Oscar Wilde (and George Costanza) on Productivity

July 8th, 2009

Oscar Wilde“We live in the age of the overworked, and the under-educated; the age in which people are so industrious that they become absolutely stupid. And, harsh though it may sound, I cannot help but saying that such people deserve their doom. The sure way to know nothing about life is to try to make oneself useful.”

— Oscar Wilde

This quote struck me today. Oscar Wilde wrote these words in 1891, but they could easily have been blogged, tweeted, or podcast today.

Sometimes it seems like everyone that I know is competing for the title of Busiest Human Alive (including me). It’s a thankless title that doesn’t even come with a tiara, but we’ve bought into the myth that true virtue lies in always completing your to-do list (and  quickly!) .

Your worth is measured by the number of hours that you work, the number of emails that you process, the number of people on your connections list, the number of tasks that you check off (and the amount of money that it all generates).

Is this obsession with productivity making us stupider? Only if you take it too far. I personally love being busy. But there’s a certain point at which I see diminishing returns from all of that activity.

My best ideas always come to me when I step away from the daily task list — when I’m taking a walk, reading a great novel, chatting with a friend over a drink, sitting in the park people-watching. That’s because I need space to process all of the stimulus, all of the new information that I’m taking in 24/7. I need occasional moments of quiet and zero productivity.  I need a long-lens view to  see the big picture, to make the interesting connections between the ideas swirling around in my head.

Productivity is a beautiful thing. But you need inspiration and creativity to fuel and channel that productivity into work that’s truly meaningful.

So don’t let your to-do list kill your brain cells. Summer is the perfect time to step away from that daily grind and invite your muse over for a visit.  Schedule some time for brilliance — read an intriguing book that has nothing to do with your job, make a dinner date with someone who challenges your brain, or take an afternoon to play hooky at the museum or lying in the grass with your journal.

Here’s another quote from the brilliant Mr. Wilde to help you remember what it’s all about: “I don’t want to earn my living; I want to live.”

georgecostanzaannoyedAnd if you work for a boss who frowns upon such frivolities as taking time to think, try a tip from George Costanza (a man not known for thinking or for productivity): “If you look annoyed all the time, people think you’re busy.”

Look annoyed, be happy.

Buy The Book

Awesome Blog. I totally agree with you about over exerting yourself. For me, I feel that I do not have enough tasks to do or projects to manage and I would really love to increase that number!

I am optimistic that with the guidance of my friends and crew at I will be successful(Happy with whatever I do). As you said, “I don’t want to earn my living, I want to live”

Pamela Skillings

Thanks, Jessie. I just went to check out VOIS and it looks like it could be a great resource for freelancers and independent consultants. I see you are still in beta, but I would love to learn more about what you’re doing.

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