4 Principles of Productivity

Productivity is a tricky balance. On the one hand, if you treat yourself like a slave, flagellating yourself, locking yourself into a quiet room and not allowing yourself to have any fun, ever, then you’re going to get burnt out and things will slowly come apart.

On the other hand, if you are too lax on yourself, if you give yourself free time whenever you want it, if you don’t hold yourself accountable to schedules or commitments, well, then you wouldn’t get anything done, would you?

In the past several years, I’ve written four books, hundreds of blog articles and newsletters, managed a staff of full-time employees, done speaking tours on three different continents, and somehow managed to maintain relationships with friends and family.

I don’t say that to brag. It’s just that I’ve been self-employed for my entire adult life, and I’ve been forced to find that Goldilocks balance of productivity—not too much, not too little.

Below are four principles I’ve discovered in optimizing my work:

1. Productivity Is Personal

Some people have a strange fetish about the productivity of other people. It’s like productivity porn for them or something. They sit around in a circle jerk learning about what Jeff Bezos eats for breakfast on Thursdays or the exact time Elon Musk takes a shit or that Sheryl Sandberg uses a—GASP—paper notebook to manage her schedule.

Seriously, just stop.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new systems of efficiency. But at the end of the day, productivity is a very personal thing. What works for me—or Jeff Bezos, for that matter—probably won’t work for you. And even if it does, it will probably change one day.

I used to be a die-hard night owl. For years, I couldn’t even remember my own name before 10 AM. I did my best writing at 3 in the morning, blasting heavy metal into my skull through my earbuds.

Now my most productive days occur when I wake up between 6-7 AM and I bang out my best work before noon.

So which one of those is the “right” way to be productive?

Answer: shut your mouth when I’m talking to you.

The goal is to uncover your own personal psychology around what makes you more productive.

This begins with figuring out your values—what exactly you stand for. Values are a compass for your behavior and, therefore, the engine of your productivity.

Once you’re clear on what you value, you need to understand that motivation doesn’t fall like an apple from a tree. It’s a result of action. Doing a little of something motivates you to do more of that thing, which creates more motivation in a virtuous productivity loop.

If you’re struggling to get started, then ask yourself why. You don’t procrastinate on a task because you’re a lazy sack of shit, but because it challenges your identity. To overcome that procrastination, you must understand your own psychology.

Remember, productivity is personal. Your key to productivity is finding what you value and understanding how to take action, not devouring biographies of accomplished individuals and copying what works for them.

2. Focus on the Quality of Your Work, Not the Quantity

There’s this puritanical ideal of “more work is always better” that permeates the modern culture of work to an almost psychotic degree (especially in the United States).

We’ve come to believe that the person who works 16-hour days and neglects every other part of their life is somehow morally superior to the person who works 6-hour days, even if they get just as much or more work done.

You might read that and think, “Well, of course, the person who works for 6 hours is better off if they’re getting just as much done as the person who works for 16 hours!”

And yet, you still probably feel guilty if you leave work early or don’t answer that email on a weekend, even if you’re getting your jobs done just fine during your regular workday.

Studies have shown that just about everyone only has 3-4 hours of truly productive work in them per day. My recommendation, then, is that you should optimize your day around those 3-4 hours when you’re most creative and productive and be happy with whatever you get past that.

I’ve written before about the idea of “productivity curves” in which I basically conclude that after performing a certain amount of work, you’re better off not working. That’s because we all hit a point at which the more work we produce, the worse it is, which just creates even more work to fix your previous shitty work.

It took me 18 months to write The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck. Over that time period, I wrote somewhere in the vicinity of 150,000 words for the book (about 600 pages). Most of that came in the final three months. In fact, I can confidently say I got far more done in the final three months than I did in the first 15 combined.

Is that because I was on a deadline and worked like an insane person? No, in fact, those last three months, I worked less each day than I did the first 15, yet I still accomplished far more. Because I stopped focusing on the quantity of my work, and instead focused on the quality.

Stop putting in 16-hour days. Make those 3-4 hours where you’re most productive in the day count. The rest is a bonus. And for God’s sake don’t answer that email on the weekend.

3. Eliminate Distractions While You Work

There’s been a burgeoning but fierce backlash against the so-called “attention economy,” which is the way in which modern tech companies have hacked their way into our brains in order to control our attention for nearly every waking moment of our lives:

  • Push notifications to make sure you never “miss out” on anything.
  • Needling social insecurities to nudge us to click, like, or comment on something.
  • Leveraging social validation to create echo chambers and filter bubbles in order to corral you into more easily manipulated groups…

…you know the story.

My point is that the modern world is quickly dividing us into two groups: those who control their own attention well and those whose attention is controlled by someone else.

To put it bluntly, you can’t expect to be productive if you don’t control your own attention.

It really is that simple.

To do this, I have for you a three-step approach:

  1. Correctly identify nutritious information.
  2. Cut out the junk information.
  3. Cultivate habits of deeper focus and a longer attention span.

Nutritious information is information that is reliable, helpful, and likely important (i.e., it affects you and others in significant ways). Nutritious information is long-form, analytical, and encourages deep engagement and extended thought. Think books, podcasts, long-form articles, documentaries.

Junk information is information that is unreliable, unhelpful, or unimportant (i.e., it affects few to no people in any significant way). Junk information is short-form, flashy, and emotionally charged, encouraging addictive consumption patterns. Read: most of social media.

Apply the law of “Fuck Yes” or No to your social media connections. Unfriend/unfollow anyone you’re not a Fuck Yes about. Unfollow all news and media outlets. Then uninstall any apps that feel pointless after doing the above.

Eliminating these distractions will help you reclaim your attention and be more productive at work.

4. Schedule Time for Work—and Goofing Off

I keep a list of what I need to get done each day. I also schedule time to watch other people play video games on Twitch.

At first, you might think this contradicts what I just suggested above: getting control of your own attention. But it doesn’t. The emphasis is on control. If you schedule your work ahead of time—every week or day or whatever works best for you—you gain more control of the attention you’re giving to work.

But the same goes for your leisure time or just plain ol’ vegging out and jerking around. If you schedule goof-off sessions ahead of time, you’re being intentional about it and so you’re maintaining control of your time. It also has the benefit of limiting how much time you commit to things like mindless entertainment.

I’m actually not against indulging in mindless entertainment as long as it’s done intentionally. I regularly schedule blocks of time to play video games and binge-watch Netflix. Of course, this is after I schedule enough time to get the work done that needs to be done.

And here’s the thing: developing a system of getting shit done is a constant work in progress. It takes experimentation, constant trial and error. Something might work for you for a few weeks—or months or years—and then all of sudden, it stops working for you. Life happens, priorities change, values (there’s that word again) come and go.

And that’s OK. The point is to always be examining what’s best for you.

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