What Productivity Isn’t

“Productivity isn’t about doing a lot of stuff. It’s about getting the important stuff done.” ~Leo Babuata, “Big Rocks First”

I hate being told I can’t do things. Even when they’re 10 conflicting things that all need to doing  immediately. (Especially when they’re 10 conflicting things that all need doing  immediately.)

You see, I have a superhero complex — and apparently also a bit of a masochistic streak. The more impossible my workload becomes, the more eager I am to jump unthinkingly into it, with an impressive flap of my imaginary cape and a bold “Dah, dah, dah, DAH!” on my lips.

I like to Get Things Done, and I’m quite good at it, if I do say so myself. (Which I suppose I just did.) I’ve moved up the ranks at my job by being known as a person who Gets Things Done. Even if those things are simultaneous projects from three separate people. Even if those things aren’t in my “job description” (although my job description, if I had an official one, would most likely be, “Do whatever needs to be done, preferably yesterday”).

I am the office “go-to” person. It frustrates me like crazy sometimes, because I’m consulted on everything from VIP client emergencies to water cooler leaks. But I know I’ve encouraged this reputation because it gives me a sense of importance. Every day, I’m stretched to the limit because I am Doing Things.  I am Making Things Happen. I couldn’t tell you at the end of the day what half those things were, and I certainly couldn’t tell you why most of them were important, but I can tell you They Got Done. They Got Done good.


See Work. See Cordelia Do That Work. (Work, Cordelia, Work!)

I find Things That Need to Be Done irresistible. Like a puppy that can’t help but chase whatever squeaky ball rolls past him, I can’t see a Thing That Needs to Be Done without desperately wanting to pounce on it. If there’s a to-do list that needs checking off or a clutter that needs uncluttering, I’m there, and I’m raring to go.

It’s not just at work; I’m the same way at home. Maybe it’s because I spend eight hours a day being the go-to girl that I take that mentality home with me. Or maybe having that mentality already is why I’ve become that person, both at work and at home. I’m guessing it’s a combination of both.

It doesn’t help that I have a near-OCD compulsion towards order and tidiness which, if given free reign, can easily consume the better part of an evening. I can’t relax when I get from work until the mail has been sorted, the clutter put back where it belongs, a load of laundry started, and my poor husband harassed about several items on his to-do list (which may or may not be important outside of my own head).

Part of it is my natural impulse to neatify everything I come across, and part of it is a secret fear that if I don’t perpetually stay on top of things, they will overwhelm me faster than you can say “what the…?”

Either way, I waste an awful lot of time just Getting Things Done, bouncing from project to project without coming up for air. And then I wonder why, at the end of the day, I still feel like I haven’t accomplished anything (even though I’m completely exhausted).


Tend to Your Big Rocks First

Being in a state of perpetual motion creates the illusion that you’re using your time to the max. But if you aren’t distinguishing between the importance of the tasks you’re tackling — if you’re just doing everything that comes at you as it comes at you — you’re not using your time effectively at all. You’re actually wasting it. (Tweet, tweet!)

I may be a pro at Getting Things Done, but half those things don’t matter, could wait till later, or wouldn’t even be missed if I didn’t do them at all.

I need to learn it’s o.k. to let certain things pile up, or even (gasp!) be ignored altogether. While I’m running around like a maniac trying to check off a to-do list that will never officially be to-done, I’m wasting time I could be using to do the things that really matter to me.

As Leo says in the excellent post quoted above, your time is like a bucket. Each day, you can only fit so many rocks (to-dos) into the bucket, so if you keep filling it up with petty, unimportant little rocks, you’ll never get around the big rocks (i.e. the things that really matter). The way to approach life productively is to make sure all the big rocks get in the bucket first. Then, in whatever space is left over, you can try to fill in as many little rocks as you want.

This is a concept I’m going to have to continually remind myself of throughout this mission to live more deliberately. I’ve gotten so hooked on always being in a flurry of activity — always trying to do everything and be everything, all at once — it’s going to take some doing to train myself out of that mentality and into a more truly productive one. But I need to. Otherwise, all my awesome Get Things Done abilities will be squandered on things that don’t really deserve them.

Superman didn’t spend all his time sweeping floors or washing dishes faster than the average man. In fact, when things got kind of hairy, I’m pretty sure his apartment got to be kind of a mess. I don’t think anyone faulted him for that. I shouldn’t fault myself, either.

There are bigger adventures to tackle.

Do you get caught in the productivity trap? How can you break free?

Image: Flickr

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  • Clare

    God damn it I love your blog.

    I have a tendency to Put Things Away that drives people crazy. When I cook with my boyfriend, I constantly put away the spices/utensils/butter before he’s done with them. At my part time job at the restaurant, my co-workers are always annoyed because I sort their trays and stack things according to height.


    • cordeliacallsitquits

      God damn it, I love your enthusiasm! 😀

      I’m the exact same way–my husband has to tell me when he’s leaving something out on purpose (like to remind him to do something), because he knows that if anything sits around our house for more than 5 minutes in a place where it doesn’t belong, I’m going to swoop by and put it back where it does belong.

      I should recommend a site to you, which I’m going to be adding to my blog roll: http://www.penelopeloveslists.com. It’s a marvelous blog about organizing, OCD tendencies, and the people who have them. I have a feeling you’d enjoy it. (I certainly do!)


  • A.J. O'Connell

    You’re right to shift your attention from the little rocks to the big ones. You should spend your time on the things that are important to you, even though that’s easier said than accomplished.

    I don’t know about you, but I tend to use the little things on my to-do list as a distraction from my big ones. Instead of sitting down to work on my novel, I decide I need to clean my office. Maybe it’s because the little achievements are less threatening than the big ones. Or because they are easily achievable. No clue. All I know is I can’t look at parts of my house or I get distracted by cleaning projects when I should be plotting out Chapter Three.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I think I suffer from the same thing. My business is actually a form of procrastination–there are always going to be dishes to do, laundry to fold, messes to clean up, so it’s so easy to keep putting off the bigger things I need to do under the guise of being productive.

      I am learning that so clearly with my NaNo project. I had a To Do list of projects I’ve been putting off for years–fixing things around the house, etc.–but the instant I had to sit down and start working on a novel, guess how eager I was to start tackling all those projects that had been sliding forever? 😛

      • One of my friends tells me that this doing of small things in order to put off big things is a function of our “reptilian mind,” a primordial lump in our brain that abhors change and tries to sabotage us when we make plans that extend beyond basic survival. That’s all I know about it, though.
        Anyhow, is this your first year doing NaNo? I did it a few times and loved it.

  • I find myself doing the same things. Ya know what “they” say, “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.”

    As a school teacher – I’m obscenely busy August-May with classwork, preparing for my students, grading work, with grad school, my own homework, reading for grad school, training for half marathons and blah blah blah blah. But every* day, August through May, my bed gets made, laundry gets done, life is seemingly organized.

    June and July on the other hand – HA! Life is a mess. I get nothing accomplished. Fall behind on all tasks. Put everything off to the last minute. You name it – I’m not doing it.

    It’s just easier to get things done when I have a million other things to do!


    *pretty much every day, kind of.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I’ve actually used that quote myself several times in the past week! I’m kind of overloaded this month, but somehow I feel like I’m getting a ton more done, because I know I don’t have the luxury of procrastinating.

      That quote pops up in the NaNoWriMo book, and the author expands on it by saying something like, “If I’ve already got 100 things to do, adding item #101 isn’t going to make much of a difference. But if I’ve got all day with nothing to do, just getting up and dressed by 2:00 feels like a monumental project.”

      So true!


    • Also, congrats on being freshly pressed this morning!! We <3 you and your blog so much. Your unique perspective on the world gets us through most days. Just like a cup of coffee.

      -Bridget, Bailey & Bianca

      • cordeliacallsitquits

        Awww, thanks, Girls! I <3 you too! 🙂


  • Interesting – I have the opposite problem right now. I squander my time and am making a concerted effort to Get Things Done. However, your post still rings true, because I need to make sure I get the RIGHT things done. I agree with the commenter above about using the little rocks to distract from the big rocks – so easy to do! -Karen

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Exactly – that’s real productivity: getting things done, but making sure you’re not wasting time on the unimportant things. Easier said than done, I know. 🙂

  • Samantha @ The Life Abundant

    Very nice–I remember doing a “big rocks” seminar at a leadership conference when I was in high school–such an important lesson that I still need to be reminded of. You are right–I will often put off important work and pretend like I am being productive when I am really not. Little rocks can fill up the whole day!

  • Darcy F

    I just gave the big rocks speech to my 9 yr old last night. And I think he got it. He is a very gifted boy in many areas of his life, but he is (sadly) coming to the place where he needs to make choices, because I can see the weight on him of carrying to full a schedule. Making a few small cuts for now, so he can more fully savor being NINE!!!

    • cordeliacallsitquits


      Isn’t is sad how younger and younger kids these days are starting to feel overbooked and overscheduled? I’m so glad you were able to use the big rocks analogy to help your son figure things out! It’s a lesson I think we can all use, at every age. 🙂

      So glad you’re reading!


  • Jillian Reading

    I have never heard of the “Big Rocks” concept; thank you for introducing it to me. It’s a good visual to keep in your mind when you are busy moving the little pebbles. Thanks!

  • lhmccool

    Hi Kelly!
    I, too, am in love with your blog! So much of it rings true personally. The “big rocks” theory reminded me of the books by Stephen Covey: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, First Things First, et al. A former employer made “Covey training” available to all employees to help reinforce the principles in the “big rocks” theory and learn how to plan your days–deliberately plan everything–so the the right things are done.

    Unfortunately, that was many, many, many years ago and I have forgotten most of that training. However, your blog has sparked me to revisit those concepts and remember what really matters! Thank you!

  • Teri

    I agree with your superman assessment. One must have more important priorities!! 🙂

    Congrats on being pressed.



  • Wow, great post…it’s funny that you mention the “big rocks” vs. “little rocks” analogy. I had a professor present at a student teaching seminar, and he stressed that we needed to maintain a real life outside of teaching. Our “big” rocks were the vital aspects of our lives: family, friends, identity, etc. The “little” rocks were all the other projects on the side that “needed” to be done. He tried to put all the little rocks in a bucket first, and then was unable to place all of the big rocks on top (meaning, if you put work, stresses, etc before your real life, you won’t be able to fit your real life in). He then put all of the big rocks in first and poured the little rocks on top, and lo and behold, all of the rocks were able to fit in the bucket.

    I’m also guilty of trying to do everything at once. My life right now is so stacked to the brim, and I both love and hate this. I love being able to say that I’m successfully able to manage my life, but I hate that I have no time for myself. It’s a tricky balance!

    Congrats on FP! Well-deserved!

    • The big rocks are so important. I find that if I put the big rocks in like family, friends, and life outside of school, I’m a much better teacher, too.

  • You want to make sure that you let yourself relax now and then. Life passes you by so quick. Don’t forget to stop and watch a sunset. So much beauty in this world…if you spend too much time doing too many things you just might miss it.


  • I can relate to all of this more than I probably should– Ha! I love the thing about rocks, though; I’m going to have to start thinking about that in my day-to-day life. Thanks for the insights and the excellent writing!

  • my apartment looks like a disaster because its on the bottom of my things to get done list. Nice post!

  • Love the mental picture of some one flapping an invisible cape and singing superhero themes.

    You should take a page from my apartment. There’s mail and clutter on the breakfast table that’s been there for a month. Eh, I’ll get to it one of these days. 🙂 Great post! And congrats on being freshly pressed again!

  • um, but the little rocks are so much easier to move…right? right!

  • oh and congrats on freshly pressed!

  • You just described a business owner. They do not have a “job description.” They must find a way to get things done. That is why they hire employees like you. It is people like you that make your company successful for those who pay you your paycheck.

    I would encourage you to take a risk on your talents to multitask until the job is done. Why should someone else get wealthy by your sweat.

  • Thanks for the reminder. I have been swimming in the lake of ennui and need to find shore. Guess I had better start looking for those big rocks to put in the bucket instead. Great post and congrats for being freshly pressed.

  • It is fantastic the amount of bloggers coming out speaking on living simpler.. more focused lives. There is a collective conciousness out there and I am seeing a shift in the mentallity of a large group of people. No longer being happy with the status quo. People are tired of living the corporate/style dream of every increasing productivity with no end to reach. (like you never ending task list). I love it. Congrats on being freshly pressed



  • While there is a certain satisfaction in seeing a to do list with everything crossed off, or just getting the most important things done, you also have to take time for you!

  • Shanna VanNorman

    Oh man. I am right there with ya partner. I love to do ‘things’. Many things really, but mostly I just love to do. But I must take some down time soon or I may be right there with you and headed for burn out.

    In fact typing this is making me realize I need to take a break and walk down to the beach with my daughter.

    Good luck on your future writings, I love your blog — it is fresh to death.

    Please take this quiz to find out what fear, if any, is holding you back in life:


    Much love,


  • daofktr

    As the currently elected King of Procrastination (according to certain friends), I completely understand about choosing what crap to shovel, when.
    Here are a couple questions:

    1) If all the small rocks stick together, do they transform to big rocks?
    (I know–gneiss idea, but it’s sedimentary, my dear Watson–)

    2) If this is true, then…if all the rocks in my head become one, would that be my first Concrete Thought, or would I merely be perpetually stoned?

    Inquiring minds, and all that.
    Congrats on the FP!


    • cordeliacallsitquits

      1) Absolutely not. That’s the little-rock illusion. You think that if you keep doing more and more, they’ll add up to your doing something significant, but they won’t. You’ll just cause a landslide of teeny tiny killer rocks to fall down upon your head. (“sedimentary, my dear Watson” <—*snerk!*)

      2) I believe that is as answerable as the tree-falling-in-the-empty-woods question. If this conglomeration ever *should* happen to you, please (get yourself to a doctor first, and then) let me know, because I'd be curious to hear what the outcome is.



  • Madison Woods

    I’m working on becoming less frantic about getting it all done, and focusing on at least getting done what needs to be done. Of course, my definition of ‘need’ differs somewhat from the norm, lol. I ‘need’ to get my writing done. That spreadsheet the boss wants…well, right now I don’t feel the need as much to do it. I’ll probably feel that by Friday afternoon when I’d rather be going home.

    Great blog post, I enjoyed it 🙂

  • yuhm

  • Ok let me list the reasons why I am excited I found your blog:
    1. This is super cheesy , but I feel like in real life you and I could be friends.
    2. you can quote Anne of Greene Gables
    3. are 28 and married
    4. Don’t view yourself as an adult
    5. you are wearing a panda hat
    6. you are ocd, get things done and I am the exact opposite – laid back to a fault. WE could help each other!
    7. your blog is so much fun and that makes me think you are just as fun.

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      There’s nothing cheesy about that at all. I can’t tell you the number of bloggers I’ve felt like I know (and totally wanted to hang out with) from their posts. I’m so glad you like my little blog and I hope you stick around so we can get to know each other better! 🙂


  • Think how many words you could write in lieu of these other items.

  • Kristine

    Awesome post. I agree with everything you’ve written. How could I not when you call yourself Cordelia?

    Anne Shirley is my fmost favourite literary character ever. I can’t read that name without thinking of her. And I’m so glad to find a kindred spirit!

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” 🙂

  • Eva Schiffer

    Love your post. One thing that really helps me is a more structured to do list. 4 categories:
    Important and urgent:
    Important, not urgent:
    Not important but urgent:
    Not important, not urgent:
    Often there is a lot of stuff I enjoy in the not important and not urgent category. I do allow myself to do some of it, after all, live is not just about getting stuff done. But at least I know where I am and when I am focused on what.

  • Rocks, huh? I’m just here for the cool perspective pics.

  • great post! i will now plan to move the big rocks in my life. but sometimes its always the little rocks that seem much easier. but easy isnt always the best.


  • Every man seeks his own glory. But there is One who will be Glory. Only those who do the will of the Father in heaven will be found worthy of honor. Want productivity? Do His will in christ Jesus.

    By His Grace.

  • Great point. We all need to focus on what really needs to be done to prevent the small things in life from overwhelming us with useless busywork, leaving more time for the important things in life.

  • Great post. You sound like Monk, my favourite TV character.

  • I completely agree with you. It really is important for people (read: me) to understand what’s really important. Instead of a superman complex though I have the do-things-to-avoid-other-things habit. I blame my to-do list; all the items look the same on paper so I feel just as satisfied when I check off something like “throw socks in laundry bin” compared to “save the world”.
    Oh! Noticed your NaNoWriMo word count thing up there ^ I’m participating this year, can you tell me how to get one on my blog? ^^;;

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      If you go to http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/widgets, you can get the code for several different kinds of widgets. They automatically update your NaNo count, so as long as you log your count on the NaNo site, the widget keeps up to date too.

  • J. Eric Smith

    Great post . . . I can relate, as one of those same kinds of folks who get crazy about getting things done, and (as a results) gets given more things to do than anybody around me . . .

    I’ve learned over the years (and I’ve lived a lot of them) to make sure that I spend some part of each day doing something playful and useless (in any practical sense). Blogging is good for that, but on days when I don’t write, it may come down to letting something that SHOULD get done lie while I spend an hour reading a really good Wikipedia article about a band I like and their record catalog, or poring over maps of the Mars Rovers journeys, or other stimulating, useless endeavors . . .

  • I’m a bit of procrasinator so…I really liked reading this. productivity and motivation comes quickly and then evaporates just as fast.sometimes.

  • My God, I could have written the first half myself. Lately I’ve been asking myself, “What do I really want to do, today?” Old habits are hard to break, though. This post had some really good advice.

  • Well said.
    Be glad you are a declutterer, though. Many people find their clutter too hard to tackle, because they let it build up. It sounds like you never do!
    You and Superman can definitely take a break. =)

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  • How about this…put a task on your to-do list that you need to sit/read/relax/think for 30 minutes. Make it a goal because for a person like you, it would be something to attain not something to never do.

    I am also a “get things done” person, but I do have a goal every day to a) relax and be still even if only for 5 minutes and b) do something just for enjoyment, not for accomplishment.

    You won’t change who you are, but you can enjoy yourself more being you.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed!

  • laynechin

    No offense, I prefer a life with leisure and ease. And seldom did I care about what should be done even others told me to do so. Just remember, you live your own life.

  • Nice entry, I wish I had your strong sense of commitment.

  • Cordelia,
    you and I are one in the same! I’m sure many of us can recognize and relate to what you are saying here…..but the description of your role in your job is EXACTLY what I felt at my job just two months ago. I was the person in the office who got things done and never, ever at the end of the day did I feel accomplished or as if I had completed anything important, however the next day would arrive and yet again everyone would need me and I would be there with bells on (and sometimes w/out)…..what is it in us that makes us want to help others at the expense of helping ourselves? In any event – I recently moved to Spain to change-up my life and pursue what is important to me – what a change it has been! I, like you, am trying with all my might to NOT do everything that comes my way just for the sake of doing it. Some days I see my old habits creeping in and I have to remind myself of what is important! Keep doing what you want and don’t feel bad!!

  • Terrific post.

    I write for a living and whenever I teach writing I have to remind people the difference between being productive (“Look at all the stuff I just did!”) and being creative….which is often a much messier, slower and less linear progression from idea to completion.

    We, in North America certainly, and in the U.S. especially, live within a culture that absolutely fetishizes the notion of productivity, getting stuff DONE…whether or not that stuff matters the tiniest bit to our deepest souls or notion of who we are or to our pets or loved ones.

    Tomorrow morning, imagine you have six weeks or six months left to live (praying that is never the case, of course!). Now — what will you do with that valuable, precious time?

    Loving people or staring at the stars is not productive, but it may nurture us all much more effectively than that perfectly tidy drawer or closet.

    You’ve made a lot of people think hard today. Congrats!

    • I love this comment, Broadsideblog. I’m going to think about it next time I get frantic because I spent a lot of time being creative (or next time I’m thinking about doing a lot of make-work and being falsely “productive.”) Thank you.

  • Thanks for this thoughtful post. Some good wisdom here, as I also tend to get caught up in rushing to complete things and check them off my list. There’s a nice sense of accomplishment that I get after a list is completely checked off, but I know there are bigger projects that I want to get done, bigger and more creative projects. Ones that take more time to accomplish, and inspiration will arrive at odd, unpredictable times. Along the lines of the previous commenter, broadsideblog. I often try to remember that my time could be spent on those bigger, more creative projects. Thanks again for your post!

  • Very good opinion. I might be less talented at getting things done, but I sure as heck very rarely get anything UNIMPORTANT done. Unless, of course, I’m procrastinating. 🙂

  • I like that idea of “big rocks vs. little rocks” in terms of importance of projects that need to be done. I feel this way many times because, although I don’t have that need to “get things done,” I do have the need to do many things that I like and want to do vs. the things I need to do on just a day-to-day basis to survive and live comfortably.

    When I get started on a project I want to do, I can get so engrossed in it that I lose track of time and I forget to do the laundry, cook the dinner, clean the kitchen, etc. Or, maybe I don’t really forget to do them, I just push them aside to do the fun, creative thing I am currently working on at the time. Then, I look up and have all these “needs” to get done and can feel overwhelmed. I guess it comes down to time management. Your post helps me to remember to “put the big rocks in first.” Thanks for the reminder!

  • Steve

    “Never confuse activity with accomplishment.” — John Wooden

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I am adding that to my quote book. 🙂

  • This is essential advice. When you put the most important things first, not only do things start to get moving, but you are lot less worried and have a more enjoyable time with life. Great advice! And post! 🙂

  • Great post, really interesting perspective, Thanks

  • It’s so easier to get the smaller things done, instead of wondering about the big things. But slowly as they get piled up, the bigger they look and the more reluctant I get; till it finally becomes a big mess.Great advice- to get the priority straight and first things first; but it is just too difficult to put it into practice. Congrats on getting freshly pressed.

  • Can you inject me with some of your enthusiasm 😉 ? I’m going through the I-have-time-I’ll-get-to-that-later phase only to do things in a rush at the end and fall short of my own expectations. Does this sound too depressing? It is and I’m getting over it slowly 😀 Tend the big rocks first eh? Sounds like a good idea. Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      Enthusiasm I’ve got in buckets. It’s the following through on that enthusiasm that I’m learning to work on. 🙂

      Happy Turkey Day to you too!

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  • Very nice post.

    I wrote a similar article on my blog.

    Doing what needs to be done

    • cordeliacallsitquits

      I like the questions you posed! That’s an excellent resource for checking to make sure you’re really on track.

  • Jenelle Edelman

    Most what i read online is trash and copy paste but your posts are not alike. Keep it like this.

  • Propecia

    This actually answered my drawback, thank you!

  • Shower Title Designs

    I love when you talk about this type of stuff in your blog. Perhaps could you continue to do this?

  • Once I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new feedback are added- checkbox and now every time a comment is added I get four emails with the identical comment. Is there any manner you possibly can remove me from that service? Thanks!

    • Cordelia

      I’m sorry about the technical difficulty. I can’t change readers’ subscriptions from my end, but if you look at the notification e-mails you’re receiving, there should be a link somewhere at the bottom for managing your comment subscriptions. Just click on that link and it should take you to a page where you can unsubscribe from any future comment alerts.

      Hope this helps!

  • Cameron Tanguay

    Bookmarked to study later, Thank you…

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