lunch.
I didn’t plan it to be my day off — but as it turned out, I desperately needed one. I needed it for the immediate self-care, but also for my long-term productivity and success. However, I was only able to see it because I have been working on cultivating self-compassion for quite a while.
Compassion is the key ingredient required for sustained productivity.
But why isn’t anyone talking about it?
The Ancient Art of Balancing Yin and Yang
In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang Ph.D. proposes the idea that we should look at work and rest as two sides of the same coin, rather than polar opposites. The coin here is a meaningful and balanced life.
As with almost any great message, Pang didn’t invent the wheel. He simply translated centuries-old wisdom into the language of the modern world.
For the analogy of rest and work — or compassion and productivity — I love the ancient symbols of yin and yang. In traditional Chinese philosophy, yin and yang were two basic elements constituting the universe by the principle of dualistic monism. This principle dictates that, even though the two may seem like contradictory forces (e.g. water and fire, female and male, stillness and movement), they actually complement each other to comprise a bigger whole.
While people tend to overemphasize the dualism — the bigger picture is actually monistic.
Yin and yang coexist in the same way as two particles of opposite electrical charges attract one another. Their opposite qualities are precisely what makes them stick together — and function as a whole.
Currently, the self-improvement industry is productivity-oriented and overemphasizes the “active” energy (yang). We focus on getting things done, producing and changing. We try to squeeze all the juices out of our creative capacity. We do our best to concentrate, do meaningful work and be efficient.
But for the yang to serve its purpose, it needs to be paired with yin.
In the self-improvement realm, yin can be translated as self-compassion. This is the “receptive” energy that inspires rest, reflection, appreciation, and awareness of what is. Compassion activates our capacity to see ourselves as humans — rather than “productivity machines.”
When yin is deficient, this leads to imbalance. We start looking at productivity as if it was the goal in itself. It is not. It’s merely a means to a happy and fulfilling life, in which you can also do meaningful work.
This kind of life cannot exist without self-compassion. When we lack it, we fail to filter self-improvement advice through our unique needs, habits, and instincts.
We forget to make this very basic distinction:
Productivity “Advice” Isn’t the Same as “Recipe”
I am willing to bet that, sometimes, you mistake the advice you find online for a recipe. I know I do. This can happen unnoticed when you hear that advice from somebody who seems to have it all figured out.
But treating advice as if it was a recipe is misleading. The two have quite different purposes attached to them. So what’s the difference?
Advice is somebody sharing their knowledge and experience in an attempt to give you a fresh perspective on something you’re struggling with. Advice is also known as “suggestion” — and it needs to be verified before you implement it.
Recipe is a step-by-step instruction on how to arrive at a particular destination, by doing particular things, in a particular order. Recipe doesn’t exist to be questioned — but to be meticulously followed.
Because of its personal nature, productivity advice is always just that — advice. To become more productive is a process dependant on your unique psychological wiring, dispositions, and circumstances. Any advice you receive from someone else has to be compliant with the particular “operating system” of yours.
It’s the same with your phone. If you have an iPhone, you need to download an app developed for Apple. And vice versa — that same Apple app won’t work if you use an Android as your operating system.
To make sure productivity advice is complaint with your operating system, you must question what you’re told — rather than blindly accepting words of a guru who doesn’t know you.
Because when comes to making self-improvement choices, you’re the most qualified person in the world.
Tracking Habits Can Be the Opposite of Helpful
You know how they say that you can only improve if you track your performance? “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” — I believe Peter Drucker said that in the business context, but it was widely embraced as a self-improvement mantra, too.
At the beginning of my journey to better, I really took this to heart. I decided I had to start tracking both my personal and work-related progress in a journal. Otherwise, I thought, I’d stagnate and remain mediocre. (The biggest curse of our times, mind you.)
The problem was that, back then, I didn’t have the necessary self-knowledge and compassion. I came up with several daily habits I wanted to develop and track — among them meditation, breathing exercises, writing, yoga, and healthy eating. I took them up all at once, without understanding the basic mechanics of my “operating system.”
Imagine this, combined with trying to build so many new habits overnight. And because I was tracking them, it was also painfully obvious how “miserably” I was doing.
Nobody told me how tedious and time-consuming habit change can be — and so, I didn’t attribute my “failures” to simply taking on too much too soon. Instead, I perceived myself to be a failure. This couldn’t possibly help me towards my goals.
It took a while before I understood what was happening in my own mind. But as soon as I did, it became clear that my new habits had to be founded on self-compassion. This was the only way productivity advice could work for me.
So I made some guidelines to cultivate the yin along with the yang. To this day, the most important ones are to respect my feelings no matter what and to appreciate my efforts regardless of the outcomes. I know that, on my toughest days, this works way better than “pushing through.” It also ensures that tough days don’t happen quite as often as they used to.
Interestingly, this compassionate approach also helped me develop stronger self-esteem, which makes me less prone to self-judgment. My confidence is now largely independent of how productive I perceive myself to be.
This allowed me to recently start tracking habits again — and it seems to be working now. That’s because I learned how to look at the trackers as mere information — rather than defining my worth based on them.
For this to be possible, my operating system needed an update first. I had to add more yin to the equation, so the yang could be helpful at all.
How to Add Compassion to Your Productivity-Oriented Life
If you can relate to my story, you may need to enhance self-compassion in your life, too. I have a few tips for how you can do just that to boost both your productivity and well-being.
Feel free to browse through, experiment and question them. Only implement the ones that make sense to you!
Make your rest independent from your work outcomes
“If you want rest, you have to take it. You have to resist the lure of busyness, make time for rest, take it seriously, and protect it from a world that is intent on stealing it.” — Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Treat rest as sacred, because it is. Without a sufficient amount of it, your productivity will always suffer, one way or another.
The problem with rest is that most people see it as something they have to “deserve” by achieving specific outcomes at work. If they don’t manage to accomplish what they planned, they don’t give themselves permission to rest.
But you can look at it differently. If you’re not achieving what you thought you could — maybe you’re just not rested enough? Rest first so that you can work better — not the other way around.
Be compassionate to yourself.
Do a reality check
“It is mental slavery to cling to things that have stopped serving its purpose in your life.” — Chinonye J. Chidolue
Sometimes, we overlook the best strategy available just because we’re so used to doing things the “usual” way. But what served you well before, may no longer be useful now.
Is your work routine the best it could be? How do you feel about the hours, people you collaborate with, your workspace, the frequency of your breaks? Are these things aligned with what you’re trying to achieve?
Remember that sometimes what you take for granted is precisely what holds the key to greater well-being. One small adjustment in how you go about your workday may spark miracles. So allow yourself to do things differently.
Be compassionate to yourself.
Incorporate distractions into your workflow
“I realized that in top-rank competition I couldn’t count on the world being silent, so my only option was to become at peace with the noise.” — Josh Waitzkin
The more you fight something, the bigger it becomes. When you desperately want to block out distractions, you may be making them more disruptive than they need to be.
Josh Waitzkin, world’s top chess player, experienced this firsthand. For a period of time, he struggled with catchy songs re-playing in his own mind, distracting him from tournament games. He kept trying to force the melody out of his head — until he realized that he could think to the rhythm of the song. He learned how to boost his focus with what he previously perceived as disruptive.
You can do the same with your distractions. Pay your annoying colleague some attention, embrace the office chatter as white noise that can enhance focus, and relax your muscles when things don’t go your way. See what happens when you accept distractions as a normal part of life — rather than a threat to productivity.
Be compassionate to yourself.
Do nice things for yourself
“Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it, don’t wait for it, just let it happen. It could be a new shirt at the men’s store, a catnap in your office chair or two cups of good hot black coffee.” — Agent Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks
Agent Cooper was a top FBI agent not only because he had lots of experience and great intuition. He also understood the importance of treating himself on a regular basis.
Scientists, psychologists, and coaches confirm this advice. Appreciation and reinforcement of positive behaviour work way better than being hard on ourselves. Remember my story of habit tracking?
You don’t have to be so strict with yourself all the time. Instead of always striving for more, give yourself a present. Learn to say: “Today, I’ve done enough.”
Be compassionate to yourself.
Do what’s required, instead of what you planned
“Man plans and God laughs.” — Yiddish proverb
Have you ever made a detailed plan for the day, only to realize later on that there was something way more important demanding your attention? Did you stick to the irrelevant plan, or adapted it to the circumstances?
Recently, I was cooking dinner with my mom and she asked me to chop vegetables for her dish while the rice was boiling. As I glanced at the cooker, I realized she forgot to switch on the burner under the pot. So before doing what she requested, I put on the burner first. This was required at that moment.
It’s quite obvious in the above example, but you may not always be aware that similar things happen when you try to be productive. Because you’re so fixated on the plan, you may not notice crucial details as they arise.
Sometimes, life requires you to let go of your preconceived plan. When this happens, don’t resist. Do what needs to be done at the moment — not what you thought you were going to do. Simply pay attention to what has changed since you made your schedule.
And above all else — just be compassionate to yourself.