The Existential Tension Between Presence and Productivity

In recent weeks, the topic of tension has been repeatedly showing up in my life; specifically, the idea of intentionally creating tension. Life is already filled with some much chaos and uncertainty, so why would we want to add more into the mix?

The idea is that modern life has become cushy, with easy access to people, transportation, food, and other conveniences. Whereas our ancestors may have foraged for dinner and sewn their own clothing, we complain when there’s no wi-fi or the avocado toast is too expensive. First-world problems, right?

How might your life change if you choose the struggle?

What would happen if you used public transit, rather than your personal vehicle? What would change if you cooked at home instead of going out? How would your life be different if you volunteered to talk to that one notoriously difficult client?

There seems to be this endless existential tension between presence and productivity. One camp is begging us all to put down our phones and savor the moment, whereas the other is demanding hard work and constant achievement.

Lately, I’ve been questioning whether the two seemingly disparate ideas are inherently mutually-exclusive. Is it possible to practice mindfulness while also remaining productive? I am personally coming to believe that the answer is an enthusiastic yes.

Mindlessness is often the manifestation of fear, anxiety, worry, and depression. Perhaps, if we were to preemptively mitigate the root cause of these negative emotions, we might equip ourselves to walk mindfully down the ever-winding path in the direction of our latest objective, achieving both inner peace and external validation.

If you think, then you will be prepared. If you are prepared, then you will have no worries. — Li Ka Shing

What if we were to approach mindfulness with the same approach as a business strategist, scoping out all future threats and opportunities before they arrive? Today, we can think about the difficult things–such as the cafe with overpriced avocado toast and no wi-fi–before we face them head-on.

However, in doing so, I’m sure we will quickly realize that most of our everyday worries are petty. Does it really matter that there’s a little too much cream in your coffee? Five years from now, will you still be upset with that gossipy colleague who is talking about you behind your back? Our cushy and comfortable modern lifestyle offers us the luxury to worry about frivolous, minute, and imagined problems.

When we take the time to truly think about the challenges we may one day face, they often include topics like death, abandonment, failure, and loss. What will I do when my mother dies? What will happen if my lover leaves me for someone younger? What if I lose my job and struggle to find a new one?

If you’re completely honest with yourself, you’re not going to be drafting up your holiday wish list or worrying about rush hours traffic. Instead, you’ll pan out and then select those items which are most important to you.

I think that the tension that lies between presence and productivity could very well be the breeding ground for resilience. By teasing that line between acceptance and ambition, we may come to recognize both our strengths and our shortcomings. I suppose it’s a bit of a balancing act, this resilience thing. It requires embracing the struggle, moving through fear, and then learning from mistakes. For some, it may also teach self-kindness, empathy, and forgiveness.

So, again I ask: How might your life change if you choose the struggle? What would happen if you were to courageously dance in that space between “good enough” and “I want more”?

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern. –Annie Dillard

If the sum of our days leads to the final draft of our memoir, don’t we all want to display some form of progress across time? Whether striving for spiritual enlightenment, an executive management position, or to see your published novel displayed at your favorite bookstore, any goal requires a consistent effort in a particular direction.

As I consider my own path, the instances of tension and discomfort have led to my greatest opportunity for practicing resilience, and the subsequent growth. The first time I was instructed to negotiated down a six-figure quote showed my the dichotomy of my nature: I am both timid and assertive. When I was assigned an “impossible” project and then successfully crossed the finish line, I developed an unshakable confidence: if I can do that, I can do anything.

I don’t believe that we must choose between inner peace and productivity. In fact, I think the the two approaches to living have a symbiotic relationship. Cultivating mindfulness allows us to determine priorities, set objectives that add value to our lives, and discern when to plow forward and when to rest. Likewise, a focus on output may help us to integrate a regular mindfulness practice into our schedule and then recalibrate when we fail to meet our set spiritual objective.

Seeing my own personal growth under pressure, it’s my intention going forward to find small ways to intentionally create some tension. Whether it manifests as sparking a conversation with a stranger, applying for a job I’m under-qualified for, or choosing to write at the cafe with no wi-fi, I feel certain that embracing those small (yet scary) instances of uncertainty and discomfort will allow me to continue the transformation from who I am now to who I could be at my best.

What are your thoughts of intentionally inviting tension and struggle into your life? Do you believe that presence and productivity are mutually-exclusive or that they feed off each other?

10 thoughts on “The Existential Tension Between Presence and Productivity

  1. No, they are not mutually exclusive. However, I have found that when I set goals rooted mostly in fear, like writing that novel for money or because I’m afraid of missing out on my chunk of fame, I have greater difficulty of staying present in the moment whilst writing. Whereas if I write something out of love for the story primarily I can get completely absorbed whilst being equally productive.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great insight, and I can completely relate. When I “try” to write something for the sake of daily posting or because I find a topic I think I *should* write about, it’s a very contrived exercise without any chance of achieving flow. However, tapping into heartfelt emotions–love or otherwise–allows a story or bit of wisdom to effortlessly unravel itself.


  2. Perhaps the complexity of the mind/thoughts/story is what creates tension. I am just looking at if practicing Simplicity and not allowing myself to be caught up in the minds endless stories will create space for both presence and productivity.


    1. Thank you for this! I think there is certainly truth there–things get complicate only when we attribute meaning to the root thoughts, emotions, and events. I agree that finding ways to step back and choose not to engage with the mind’s interpretation of things is one of the surest ways to achieve both presence and productivity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This was just what I needed to straighten my mind, to steer away from the fear and pain and the freeze it places on the sense of achievement – thank you!


  4. There needs be a LOVE button! This I plan to journal about….thank you!! “So, again I ask: How might your life change if you choose the struggle? What would happen if you were to courageously dance in that space between “good enough” and “I want more”?” I also love from your quote by Annie Dillard “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. ” This is SO TRUE and I consistently try to choose the struggle for this…to help improve the feeling and meaning and growth in my life because without it time passes by too swiftly without any real growth. Thank you for this informative, inspiring and though provoking post esoterica!


  5. What a great philosophical question! I think about that too. How to balance being present and mindful with just get ish done. I think of this tension as a pressure cooker. Sometimes you need a bit of pressure to tenderize and get something good!


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