There is an idea, mostly floating around YouTube, that to have a good life, you need to be productive.
And not just productive, but insanely productive. You need to optimize your morning routine, and know all the shortcuts on your keyboard; hell — you should test different keyboards to find the one that optimizes your typing speed.
It’s as if life is just a long list of todos that need to be completed, a checklist that needs to be ticked off.
But this way of thinking is toxic. It’s driven by the false belief that our worth as human beings is tied to our productivity.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Our worth has nothing to do with how much we produce or how efficiently we work. We are not machines — we are human beings. And as human beings, we need time to rest, relax, and recharge. When we don’t allow ourselves this time, we end up burning out. We become resentful, angry, and bitter. We start to hate our jobs, our lives, and even ourselves.
So if you’re caught up in the productivity trap, I want you to take a step back and reassess your priorities. Ask yourself:
Am I really living the life I want to live?
Or am I just going through the motions, caught up in the false belief that my worth is tied to my productivity? If it’s the latter, I want you to make a change. I want you to give yourself permission to slow down. To take a break. To do something — anything — that isn’t productive.
So this essay is going to criticize this cult of productivity, mostly because it ignores the following essential facts:
- Goals are transient; is it the journey that matters.
- There’s more to life than achieving goals.
- Decision-making and leverage are more important than productivity.
Goals are transient; it is the journey that matters.
We spend far more time working towards our goals than “in them”. Honestly, I’ve forgotten most of the goals that I have achieved, I just moved my life to the next goal.
Few works-goals truly excite me.
I quickly move on to the next challenge, the next goal. I’m always looking ahead, constantly pushing for more. But this way of living is unsustainable. It’s a never-ending hamster wheel that leads to burnout and resentment. And it ignores the fact that it is the journey — not the destination — that matters.
We need to learn to enjoy the process, not just the outcome. We must find meaning and purpose in the day-to-day, not just in the big moments and milestone achievements.
I have reached a philosophical point in my life where I could lose all of this, and still be content with the person I am. I no longer define myself by what I have achieved but by who I am as an individual.
I was never happier work-wise when I received confirmation of my first freelance job when I was starting out and was 22. It was for $1,200, and it was supposed to take around ten weeks. Now it feels laughable, but I was jumping up for joy back then.
So, suppose the goals we reach cannot outpace the inflation in our hedonic adaptation. In that case, clearly, the process (i.e. what we do every day) is actually far more important than micromanaging the progress towards the goals that we set for ourselves.
In fact, I’d say choosing the right goals is more important than achieving them. The positive feeling that we get from work comes from when we are working at a level where we can focus well and make progress.
This means that we have chosen, and set, the right difficulty level in the game of life. Too easy, and work becomes boring. Too challenging, and we are likely to despair, give up, and start a cycle of negativity and self-doubt over our abilities.
The key is to find a “flow state”, where the level of challenge is just right for our skills. And this requires us to be honest with ourselves about our abilities. It also demands that we cultivate a growth mindset, which sees abilities as something that can be developed through effort and practice. It means focussing on improving ourselves vs comparing ourselves to the rest of the world?
Are you a better person today than one year ago? That’s good enough.
This is why I enjoy writing, and my essays are rather unambitious. I’ve set myself a goal to write each and every day, but I frame my writing as “notes” on everything. This takes the pressure away from ensuring that every paragraph is perfect and allows me just to sit down and write. I enjoy the process of sitting down, thinking, and then getting my thoughts down. The process in itself is enjoyable, regardless of whether I write 500 words of pure crap or a 5,000-word insightful essay.
And I often manage to do both in the same essay 🙂
There’s more to life than achieving goals.
Let’s take the infamous morning routine, kickstarted by the movie American Psycho. I’ll be honest, I’ve tried many of these. When I was 15-16, I used to wake up at 4 am and go for a run. Sometimes, I’d run into people coming back from a night out in the city, and it would be strange that, for a brief moment, these two completely different lifestyles would intersect.
And it is true, the YouTube productivity gods are right; a good morning routine will make the rest of your day better. But what if I want to sneak back into bed and cuddle with my significant other? What if I don’t meditate at precisely 6.30 am? The world will not end, and I’ll be just fine.
Our habits are important, and they significantly affect our lives’ trajectory, but if we get too caught up in ensuring we tick all the boxes of our daily habits, we may look back and realize that we forgot to live.
Our habits should be a foundation that supports our efforts to live interesting, meaningful, and fulfilling life. They are a means, not the end goal in themselves.
And because habits tend to be daily, we get away with a lot of imperfection. If you exercise 3 times a week or 4 times a week, you’ll be fine either way. If you brush your teeth 13 times a week instead 14, you’ll be okay.
The same goes for goal setting.
Sure, it’s great to have ambitions and lofty goals. But if we get too caught up in the destination, we may forget to enjoy the journey. And the journey is what life is all about.
So, what am I saying here? That you shouldn’t set goals?
No, not at all.
I’m saying that you should find a balance between enjoying the process and striving towards the destination. Both are important, but I believe that, in most cases, the process is more important than the destination. If we can find enjoyment and satisfaction in the process, the destination will take care of itself.
And let’s not forget that many of life’s interesting things are, by definition, not planned. Someone invites you on a trip, and you can’t focus on your habits. You know what? Enjoy the damn trip. Have fun, and then refocus when you get back. Don’t beat yourself up and forget to have a good time because you’re concerned that you cannot mark a continuous streak in your daily habits tracking app.
The last thing we want to do is end up like those parodies of individuals we see on YouTube Forbes Features of highly successful individuals. They are so busy being productive that they forget to live.
And when things are moving too fast in your life, you don’t have the time or space to think deeply, and this is far more important than how many Pomodoros of deep work you did in the last month.
This leads me nicely to my last point.
Decision-making and leverage are more important than productivity.
This is the dirty little secret that many productivity gurus don’t want people to know, or don’t know themselves.
You don’t need to be that productive to be successful, regardless of how you define success.
Sure, hard work will be required to reach the top of the top, the 1% of the 1% of the 1%. But, by definition, few people will likely reach those peaks, and when you optimize for a singular goal, there will be a cost.
Often, the cost will be everything else in life.
But, you can easily be in the top 1%, especially in knowledge work, without working your ass off.
I am less busy now that I am “successful” than when I was a freelancer and was always glued to my laptop and working for clients. What is important to me now is building teams, making good long-term decisions, and ensuring that I am financial prudent.
Making decisions is, by far, the most important skill you can have in life. It is the skill that defines all over skills. Without good decisions, good outcomes come purely from chance. This is why I often write about decision-making and strategies for consistently making good decisions.
The other thing that good decisions bring is leverage, which makes future decisions much easier. Leverage comes in various formats:
- Your Reputation
- Other People’s Work
If you have capital, you essentially have been given IOUs by society. You or your ancestors did something that society valued, and you’ve been given tokens to redeem later. Because everyone wants these tokens, you can swap them for pretty much anything you might need. This gives you leverage because you can deploy capital instead of your time, which is the ultimate finite resource.
Your reputation is also leverage — this is built by honouring commitments and making good decisions over long periods. What is interesting is that a good reputation is not really something that can be purchased, it has to be earned. You cannot force others to hold you in high regard; you need to convince them. But, because there are so many bullshitters and unreliable people in the world, most people are naturally suspicious of people they don’t know, until they know them. So a reputation takes time to build. The flip side is that a reputation that takes ten years to build can be destroyed in five minutes if you act uncharacteristically.
This can be important, even in the small things. The other day, we had to bill a client for a certain amount of work that amounted to 92 hours and 40 minutes, but our billing system does not allow for fractional units. I initially said, let’s round it to 93 hours, and then I instantly realized how bad this was. Not only would we be casually stealing 20 minutes worth of billable time from our client, but the message I send to my team is that stealing is fine in the first place. I quickly told them to round down to 92 hours.
Other people’s work is also a great form of leverage, which is why companies exist. There are meaningful goals that can simply not be achieved by a single individual. So working with other people and learning to leverage their unique skillsets and expertise is key. One thing to note is that other people’s work is not as strong a leverage point as capital, software, or media. This is because managing people is tough, and you have to convince them to work for you, and they can leave at any time. Still, the effort in learning to become a good manager is worthwhile versus trying to be personally more productive.
Software and media I will lump together because the way they achieve leverage is essentially the same. This is something that you can make (or use other people’s work to make) that has almost no marginal distribution cost. You can build it once and sell it a million times, which takes leverage to the ultimate degree.
So the above hints that the choices we make and how informed we are about leverage are far more important than how personally productive we are. You can be rather lazy if you truly master leveraging leverage.
Now, if you’re highly productive and a good decision maker who knows how to use leverage — then you’re truly onto something.