I borrowed the title from Maria Popova of Brain Pickings in her famous seven learnings in seven years article, it struck me so resonantly that I feel my worldview re-orienting itself in real time. Productivity is like the louder older sibling garnering all the attention. We need not look further than the burgeoning industry that has developed around it, from genre-defining books like The Four-Hour Work Week to the numerous productivity content creators. Presence, on the other hand, is like the introverted youngest child cowering away in the corner, enigmatic and often overlooked. For as much as we lust over productivity and its ability to further progress, presence is the only vehicle through which we can live and savour moments.
So how can the relationship between productivity and presence best be defined for the modern world? I like to think of the former as study of pure calculus while the latter of poetry. The following definition for productivity the most compelling I have come across:
Productivity = Useful output / time * f (where f is the ‘fun factor’)
Self-professed productivity gurus have been disseminating a seemingly limitless number of ways that people can increase the useful output variable and fun factor. Whether it is strategies, tactics, tools, or otherwise, there is no shortage of productivity hacks and tips available online. Assuming this representation holds true, increasing our productivity is a simple question of discipline. Presence, however, is not as easily mapped as its older sibling.
How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful patternAnnie Dillard, The Writing Life
Given ephemeral nature of presence, staying in the moment requires our constant effort and attention. Learning to be productive is more or less about building up good habits and getting rid of bad ones. With the requisite work and discipline, it will become habit and automatic. On the other hand, to be truly present is a test we have to pass every 90 seconds. It is perhaps for that reason why presence is more rewarding an art than productivity.