When to Leave Productivity to the Machines

I planned to have a few days off in Dublin and everyone at the office asked me what I’d like to do. All I could say was "nothing”. 

I’m sure the Jameson Distillery tour is fun and the Dublin Castle is breathtaking but this trip was about more than crossing items off my to-do list. With this visit, it was about getting clear.

I needed to step outside of New York to ask myself some more pressing questions. Staying in one place is a tricky way of thinking you have it right. I know now and again that you need to explore. Inside and out.


Few know that more than author, chef, and TV personality Anthony Bourdain. In his book No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach, Bourdain captures exactly what travel can do for you: “Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.

Last time I visited Dublin, I returned to New York ready to work harder than before. The Irish can instill that in you, even after a short two-week stay.

Dublin left different marks on me this time around. Work took on a new angle when the Internet turned spotty.  The city and the people gave me a chance to slow down and stop hating myself for not getting everything done right away. Productivity is a never-ending challenge. Sometimes, you need to pull back and ask, "Where is the heart?"

Writer Quinn Norton was hit with this question in Puerto Rico. He ran away there to chase the American Productivity Dream and get some work done. Instead, he ended up taking four years to write an essay titled Against Productivity. Finding the time to do nothing but stare at his single-room ceiling, Norton reflected: "There was a time when you could write a few poems, die of TB, and call it a life well lived. When one learned to wait for hard thoughts, when we took time to doubt, to question, to be unknowing in the face of a large question, when we had no lights at night and no smartphones and only our imagination to keep us company in the dark."

Take away the productivity deadlines and hustling routines, and you’re left to question your priorities. You're ready to get clear because what’s productive is not always what’s important.

One afternoon I spent the better part of the day wondering if I could stay in a city like Dublin. I really like grey skies and the cool breeze there. I'm not even sure Irish people like it all that much. Two-dollar coins and big breakfast platters make total sense to me. Guinness is a national treasure for good reason and there are no plastic bags in the streets. It just feels simpler. I can breathe easier.

Back in New York, it’s easy to be stuck stepping on the gas.

Lately, I’ve felt like a machine, tasked by myself to accomplish things for the sake of crossing them off. Productivity is automatic. And although sometimes starting is the hardest part, the passion isn’t always there. Where is the movement? 

Midway through the week I made the decision to see The Imitation Game, the story of Alan Turing, the eccentric British mathematician presented with the challenge of cracking “impossible” Nazi codes during World War II. I’ve been fascinated with his life since hearing about it on the Radiolab short The Turing Problem. Turing didn't have the world decide his work. He liked puzzles and the Nazi coding machine, The Enigma, was the ultimate puzzle. But what makes Turing even more interesting was the way he tried to understand the larger world.

In the Radiolab episode, Janna Levin, author of A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, said of Turing, “He is the first to say, ’It’s not just that I want to build a machine that can think, it's that we are machines that think." Turing was the first to think machines could perform more than one function if given the right instructions. While we might take this machine logic for granted now, it was a radical idea when he began thinking it. It made Turing the grandfather of modern computers. But the idea also threatened what it philosophically meant to be human. 

You could take the idea one of two ways. You might hear “machine” in that small sentence and be offended. The idea of being a machine might take some of the “magic” out of being a human being considering we all don’t understand what it means to begin with. Or you might hear the word “think,” which makes a world of difference. A machine might have a mind of sorts, but we think, with our minds and with our hearts - something a machine can’t do. The only way we can connect with anyone is to be near them, to talk to them, to touch them, and even then we could be misheard, misunderstood, or just plain ignored.

What rattles my brain about Turing’s ideas is that we can so easily forget to be human. Each of us is running our own personal set of instructions. We can be rather simple or incredibly complex. There is a distinction when we remember that no one is perfect and no one is right. Quinn Norton wrote it this way: “Productivity is a quality of perfect robots. Stories, adventures and all new things still have to come from messy humans."

Visiting Dublin might not have been productive for me and I think that's okay. It was important. It wasn't about sprinting to some arbitrary goal. I was able to make a connection with more people in the office, getting coffee or sharing in their local meetings. I was able to get clear on the parts of my job I want to make better. I was able to see it all from another angle.

It might be easy to schedule our days to be more like the machines we admire, but we shouldn't forget to take the time and remember we're human. Life is too short to become a soulless to-do list. Get out there and get messy.