Presence > Productivity

Among all kinds of artists and makers, and perhaps especially the self-employed, there is an obsession with business (busy-ness), and with output.  There’s a sense of urgency to create as much as possible, and to hustle to get those creations seen and monetized.

Producing a lot of work is in and of itself a wonderful thing!  It means improving our craft, exploring different directions, honing in on our voice, building strong habits, and just generally learning more.  And why shouldn’t we look for ways of finding recognition and compensation for our efforts?  Of course we should.

Unfortunately this intent focus can also mean trying to cram more fruit into the already full baskets of our lives, and we don’t end up leaving ourselves any time to eat the fruit.  Those plucked with so much  promise are left rot at the bottom and everything in between becomes muddled from the sheer weight and lack of space.  Our baskets are heavy, our bodies burdened.  It seems we can never get around to anything, despite living a life of such abundant freedom, choice, and potential.

We hardly pay attention to what we’re choosing to do with our immediate moment anymore.  If not lost in distractions like our phones and our huge list of less meaningful tasks, then we’re looking ahead to what we need to do tomorrow, or should have done in the past but never “found the time.”  It’s important to learn that time is made, not found.  Allowed, not wrangled.  We’re never anywhere other than where we are, and we always only have 24 hours in a day.

Productivity & Worthiness

Sometimes I feel that lack of presence and obsession with productivity in people, and yes, also in me, is a question of self-worth.  Everything in our lives is measured, all our progress tracked.  Everyone has an opinion, and we are hardest on ourselves.  We’re trying to prove something, to be good enough.  To be good, to be great.

But worth isn’t measured by output, nor ability to juggle the largest number of things.  That can be impressive to some, sure, but it’s not actually worth anything to anyone.  What tends to be most valuable in a person, and we’ve all experienced this, is encountering someone who is with you in that moment with their whole selves, and watching them be with their work with that same care and attention.

I’m suggesting presence.

Presence as the counterpoint to busy-ness.  Presence as the antidote to stress.  There is nothing wrong with productivity, but without presence in what you are doing right this moment, you simply won’t do as good of a job.  This goes for everything from executing your most recent design, to talking with your mom on the phone.  Others always notice when you are not present.  Without presence, you’ll be less effective (and happy) in general. 

You deserve to feel  joy.  To experience abundance and freedom.  This is how you see your own self-worth.  The best way to make time for all the things you want to do, and to feel the way you want to feel while doing them, is to be present in the moment.  Ever heard of Be Here Now?  Well, it’s real.  When you’re gently aware, even faintly, of your surroundings, your current behavior, your body, and your breath, time stretches before you and you’ll find you have way more than you thought you had in a day.  You’ll actually get significantly more done when you’re not thinking (or perhaps worse, talking) about all you’re going to get done, and just be with what you’re doing.  

How to Practice Presence

For me, to find this gentle awareness, it helps to start by practicing a sort of hyper-focus on a microcosm of your experience.  When you do this you’ll quickly become aware of all that you’re not aware of.  How much of your life you’ve been missing.  Feel the air in your lungs, how your clothes move, the sounds around you, the ground under your feet.  Move your total attention to the brush on the page and put down that mark with intention.  Close your eyes if it helps.

A gentle awareness of your body, feelings, and surroundings means that you’re taking in all thought, sensation, sounds, visual information, etc. as they come, without clinging to the experience of them nor shutting them out.  Letting everything come and go, and simply noticing.  You’ll find that if you’re still examining the sound of that bird call, or waiting to hear that same bird again, you’ll miss hearing whatever the next sound is.  This is a tiny example of what happens to our entire lives when we live by either anticipating or remembering.

We tend to ignore large swaths of experience, and even of time, in our lives.  This is how you wake up wondering where you’ve been.  Our obsession with productivity can fuel this rushing of hours and skipping of steps, sometimes very precious and irretrievable ones.  

There is no someday.  Someday is today and if you let it be yesterday or tomorrow you’ll never see it, no matter your efforts.  Your life doesn’t start at some other juncture.  Not when you’re successful, not when task X is complete, as soon as you hear from so and so on their decision, not once you’re making a certain amount of money, nor once you’re able to work remotely.  Today counts.  As Debbie Millman once very wisely said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

I’d like to close with one of my favorite poems that speaks to love and presence.


Never Shall The Fruit Be Plucked
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Never May The Fruit Be Plucked
Never, never may the fruit be plucked from the bough
And gathered into barrels.
He that would eat of love must eat it where it hangs.
Though the branches bend like reeds,
Though the ripe fruit splash in the grass or wrinkle on the tree,
He that would eat of love may bear away with him
Only what his belly can hold,
Nothing in the apron,
Nothing in the pockets.
Never, never may the fruit be gathered from the bough
And harvested in barrels.
The winter of love is a cellar of empty bins,
In an orchard soft with rot.

(From "Harpweaver" 1923)

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