The Spirit of Productivity: Channeling Inspiration Into Doing What Matters Most
Two years before signing up for my first cohort, I found myself eating a meal off a paper plate, sitting on a cold, wet, cement floor in the basement of a hardware store in Brooklyn. The only utensil I had in hand—the only utensil I was allowed to use—was a spoon. The other new initiates and I were considered children, and it wasn’t safe to use knives and forks.
The food had been prepared by the members of my ile, my spiritual “house,” guided by my padrino or godfather in the Lucumi religion, a highly secretive Afro-Caribbean spirituality known to outsiders as santeria. I had just been initiated into the religion and we were being waited on hand and foot. After spending two years learning how to exist within its decorums and guidelines, picking up as much Spanish as I could along the way, I was nearly considered a part of the faith. Throughout my tenure as an aleyo, someone on the periphery of the religion, I learned the ins and outs of assisting in rituals, participated in misas (spirit circles), and inhaled enough second hand cigar smoke to easily shave off a decade of my life.
Lucumi is a productivity religion. Rituals are highly involved affairs, sometimes requiring weeks of preparation, both in the kitchen and behind closed doors. Initiating, enacting, and completing projects is a constant, day-to-day activity. In Lucumi, things need to get done and they need to get done right. My initiation was no different.
Little old ladies with their sons, daughters, and grandchildren cooked the food. Other initiates went from botanica to botanica to acquire all the necessary tools needed for divining paths, making offerings, and casting out bad spirits. My padrino and the oba, an older man who oversaw the initiation, each took turns performing seven hours of rituals for myself and my comrades in white. As far as I could tell, no one had ever read, nor heard of, David Allen’s Getting Things Done. And yet, they most certainly got everything done, and then some.
My initiation was the culmination of twenty five years of spiritual exploration. Sparing you the details, since the age of sixteen I have been involved in spiritual systems and communities spanning the spectrum of light and dark. So, when I first came across GTD and productivity in general, I interpreted this new world not through the lens of “scaling my business,” but through the practices and philosophy of self-awareness, ritual, and spirit work.
The Spirit and Productivity
If spirit and productivity seem like an unlikely pairing, consider how we describe work we're fully invested in. We "flow" with it, we “move” with it, we “get in the zone,” we “space out.” Consider the many ways the fields of self-help, self-empowerment, and self-actualization intersect with and inform productivity and life management. Consider the fact that productivity consultant, David Allen, whose books are often peppered with spiritual wisdom, and who has long been a minister in the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness, an organization offering guidance in “soul transcendence.” Spirit and productivity are far from incongruent. In fact, they fit together seamlessly.
In the West, the word “spirit” connotes breath, breathing, and vitality. From the Latin spiritus, “spirit” is the etymological basis of the word “inspiration,” and nowhere is the productivity world’s familiarity with spirit more pronounced than in its appreciation of this concept. Coming from the Latin inspirare, meaning to have been “breathed upon,” “breathed into,” or “inflamed,” to be inspired is to be “in-spirited by a divine force,” an idea in the English-speaking West that dates back to at least the late 13th century.
Whether it’s defined today as an occurrence felt at the meeting of two seemingly conflicting ideas or as a surge of dopamine, inspiration is a powerful experience that can take creatives and coders alike to places inspiring and unfamiliar. Inspiration guides much of what we productivity hackers get into even if it makes us feel a bit crazy from time to time.
My therapist is fond of saying that falling in love is a mild form of psychosis. Good habits dissolve, our better judgment is nowhere to be found, and acting solely on impulse becomes a guiding principle. Outside the context of love, these behaviors would be cause for alarm. But, when two or more people find themselves gazing longingly into one another’s eyes, they become par for the course. Forgetting your own name gets a pass, when the blood is flowing to all the right places.
Inspiration has a similar effect. Outside of creative work, the behaviors that come with inspiration seem questionable. Lack of sleep, bouts of mild mania, excitability, forgetting to eat. Whether you're in a basement making offerings to the dead or staying up late feverishly working on costume designs for your upcoming show, the inspired state is by any definition an altered, extra-ordinary state.
How to Work With Inspiration
For years, people have been devising systems that can help guide spirit. One could say that any productivity system is, at its root, is a system meant to mediate and facilitate movements of the spirit. Having a semi-automated to-do list to guide my days, for example, helps direct my oft-quickened spirit toward tasks that need to get done. A handful of simple, flexible, behind the scenes productivity systems can behave like a check against an otherwise unruly surge of inspiration. These systems help route the powerful force driving me into designing and executing necessary projects and the many tasks required to see them realized.
The fact is, the "quickened" spirit needs to be directed into suitable behaviors, as it's pure expression is almost always at odds with what in-the-world situations call for. A quickened spirit can have us rambling at a dinner table. A dampened spirit can have us not saying enough. The spirit needs to be discerned, felt, and filtered if we're to keep ourselves in good standing in society.
One of the ways creatives engage with spirit is through the practice of “capturing.” Capturing is a concept repeated in many productivity circles, coming to prominence in David Allen’s classic book on productivity, Getting Things Done. Based on the idea that the human brain is far better at processing information than it is at storing and recalling it, GTD posits that having to recall and remember data, to-do lists, and phone numbers causes stress. Through the employment of reliable capture systems, our minds become free to process and interpret the world. By having dependable systems in place to capture what we need to remember, we function more efficiently and with greater peace of mind. And, for creatives, it’s the surges of inspiration that are so often in need of capturing.
Spirit has always been recognized as squirrely, hard to pin down, interpret, and hold onto. Consequently, having a system in place to capture this slippery subject is not only not new, but is an ancient practice. One need look no further than the Bible to find capturers of spirit communication. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he details the many gifts that the Holy Spirit can impart on the faithful. These include the gift of knowledge, wisdom, healing abilities, speaking in tongues, and, pertinent to our discussion, the ability to interpret those tongues. To Paul, capturing and interpreting what the Holy Spirit was saying was not only necessary, but a gift sent down by God. To capture, in a biblical sense, is a holy act.
For many people, capture comes easy. Curious minds love a good article, a new life-hacking tip, an inspiring quote. But, over time capture can lead to hoarding. “Capture bloat” is the experience of having taken in more than is getting released into the world. Spirit is movement and needs to move. Even at rest, the spirit has a sort of underlying kinetic potential about it. If spirit doesn’t get expressed, it can translate into agitation, anxiety, lethargy, despondency, or any number of unpleasant emotional experiences. And, it’s through release in the form of expression that we ease the pain.
I often think of the capture/express relationship in terms of on and off ramps. Our "on ramp" is made up of the tools we use to capture. Our "off ramp" is the practices we employ that get the information out. These might be blog posts, videos, articles, a rock opera. Whatever is your vehicle of expression can work. Anything you do to get your insights about what came in via the on ramp out via the off ramp will help to reduce cognitive burden, not only in your primary brain, but in your second brain, as well.
Putting Spirit to Work
Whether we call what we do “tasks,” “next actions,” “chores,” or “to-dos;” whether we're working at our job, making lunch, sitting around with friends at a coffee shop, sitting on a cushion meditating, or sitting on a couch vegetating; our daily life consists of activities. And, the quality of our spirit informs each one.
A quickened spirit loves to work. To put your spirit to work is to leverage your spirit. But, it can only do its best work when it has healthy, intentional parameters to work within. Productivity, PKM, and the many systems and methodologies that come with each are perfectly suited to help facilitate the smooth flow of spirit into inspiration. It’s what we do with both that makes all the difference.