Few things instill dread like a task that’s loomed over your head for weeks… yet few things feel as satisfactory as checking it off your list. We’ve all fretted about a difficult problem we need to tackle, but solving it is often enormously rewarding. No matter how much we might have to psych ourselves up to get stuck into a job, actually doing it feels weirdly good.
Everybody likes feeling productive, but what is it about efficiency or blasting through a task that we enjoy so much? Why does productivity feel so good?
A multitude of research shows that happy people are more productive – by as much as 12% according to one study from the University of Warwick. But it actually goes both ways – productivity can also directly affect happiness, actually instigating it. There are several reasons for this:
Consider the buzz surrounding "deep work" – working in a state of prolonged focus for long periods, without interruption. Aside from being the opposite of stressful and unsatisfying “shallow work” – like admin, meetings and managing emails – one of the biggest perks of deep work is the sense of achievement that follows.
Concentrating carefully on something meaningful or complex gives us a powerful sense of fulfilment, which then frequently has a knock-on effect on other areas of our lives. This type of productivity challenges us to immerse ourselves in the now, to be utterly present and dedicated to the task in hand. It’s these long periods of uninterrupted focus that are vital for learning new skills or understanding difficult concepts, so afterwards we feel good: accomplished, successful – productive!
But it’s important to note that “being productive” and “being busy” are two very different things. Some of the most successful people in the world famously only worked for a few hours a day, yet what they accomplished during these periods was vast. As a result of such productivity, these people, like Charles Darwin, had far more time on their hands to relax – to go for walks, take naps or listen to music. (And when it comes to feeling good, relaxation is key)!
In contrast, being busy – filling your day with lots of things which don’t amount to any value – leads to stress. Multitasking and ticking off a list of minor, inconsequential jobs are prime culprits. In our culture of hyper connectivity, we often experience short, fleeting bursts of accomplishment without actually achieving much at all; we try to trick ourselves into feeling productive by completing lots of little tasks – usually as visibly as we can – but at the end of the day we feel drained and burned out, without much to show for it.
Clearly, there’s something powerful and profound in the sense of achievement we experience when we’ve accomplished something worthwhile – and this is probably a reason why intrinsic rewards are usually far more effective at motivating people than extrinsic ones. Unlike extrinsic rewards, that often take the form of pay rises or promotions, intrinsic rewards are non-physical. You can’t see them, but you can feel them, and herein lies the difference: emotional connection.
All the money in the world can’t fill the void created by a lack of purpose – yet the gratification that comes from completing meaningful work actually extends positively to other areas of our lives. It stimulates our sense of self and boosts our wellbeing. But it also depends on us: we need to find personal meaning and purpose in each task. That way, when we complete it, we know without anyone telling us – or rewarding – us that we’ve accomplished something worthwhile.
Embracing deep work means embracing real productivity, and real productivity allows you to regain your creativity, balance and positivity. And obviously, that feels pretty damn good.