A monkey reaching for an apple

Mindfulness and productivity in fact have a lot in common. Neither process is linear, and both involve training the mind and increasing focus. If we really want to become more productive, mindfulness is a good place to start. That means getting well acquainted with our monkey minds. (Photo by shahir shah on Unsplash)

What does it mean to be more productive? Over the last few years, as I’ve thought more about productivity and worked to become more productive, this is a question I keep coming back to.

I can’t help but fall back on a running metaphor. Assuming that the “product” of running is the number of miles run, there are two ways to become a more productive runner. You could run for more hours, or you could run faster, so that you cover more miles per hour run.

As a runner, for years I’ve been pursuing this sort of mindless productivity. I train by gradually trying to run faster, and further. And I’ve made good progress. With some effort, I reduced my pace by around 30 seconds per mile. And I doubled, then quadrupled my weekly mileage. Of course, this sort of progress can’t continue forever, especially as I get older (and busier!). While I’m proud of the progress I’ve made over the years, I’ve begun to rethink my goals and priorities while running.

What if my goal is something else entirely? What if it’s, say, to really enjoy running? Or to maximize the health benefits, or to maximize the positive impact it has on the other aspects of my life? These holistic goals sound better than running a little faster or a little further. These goals may entail running faster, or further, but not as an end in and of itself. They might require a very different approach than maximizing speed or distance! Rather than closely tracking my pace, pushing myself harder, etc., they might instead mean that I should run a different route, or make an effort to regularly try new routes. In fact, they might mean slowing down rather than speeding up, or going on shorter runs, or joining a team and running with other people.

It’s essential to spend time considering our goals and our motivation before we rush headlong into running, or any other activity. If we don’t, we may inadvertently use a technique that actually takes us farther away from our goals.

Once our goal and motivation are clear, the next step is to start running while listening carefully to the body. This is one of the hardest and most nuanced aspects of distance running. The body warms up slowly. At the start of every single run, no matter how long or short, it complains. Like a spoiled child realizing it’s not going to get its way, however, it eventually, gradually gives up protesting. Running hard or running far is a fine balancing act between, on the one hand, paying close attention to the subtle messages the body sends us—since even a tiny ache can turn into something quite serious after a dozen miles—and, on the other hand, not indulging every little gripe, and learning to filter out the messages that actually matter from the incessant noise.

It requires pushing the body farther than we ever thought it could go, but doing so in a soft, respectful, gradual manner: pushing, then giving the body a chance to catch up, to rest, and to heal and strengthen. Any other type of pushing is unsustainable. Eventually, after many hundreds of hours and many thousands of miles, we develop a form of trust and a sense of oneness between body and mind. Running itself becomes almost effortless, as we develop a sort of symbiosis or comfortable, confident partnership with our body, as with a trusted old friend.[1]

As slow and arduous as this process is, however, it doesn’t hold a candle to the challenge of training the mind. In some important ways, training the mind and training the body are quite similar. Body and mind both have their limits, and they both have their own ways of communicating. They’re both stubborn and reluctant, but both are malleable and, if we keep pushing in the right way, if we respect them, both will yield to our will. If we push too hard, both will resist and ultimately break. Training the mind is as important to running as training the body, and it’s much harder. This is double true for distance running, which involves spending many hours alone with only your thoughts, body, and the road for company.

For me, the key difference between body and mind is that, while I feel mostly in control of my body, my mind is another story. My body mostly does what I tell it to do. As I described above, it’s a little slow to warm up and it tends to complains a little bit. But as long as I treat it well—eating well, sleeping well, drinking enough water, working out regularly, resting enough—I know it’ll more or less do what I want.

If the body resembles a loyal dog, the mind is more like a cat with a mind of its own! When I want it to focus on one thing for a while, it wanders off, like a cat choosing to ignore its owner, run off and hunt. When I want it to wander, it becomes fixated on something I want to set aside, like a cat chasing a laser pointer.

Andy Puddicombe, cofounder of the excellent Headspace app, points out that, while many of us enjoy regularly training our bodies, most of us don’t spend much time training our minds. The mind is like a muscle, and it needs to be regularly trained to become stronger. We train our bodies to have greater strength, endurance, and flexibility—all of which are also important qualities of mind. However, the sort of training the mind needs is actually quite different than the sort of training our bodies need.

Buddhists have been perfecting the art of training the mind for a few thousand years. And I’m far from the first person to use an animal metaphor to describe the mind! According to Buddhist tradition, training the mind is like training a wild elephant. You put it on a thick leash, and tie the leash to a heavy stake. At first, the elephant will resist, running in circles and stomping on everything. Gradually, however, it will quiet down and grow comfortable with the situation. One day, you’ll be able to remove the stake and leash and the elephant won’t bolt. In other traditions, the mind is instead compared to a wild horse. It’s a proud, independent creature that roams freely. There is great potential for “communication and rapport between horse and rider” but the training process must be slow and intentional.[2] Initially, a wild horse requires a huge pasture and a very, very long rope. Over time, if you pull the rope in slowly enough, the horse will quieten and won’t even notice the rope growing shorter. Eventually, you’ll be able to remove the rope entirely.

These metaphors are both apt, but the best metaphor for mind has to be monkey mind. I don’t know about you, but my mind feels more like a monkey than it does like an elephant, horse, or cat! It’s constantly darting around, chasing whatever catches its eye, and it moves from one thing to another faster than I can keep up. Getting it to stand still for even 60 seconds is challenging, even after years of meditating.

Like training the body, training the mind also requires constant exercise and constant pressure. The mind also needs periods of intensity and periods of rest. But it requires a much more concerted, nuanced approach to training. It’s like the difference between running ten miles on an easy, familiar road, and running ten miles on a difficult, unfamiliar trail, in the dark, while juggling. In the first case, you can just start running without thinking much about where you’re going or how you’ll get there. Keep moving forward and sooner or later you’ll cross the finish line. In the second, you have to proceed much more carefully, making sure you don’t trip, get lost, or drop a ball. Every time you do drop a ball, you have to stop, pick up the ball, recenter yourself, and then try again. This requires much, much greater force of will than simply moving forward.

To Andy’s observation, I suspect the reason more people are willing to train the body than the mind has to do with will power. It’s not that working out is easy, but it does require less will power than training the mind. The hardest part of training the body is starting a workout. By contrast, training the mind requires more sustained focus. It’s a slow, frustrating process. Imagine that running ten miles is a bit like trying to focus the mind for an hour. In terms of running, then, my experience learning to meditate over the past few years has been like trying again and again to run ten miles but failing every time after only a mile or two. Making progress requires setting out diligently every morning in spite of this perceived failure without becoming too frustrated.

What do running and training the mind have to do with productivity?

Most productivity techniques focus on the mindless sort of productivity: how to make more widgets, sell more widgets, or field more emails about making and selling widgets per day. The problem with this approach to productivity is that it doesn’t zoom out far enough. It presupposes that as a runner your only goal is to run further, faster. As with running, the first step to increasing productivity should be to zoom out and think carefully about your goals, and about how and why being more productive will help you achieve them faster.

In the past, I tried a brute force approach to productivity, a lot like my approach to running: if I worked eight hours one day, then I’d try to work eight and a half hours the next day. If I wrote 200 lines of code one day, then I’d try to write 250 lines the next. It sort of worked for a while, until I reached a plateau and my stress level increased. In my experience this approach is more likely to lead to burnout than sustainable progress. I find this approach to running ineffective and unsatisfactory, and I feel the same way about this approach to productivity.

In reality, you cannot measure progress towards productivity linearly. In this respect it’s like trying to measure mindfulness. You can’t measure mindfulness by counting the number of hours you’ve meditated or the number of times you’ve repeated a mantra. And you can’t measure productivity by counting the number of hours you’ve worked, emails sent, or lines of code written. Real progress isn’t linear: you may feel like you’re making rapid progress for a while, only to later find that you’ve suddenly regressed. This is natural and it’s all part of the larger process.

For most of us, increasing productivity is much more like training the mind than it is like training the body. It’s more like increasing mindfulness than it is like running farther. In fact, training the mind is one of the best ways to increase productivity. Train the mind to relax, focus, and to have stronger intent, and you’ll accomplish more in less time and feel better about your work. Now there’s a definition of productivity that I’m on board with!

Here’s another parallel to running: not all days are created equal. Some days when I wake up the sun is shining and I feel great, bursting with energy and wanting nothing more than to hit the road for a long, hard run. Other days it’s cold and wet, getting out of bed is a pain, and I hit the turf only reluctantly. Still other days I know that what I need is a shorter, easier run, or a run more geared towards sightseeing, enjoying the fresh air and natural light. The tempo of my running differs depending on my mood, and also on the season: spring and autumn are prime distance running season, whereas summer and winter are better for shorter, more intense runs.

When I first started running I tended to push hard all the time, believing that distance and speed were the only metrics that counted. These days I’m kinder to myself. I listen to my body and mind, check the weather, and go for the sort of run that I’m craving. Once in a long while this means not running at all!

This sort of self-awareness is critical to being a successful runner, and it’s also critical to increasing productivity. There are times when we feel more or less energized or focused. This is true of certain times of the day and certain days of the week, but it can also be true for entire weeks or even a whole season. For example, most people tend to have more energy just before lunch, and to get sleepy after lunch (hence the tradition of the afternoon siesta). If you’re a morning person you probably do your best work at the start of your day; if you’re a night person you probably do your best work late, after others have already turned in for the day. For many of us winter tends to be a good season for focused, deep work.

It’s a mistake to believe that we can always be on, focused, engaged, and equally productive. Just as I used to always push myself when running, I used to think productivity meant always doing as much as possible: cramming as many tasks as possible into a busy day, hopping from engagement to engagement, activity to activity, task to task, article to article, etc.. When you get to know monkey mind, however, you realize that acting this way only feeds the monkey. We’ll never become more productive by indulging the manic monkey mind!

While doing more and jumping from task to task might be okay for some kinds of tasks, like email, it’s especially bad for tasks that require deep work. The right way to do deep work—the kind that requires deep thought and reflection, analysis, and introspection—is almost never to do it more or to do it faster. Quite the contrary! Deep work often requires taking a step back, relaxing, clearing the mind, working on something else for a bit, going for a walk, or just sleeping on it.

When we develop self-awareness we not only learn what sort of work we’re best prepared to perform at any given moment, but certain higher-level patterns also become visible. One such pattern involves energy level and ability to focus. We gain the ability to predict when we’re likely to be “switched on”—ready to engage in deep work—and when we’ll need to disengage from that work. This could be a certain time of day, a certain day of the week, or even a certain season. Or it may be more about task sequencing: e.g., I know that after exercising I’m prepared to sit, focus, and read for an hour or two.

Another such pattern is fixation: the degree to which the mind will become fixated on a particular activity or pattern of thought, how long the fixation will last, and the psychic cost associated with task switching while fixated. For instance, I know that if I start reading a book I won’t be able to disengage for at least 20 or 30 minutes. If it’s an especially interesting book, I’ll need at least an hour, and even after I put the book down, I’ll continue to think about it for the rest of the day. In a similar fashion, if I start coding, I know that I need at least a couple of hours before I can get really deep into the task and reach maximum productivity. If I’m interrupted from deep reading or coding, I’ll feel frustrated and grumpy towards whatever or whomever interrupted me. It’ll take me at least 10-20 minutes to context switch back to where I was, and I may unable to reengage. For this reason, I try to block big chunks of maker time on my calendar where I can code uninterrupted for two, four, or even six hours. I also hesitate to pick up a book or start coding unless I know I’ll have the time I need to go deep. If I have less time and/or less energy I know the time would be better spent doing short tasks that require less focus.

This sort of planning is especially helpful for breaking up large tasks. If I expect a task to take a few hours, it may be better to block half a day to finish it in one go, or it may instead be better to work on it for an hour a day over the course of several days. Being able to forecast my level of energy, focus, and fixation, and knowing how deep I need to go to finish the task, helps enormously in planning and executing work.

Of course, some projects take more than a few hours and sometimes we need to devote ourselves to a task for a longer period of time. Bill Gates famously took a Think Week off twice a year, and I had a wonderful experience last year taking ten days off for a meditation retreat, something I hope to repeat regularly. In the extreme, we may want to think in terms of entire seasons: a scholar might decide to take a sabbatical for a summer, or a semester, or even an entire academic year to study, do research, or write a book.

In summary, while most productivity techniques focus on simply attempting to do more, we cannot and should not take a brute force approach to productivity, trying to do more the way a runner might try to run further or faster. The mind is more complex than that and it works in sneakier, subtler ways. A better approach to increasing productivity is more like learning to meditate: it involves paying close attention to the mind, learning its patterns and its quirks, and working with them rather than against them. If we take a more gradual, gentle approach, the mind will eventually fall in line and cooperate.

There are two things we can do along the way that will prove especially helpful. The first is to reflect on our goals and to understand that productivity is a vector: it’s not just about quantity of output (distance), it’s also about intent and directionality (angle). The second is to pay close attention to our patterns of energy, focus, and fixation, all of which are closely related. In doing so, we can learn to forecast our state of mind like we forecast the weather, and we can plan our work around this forecast, much like planning travel around a weather forecast. As the patterns become more familiar, we can plan not only our day, but indeed our week, month, and season around these patterns.

Try paying closer attention to these patterns, and try planning your next project around your mind’s weather patterns. By working with these patterns, I bet you’ll find it much easier to finish the project.

What does productivity mean to you? What’s your experience with productivity techniques? Leave a comment and let me know.


  1. In Running With the Mind of Meditation, a unique and enjoyable book, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche describes four phases of becoming a runner, which he ties to the Four Dignities of Shambhala teaching: tiger, lion, garuda, dragon. Our goals and abilities evolve as we progress through these stages. This description resonates quite strongly for me and it’s changed the way I think about running. Confidence and effortlessness are associated with the later stages. 

  2. Source: The Practice of Meditation, Birmingham Shambhala Meditation Center