Mindful Productivity Questions & Answers

By Leo Babauta

The other day I asked on the forums about questions or problems you guys might be having with the Mindful Productivity Habit, and got some great responses!

I decided to answer a bunch of the questions below instead of writing a separate article on each. I hope it’s helpful.

Q: How do I use my time in an optimal way?

Leo: Unfortunately, there is no optimal path. Most of us have this hope … that there is an optimal path and if we figure out what it is, things will be ideal. This is a great ideal, but the reality is much messier: we don’t know what path will lead to the best destination, and we’ll never know, because whichever one we choose will leave many other paths untaken. Would it have been better to have chosen a different path?

So the optimal path is just to choose a path and do your best. Make the most of it.

What does this mean for how to use your time? Pick a task to work on, and focus on just that, without worrying about all the other tasks you could be doing instead. Pick one activity, one person to talk to, one outdoor thing to do, whatever … and just be in the moment with it.

Q: But what I’d like to figure out is: how productive do I really want or need to be? I am a human being, not a machine, and I also have other things to attend to in my life. Of course, it helps to be as efficient as possible while working, not to procrastinate, not to waste time on what’s futile, focus on what is important. But how to stop the productive part of life from taking over?

Leo: No, we’re not machines … productivity shouldn’t be about cranking out as much as possible. It’s about making the most of the precious life we have, and not squandering it. With that in mind, we have to realize that there are other ways of not squandering life … finding time for disconnection, for connecting with loved ones, for exercise and reading and creativity and learning. These are all wonderful things.

How do you stop the productive part of life from taking over? Every now and then (maybe weekly?), take a moment to step back, and see how you’ve been doing things. Are you allocating all your time to work? Are there other things that are important that aren’t getting priority in your day? Take a moment to pick one or two other things, and block off some time. Make an appointment, and set reminders. Don’t let yourself push this appointment back — it’s the most important appointment you make. Eventually, try to work these appointments into your daily or weekly routines, so they’re just a part of your life.

Q: Sometimes I worry I’m not working on the right task and that something else would be more appropriate to work on.

Leo: This is another version of the first question, about the optimal use of time, but it’s such a common question I thought I’d share it here. Basically, this worry comes from the fear that there’s a different path that’s better than the one you’re on. Here’s the thing: you can switch to a different path, or a different task, but the worry won’t go away. It’s a lack of trust in your decision to focus on this task in front of you. Instead, face this fear and realize that it’s unfounded: there is no huge consequence to working on this task and not another. Life won’t end. In fact, you’re hurting yourself much more by doubting the decision and putting off working on the task.

The best way is to make a decision, then not worry about it. Pour yourself into this task, be in the moment with it, fully enjoy it, and trust that you’ll be OK. This is easier said than done, but practice makes it easier.

Q: I am trying to simplify things; this week I am aiming to finish one of the projects so I will have more time to focus on the rest. Is it better to focus on a few things at a time? Is it possible to keep going with lots of projects at once if you have a good enough productivity habit?

Leo: It’s really, really hard to focus on a lot of projects well, no matter how good you are. It’s possible, but in my experience you’ll simply be juggling, trying to keep a bunch of balls in the air, and not really doing well at any of the projects.

What I’ve found best is to focus on one project at a time, while keeping other projects going as well as you can. For example, if I’ve focused on Project A for awhile, and it can now be maintained with minimal effort from me, I can now put focus on Project B while allowing Project A to keep running. And I can repeat this for a little while, putting older projects into maintenance mode and doing a little work on each while really focusing on one new project and trying to do that well. But there’s a limit to this.

So my recommendation is to simplify, put as many projects on hold (or eliminate them) as you can, and focus on just one or two at a time.

Q: How do you know what activities are most important and which ones to drop?

Leo: You don’t ever know for sure. I just go with my gut, and trust that I’ll be OK no matter what. That said, I use a couple questions to help guide my gut: 1) what will have the most impact on my work and life? and 2) what would be the biggest help to others? There are no solid answers to either of these questions, but I can’t let myself get mired in making these decisions — I make them quickly and move on.

Q: I know this could sound like lack of motivation, but what I’m struggling with is lack of Results that makes me not want to do MITs. I focus on the “start” and that doesn’t feel productive. Sometimes I do more than the start and that most of the time doesn’t bring any results and so that decreases my motivation. I know you suggest to have no expectations, but that makes me feel like I’m on a vicious circle.

Leo: Yes, this is pretty common … just starting doesn’t get you any results. It’s like going for a run or eating some vegetables, and still being overweight. If we allow the results to be the motivators for our actions, we’ll be very demotivated. Results will come over time, but they can’t be the thing that motivates our daily actions, because they take time.

Instead, focus on other motivations:

  1. The enjoyment of the task itself
  2. The wonder of learning about yourself as you do the task
  3. The feeling of accomplishment from doing the task and not procrastinating
  4. The trust you’re building in yourself
  5. The joy of learning about how habits work as you create one

These don’t require results to be rewarding.

Q: What I’m struggling with it whether the 3 MITs should belong to your world of work or things you want to accomplish outside of work.

Leo: That’s totally up to you. For some of us, the stuff outside the world of work is much easier to get done, so we focus on work tasks for our MITs. But for others, getting non-work stuff done is an important and legitimate focus.

Q: Getting derailed in my plan by other things that crop up during the day.

Leo: Yes, this happens to all of us! Look at it as good practice to not hold so tightly to plans. They’re just ideals — this is how I’d like my day to go, ideally. But ideals and reality rarely match up, so if we hold tightly to the ideals we’re going to be frustrated or discouraged. Instead, hold loosely to the plan, and adjust as you go. This is a great skill to practice!

Q: Prioritising: when there are multiple tasks, each needing attention within short span. I tend to prioritise based on whether it’s a dependent act for someone else to get their work started and secondly on who needs that work from me. If someone more senior (for example my boss) is the consumer of my work, higher the priority. So, while I’m working on one, I’ll be worried about the other tasks that I’m not working on and how that is delaying other people’s work etc.

Leo: Yes, that’s usually how we prioritize, based on the importance of the people who are demanding the task to be done. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially if they’re in control of whether you do well at work or not. Ideally you’d be able to prioritize tasks based on how much impact it will have on the world, but that’s not always the reality.

The thing to focus on is letting go of the worry. There’s no ideal order of doing tasks, so worry doesn’t help make things more ideal. All it does is make things less enjoyable, and might even hamper us from doing the tasks. So practice trusting in your choices and being in the moment with the task. Let go of the other tasks while you focus on one, then make a new decision when that first task is done.

Q: Estimating Time: I tend to take more time than my best estimates. I always struggle with it. After a while, this adds to pressure to complete task faster. Then mindfulness goes for a toss.

Leo: This is a good example of ideals vs. reality — estimates are ideals, and when they don’t match reality, we struggle. Instead, a good practice is to make an estimate, and then do the task, and then review how long it actually took vs. the estimate, and what got in the way. What can you do differently next time? If you practice this many times, you’ll get better at the estimates and also get better at the process as you remove obstacles.

Q: Distractions: In a project mode, getting back to a task is difficult when people keep coming to me for some info and I get carried away to another task. I can’t ignore the people straight away and have to provide the required info. Another face of distraction is that people around me keep chattering and I can neither ask them to be quiet nor can I shift to a quieter place.

Leo: Yep, dealing with interruptions or noisy people is tough! This is yet another chance to practice working with ideals: you have an ideal of not being interrupted, nor having noise around you. As you can’t really control that (unless perhaps you use headphones to block out noise and interruptions?), you need to let go of the ideals and deal mindfully and peacefully with each interruption. See the interruption as your new priority, not the ideal you had in your head before. See the noise as your new ideal working situation, not the quiet ideal you have in your head. This isn’t easy, but it’s great practice.

Q: Even though I usually complete my top 1 or 2 MITs every day, I struggle with not feeling productive enough. There’s always so much more to do! I feel like I’m barely staying afloat in a sea of things I want to accomplish.

Leo: As you say, there will always be more to do! There is an endless task list, and if we ever get done with that, an incredible amount of other things we could do in the world. Realize that it’s futile to try to do everything — we have limits. Instead, focus on what you can do. Then let the rest go, and be happy with your accomplishments. This, again, is a matter of seeing your ideals (wanting to get more and more done) and then letting them go and becoming happy with reality (how much you actually et done).

Q: How do YOU decide when a project/activity is actually a dead end or not worth spending any more time on vs. mindful persistence/productivity to keep on pushing through (hoping for success)?

Leo: I never know. I always have uncertainty and doubts. What I do is just do what feels like I’m helping the most people in the best way I can, and I have to be OK with uncertainty, because there will never be a certain choice. Everything I’ve ever done has been filled with uncertainty, especially if it’s worthwhile. If it didn’t have uncertainty then it wasn’t worth doing.

How do I know it’s not a dead end? I never know. I just try to find out. And if I need to let it go for some good reason, I do, but not because of the uncertainty, which is a bad indicator of whether to do something.

Q: Can you suggest how best to keep multiple habits going? Also how to maintain habits when they get disrupted, whether due to a big project, vacation, illness, or just fatigue?

Leo: Sure! I’ve actually written several articles and done a couple of videos on these questions, found in the troubleshooting section on the Member’s page: