Mother Teresa's Productivity Hack

Photo: Catholic Relief Services

Todoist. Toggl. ClickUp. Trello. Asana. Basecamp. Evernote. Notion.

The global productivity management software market value hit $46.2 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $102.98 billion by 2027.

We care a lot ($$$$) about being productive!

So much so that we’re willing to invest serious cash into products that’ll help take away the emotional itchiness of not getting all the things done in a single day

For me, the most intense self-loathing sets in around 5 pm. I never end the day feeling like I accomplished everything I wanted. I close my computer and greet my kid all grumpy and irritated, even though I just spent the last eight hours working with only a few modest breaks.

I see other copywriters and entrepreneurs struggling on Instagram. No one can seem to find their off button. The more experienced ones are winning the war but still show up every day to fight the battle. 

The cracks in my own relationship with productivity split all the way open a couple of weeks ago. I tried implementing the Pomodoro Technique. To use it, you break down your day into 25-minute blocks of time called Pomodoros. During a block, you focus on one task followed by a five-minute break. At the start of the day, you identify how many total Pomodoros you have available, map your work to that number of Pomodoros, set the timer, and go. This structure helps you set realistic goals and avoid overcommitting. In theory.


There was just one problem. 

The Pomodoro technique robbed me of my humanity. (Maybe that should have been the title of this blog ...)

I don’t want the finite number of days I have breathing on this earth measured in 25-minute Pomodoros. My life, my purpose, is bigger than a self-imposed obsession with wringing extra calories from my brain.

Just what exactly am I trying to do more of, and more importantly, why?

A couple of weeks ago, I took these existential questions to the best place I know: prayer.

I told God I was tired of the restlessness. Tired of not getting it all enough done. Tired of chasing a feeling of accomplishment that seems to be just out of reach for every entrepreneur and otherwise motivated person.

Am I that bad with my time to justify feeling like this?

No, I’m not.

And chances are, neither are you.

I asked God what I needed to do so I could feel more productive. 

I was expecting to hear some new idea about how to structure my day or alternative activities I should try. 

Instead, I heard one word.

Pray.

That’s odd. To neutralize the restlessness and feel more productive, God wants me to log off my computer, take out my earbuds, and sit still?

Then I remembered a quote from Mother Teresa. Someone asked her how she got so much done in a day when she spent much of her time praying. 

(Paraphrasing) She said, “I wouldn’t be able to do anything if I didn’t pray.”

Mother Teresa founded a religious congregation, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and gave “wholehearted service to the poorest of the poor.” She was busy, and she could’ve given in to her own desires to do more.

Instead, Mother Teresa structured her day like this

4:30-5am Rise and get cleaned up

5:00-6:30am Prayers and Mass

6:30-8am Breakfast and clean-up

8:00-12:30pm Work for the poor

12:30-2:30pm Lunch and rest period

2:30-3pm spiritual reading and meditation

3:00-3:15pm Tea break

3:15-4:30pm Adoration

4:30-7:30pm Work for the poor

7:30-9:00pm Dinner and clean-up

9:00-9:45pm Night prayers

9:45pm Bedtime

https://aleteia.org/2019/10/06/the-excuse-for-not-praying-that-mother-teresa-couldnt-fathom/


Add it all up, and that’s FOUR HOURS of prayer. Sitting in silence. Not serving the poor. Not tending to her congregation. Not brainstorming new ideas for projects.

Yet Mother Teresa is arguably one of the most industrious humans to ever live.

At the risk of sounding woo-woo, I think there’s a hidden cause driving our restlessness, one that no new feature on a productivity app will ever fix. 

The biggest mistake we make is assuming higher productivity will lead to greater fulfillment.


In reality, what’s productive isn’t always fulfilling, and what’s fulfilling isn’t always productive. 

Productivity can be addictive. Take the invention of computers. You’d think we’d all be working less since we can work faster from anywhere. Has our society slowed down one bit? Nope. We’ve taken the extra gains from computers and used them to work late into the evenings. We’re still fighting to optimize, optimize, optimize. This is well and good to a point. Until it becomes unhealthy and we’re miserable and not sure why.

Fulfillment by definition is exactly the opposite. It’s a feeling of satisfaction. Of enough-ness. 

So what is it about prayer that Mother Teresa gave credit to for getting her work done, even though it took her away from actually working?

To way oversimplify, prayer is a relationship. It’s time spent without an agenda or a motive. It’s making time for someone else, in this case, God. It’s a sacrifice of our own will. For highly motivated people like us, slowing down can be tough.

Sure, being productive can lead to healthy results. More time with family and friends, better quality work, maybe exploring some new hobbies. But taken to the extreme, productivity becomes an inwardly focused endeavor that stops benefiting others and becomes food for our ego monster. We start to idolize productivity. For me, that’s what the Pomodoro Technique led me to do. It made me so preoccupied with time that I felt like I was idolizing the minutes on the clock. For highly motivated people, it’s a line that’s nearly impossible not to cross.

Every day I wish I could do more. That’s a crappy way to live. The only thing that helps unravel the knots in my belly is remembering that my business is not about me. Weird, right? It’s about the people I serve. It’s. not. about. me. This subtle shift to a service-first perspective lifts the expectation of superhuman productivity I’ve placed on my own shoulders.

“My business exists to do God’s will.”

“Is my productivity God-centered?” 

“Growth can happen in more than one way.”

“Tap into joyful creative energy.”

“Hard work is noble. Until it’s not.”

I have these notes written on post-its taped to my monitor where I can look at them throughout the day.

Even if religion isn’t your north star, spend some time acknowledging how productive you already are, and ask yourself what’s driving your desire to do more, and if it’s healthy or ego-driven. If it’s the latter, you may have a hard time finding the pot of satisfaction at the end of the productivity rainbow.

Lasting fulfillment comes from self-sacrifice and connection to other people. Not increasing our productivity by 2%. Take Mother Teresa. To do better work, she had to slow down. 

The next time we wonder what we can do to feel more productive, let's try asking what we can do to feel more fulfilled. Those two paths may diverge.

(I love productivity tools. My goal here is to explore possible reasons for the persistent restlessness that plagues already productive people.)