Over the last 10 years, I’ve dedicated myself to learning the science of productivity. I read over a 100 books and articles on how to lead and live a productive lifestyle, and tried and tested tens of productivity apps, tools, and systems to make my life more efficient. Looking back, it seems that all productivity resources I came across can be categorized in one of three ways:
- Hack Your Way to Productivity: These are tips, systems, and apps that make it “automatic” for you to be productive without giving it much thought. They are meant to hack the way your brain works and ‘trick’ you into doing things you’d normally not do if you didn’t have them.
- Manage Your Physical Well-Being: These are the tips that focus on improving your health – eating well, sleeping well, and getting enough exercise. The basic premise here is that if you take care of your body, you’d be in a better shape to be productive and deal with life stresses.
- Manage Your Environment: This school of thought focuses on how the space around us help us be productive. They look at noise, distractions, colours, furniture, and other factors that might affect our productivity and try to optimize our environment to boost our productivity.
All three categories have merit and are backed by years of research and scientific experiments. Yet the more I read and explored productivity research and all the latest tips, techniques, and apps that promise us to lead efficient and productive lives, I felt that there’s something missing in this discussion that’s fundamentally human but rarely do productivity experts engage in.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about – I’m talking about the soul. That neglected side of our lives that’s always present but we never seem to care about it as much. My contention in this article is that we’re not giving due attention to our soul when discussing the science of productivity.
The soul is the essence of the human being without which he/she loses their value. Think of a person who today is alive and kicking, has a character and personality, and people who love him/her and respect him/her. The moment that person dies, it’s as if it’s not him/her anymore. We rush to bury the person and only keep lingering memories of them in our photos and minds. We even refer to the dead person as “the deceased” and not even by their first name anymore.
Just like we know that our bodies need nourishment, sleep, and exercise, have we ever thought about the needs of our soul? And what would happen to our productivity if we understood the needs of the soul and started tending to them?
But first, let’s deal with the elephant in the room.
Why don’t we talk about the soul anymore?
I was inspired by the work done by Professor Malik Badri in his book “Contemplation” where he challenges the way modern psychology (and by extension, social sciences) have discounted the spiritual elements of the human being in the name of science. He argues that in the interest of emancipating Western societies from the grip of religion and in order to mould something as complex and variable as a human being into a scientific cast, modern human sciences tried to “dehumanize” the human by explaining human behaviour in one of three ways:
- Behaviourism: Human beings are mere machines that, when exposed to specific stimuli, would react with responses which the researchers could control and predict.
- Freudian Analysis: Human behaviour is fully determined by one’s unconscious sexual and aggressive impulses
- Biological determinism: Any human behaviour is fully governed by our inherited genes, nervous system, and inborn biochemistry.
Because of the above categorization, all human sciences – including productivity – has been drawn from the above sciences. For example, when we speak about “How to arrange our environment to make us more productive”, we are essentially subscribing to Behaviorism. When we talk about the foods and exercises we eat and their effect on the brain and our ability to focus, we’re drawing results from Biological determinism.
I am not saying that these sciences aren’t helpful in explaining some human behaviour, yet my contention is that these sciences are not the ONLY way to explain human behaviour since the human being is a complex creature that cannot be reduced to a chemical or physical data in a lab experiment. Moreover, modern science may have mastered how the body works, and how our brains function, but they don’t give a satisfying answer to how the soul works and what its needs are that if fulfilled – can help us lead meaningful and productive lives.
Understanding the needs of the soul
It is true, that it is hard to define the soul and it is hard to “touch it” or “feel it” or “smell it” or “taste it” or “see it” But just because it’s hard to define what the soul is – do we deny its entire existence and ignore such a hugely important element of our lives that we all intuitively feel exists?
In Islam, we are taught that the Soul is the matter of the Unseen and we would not really understand the soul:
“And they ask you, [O Muhammad], about the soul. Say, “The soul is of the affair of my Lord. And mankind has not been given of knowledge except a little.” [Quran: Chapter 17, Verse 85]
However, we are taught to recognize its needs and desires and to feed the needs of the soul regularly. Just like the body and brain needs food, water, and a distraction-free environment to get its best work done.. the soul has needs as well and if we don’t fulfil its needs we risk leading meaningless, purposeless lives.
So what are the needs of the soul and how can these needs boost our productivity?
Essentially, there are four main needs of the soul that we can draw from an Islamic perspective:
- A clear/well-defined purpose that gives meaning to everything we do: You’ve probably heard about the importance of finding meaning at work and how it makes us more productive. But even though finding meaning at a micro-level and our day-to-day work is powerful, we need to go a step further and find an all-encompassing meaning and purpose that integrates our entire lives together and not just meaning and purpose at work. What’s the point of only having meaning and purpose at work when our family lives or personal lives don’t have a clear meaning? The link to productivity is that meaning and purpose drive our intrinsic motivation. A study by Yale’s Amy Wrzesniewski and her team concluded that “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, maybe the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also – counterintuitive though it may seem – their financial success”. Our souls yearn for meaning, an all-encompassing meaning that covers all areas of our lives. In Islam, this all-encompassing purpose is worshipping Allah , not only in terms of rituals but in everything we do, we are supposed to be conscious of Allah from the moment of waking until we sleep. Allah says in the Quran: “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.” If we feed our soul with meaning and purpose, it’s amazing what it gives back in terms of motivation, sacrifice, and hard work for the meanings we truly believe in.
- A belief system that helps us interpret the world: Secularists and people who don’t believe in faith, will cringe at the notion of a belief system when discussing productivity. However, whether we like it or not, as human beings, we are deeply spiritual beings that have a continuous longing to be connected with an inner experience or our Creator. Religions or a belief system provides the necessary nourishment to the person’s soul and helps the person tap into their spiritual being more regularly. Moreover, a belief system provides the soul with a unique set of lens to help it deal with life events such as death or illness and improves relationships with people around him/her. On the contrary, not having a belief system makes one feel confused, lost, and not able to comprehend how to react when “bad things happen”. Another powerful positive reason for religions, in general, is that they provide a community and a personal identity for the person following the religion thus making the person feel more valued and grounded in values and principles that add to their positive mindset and thus their productivity. As a final Divine message for mankind, Islam provides that coherent and complete belief system that helps a person connect to Allah and understand the world around him/her from the perspective of the Quranic message and Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This by itself is a blessing that helps us lead productive lives if we truly internalize its meanings and outcomes.
- Spiritual/meditative rituals that are done on a daily basis: Rituals ensure that our soul gets a daily healthy dose of feeding just like our bodies get a healthy meal every few hours. That’s why in Islam, we’re required to pray 5 times a day, as a way to continuously feed our souls as well as remember Allah often throughout the day. It’s been proven that rituals and meditative practices have immense benefit to our productivity – even though at the outset, they seem like a “waste of time”. Studies have shown that meditators for example report having fewer headaches, chronic digestive disorders, chest pains, and other psychophysiological symptoms after engaging in their meditative practices. All of these positive symptoms, help boost our productivity. Moreover, for us as Muslims, these useful activities are religious duties, and even though we enjoy their positive psychological and physiological benefits in this world, their true benefit will be the pleasure of Allah in the Hereafter.
- Ethics and values that help us make better soul-driven decisions: With a large purpose, a belief system that helps you fulfil that purpose, rituals that remind you of your purpose consistently, you can live an ethical lifestyle with values and principles you believe in. Moreover, by being reminded of these ethics and values through the stories of the Prophet or great companions or scholars of the past, the soul is always reminded of living a higher, more disciplined life, and avoid the downward spiral of living a hedonistic “dog-eats-dog” life. In my book “The Productive Muslim: Where Faith Meets Productivity”, I argue that “The pursuit of productivity without a clear set of guidelines or ethical values can destroy the human being – either literally through physical illness and fatigue or mentally and emotionally through depression, stress and anxiety. Islam comes values and guidelines that are not imposed by an external force, but self-applied out of a person’s own will and submission to..Allah” Imagine if you don’t have an ethical system to lean on? how would you make decisions that make you feel comfortable that you did the “right things in life”?
I urge us all – as modern global Muslims – to start thinking about this topic more often, to have more discussions about it in our workplaces and schools, and come up with meaningful ways as individuals and organizations to boost our productivity by feeding our souls.
Lastly, next time, before you feed your brain with the latest hack, or feed your body with the next fortified energy bar, ask yourself: What does my soul need? How can I feed it to boost my productivity?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the above? Do you think we are doing enough to promote the needs of our soul in today’s society?