Redefining “Productivity” For Work-Addicts

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Millennials get a reputation for being a generation of being selfish, flakey, over-entitled, thin-skinned narcissists.

And sure, many of them are.

But there’s also another less talked about characteristic of a generation laden with too much debt, scarcity of jobs, and a daily exposure to overpaid celebrities and Silicon Valley billionaires on social media: guilt.

Specifically, work guilt.

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Work guilt is that constant cold hand on your shoulder telling you that you’re not doing enough.

It’s that feeling that what you’ve produced so far in your life and your bank account isn’t sufficient to justify your existence on this earth.

It’s the unceasing fear that you, twenty/thirty-something year old human on earth, are wasting all of your precious opportunities and talents, and you must justify every single hour of every single day that you do not spend “productively”, because otherwise, you’re a failure.

I’ve felt it many times. And so have you.

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No-one would accuse me of being a productivity junkie.

I can be lazy and frivolous. I go out on Friday nights and enjoy long brunches on Saturday mornings. I own a PS4 and have a Netflix account that sees it’s fair share of action.

But I also have a side to me that can be borderline obsessive about accomplishment, and as such, I’ve spent plenty of years saying “No” to social engagements to soothe my constant work guilt.

I can’t complain though. Over the years that work guilt has been my steadfast ally.
It has helped me adopt a tunnel vision that sees me all the way through the end of big projects: writing books, creating products, finishing degrees, polishing off heavy piles of articles that need to be written – all aided by the demon that tells me I’m not doing enough and need to get back to work.

I used to think life was a choice, between being “productive” and doing everything else: eat, sleep, relationships, friends, family, books, TV, etc…

In other words, I bought into the idea that productivity = hours spent working.

If I wasn’t working, I wasn’t being productive, and that was something to lament.

But the human mind is a complex machine. You can’t just sit it down at a laptop, set it to “work-mode” 24/7, then leave it to run for 6 months.

If you want to be a truly productive person in the long-term, you need to follow a recipe that includes adding meaning and fun into your life.

So now I think of productivity like this…

Productivity = “anything that helps me be more effective in achieving my goals”.

Yes, it’s broad. But it helps me see the value in all the things that help me in my work.

Sounds silly, yes. But it helps when you feel the work guilt taking over to remind yourself that other activities aren’t draining your productive resources.

Things like:

  • Hanging out with friends at weekends
  • Going for meals
  • Taking a walk
  • Reading novels
  • Writing a diary
  • Talking to family
  • Running, swimming, and lifting weights
  • Going on dates
  • Sleeping 8 hours per day
  • Meditation (when I can be bothered)

All of these things in some way contribute to my being productive.

When I forget to do enough of them, I get stale. I get restless. I lose focus and energy, and depression quickly sets in. I lose connection to the world and can’t remember why I’m working so hard in the first place.

But to the truly work-addicted this will seem like a cop out. Am I really just saying that any activity contributes to productivity? That seems ridiculous.

No.

You only define productive activities as those that make you better, more effective, more satisfied in your work.

There’s still junk – addictions and frivolous choices that feel like throwing precious hours in the trash.

For example:

  • Watching hours of reality TV.
  • Watching hours of porn.
  • Playing video games for more than a few hours a week as a break.
  • Surfing on the Internet/YouTube for hours to procrastinate.
  • Shopping as a leisure activity.
  • Chatting/texting on the phone for hours.
  • Playing games on your smartphone.
  • Reading too much politics on Twitter.

Some of these might be meaningful activities to you. I’m not here to judge. To me, they feel like frittering away time.

If you want to test yourself, ask for any activities you do:

“Is this meaningful, or is it junk?” Does this feel like it’s giving me energy? Or is it a mind-numbing distraction to keep myself from the task at hand?

 If it’s meaningful, you’ll notice it giving you energy. You’ll return home from that dinner with friends invigorated and ready to work hard the next day, feeling refreshed and satisfied.

If it’s junk, you’ll feel like it’s a pointless indulgence, it doesn’t serve any real need, and you’ll feel sluggish and low energy when you try to pull yourself back to work.

I’m going to spend the next month clearing out my “junk” folder. If you want to join me, let me know in the comments below what activities count as “junk” for you.

Until next time,

Stephen

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Not A Planner? Embrace Being A “Chaotic”…

 

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I never sit down and plan out articles. I’ve now written over 200.

I never write detailed summaries of chapters of books or sections of products before I get to work on them.

I never planned a single university essay (and still got a First Class Degree and a PhD).

It’s not just that I’m lazy and just can’t face the idea of writing down a simple structure. Rather, despite every effort, planning just doesn’t work for me.

*        *        *

When I was studying for my PhD at Oxford, one of the mandatory hurdles required students to submit a detailed plan of every chapter of their ENTIRE thesis, along with titles and a condensed summary of all the major arguments and literature they intended to draw from.

My only problem? I didn’t know any of this.

I had ideas. I had a sense that I wanted to write about human rights. I had certain authors and books whose arguments I agreed and disagreed with.

But being forced to write an ACTUAL plan was one of the most unnatural and painful exercises I could have been forced to do. It clogged up my brain.

Even if I have a sense of something I’m angry about (e.g. Free Speech, Tinder, the perfect way to make a cup of tea), it doesn’t mean that I know (a) what my main arguments will be, or (b) how I intend to structure the entire piece.

Because the truth is: I don’t write to say what I think, I write in order to figure out what I think.

 This is true of many people, I’m sure. I know Kevin Kelly has said something similar in his excellent Tim Ferriss interview.

But the world is still full of “planners”. For every chaotic creative (like me), there are plenty of diligent, hard-working writers who create entire blueprints before they ever set pen to paper.

Plenty of novelists have every chapter, every twist and turn in the plot neatly summarized before they dive in and write it all out.

I spent a long time trying to copy the “planners”. I envied their ability to figure things out first, and then simply connect the dots once armed with their detailed map of the territory ahead.

Planners have maps. Chaotics just have a compass.  

As a Chaotic, all I ever know creatively is a general “feeling” of the way ahead.

And even then, I bump into some walls and have to recalculate. It’s like searching through a dungeon with a flashlight and occasionally hitting dead ends, empty treasure chests, trap doors. But as you trudge through each winding tunnel, the path gradually gets more illuminated until you come out the other side and can see the entire route as clear as day.

Of course, what’s exciting about being a Chaotic is that you just have one commandment: BEGIN. That’s it.

Begin. Write. Don’t look back. Keep trudging through and that path will eventually reveal all its secrets to you. Then go back and make it better. Do that 3-100 more times and you’ll have made something beautiful.

Sure it’s messy, but why should neat and tidy be the only game in town? Messy can work. As long as you don’t stop for too long and let your messy thoughts get the better of you.

For the Chaotic, relentless action is king. It clarifies. It lights the path forward. It puts the structure into place, even if the road to get there is bumpy as hell.

Warning From A Neurotic Bibliophile – Be Careful Of Reading Too Many Big Books…

When I was six years old, I skipped a year of school.

Though I was never personally consulted on this decision, the reason given to me in later years was, because, in the words of my parents, “your teacher said you had read all the books in the pre-school library. So they suggested you should leave early”.

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So, with all those Enid Blyton and Roger Red Hat books behind me, by the time I reached adolescence, I graduated to more challenging reading fare: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh, and then at university on to James Joyce, Cormac McCarthy, Phillip Roth, and other authors that have remained the high watermarks of literary genius to me ever since.

Last year, early in 2016, I started to feel a kind of guilt. It’s a guilt commonly experienced by any insatiable reader of literary fiction. I call it “The Missing Classics” guilt.

My Reading Challenge (And Failure) Of 2016

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Every reader can think of certain books they just should have read.

For me, it was the Big Epics: those doorstop-sized novels that are constantly featured in lists of the “Greatest Books Of All Time”. You know the usual suspects: Ulysses, Moby Dick, War And Peace, Middlemarch, In Search Of Lost Time, Infinite Jest, The Brothers Karamazov…and many more.

What do these books all have in common?

They are long. Very long. Dense, rich, literary tomes whose covers are frequently adorned with adjectives like “life-changing”, “masterpiece”, or “novel of the century”. 

So last year, I embarked on my own reading mission: To read ALL the big epics that were currently conspicuous gaps in my inner literary catalogue.

And…I failed.

Out of my list of ten of these books, I read roughly five: Gravity’s Rainbow (900+ pages), The Brothers Karamazov (800+ pages), Moby Dick (700+ pages), The Fountainhead (700+ pages), and about 300 pages of War And Peace. [However, my total score is actually now a 6 out of 10, since I had already read Ulysses (900+ pages) as a graduate student at university].

Still left on my reading list are: War And Peace (the rest of it), In Search Of Lost Time, Middlemarch, and Infinite Jest. A combined total of roughly another 4,000 pages.

So what happened?

I usually read around 50-60 books a year. So why wasn’t I able to just set these 10 or so classics aside and read them one-by-one over 2016?

Well, unfortunately, as I learnt, reading too methodically is a bloody slog.

Not that reading big classics isn’t a rewarding experience. Many of them contain the best prose ever set down in the English language, wonderfully memorable characters, and moments that leave you breathless at their lyricism and psychological insight into the human condition.

But reading these epics one after another, after another, after another? It gets tiresome.

Reading big classics cannot really be said to be “fun” – not in the way that Guardians of The Galaxy or playing video games or eating pizza and drinking beer are fun. It can be rewarding, insightful, mind-expanding, and inspire a great sense of accomplishment – but fun is certainly not the right word.

And although reading can often be more about intellectual stimulation and the subtle cognitive satisfaction that comes from the absorption of new ideas and delighting original use of language, it does have to be “just fun” sometimes. At least for me it does.

Reading too many classics all at once is like eating your vegetables and nothing else. Once you’ve finished one big, dense novel, the knowledge that you have to immediately dive into another epic casts of characters, new locations, and page after page of description, is enough to arouse a dreaded sense of “reading fatigue”.

In fact, attempting to binge-read all of these classics actually slowed my reading pace considerably in 2016.

The cumulative effect of reading three or four enormous tomes in a row makes you eventually see reading as a chore.

Then you walk into a bookshop and see lots of other gleaming, bitesize 200 page books you want to breeze through – or a little book about science or a new non-fiction bestseller that you want to devour, but you know that you can’t grab them because your shackled to your commitment to reading “Big Epics”, which you’re now a bit fed up with, so you end up reading nothing at all.

Ambitious reading lists…Yes or No?

books

The desire to read more books, or read bigger books, or to read more “serious” books, is just like any other goal.

To read books that go against your natural appetites for simple treats requires motivation, just like going to the gym or getting yourself to work on a big creative project. The problem is when you pile on the obligation so heavily that it begins to feel like a slog, leading to burnout and forcing you to forget why you enjoyed it in the first place.

For example, although about 80% of my fiction reading is serious literary fiction, I realized years ago that to sustain myself I need to throw in something breezy and fun (e.g. the odd Stephen King book, or a YA novel, or a Jeeves and Wooster story, or something comic like John Niven’s Kill Your Friends).

The more I keep variety, the better I can sustain my interest and joy in the act of reading. And actually reading what I want makes me read at a much faster pace and get through many more books per year.

So, was it foolish to set myself the ambitious task of reading The Great Epics in the first place?

I don’t think so.

One thing I’ve learnt in life is that some goals are more than worth setting even if you only half achieve them.

If I hadn’t made a reading goal at all, or set down the list of Big Epics I wanted to cross off my list, I would have probably never naturally come around to them without that extra surge of motivation.

The mistake was that I tried to force-feed myself a dozen or so 800+ page books one after the other in a hurried attempt to knock them all out in one year. While I have no doubt that these books will be polished off my list fairly soon (I have about 4 more to go), I can do it at a sensible pace where I can actually sustain my enjoyment and motivation for reading.

So…am I against reading goals? No.

Write down whatever your list is of difficult, serious, or just enormous books that you want to read before you’re 30/40/50/dead etc.

Then feed them in once every 4-5 books. Soon enough they’ll get done, but you won’t resent them when they come along because the rest of the time you can just choose whatever takes your fancy.

So eat your vegetables. But also eat your protein, some snacks, and a sugary dessert or two along the way. Consistency is the key, not speed.

 

Want To Get More Creative Work Done? Follow This Simple Formula…

 

creativity2

Whether it’s writing, marketing, making art, starting a business, or working on a big technical project, being able to produce creative work is a highly valued skill.

But what’s the secret to it?

I’ve written a PhD, co-written a New York Times bestselling book, produced over 200 articles for a dating advice website and helped create weekly content for a YouTube channel with over 500,000 subscribers. That sounds impressive as a list, but truthfully, I work pretty slowly.

Whatever creative breakthroughs I’ve had have emerged like hard-won jewels after digging through a tunnel of constant self-doubt, agonizing procrastination and struggles to find the right thing to say.

Yet, I’ve learnt some tricks along the way, and I currently have the best handle I’ve ever had on being consistent with my creative output.

So is there a formula?

This is one I’ve toyed with lately that I especially like, but it requires a bit of explanation:

Creativity = Time + Not Enough Time

Let me unravel these two elements…

Time

time

During my teenage years and early twenties, I treated life like a buffet.

I would pile tons of commitments and activities on my plate until it was overflowing with much more than I could swallow down.

At one point in my mid-twenties, I was rowing in a team 6 times a week, working on a PhD, writing a book, teaching philosophy to undergraduates, speaking at seminars, and trying to keep up with a bunch of other activities I had committed myself to.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with taking on a lot. But if you want to be creative, you need to be very careful about how you select your projects.

At this point in my life, I’ve finally learnt that I can only take on one large “elephant” at a time.

I define an “elephant” as anything that will require hours of focus, concentration, and effort over many months for completion.

It could be making a movie, starting a company, designing a new product, building a house, writing a novel…whatever.

To do these things well, you need time. And lots of it. As Phillip Roth says in American Pastoral, it’s “the secret of making a product perfect – You work at it”.

You need plenty of mental space to really put your head in a creative task. It’s hours of your day, every day. And when the tank is empty, you don’t have the bandwidth to suddenly switch and start on another huge creative endeavor. Try writing a book all morning then trying to work on a business in the afternoon – it’s extremely taxing to demand that much of your brain.

You need time to attack the beast you have in front of you – time to read around your subject, time to try and fail at different approaches, time to make a few wrong turns.

In the past, whenever I spread myself too thin, I ended up doing everything at about 60-70% capacity. I never did projects quite as well as I could, because I just didn’t have the time to give the task what it fully required.

If you want time, you must do these things:

  • Pick one or two major focuses

  • Say ‘NO’ to lots of other stuff

If you want to finish anything huge in life, there simply in no other formula.

Writing books is just too difficult. Making a movie is too strenuous. Working on a big project, whether technical or artistic or business-related, just demands too much attention and time.

It was only when I began scaling back my commitments in a way that made them all compliment one another that I found my output increasing a lot over the last couple of years. (For example: this year my focus is one big writing project until July, my day job of writing articles/blogs, and training for a marathon in May. That’s just about my limit.)

But of course, just having time isn’t the whole story.

Because you also need something else to be creative…

Not Enough Time

deadline

I’ve written a regular dating blog on the Get The Guy website for 3 years. At the time of writing I have published over 200 posts. For 2 years, I had a strict schedule of producing one article per week, and whether good or bad, I stuck to the program.

The only reason I was able to produce at such a quantity was because of strict weekly deadlines. Even when I wasn’t ready, I would have to hit publish on the blog every Wednesday.

There was no room for excuses, especially since I was being paid for those articles.

And on the seldom occasion that I would skip a week, it was because as a company we had decided to focus on other big projects that demanded serious time and attention (e.g. books, creating products, live programs).

The lesson here is simple: The only way to get myself to produce regularly was to have LESS time than I ideally would have liked.

There’s a myth of the dreamy artist who takes all the time they need crafting something of exquisite perfection, but the truth is, infinite time to create is not a good thing. It’s a curse. It’s a curse because you never have someone forcing you to get to the finish line and release your work.

But wait…doesn’t that completely contradict what I said earlier, about needing lots of time to be creative?

No.

You need enough time to give the work the focus it deserves, but not enough time that you lose all motivation to finish.

You need plenty of time and space in your day so that your plate isn’t over-crowded and you can set aside at least 2-3 hours to just work hard on your project (preferably as your first task of the day, since that’s when creativity tends to be at its highest).

BUT, you also need the pressure of knowing that by the end of the week/month/year, you’re going to have to turn in your work.

I’ve noticed that people who struggle to produce creatively (including myself on many occasions) suffer from one of these two problems. They are either so overloaded with daily tasks and commitments that they fail to give themselves the time and space to be creative, OR they have too much time because they’ve failed to give themselves deadlines with real consequences if they fail to produce.

So ask yourself: Are you suffering from not enough time, or too much time? Or both?

Let me know your thoughts on this below. I’d love to discuss this formula more and get your opinions!

The 3 Best Non-Fiction Books I Read In 2016

2016 was a good year for my non-fiction reading.

I usually have a ratio of about 60% fiction, 40% non-fiction, and my non-fiction can vary from anything to books of essays, personal development, history, science, biography or philosophy.

I know how annoying to get endless lists of books some says you must read. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with recommendations and worry that you’ll never get through it all.

So instead, I’m going to give the three very best non-fiction books I read that were released in 2016.

These are the books whose pages I underlined the most, that impacted the way I think or work, and that yielded the most return on investment in terms of value.

Here we go:

  1. Cal Newport – Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World 

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This is one of the books that genuinely has and will continue to profoundly affect the way I think about productivity.

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You Need To Train, Even If You’re Good…

If you’re good at your job, the work comes naturally to you.

That’s a rare and precious thing. Yet also dangerous, especially when you know you can get a pat on the back and a “nice job!” from your colleagues without too much strain. It’s easy to coast along just by being consistent. Which is fine. Consistency will get you far. But only so far.

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The problem is when we interpret being “consistent” at work as meaning doing the same things we did the last ten times. 

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Conversation Classes (for myself) #1 – Your Opinions Aren’t As Interesting As You Think

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If you speak more words than you read, you’ve failed the art of good conversation.

I’ve noticed a certain bad conversational habit that all-too-often seems to plague the voracious reader or well-informed individual, which is the temptation to talk far too much at the expense of allowing others to contribute to the conversation.

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The Best Sentence I Read In The Last 12 Months

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On my laptop I have a Word Document titled: “Great Passages From Books”.

I use this file to type out any piece of prose that stands out, whether for its aesthetic beauty or poignancy, for its emotional resonance or economy of phrase.

Sometimes it’s a piece of advice I want to remember, other times it’s a paragraph of prose that sends my heart aching at the recognition of sublimity.

This post is about the latter.

I just took a look through my document for 2014, and the passage that easily wins the prize for ‘Best Piece Of Writing I Read In The Last 12 Months’ goes to the linguistic titan that is Cormac McCarthy.

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Model Traits, Not People: How To Learn From Your Heroes Even When They Let You Down

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I have always been prone to a touch of hero-worship.

When I see a current famous figure or prominent thinker whose work I admire, the resulting mini-infatuation ends up leading me to devour hours of their output on YouTube, read every magazine interview and cover story ever published about them, and regularly assault my friends ears with my fawning praise and endless quotation of my favourite parts of their work.

But there’s a danger when you have heroes who reside among the living: They can still fall.

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Productivity Vs. Peak Experiences

 Blue sign points the way to happiness

Whom are the people I most admire?

Well, I can tell you the people I most envy.

I envy those unique individuals who manage to combine two crucial traits: the ability to enjoy peak experiences, and the ability to be productive.

This is a pet theory I’m working on, but I think the true definition of a success lies somewhere in between these two extremes, (though to truly cover all the bases I suppose you would also have to throw in a third criteria of ‘the ability to have meaningful relationships’, since life is nothing but gloom without at least a few of those).

Nevertheless, I’ve met many people who lean too much toward one end of these two polarities. They are either what I call (a) the ‘Experience Junkies’, or (b) the ‘Perennially Productive’.

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