“Habit rules the unreflecting soul.” ―William Wordsworth
Years ago, in a controlled setting, I took the Gallup StrengthsFinder assessment. It was helpful. In fact, I’d recommend it to most anyone.
The theory is that each individual possesses a certain number of character attributes, which, together, result in a person’s tendency to develop certain skills more easily and excel in certain fields. Of the 34 distinct attributes, the StrengthsFinder test will help an individual discover their top five.
As these assessments usually do, the results brought new words and meaning to my personality, talents, and motivations. Based on the research, a person’s strengths do not change over the course of their lifetime. In other words, though many things have changed in my life over the past ten years, my top five themes have not.
Here they are:
- Achiever. People strong in the Achiever theme have a great deal of stamina and work hard. They take great satisfaction from being busy and productive.
- Competition. People strong in the Competition theme measure their progress against the performance of others. They strive to win first place and revel in contests.
- Significance. People strong in the Significance theme want to be very important in the eyes of others. They are independent and want to be recognized.
- Context. People strong in the Context theme enjoy thinking about the past. They understand the present by researching its history.
- Woo. People strong in the Woo theme love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with another person.
Of the most significant driving forces in my life, the desire to achieve, compete, and gain significance rank among the most influential. And I can feel each of them within me every day.
The assessment is based on an important premise: It is wise for us to focus on building our strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses. However, every strength can become a weakness if we do not learn to recognize and control it.
The strengths that bring definition to our motivations can just as easily become a detriment to us if we allow them to gain mastery over us. In my own life, I can see how a theme’s excess has caused unhealthy pursuits. In fact, I have written about some of them prior (competition / significance).
But recently, I am beginning to recognize how another strength in my life left unchecked soon becomes a weakness. In this case, Achiever.
I take great satisfaction from being busy and I find fulfillment at the end of a day knowing something has been accomplished. And to a fault, I become restless when sitting idle—I prefer periods of productivity instead.
It’s important for me to add this does not mean every moment of my day is filled with hard work and productive outcomes—I struggle with procrastination and distraction just like everyone. But it does mean that I am naturally drawn to the idea of being productive and tend to fill my hours with pursuits that fit the definition in my mind.
But I am learning more and more, especially over the past year, that being nonproductive is actually essential to mindful, intentional living. In fact, being nonproductive is one of the most productive things we can ever do—even if the behavior wars against every inclination in our body.
This year has been ambitious. I submitted a completed manuscript to my publisher last week, we are launching a nonprofit organization here on November 1st, I have been preparing an at-home program for people looking to implement minimalism in their unique context, speaking heavily, and I’ve been focused on a few other surprises that I can’t mention quite yet.
In all this pursuit of productivity, the important periods of nonproductivity are harder to find—but have become even more essential for me and those closest to me.
It is imperative for me to structure intentional periods and disciplines of nonproductivity into my life. (By nonproductivity, I mean nonproductive on the surface. In each of these pursuits, there is productivity to be found—it’s just not the type that typically motivates me.)
One of the ways I have begun to push against the excess of the achievement strength in my life is to articulate and understand the specific productivity of being nonproductive.
If you struggle with the constant need for busyness and/or achievement in your life, maybe you will find some motivation in the list I have been collecting. In each case, I recognize an essential, “nonproductive” pursuit that does not come natural to me, and then I focus on the benefit it provides for me.
Relationship. My wife values quality time. She needs and expects periods of time in our day where I am not focused on anything but spending time with her. This can be difficult for me because it feels unproductive at times. But it becomes easier when I remind myself that investing time into a relationship is one essential key to a healthy and stable marriage.
Meditation/Devotion. When I meditate, I focus on my spirituality and my belief in a God who cares about his creation. It is easy to be pulled away from this discipline by the demands of the day. But only those who set aside the time to intentionally pursue a Higher Power, appreciate what is discovered.
Solitude. Different than meditation, I use solitude to focus inward—to discern my motivations and the voices I allow to direct my life. Not only does the spirit of solitude go against my natural inclination to achieve, the pursuit inward is difficult for every human being. But I remind myself: it is in times of solitude and quiet that I am directed toward the pursuits and achievements that matter most.
Rest. Rest is an exercise in contentment. It is the ability to look back at the work I have accomplished over a period of time and slow down in appreciation of it. It requires one to be content with their lot in life and, for a moment, not strive for more. But instead to rest, satisfied. And again, it turns out rest is one of the most productive things we can ever do.
Play. Playing with my kids, literally getting on the floor with them, is important for their well-being and my desire to communicate love and stability in my family. This is productive. But so is play with other adults. Whether it be a game of Settlers of Catan at our kitchen table or a round of tennis with my opponent down the street, play holds enormous benefit for our lives. And adults who don’t recognize the productive nature of it, miss it altogether.
Investing into Others. This past weekend, I asked my son to help with some yard work. We don’t have a large area around our home and, to be honest, I probably could have finished it in less time if I hadn’t asked him to help. But appreciation for hard work is something I want to instill into his life—and getting dirty on Saturday was a good way to do it. Whether at home, at work, or at church, investing into others doesn’t always feel like the most productive use of our time. But in the long run, everybody benefits.
Our natural inclination is to fill our hours with activities we deem to be highly-productive. But this is almost never the healthiest path for us, our families, or our community. So we must push against this habit constantly reminding ourselves…
Lasting productivity requires periods of nonproductivity—or, better yet, a new definition of what true productivity actually looks like.