You too can be more productive with this ONE WEIRD TRICK

Sometimes, when I show people another crazy side-project of mine, they ask me how I manage to be so productive. I never have a good answer to give them, because I don’t really consider myself very productive (unless you count my 2,000 hours of sucking at DotA2 as creative output), but they are invariably unsatisfied with that answer.

I saw another post about productivity on Hacker News today, and it made me finally express something I’ve been feeling for a while but had never managed (or taken the time to) put into words. It wasn’t so much the post itself (I didn’t read it), but the fact that I saw it, and that it exists. It made me realize my stance on productivity, and today I’ll share it with you, right in this article.

Productivity and how to increase it

This person is being so productive they didn't have time to buy furniture. Don't be this person.

So here’s how I, personally, handle productivity: I don’t worry about it. I have four half-finished side-projects lying around me right now, littering my desk, but I don’t stress about working on them. What would be the point of that? It’s not a hobby if it stresses you out, I don’t find working on one right now, but I will at some point in the future. When that time comes, I’ll pick one up and start working on it and enjoy that time.

Sure, that’s not always possible. Adults have jobs, we have obligations, we can’t just not go to work whenever we feel like it. I’m obviously not advocating some sort of hyper-hedonism, that’s extreme. I am advocating against the other extreme, the stressful need to optimize every single moment of every day in an attempt to achieve some goal that was meant to make you happy in the first place.

I bet you have a thousand tabs open right now in this browser, full of things you want to get to later, and are feeling stressed about it whenever you look at the tab bar. Maybe you figured out a way to organize them somewhere “for later”, when you’ll have more time. It’s fine to let them go. Nothing will happen if you don’t watch those videos or read those articles, including this one.

Success porn

Only too late did Christopher realize that staring at his watch was a waste of time.

I think the steady trickle of “maximize your productivity!” articles feed into our need to improve ourselves with easy solutions. As with fad diets, we’re looking for some way to achieve more without the discomfort. If only we could figure out a way to get more stuff done, then maybe we’d have enough money to not need to do stuff!

Like watching the lives of Instagram models, reading articles about maximizing productivity usually just makes me more stressed and leaves me feeling inadequate. This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate, reasonable tips to get more things done with the same amount of effort, which is obviously helpful, but I find the culture of putting “getting things done” above “being happy doing things” deleterious.

The endless race to achieve more is tied to ambition, but I find ambition as a goal to be misguided. If you’ve spent your entire life trying to become successful enough to be happy, but still feel that you need to be more productive, maybe success isn’t what brings you happiness. We’ve known for a while that money doesn’t bring happiness, yet we haven’t really internalized it. The lists of the happiest countries in the world and the countries with the highest GDP don’t correlate very well, after all.

Being ambitious with a vague goal of “success” is a mistake I’ve seen people (and myself) make a lot. We see the end goal in someone else and it seems great, so we want it, but soon we realize that we don’t enjoy the process at all, so we try to pressure ourselves into doing it anyway. Most of the fun in achieving a goal is in the process, and I’m always a bit sad when I finish making a gadget, because the reward isn’t in actually having or using the thing, but in figuring out how to actually make it work and seeing it take shape in front of my eyes. That’s why I’m doubly sad when I see people do something they don’t enjoy as a means to an end, as I think they’re missing out on a lot for dubious gain.

For a period, I was very much into photography, and bought all the expensive gear that comes with the hobby, but then I lost the spark. I used to feel bad about it, and tried to pressure myself to take and work on photos, but it didn’t solve anything, it just made me feel stressed as well. In the end, I realized that what I enjoy is the rush of taking a photo I really like and relishing the time I spend in shaping it how I want, and that there’s no point in forcing myself to do it.

The culture of maximum productivity

Dimitris knows he can afford to take some time off for a midday siesta. Customers will come back later, as the current is circular.

I think that the drive for achieving more is predominantly a US cultural phenomenon, and it ties closely to the Protestant work ethic. I’m obviously more familiar with Greek culture, but I’m no stranger to the US side of it, both from being exposed to the technological ecosystem and the large amounts of cultural exports we get from the US.

In the US, productivity is even (somewhat perversely) tied to accomplishing more for your employer, which correlates less strongly with personal gain. I find that regrettable, as you’re sacrificing your time and happiness for someone else’s benefit, while not realizing it. Productivity and being an “overachiever” or a “model employee” are glorified, pushing people to put even their health at risk for more work (which is less productive in the long run).

Someone in the comments of the original Hacker News post said (I paraphrase): “I work 9 to 5, come home, play with my kids, and then watch TV with my wife because that’s more immediately enjoyable. If I could be working on my side-project instead, I might not have to work 9-5 at some point.” That’s a laudable goal, but what would he do with the extra time? Presumably spend it with his wife and kids, and saying “if only I spent less time with my family, then I’d have a chance of spending more time with them in the future” seems like an oxymoron.


Jeannie tried to put on a brave face, but couldn't help feeling inadequate when looking at Mary's productivity graphs.

To clarify, I’m not saying “don’t get more stuff done”, that’s always great. What I’m saying is “don’t stress too much about getting stuff done, it’s fine if you do things at your own pace”. A corollary is that, if you enjoy being productive, then you should do more of that! There’s nothing wrong with being productive. There’s nothing wrong with not being productive, either.

If you’ve made a conscious decision that you’re going to pressure yourself to achieve more in order to get at some worthy goal, that’s great. Just think again about the tradeoff a bit and make sure the goal is worth the sacrifice of not spending time on what you like.

I hope I’ve at least made you feel a bit better about not being productive all the time. If not, feel free to tweet or toot to me. Have fun!