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I’m a big advocate of productivity. But I’m not a big fan of how most people approach the topic.

Productivity is not cranking more widgets. Productivity is not doing all the things. True productivity is saying “no” to the things that don’t matter so you can say “YES!” to the things that do.

But that’s not what most people think of when they hear the word “productivity.” They conjure up a mental image of heartless efficiency – getting their tasks done faster so they can squeeze in a few more from the never-ending in their task manager.

Faster ≠ Better

When I was growing up, my brother and I had gerbils and Jaq and Gus (from the movie Cinderella). Jaq was mine, and he loved to run on the wheel in his cage. He would get on the wheel and run as fast as he could. He would get that wheel going so fast that eventually he would slip and fall, then he would spin around a couple of times on the floor of the wheel until it finally came to a stop.

When it comes to productivity, many of us take the same approach as my gerbil Jaq did – we just want to go faster. We believe that if we can get our work done more efficiently, we’ll have more time for the things that are really important. But what often happens is that since we have more time (and we haven’t developed the ability to say “no”), we just end up squeezing in more work. The problem is that now we have to maintain this level of efficiency because we’ve agreed to take on more work. We’ve established a new normal for the amount of work we can get done. This causes us to try to get just a little bit more efficient, which allows us to squeeze in just a little bit more work, which means we need to get a little bit more efficient, etc. – you get the picture.

Before long, we’re frantically just trying to keep the wheel spinning by running as fast as we possibly can.

“In a world of efficiency, your reward is more work. You’re playing a losing game.”

Michael Hyatt

Another image I get as I’ve brewed on this for the last couple of weeks is that of a sports car that is stuck in traffic. You may be able to go from 0 to 60 in under 2 seconds, but that doesn’t help you when you’re surrounded by cars on the freeway and none of you are moving. In that moment, it’s easy to think that you could be so much more “productive” if you could just escape being stuck in traffic.

The problem though is that when it comes to our productivity we don’t have the luxury of a speed limit to keep us from hurting ourselves. We get on the Autobahn and hit the gas, but we lack the discipline and focus necessary to keep the vehicle on the road. And as soon as another car appears in front of us, we don’t have the margin or space to keep us from a spectacular crash.

I’m not much of an artist, but I even drew a cartoon to help me visualize this better:

Faster is not always better. Getting to our destination is the goal. And that’s where the real idea of hustle comes in.

What it Really Means to Hustle

The word hustle has gotten a bad rap recently, but I think it’s slightly undeserved. Many people view hustle as staying up late and cranking more widgets, but I think that’s incorrect.

Here’s the definition I like to use:

“to force (someone) to move hurriedly or unceremoniously in a specified direction.”

We can break this definition down into three key components:

  1. Work – This is what most people think of when they think of hustle (the force), but it’s only one part of the formula. Focusing on just this piece is what keeps the hamster wheel of efficiency spinning. We need to a more complete picture. Without the other components, you’ll never be able to hustle effectively.
  2. Purpose – This is the plan that you follow or the steps you have to take in order to see the completed outcome you desire from your work (“move hurriedly or unceremoniously”). This is the “how” of hustle, the organized agenda of how hustle will make sure that you end up at your goal. Notice that movement here is described as “hurriedly or unceremoniously” – this is how you know that your hustle is starting to get some traction. It doesn’t matter if anyone sees you hustling because you’re not doing it as public performance, you’re so focused on the end result.
  3. Vision – This is the “why” or the reason for your hustle. Starting with the “why” determines the plan that you make and ultimately follow through on (specified direction). The vision is what acts as your “effectiveness compass” and is the baseline that you will use for measuring whether you are doing the right things and moving in the right direction.

Sticking with car analogy from before, here’s how these three components help you jump off the hamster wheel of efficiency and actually achieve your goals:

Think of hustle as if you’re going on a trip. You have to work backwards if you actually want to get where you want to go. First, you start with the destination (or the vision). Once you have your destination you can plan your route (or the purpose), and it’s not until you know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there that you actually get in the car and drive. You have to start with the vision, which will direct your purpose, which will finally dictate the work that you do. But if you don’t start with the “why” you are destined from failure from the beginning.

The key is the direction, not the speed. Efficiency enables (forces?) you to go faster, but if you’re moving in the wrong direction then that’s actually a bad thing.

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”

Peter Drucker

Efficiency may be cold and mechanical, but productivity doesn’t have to be. Instead of trying to move faster, I believe that we should make sure that we’re going in the right direction. Intentionality, not efficiency, should be our principal aim.