The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without work.

In recent years, the internet has exploded with self-help productivity videos.
Look at the top viewed videos on youtube:

  • Quick productivity hack. #shorts (22M Views)
  • How to Get Your Brain to Focus | TEDxManchester (13M Views)
  • DIY Study hacks for after school (13M Views)
  • How to wake up early and be productive (9M Views)

It’s even more enticing to learn that those are usually 10-15 minute videos.
It sounds easy, it’s quick, there’s always a hack and you can do it yourself.

With articles like Why Productive People are Happier People the message is hammered home that being productive is good for you - in fact, if you’re not productive, you are:

  • Being surpassed by your peers (They study more than you)
  • Losing opportunities (Scholarships, Promotions)
  • Giving up on yourself (Quitter!)
  • Lazy

This is a good moment to reflect on that partial list.
If you’re anything like me, this list generates an uneasy feeling that might feel familiar - anxiety.
This untraceable sense of urgency and importance that sits heavily on you, you have so much to do, and it weighs heavily on you.
For a lot of people, this feeling leads to youtube, medium, facebook and other platforms where the common question “How can I be more productive?” is asked.

Guilty productivity

Non productive people are lazy.

Even worse, with all the hype around the subject, it’s becoming clearer that productive people are better and that non productive people are lazy.
Productive people == “GOOD“.
Non productive == “BAD“.
More on that dichotomy a bit later.

Being productive is a powerful drug - that dopamine hit you get when you cross something off a todo list - pure ecstasy.
The sensation is even greater if you’re crossing off something that’s been in progress for a while because our brain refuses to let go of “Loose ends” - if we start something, for most of us, we have to finish. (This often leads to something called completion bias, see notes below).
To look at a completed list of tasks, and marvel at how you completed them all, gives a great sense of accomplishment that’s vital for your motivation and well-being - it’s more than an ego boost, it’s how our brains are programmed to visualise progress and it increases our focus and attention.

Unfortunately, not being productive brings this uneasy sensation of anxiety and stress.
Not only are we tossing aside all the benefits, we also get negative effects on our wellbeing.
Obviously, the solution is to be productive - sounds easy right?
This is exactly the frame of thought I’d like to challenge in this article.
Yes, there’s a benefit of being productive, but this is not a one or zero flick-of-a-switch type of thing - being productive has a real cost of time and energy, including not doing other things you might enjoy.

Yes, there’s a benefit of being productive, but this is not a one or zero flick-of-a-switch type of thing

Toxic productivity describes this best - the feeling of constantly being “On” - you always have to get things done - if you don’t? Your brain rewards you with Guilt, Anxiety, Stress, and many other negative emotions.
There’s actually another possible downward step here - burnout, when you don’t even care anymore that you’re not productive, which almost sounds like the answer to our problems, we can get away with not doing anything and not feeling bad about it.

You feel you always have to get things done - if you don’t? Your brain rewards you with Guilt

I’d like to point out that it’s rarely about the attribute “productive” - it’s usually about our relationship with the concept, and here some very important things need to be heard by our society:

  • It’s normal to be tired.
  • It’s OK to spend time mindlessly.
  • It’s healthy to take time for yourself.

You always have to get things done - if you don’t? Your brain rewards you with Guilt

I’d like to take the opportunity and point out that we’re using the word “Anxiety”, but many othe emotions are equally probbaly
and valid, such as frustration, low self-esteem and low sense of achievement.
Not all procrastinations are equal.
There’s a difference between not having a goal in mind, not knowing how to achieve a goal and not being able to commit to a plan.
Each of these statements can lead to their own array of emotions, and should be treated differently.
While i

There’s a difference between not having a goal in mind, not knowing how to achieve a goal and not being able to commit to a plan.

Assuming for a moment you have a goal in mind, and even some understanding on how to achieve it, I’d
like to offer at least some tips on how you can reduce those negative emotions.

  • Define and articulate, preferably in writing, your end goal (I.E I want to write a book)
  • Start(Or continue) with the tiniest of commitments, such as “I will write for 1 hour tomorrow”. - while telling yourself that it’s OK if you don’t - it really is.
  • Be as specific as possible, “I will write two paragraphs tomorrow” is better than “I will write one hour”
  • If you don’t commit - identify the reason; are you on your phone? Are you binging netflix? Watching youtube? Maybe you forgot?
  • Try to reduce that conflict - for example I’ve started using “Phone free hours” - two hours at the end of the day when my phone is off - these are not hours I’m committed to doing anything, but it removes one serious time-drain in my life - See if you can find a creative idea for your distractions. (Some examples below)
  • Reduce activation cost - Activation cost is the reason morning runners go to sleep in their running outfits - the less you need to do to get started the better. If you want to study, but your desk always needs to be cleared before you can start, this is an activation cost - strive to reduce it to zero!
  • Thought experiment - what would your life look like if you reduced your major time drained by 20%? (Does not apply to children) - would that move you closer to your goal? (The answer by the way, is not always yes..)

Notice how the above list has little to do with your actual goal, and is mostly around dealing with distractions.
I strongly believe that our addiction to low-hanging pleasures such as TV or Phone is largely to blame for our lack of ability to commit.

I strongly believe that our addiction to low-hanging pleasures is largely to blame for our lack of ability to commit.

Summary

  • It’s normal to have some time for yourself
  • It’s normal not to have a specific goal in mind (Extra common for people with 9-5 jobs)
  • It’s normal to struggle with external addictions (Phones, Youtube, Netflix)
  • Accomplishing things is part of a healthy life and mental state, we enjoy the sense of accomplishment - it doesn’t mean you need to accomplish everything you set out to do.
  • Once you know why you want to invest your time in something, identify the distractions in your life that prevent you from achieving your goals.
  • Careful with pre-mature optimization - there’s no value in “cutting back” on something you enjoy if you have no reason(goal) to do so.

Appendix

My view on greatness

I think the true greats(The top 0.01%), putting superb talent aside, are people who have a very clear vision, a burning motivation and the willingness to put themselves after, and not before, their passion.
That rare combination will make you great in your field, but depending on your scale of values, this does not make you a great person.

Those are the people who will work for the major part of the day, devote their lives to a profession, and jeopardise their health and their family for their goal.
history is filled with these types of people, it’s my personal opinion that I don’t wish to compete with them, or be part of them.
This is not about being a good or bad person , but about how you see your life’s purpose. A completely different and fascinating topic to discuss in another blog post, perhaps.

On reducing temptations

  • Phone free hours, I use an App called Zen Mode which locks my phone completely, I can only send and receive phone calls.
  • Leave time for leisure - Set aside dedicated “Netflix” time, usually works best after the time you’ve set aside to be productive.
  • Reduce location memory - Try doing your activity in a different room, for example trying to study right next to your gaming PC will make you want to drop and play some games. (We associate a room with an activity, that’s why we always open the fridge in the kitchen even if we’re not hungry)