The Most Productive People Have One Thing In Common: They Do Nothing

by Alexia LaFata

Sometimes, it's easy to feel completely consumed by our endless to-do lists.

We scribble out little reminders on random pieces of paper. We type out incomplete and frenzied thoughts, ideas and rambles into the Notes app on our smartphones.

We use Google Calendar on our computers, iCal on our iPhones and some other calendar app on our iPads in an attempt to organize our tasks.

But it's all to no avail. It's exhausting. We have a never-ending amount of things to do and a never-ending amount of places in which we've documented those things, which makes it even more difficult to do anything.

And when we don't actually set out to tackle the tasks, we feel guilty.

We become unproductive, and then we become anxious about our lack of productivity, and then we become overwhelmed by all of our anxiety, and then we just retreat until everything piles on top of itself, and we refuse to touch any of our tasks ever again.

This is a cycle we're all too familiar with, but it's not one we have to be stuck in forever. There are better ways to deal with productivity -- which, so it seems, involves not being productive at all.

In an interview with Fast Company, David Allen, a productivity expert and the author of the best-selling book "Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,"  summarizes his five-step process for being productive:

1. "Capture," or collect all of your personal and professional projects, no matter how big or small, into a pile to be processed.

2. "Clarify," or determine which items on your to-do list are actionable and which aren't.

3. "Organize," or create lists with appropriate categories that designate actions, like, for example: errands to run, calls to make.

4. "Reflect," or review your lists frequently.

5. "Engage," or do your lists.

The best part about the last two steps is that when you review your lists and set out to engage, you may decide the best course of action is to not act at all.

That's the beauty of productivity: Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing.

Successful productivity is not about just being productive for the sake of checking off as many things as possible from a to-do list; it's about how well you can clear your head, how well you can prepare to engage and how well you can decide when not to engage.

In other words, to really, truly get sh*t done, you have to create the necessary mental space to determine if you are focusing on the correct tasks.

According to Allen, what's important is not time management but space management, or managing the space you have to engage in your tasks.

He told Fast Company:

Time just is. That’s not the big issue. The big issue is really space. When people say they need time management, it’s usually because something is feeling out of control or inappropriately focused.

Allen is a proponent of deciding to not take up space with items on a to-do list that might figure themselves out on their own, that aren't as pressing and, therefore, can be held off for another day or two or may not your issues to solve.

So, until you figure that out -- until you figure out which tasks require your real, immediate focus and which tasks do not -- do nothing. Nap and daydream all you need.

James Altucher, entrepreneur and author of the WSJ Bestseller, "Choose Yourself!," agrees. In a blog post for 99u, he says to be successful, you need to be a "productivity minimalist":

You need to eliminate first. You need to be a productivity minimalist in order to be a success. The key is to find the easy things you can chop off where you can at the very least do nothing instead of doing things that actually DAMAGE your productivity.

Altucher also says when you're feeling certain emotions, it's okay to put off a task until you feel more centered and ready to engage with the task.

Don't do anything if you feel angry, paranoid, anxious, tired or for the sole purpose of being liked.

It's important not to ignore important tasks, though.

For example, if you really, really need to send that email to your boss because you have a deadline, that's not the thing to put off. You should definitely prioritize sending that email.

But what you can put off is something like, say, needing to RSVP to a party when the RSVP date is two weeks away. That can wait.

We're always going to have things to do, but not everything will require the same levels of urgency.

People who just jot down to-do item after to-do item after to-do item don't think about how important each task is relative to another task.

The weight of significance of each task often isn't considered, and that's what we should focus on.

Allen said,

People think meditation is stopping the world and having the world go quiet. No. The universe is always on. It’s just which part of it you want to listen to... A hallmark of how well you can do this methodology is how well you can do nothing. How well can you actually have nothing on your mind?

I'm not sure. Let me get back to you after I spend a good half hour daydreaming about man butts before I start any of my real work.