Zen and the Art of Ninja Productivity

By Mary Jaksch

A short while ago, my friend Leo Babauta of Zen Habits recorded an interview with me about productivity for his great new book, The Little Guide to Un-Procrastination.

It brought home to me how much my long-time practice and teaching of Zen has boosted my productivity. Leo says I’m one of the most productive people he knows. But the funny thing is that there are some small pockets in my life where I’m also the world’s worst procrastinator. More about that below…

What is productivity?

Being productive means being able to create something with ease, steadiness, and joy.

In order to be productive, we need all our energy to be channeled. Think of a stream: when it flows freely, the water rushes along – right from the mountains to the sea. But if you build dams, divert the course of the stream, or choke it with rubble, the stream will have to use a lot of energy to circumvent or overcome the barriers in its way.

We all have access to the pure stream of creativity.

The problem is that many people throw up barriers that impede their natural productivity. The outcome can be stress, procrastination, and grief for lost dreams.

Yes, those lost dreams … Have you got dreams and even plans somewhere in the back of your mind that you’ve never realized? I bet you have.  It’s sad when we miss out on bringing our brainchildren into life. But it’s never too late to get pregnant with a great idea and give birth to a new brainchild!

So, let’s get cracking and take a look at how to crank up your productivity. But first a warning: if you’re looking for tips about dire stuff like making priority lists, or getting up a 3AM, you better read something else. My ninja recipe for productivity is Zen inspired and is not about getting things done.

The ninja thing

As many of you know, I’m a 4th Dan Blackbelt in karate in active training. One of the first things a martial artist learns, is that it’s better to go with an opponents energy, than to push against it. For example, if someone throws a punch at you, you can use your opponent’s forward energy to your advantage if you avoid or deflect the punch. And, once you’re more experienced, you learn to drop the idea of ‘opponent’, or of ‘self’ and ‘other’.

In terms of productivity, many books (but thankfully not Leo’s) espouse the use of inner force to conquer the nasty enemy of procrastination. Honestly, I don’t think it works. The Ninja approach of working with your inner opposing energy – instead of against it – is much more, well, productive.

How to stop self-doubts killing your productivity

Most people spend a lot of their creative energy fighting negative thoughts. These thoughts can range from downright ugly (‘You’re a loser!’) to fearful (‘What if I fail?’). Such thoughts can be deflating. You’re all pumped up to create something – and then those niggly, nasty self-doubts start attacking your confidence. Here’s a simple way to work with them:

Whenever you notice self-doubts in your mind, imagine a little green gremlin sitting on your left shoulder, whispering those nasty messages into your ear. Gently and calmly brush the gremlin off your shoulder with your right hand and say politely, “Not now, thank you!” (It will look as if you are brushing a piece of lint off your shoulder).

This may sound bizarre – but it works! The reason why it works is because it helps you to become aware of your negative messages. Often, these kind of doubts were implanted in us early on by parents, caregivers, or teachers. They are so deeply embedded that we are seduced into thinking that they are THE TRUTH about who you are, instead of habitual thought patterns that were originally someone else’s idea.

That’s where the Zen thing comes in. Through the practice of meditation, you learn to observe the mind, and to let go of prefabricated ideas of who you are. It frees you.

Connect with your core life force

The ancient Chinese called the core life force Chi or Ki. They imagined it coursing through the body along certain paths or meridians. I think they really knew something. In order to be more productive, you need to connect with the life force at the core of your being.

How to do it?

The ability to mobilize our life force is hardwired into each one of us. Just think about the amazing feats of survival human beings are capable of when life is threatened. What if you could harness that primal energy at will?

Two  ancient pathways to accessing and releasing your primal energy are meditation, and mindful exercise. In my own experience, for example, my productivity has increased significantly since returning to karate training a year ago. And of course my Zen practice underlies everything I do.

Life is short

Do you notice how fast – and faster – days, weeks, months, and years roll by? I remind myself of that every single day in order to appreciate the fleeting delights of each moment. The calm reflection that life is short is a great motivator for me. I have so many ideas I want to bring to fruition! ‘Now’ is all I have. ‘Tomorrow’ may not happen for me. Who knows?

If there is something you want to create, don’t wait until ‘later in life’! Start the journey of a 1000 miles today – just with one tiny step:  collect ideas; start making a plan; get excited.

The passion thing

I’m passionate about what I do! That’s why I’m so productive. I think passion is an expression of the life-force I was talking about earlier. When we’re passionate about what we’re doing, we’re fired up, and our energy is at our disposal.

Sometimes it can be difficult to find our passion, but it’s worthwhile finding out what really drives us.

Do more of what you love

If you look at your life, what percentage of your waking time is filled with activities you are passionate about? In my life, most of my waking time is spent doing things I love. I love being creative, so most parts of my work are also fun.

It pays to think carefully about your life. Are you enjoying it? Most of the time? Some of the time?

If you’re not enjoying your life, you need to change something fundamental about how you live. One of the changes can be to do more of what you love. But there is also another pathway, and that is exactly the opposite:

Love more of what you do

Let’s face it, in every project there are areas of work that are simply a drag. For example, I wake up to a deluge of emails with requests for help, niggles, comments, and so on, that all need to be answered. It takes me about 4 hours to hit them all on the head (the emails, not the people …). I used to feel resentful about this because mornings are my best writing time.

However, I’ve now changed the way I approach this task. I think of each interaction as an opportunity for connection. And – because I love connecting with others – the task that felt like a drag has now become meaningful.

Maybe you too can think about draggy tasks in a new way that infuses them with meaning.

Why everyone procrastinates – and it’s OK

There are some tasks that stay a drag – no matter how you look at them. And that’s were we tend to procrastinate. For example, I hate anything to do with accounting and tax. Mainly because I don’t really understand it, and that causes some fear. So, that’s an area where I’m the world’s worst procrastinator. I tend to leave business letters unopened for as long as possible. Oh, the tales my friends could tell…

If you have an area of procrastination like that, you need to call in the troops. For example, I’ve got a bookkeeper who collects my tax info electronically and then liaises with my accountant. I’ve asked her to ring me every three month and arrange a visit to collect all my statements. In this way, I’ve put a fail-safe system in place. Because that system is in place, I can forget about tax stuff most of the time because it takes care of itself more or less automatically.

So, if you tend to procrastinate in one particular area, call for help. Partner with someone who will remind you of deadlines and prod you kindly if you don’t deliver.

Does minimalist productivity work?

Some productivity gurus suggest paring down your activities in order to focus your energy on just one thing. Sounds good, eh? But it’s crap advice. The moment you start paring down, your whole energy flow can become disrupted. My advice is contrary: do too much! When you take on a bit too much, it heightens your productivity. Of course you have to be careful, because it’s important not to get overwhelmed.

How to overcome overwhelm

Do you sometimes get into a spin because there are just too many things you ‘should’ be doing? I’m sure you do. It happens to me too at times. We feel overwhelmed when we  hold too many different threads in our mind at one time. Here is how to deal with overwhelm:

Step 1: Wear an elastic wristband.

Step 2: Jot down all the tasks you are holding in your head.

Step 3: Focus on the task at hand.

Step 4: Whenever your mind slides off to other tasks, change the wristband to the other arm and refocus on your task at hand.

Step 5: Repeat as necessary.

Why productivity is important

Productivity is not really about producing something or being ‘valuable’ – it’s simply about having more joy in life. When you create something – whatever it may be – you’ll feel alive, and the joy of creation will pervade all areas of life.

If you want to learn more about how to be productive, I heartily recommend Leo Babauta’s new book, The Little Guide to Un-Procrastination It’s awesome! Leo shows how to emerge from the doldrums and crank up productivity in a way that’s both entertaining and inspiring. And you’ll get the interview with me as well..

What are your thoughts on productivity?

About the author

Mary Jaksch

Mary is passionate about helping people create a happy, purposeful, and fulfilling life. She is the founder of GoodlifeZEN and also the brains behind WritetoDone.com, one of the biggest blogs for writers on the Net. Mary is also a Zen Master, a mother, and a 5th Degree Black Belt.

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