Skip to content
foxwizard ☾

💌 A Wizard’s Guide to “Being Productive”

Here’s how you might cultivate meaningful progress in work & life ✦

On this page...

Once or thrice every year or so, the dangerlam go through a bout of utter disgust at how lax we have become with regard to progressing our most important projects. We find ourselves looking at our weeks and days, wondering: where did the time go? And why do we have so little to show for it?

I’m sure you feel this sometimes, too. It’s not that you are loafing—you’re working on things. Busily, I’m sure. But, despite all that time and effort—why do you feel so unfulfilled?

This post will help you be more productive

That’s the bait, anyway. The real message is an attempt to help you be more intentional and effective in whatever roles you play, so that you might cultivate significant meaningful progress and fulfilment in the chapters of your life.

Productivity without progress—aka the delusion of progress (or “naïve progress”)—is the default state the distraction economy has groomed us to persist within. Meaningful progress* is the antidote. Yet meaningful progress can look and feel terribly unproductive to the untrained eye. I hope to help you remedy this, lest ye fall sway to the delusion.

* Meaningful progress is that which brings us closer to relevance-realisation and emerging coherence.°
° To be coherent means that your way of being, doing and relating ‘makes sense’ given the context you are in. Emerging coherence is thus much like surfing a wave. You position yourself (within a complex adaptive system) amidst and in anticipation of change—in a manner that allows you to be in flow with the change (and not smashed by it). I’m not sure how well this metaphor holds.

Most productivity books (and personal development and leadership books) treat you and the world as some kind of machine. That is, a complicated (not complex) closed system that can be “fixed” and “optimised” for performance. Thus, we see “formulas”, “rules” and “hacks” for productivity. These often “goal-driven” approaches are fine for formulaic work within stable and predictable/routine contexts (like working in a factory or training for the olympics). Yet, our most important and ambitious projects are rarely simple or straightforward (else we’d have already done them). They’re complex.

But! Some productivity books do manage to take a more wholesome approach. Here’s one such book.

“Slow Productivity”

Cal Newport—the author of Deep Work, Digital Minimalism, A World Without Email and other productivity books—has just written a new book: Slow Productivity—the lost art of accomplishment without burnout. And… I’m a somewhat of a fan.

Now, before we get carried away, it’s worth remembering that Cal Newport is a tenured professor. There are certain privileges he has in life (like: job security and a guaranteed income) that shape the perspective he brings.

But, as a knowledge worker myself—and as a wizard with many well-paying clients—I must admit: I quite like Cal’s writing and advice. It resonates with the sensibilities I’ve also developed and accrued.

Cal’s notion of “slow productivity” follows three principles:

  • Do fewer things
  • Work at a natural pace
  • Obsess over quality

(Between you and me: these principles largely speak for themselves—but you can read the Slow Productivity itself if you need examples and/or convincing.)

Slow productivity aside, I thought it might be novel is to share how I approach the notion of productivity and meaningful progress in the rhythms of my work. I share this with you not as The One True Way, but rather as but an example you might draw some inspiration from.

Qual(ity); not quant(ity)

So. If meaningful progress is what ye seek, then you must cultivate a heavy bias towards qualitative sense-making. That is: assessing the quality of progress via active reflection, introspection and real-time sense-making. In parallel, you must also foster a healthy scepticism toward anything quantitative.

Most of us have it the other way around. We [accurately] view the immeasurable stuff as nebulous (as though this is a bad thing), whilst venerating and reifying that which can be expressed in metric form.* These metrics—numeric glyphs—are how Moloch° leads us astray.

* See my note at the start of my piece on Intellectually Honest (like a fox).
° Moloch, the god of perverse incentives, child sacrifice and coordination failure.

We sacrifice much of our lives in order to change certain glyph-numbers; be it to “loose weight” (make lb/kg glyph-number go down), build a social media profile (make follower glyph-number go up), increase “net worth” (make dollar glyph-number go up), achieve net-zero emissions (make global CO2 glyph-number go down), write a book (word count glyph-number go up) etcetera.

But, if we are not careful, Moloch will twist this.

Losing weight will see us unhealthily obsess over weight as a metric of self-worth; sacrificing nutrition, wellbeing, and muscle mass in the pursuit of it. Building a social media profile will see us fall prey to audience-capture, becoming a grotesque parody of ourselves. Increasing our net worth will see us obsess about it to the point where we care more about property and portfolio then we do about the very people in our lives. Achieving net-zero emissions leads to the carbon tunnel-vision that sees us invest in high-tech/low-nature cloud-seeding and direct carbon-capture technologies whilst forests and ecosystems collapse. And writing a book based on word count might just see us produce a whole heap of fluff and padding.*

* I do not struggle with this, btw.

There’s almost always a perversion with metrics; a twist.

Hence why we treat metrics with a healthy suspicion.

Sigil-glyph magic

Words have their own magic too, of course. Words are made of glyphs; each letter combines to spell a word. And, like a spell; each word conjures an effect. Words thus convey meaning (albeit in a limited way, prone to misinterpretation) and shape the way we perceive. This perception then shapes the way we orient, act and behave—which, in turn, shapes reality. Abracadabra; “I create like the word”.

But numbers and metrics masquerade as something far more real than they are. They are, to many, not merely vague approximate/arbitrary symbolic representation—but Actual Fact.™️ Something reified. Something to sacrifice our [inner] child to. Something to make into perverse incentive. Something to ensure coordination failure.

The numbers don’t lie, we say.
And yet: they oft deceive.*

* In the opening of my postIntellectually Honest (like a fox) I unpack the questions we must ask of any statistic we are presented with. There are similar questions we must ask of all numbers, too. Specifically: what factors are intentionally left out-of-scope when any number is presented? The externalities—what of them?

Thus, the trick is to keep metrics in the periphery. To remain light and soft-focus in how we relate to them. Do not stare directly unto the number-glyphs, lest Moloch lure you astray.

Because, sure; you may not have lost weight—but do you feel better about the changes in your diet and activity? The results will come (and you may have gained lean muscle mass anyway). And sure; you might have sat in front of a blank page for hours, only writing three sentences—but perhaps you have much greater clarity in where you wish to take your writing. Perhaps this was but a necessary ebb to your flow. You'll note: numbers are still there as a reference point—but they are secondary to our qualitative reflection and introspection.

“What gets measured gets done,” Peter Drucker once famously said. But the terrible thing is that this often translates to the only things getting done being the things easily measured. And much of the richness, meaning, and fulfilment in life come from the things that can’t be measured easily.

Thus, if meaningful progress is what we about, we instead ask ourselves: does this make sense? Are you making progress? Does this feel apt and congruent to your emerging context? Are you learning, growing, and developing in this?

Okay fine.

My Mythic Modes

Winter has come (for those of us in the southern hem), and with each season comes a different chapter. For me, winter is a time of hunkering down. It is a time of slow productivity; a time when I come to embrace the sensibilities of the hermit-wizard. But, from years of journaling, I know: I cannot go full wizard-hermit. That’s a recipe for their respective inversions. The thematic dispositions need to have something of a mix to them.

Half a decade ago I read a post from William Van Hecke on what he calls “The Discipline”. It involved various foci mixed across a 10-day period. After trying this out, I found that the pattern of seven days held too strong—it remains much easier to work around the notion of weeks than it does 10-day periods. Yet, the sensibilities of keeping one’s disposition fluid remained apt.

So, here’s what I do.

First, I come up with five “mythic modes” in which I operate. Each mode loosely references a particular archetype, and each mode preferences one of the five colours of mana from the gathering of magic.*

* aka Magic: The Gathering.

Important: if you are unfamiliar with the colours of mana, I highly recommend you read How the ‘Magic: The Gathering’ Color Wheel Explains Humanity by Duncan Sabien. Yes, this is a system that emerged from a fantasy collectable card game created by Richard Garfield, PhD and published by Wizard of the Coast. Yes, I know it sounds silly. But also: it remains an incredibly useful dispositional heuristic.

I relate to this not as a way to encourage fixed categorisation (such as “personalities”, “developmental levels” or “mindsets”). Rather, it is a non-hierarchical way of relating to fluid dispositions. It’s a toy framework,* made from a game. A game that offers its own bricolage of myth. Myth that yet still holds and speaks to deeper and more timeless ‘truths’.

Thus, with the colours of magic in mind, we have what Duncan calls “an intuition pump and a correlative, predictive archetype set” [...] “In the end, it’s all shorthand, and clear-opinions-lightly-held. Learning the color system doesn’t really give me new information—it’s just an intuition pump, an extra library imported to my script. But like a good library, it gets me places a lot faster, and enables a lot more quick function calls than doing the whole thing in straight code.”

From this point on I will assume you have a basic understanding of the five colours of magic. Philosopher Benjamin Carpenter’s Many Worlds of Many Colours essay is another apt primer. In essence:

White – Order, discipline, peace, law, civilisation, righteousness.
Blue – Knowledge, intellect, curiosity, progress, manipulation, future.
Black – Power, ambition, pragmatism, sacrifice, selfishness, ruthlessness.
Red – Passion, freedom, chaos, emotion, impulsiveness, destruction.
Green – Nature, growth, life, instinct, balance, resilience.

* I recall this line from complexity practitioner and pioneer Dave Snowden in a conversation where he shared: “I did a program in IBM [...] a three month experiment. We proved astrology was more accurate than Myers-Briggs in predicting teen behavior. For some reason, they got upset with me. The point I made is if you get people to think about themselves [...] you might as well use astrology because then nobody will take it seriously, but they’ll use it properly. But either way that didn’t go down well.” I am fully aware that using ‘the colours of mana’ from Magic: The Gathering won’t go down well. Yet still, I share this with you anyway.

Here’s Duncan Sabien’s schema of the colours of magic (source)

Each mode embodies one of the five primary colours of mana—blue, black, red, green, or white. Each colour symbolically represents a cluster of philosophies, values, and traits that serve as a constellation to guide our behaviour and focus.

I go further and add a secondary colour because, well, it satisfies me to do so. As you refine your understanding of magic and mana—at least, in the established system I’ve co-opted, you may wish to add a secondary colour, too.

These modes serve as an orientating stance for each day. And I do my best to ensure that within every fortnight I have occupied each mode for at least a day.


🧙🏻‍♂️ WIZARD MODE

BLUE-blue mana ✦ developmental focus ✦ swords + wands
—contemplation, research, writing, experimenting, creating

These are the days I make my research, writing and creating the core focus. This means: scheduling no meetings, eliminating distraction, and doing what I can to preserve uninterrupted blocks of time for deep work and flow. Ideally, I run with multiple wizard-mode days in a row, going full hermit.

You’ll note that this is BLUE-blue mana mode. It’s quite intensely cerebral—which is why this mode needs to be balanced out with other modes.


🎭 BARD MODE

RED-green mana ✦ performance/social focus ✦ wands + cups
—sharing, storytelling, meetings, events, enchantment

These are the days I am overly social or ‘client-facing’. They typically involve, travel, events, and conviviality. On these days, I don’t even attempt to do the slow productivity or deep work of wizard-mode; I must instead be alive to the present and whatever serendipities beckon.

This is RED-green mana mode. The red brings the spontaneity and emotive whim, whilst the green keeps grounded in relationality and presence.


🌿 GARDENER MODE

GREEN-white mana ✦ maintenance focus ✦ pentacles + swords
—admin, nurturing, nature, wholesomeness, home

If I were to just exist only in the hermit-intensity of wizard mode and the social exuberance of bard-mode, so many things would fall to neglect. Thus, gardener-mode days are the days I tend to things. Tenderly, ideally. But also with the ruthlessness of a gardener plucking out the weeds, too.

There’s a satisfaction that comes from these days—clean bed linens, washed and folded clothes, a freshly vacuumed home, quality time with Kim, Snörri and π. Long walks in the locale, and an abundant sense of home.

This is GREEN-white mana. Our orientation here is to tend to emergence and life (green) with some dedication and loose adherence to structure/order (white).

I sometimes more think of this as druid-mode—particularly if I’m in nature-deficit. This ought to result in me organising a hike, a meditation by the river, or some kind of intentional time away from screens and amidst wilderness. This is oft-served by my daemon in the following mode.


😈 DAEMON MODE

BLACK-green mana ✦ inspiration focus ✦ cups + wands
—well-filling, artist-dates, hedonism, beauty, whim

Like most adults, I tend to live within a narrative that has me working valiantly in tireless service to others. Fulfilling all of my responsibilities and duties with dour capricornian earnestness, telling myself stories like “once I do these things and achieve these things then I can finally have time to do what I really want”.

These are the days when I listen to my daemon. Our daemon could be thought of as the inner-voice we have that guides us. Inspiration is the key focus of the day.

Thus, I do things like “listen to my body”, and orientate towards satisfaction and delight. I also sometimes heed the voice of my friend Mark—whom I did The Artist’s Way with a few years back. Mark advises that “one must not merely waste time—one must squander it”.

My daemon enjoys this notion. This is BLACK-green mana. The black brings self-serving pragmatism whilst the green has this, again, attuned to deeper relationality. I suspect my daemon has a touch of the fae about them.


🦊 ZENKO MODE

WHITE-any mana ✦ goodness focus ✦ all suits
—wild-card

All schemas need the pattern-disrupt—lest they stagnate into obsolescence. This schema is no different—hence why I have integrated the trickster spirit as a modus.* You may find it odd that this is my white-mana mode; it’s not actually a mana colour I have typically resonated with in the past—as it tends to correlate to civilisation, humanity, discipline, rules, law, and order. Such things are rather irksome to this sultai wizard.

* This is not to say that “I am the archetype of trickster”—I’ve learned that such antics also invite trickster to mess your own world up, too. Instead, I seek to respectfully honour that which needs to be disrupted—even if it is the restlessness of disruption itself.

But if we elevate, deepen and broaden our sense of what “order” means into something more patterned and cosmic, then, well, white mana becomes much more palatable.

As so this is a wild-card mode. Not ‘random’ or ‘chaotic’—and probably technically not ‘wild’—but something to which I try to invite a zenko kitsune-like perspective in my response to pattern. Whereas daemon-mode is relatively self-indulgent, zenko-mode has me orient towards “goodness” (whatever that might come to mean). The ‘wildness’ relates more to being able to drop whatever other mode I have in order to attend to family, friends, neighbours or whomever or whatever calls to me.


Thus, a typical fortnight

... might look something like this.

🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🌿😈🎭🎭🌿🦊🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🎭🌿😈
↑ Here we have a mix of deep work, followed by some maintenance and then indulgence, then a patch of social, followed by a bit more maintenance. I then see fit to use the wild card zenko-mode to “do the good thing” before a bit more deep work, and then some sort of sharing followed by an artist date. Or: something like that.

The point with this is really to ensure meaningful progress across the domains that matter. My friend Matt Church has a great saying about “work-life balance”, in that it is achieved over time (not in time).

These mixes vary based upon the times. In midwinter I tend to be in wizard mode a heap more (as I am writing my next book for you). But even then, the “rule” I strive for is to ensure that I channel every colour of mana at least once per fortnight. Thus, the most hard-core wizard-hermit writing mode fortnight might look like this:
🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🌿🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️😈🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🦊🧙🏻‍♂️🧙🏻‍♂️🎭

You’ll see that there are ebbs that serve to renew the flow. There are other patterns, too. Give me too many bard-mode days—where I am traveling, performing and socialising—and I’ll need some sort of wizard, druid, or daemon mode day to rejuvenate.

“But what if I work full-time, have kids, and/or other commitments?”

Ha, I know—I am sounding a bit like a tenured professor here, hoho.

But remember: each mode is a dispositional stance. It’s an orientation towards the day. Or something like a flavour. It works regardless of what you have on your plate. It works because you make it work for you.

Your Mythic Modes

The list of “mythic modes” I just shared are very much a personal (and seasonal) thing. You’ll need to roll your own.

* I tend to be quite attuned with my own developmental (thanks to the ritual of becoming) and all of this remains a bit nebulous and mercurial. Yet: there’s pattern enough.

It could be as simple as looking at each of the five colours and asking yourself: what does this mean for you?

When you think of green mana and its associated concepts of nature, growth, life, instinct, balance, resilience... how might this influence the disposition of your day?

When you think of black mana and its associated concepts of power, ambition, pragmatism, sacrifice, selfishness, ruthlessness... how might this influence the disposition of your day? This one’s a spicy kind of mana—many would eschew it as part of some noble lie they tell themselves. But I would see to it that, in the span of a fortnight, there is at least one day you prioritise your own desires. All things in moderation, though. Especially moderation hoho thx Oscar Wilde.

A daily template

The final piece of this seasonal disposition toward meaningful progress is to create a “template” day. The trap is to think of this as ‘an ideal day’, when such things are so fleetingly rare. This could be my aversion to white mana coming forth here, but let me underscore: this is not to be some manufactured unrealistic ideal to hold your lived reality in contrast to. As I teach in The Ritual of Becomingbeware the notion of the ‘True Authentic Self’.*

* There’s a whole module on this.

So: beware the notion of “A True Ideal Day™️”. Unless, of course, you have imbibed the sensibilities of Perfect Days; then: do that.

Here’s my “template” day for winter. This serves as a more of a tempo to return to whenever I stray from the rhythm. I share this with you because I find it disturbingly fascinating to read the proclaimed days of others, so I figure: you might like this, too.

630am // coffee + meditation + journal
730am // a brisk local walk or light run
8am // shower + breakfast
9am // 4h deep work (research, writing)
1pm // lunch + potentially walk snörri
230pm // 2h light work (emails, meetings, admin)
430pm // gym or yoga + walk snörri + prep dinner
630pm // dinner + show
8pm // 1h dark work (social media)*
9pm // wind-down, nightly brood°
930pm // read
1030pm // sleep

* I say “dark work” given the multipolar trap social media has become. There’s a dance I resign myself to, but I am also trying to do what I can to reduce incidental screen time.
° As per Martin Shaw’s suggestion in Navigating the Mysteries.

I remember reading about Ursula K. Le Guin’s daily template in The Last Interview: And Other Conversations. She shared it thusly:

5:30am // wake up and lie there and think
6:15am // get up and eat breakfast (lots)
7:15am // get to work writing, writing, writing
noon // lunch
1pm // reading, music
3pm // correspondence, maybe house cleaning
5pm // make dinner and eat it
“After 8:00 p.m. – I tend to be very stupid and we won’t talk about this.”

Having any default template in place is like a canvas for you to paint upon. My wizard-mode (blue mana) days have as little light and dark work as possible—it’s all deep work. But my bard-mode (red-green mana) days might have many more meetings, more dark work (and scant deep work). My gardener-mode days might substitute some work blocks for home upkeep work or errands. And my daemon-mode days might see me inspired to bake a cake, or lovingly conjure something slow-cooked.

It’s all malleable. Making the template just allows you to better see the shape of your days.

Was this even helpful?

I’d love to know—yet these days I don’t seem to be rocking any comment section.

If you do happen to share your own mythic modes or rhythmic dispositions with regards to productivity and progress, please do ping me (I’m @drjasonfox on linkedin, twitter and instagram and @foxwizard on farcaster)—it’ll make my rationed hour of dark work a little brighter. 😅

// Where to now? //

Thanks for being here · I’m foxwizard (aka Dr Fox)

You can subscribe to my musings (or follow via RSS)

further musings

I have two newsletters for you–

1. the spellbook // wit, wisdom and wiles to help you be a more effective imposter within the mythical ‘future of leadership’.

2. the museletter // intimate longform epistles, wherein I share what’s on my mind, along with glimmers worth attending to.

Always one-click unsub. Loved by over 11,000 readers. Jump aboard–