The Illusion of Productivity


I had failed again. I had produced absolutely nothing. I had sharp business cards, a business license, a bond and insurance, a website, a post office box, phone number and all the tools. I just had no customers. Once I began the real work of trying to get customers, I realized that I didn’t even want to be a contractor.

My ideas on paper often take the form of a chiseled god, especially while I’m enjoying a mocha in a coffee shop. When it comes time to execute though, I start to realize what it’s going to take to succeed. Hard work, sales, years of honing a skill or craft, human interaction and money. I’ve wasted so much time on so many ideas that would have gotten dumped had I tested them first. This would have allowed real demand to pull the business into existence, instead of some untested hair-brained idea concocted over a caffeine induced high.

I live in Portland Oregon. Portland is often described as the city where young people go to retire. It’s true. We have around 200 locally owned coffee shops dusted everywhere. Each day, they serve up countless cups of outstanding coffee, as well as the illusion of productivity. I’m going to go work at the coffee shop, I’ve often said to my wife.  After I’ve consumed my pile of coffee, I’m almost worthless. I’ll check my email and come up with a few other menial tasks to soothe my lack of productiveness. At least I’m not spraying out a torrent of Facebook posts describing last night’s feline yoga class like everyone else in here, I say to myself.

We need to stop pretending that we’re being productive and start being honest with ourselves. We are flushing our time down the toilet. Business meeting at the coffee shop? Group flush. Committee meeting? Triple flusher.

Everyone wants a virtual job that can neatly live online and produce buckets of cash. The problem is that everyone else in the world wants the same thing, so competition is so high that it’s extremely hard to make any money. Ask any web designer, graphic artist or data entry person. If the work someone is doing online isn’t heavily connected to a real, tangible product or service, then it’s probably not much more than an illusion. There needs to be real value that can be explained to someone in one sentence. I fix cars. I repair appliances. I groom cats. I own a taxi service.
Movement is always more productive than careful planning, Chris said. Jason agreed. It was the morning of my first day buying and selling things on Craigslist. I was meeting with them to help figure out what I should do with my life. I was getting all hung up on the details, like usual. They shut me up and told me two things needed to happen. One was that I needed to go home and put in 8 hours trying to make money buying and selling on Craigslist. The second was that I had to make $100 cash that day and every day after it, no matter what. Nothing will evaporate planning sessions from a schedule like a quota set in stone! They had lit a fire under me to produce movement, and it was the best thing they could have done.

I went home a Craigslist ball of fire. I hit my quota every day that first week. It was amazing. I learned everything as I went along. The learning was not the hard part of the equation. When you waste time on a transaction, you quickly learn how to prevent that from happening again, because you value your time. When you lose money on something, you learn quickly because you don’t want to lose money. Learning as you go, as you work, is an incredibly effective form of education. The lessons have an extra weight of importance.

I don’t know where you’re at today, but I want to encourage you to get moving. Take a step today and don’t worry about where you might land. You might step in a pile of crap. That’s fine, you can wipe your shoe off. You might fall down, but you’ll get back up, and soon you will be running. Stop allowing the details and plans to paralyze you. You have an amazing ability to learn, adjust, adapt, cope and thrive in all sorts of crazy environments.

Movement is almost always more productive than careful planning. Once a tree has been planted, you can always bend and adjust its trajectory. Most people will spend the rest of their life talking about their seeds, without ever producing any trees. Remember, once you’re moving, you can always change directions.


  1. I see where your coming from. I believe it’s called paralysis by analysis. Yet there are times when you have to plan to avoid very costly mistakes and digging yourself into a hole. The key is finding a balance. Don’t throw all you seeds into one pot 😉

    • My biggest goal in this post was to encourage people to stop wasting their time and get moving. A child’s first step requires almost no planning, but as they get older and are mountain climbing, you bet there better be some planning. I’m totally for planning, but think that it should spring forth out of action instead of attempting to be the initiator of the action to begin with. I think our culture errors on the side of over-planning, over analysis and a deep fear of risk. I’m trying to encourage people to start taking risks and to get moving. At least someone that dumped all their seeds in one pot did something with their seeds! They will see some growth and fruit and over time will probably realize that it is wise to diversify a little. 🙂

      Your, right though, there needs to be balance.

  2. Ryan, your post hit the nail on the head. I can relate to what you’re saying. Doing things that help us pretend to be productive, in the end, just bog us down and waste time. I used to work in a corporation where you’d sit in a meeting with other folks and pretend that you’d get something done. After everyone left you’d wonder, “What was that all about? What did we accomplish?” Most times, the answer was “nothing.” That was the whole concept of working in “teams”. The idea was to share the work and motivate each other. The result was everyone expecting someone else to pick up the ball and run with it. It would take forever to get anything done. Working for oneself is the most motivating (and hopefully, gratifying) thing you can do. If you don’t do it, no one else will. That’s the nice thing about Craigslist. You can justify sitting in a coffee shop and looking at the listings. But that’s only good if you look at it as a job that requires action, whether picking up and listing an item or responding immediately to a prospective buyer. My father once told me that we all have dreams. But to be successful, a dream must become a goal and a goal requires a plan which requires ACTION.

  3. Thanks for that encouraging word.
    I finally jumped in after years of procrastination. I have always been good at fixing things and always wanted to work for myself. Now I have both and although its not easy, I don’t notice it being hard.
    3 weeks in and even though it is only part time, i feel its what I was meant to do. Won’t be long before I leave my day job to fulfill my dream job…

  4. Hey Ryan. Another great post. I hope your wife puts the hold on working at the coffee shop for a while now. lol. Yeah, testing is one hard hurdle to get over… especially as it takes commitment, money and energy. But well worth it.
    blessings buddy

  5. we set up a plan to help people at our church with followthrough like that(its based on a business model):
    1.Plan(the basics)
    2.Do(what you planned)
    3.Study(what you did, make necessary changes)
    4.Act(based on your study and experience)

    Good stuff, we got to be in motion.

  6. I haven’t been on your site in a few months and it’s great to catch up.

    This article is the story of my life and I battle it daily. Thanks for the reminder. It reminds me of our veggie garden. We’ve talked about it for a couple years and never got around to starting it. We finally got the plot set up with fresh compost and wood chips, then took a couple more weeks to get around to planting. Because of time constraints we didn’t really know what we were doing and haphazardly planted the seeds. Well, now everything is growing like wildfire and it’s like one big bush! It’s so much fun, though, and we’re getting amazing produce. The veggies are sweet and juicy and delicious and abundant. In fact, we’re loving it so much, we intend to start selling some and eventually start an organic farm!

    It pays to just get going and produce!


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