Ignore most advice on Productivity

The true challenge lies not in the quantity of tasks we accomplish but in the quality of our focus and intention.
Ignore most advice on Productivity

The quest for productivity has become an incessant drumbeat in our daily lives. Countless articles and self-help gurus preach the gospel of hacks and shortcuts to help us achieve more in less time. Amid the hustle and bustle, however, a critical element is often overlooked—clarity. The relentless pursuit of productivity without a clear sense of purpose and direction can lead to burnout and dissatisfaction. Moving fast and breaking things will only lead to more chaos in your life. What if you took a moment to assess if you are going in the direction you want?

I decided to study moral philosophy at Oxford largely because I wanted to put my 10 years of work experience in perspective. I had worked at Microsoft, built a company—Network Capital, invested in a few startups, and written a couple of books. By most measures, I had a productive and creative life but I wanted more clarity toward my long-term goals. Doing more wasn’t the answer. It was time to test my assumptions about what a meaningful and successful life meant to me.

The true challenge lies not in the quantity of tasks we accomplish but in the quality of our focus and intention. The modern professional landscape is teeming with executives and young leaders who, despite their impressive resumes and countless achievements, find themselves caught in the throes of burnout. The culprit? Not knowing what they are doing and why.

In my conversations with professionals on Network Capital, a platform for mentoring and professional development, a recurring theme emerges—the struggle to process and manage the direction in which they are headed. It’s not the sheer volume of responsibilities that overwhelms them; rather, it’s the uncertainty surrounding the purpose and intrinsic importance of their actions. Most ambitious people figure out ways to get through their to-do lists but at the end of the day, they wonder if they made a difference.

Consider this: racing at breakneck speed in the wrong direction doesn’t bring you any closer to your destination; it merely exhausts your resources and energy. It’s not about doing more; it’s about doing what matters and understanding why it matters. Working relentlessly and feeling directionless is perhaps the most debilitating of experiences.

At the heart of the matter is the need for a calm and focused mind that discerns between busyness and productivity. The mind, when cluttered with tasks devoid of intrinsic meaning, becomes a breeding ground for stress and burnout. The antidote to this epidemic lies in cultivating clarity—a deep understanding of one’s goals, values and the path that aligns with them. I deliberately used the word cultivating as I firmly believe that clarity is acquired, not something one is bestowed with. It is something we can all get better at if we commit to first-principles thinking.

Cultivating clarity requires a deliberate and ongoing effort, a commitment to peeling away layers of external expectations and superficial pursuits to reveal the authentic core of one’s aspirations. It involves a process of introspection, continuous learning and refining our understanding of what truly matters. Creating a personal roadmap that aligns with your values and aspirations is a fundamental step toward fostering clarity. This roadmap serves as a guiding light, helping you discern between activities that propel you closer to your goals and those that merely distract you.

In the race to climb the professional ladder or achieve societal expectations, individuals often neglect to pause and reflect. Without this foundational understanding, every action becomes a mere reaction to external stimuli, leaving professionals feeling like hamsters on a wheel, running tirelessly without a clear destination.

Now let’s address the million-dollar question, what does doing “right” things entail? Simply put, it comes down to channelling your energy to issues where you can have a meaningful impact on people, organisations and causes you care most about. You are unlikely to discover them if you are obsessed with productivity all the time. You need to have the headspace to wander, tinker, experiment and test assumptions.

On Network Capital, I suggest our members try micro-experiments, scaled-down versions of the life they are curious about but don’t have the time or energy to pursue just yet. Simply working on micro-experiments with the guidance of a coach often helps them venture into areas they would not have considered otherwise. Once they know the direction they want to steer their life toward, productivity comes naturally. The reverse, however, is not true. Simply being productive won’t get you to where you want to be.

Let me conclude with a small micro-experiment for you: Focus on clarity for a week. Instead of measuring how much work you got done, ask yourself if all the work you did brought you closer to the ideal version of your future self. If the answer is no, it is time to rethink and recalibrate.

Utkarsh Amitabh

CEO, Network Capital; Chevening Fellow, University of Oxford

Posts on X (formerly Twitter):@utkarsh_amitabh

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