Deep in my productivity phase, I became really uncomfortable if I wasn’t always doing something “productive.” Any down time I had before I declared it was the end of my day was time to be filled. I had to find a task — anything.
My happiness and self-worth was inextricably connected to my busyness. If you have a strong desire to be competent, you’ve probably felt this, too.
I would find something to do. An article to read. An “important” video to take notes on. But as I fell into burnout and I looked back on the work I was actually doing, I realized that the majority of it was ineffective.
I wasn’t accomplishing more by spending more hours working. I was simply drawing on my stores to do real, impactful work by doing tasks I thought were advancing me toward my goal but really just had me treading water.
The weird thing about the whole productivity movement is that while it’s supposed to save you time from work, it often insidiously encourages people to see productivity as the end, not as the means.
Realizing this, I changed the script. Instead of pouring more and more hours into work, I cultivated more and more hours for serendipity — times at which I would float wherever the world took me. It may look like picking up a book and reading it cover to cover because I’m bored or hanging out with friends. Whatever it was, it allowed me to find my creativity.
Going from 0 to 1
Productivity is brilliant for iterating. It’s a multiplier and does whatever you feed it. But to go from 0 to 1 — to innovate — you have to step away from iteration. Let’s break this down mathematically.
If I have a terrible idea or am working on something that isn’t helping myself or anyone else, that idea is worth 0. No matter how many hours I work on it, the impact will always be 0. I can be intensely productive, getting in 8 hours of deep work every day. But it doesn’t move the needle for anyone — a billion * 0 still equals 0.
Let’s say I have a great idea. I work on it for a couple of hours a day. I schedule time to reflect and think about the idea itself and the direction I’m heading in. Because of this time, the idea gets better — the idea itself becomes a multiplier. I call these 10x ideas.
It’s similar to the concept of the 10x programmer — the person who provides 10x more value than the average. They don’t only have to be ideas, though. They can also be activities.
If you want to be a professional basketball player, your 10x isn’t simply playing basketball. It may look like working on your conditioning, shooting threes after practice, or playing more scrimmages. The thing about a 10x activity — it’s a combination of your goal and your unique circumstances.
If you want to go to grad school, a 10x activity is working on high-impact research. If you want to build a startup, your 10x activity may be finding a great co-founder or interviewing experts about a problem in a field.
10x activities are difficult to identify, but they can only be found through creativity. And creativity is non-linear. It’s not found in hours of productivity. It’s found in the time you simply let yourself think.
Nietzsche put it best: “Only ideas won by walking have any value.”
Cultivate space for work, but also ensure there’s time for directionless exploration — it’s only through trodding a little on all the paths that you can find the best one to follow.
Most of us aren’t effective. We waste a lot of time on shit that doesn't matter. Most effort doesn’t do anything. If you’re in college, you waste time on classes that won’t help you in your life or at work. If you’re at work, you waste time on tasks and communication that don’t produce any value. If you’re building relationships, you waste time on shallow activities that don’t move the relationship further.
Let me define waste — because technically, none of these activities are a waste on their own. They are only a waste with respect to your goal. A wasted activity is one you do because you think it advances your goal but really it doesn’t.
To find it, though, we have to slow down. We have to go for walks. We have to breathe. We have to cultivate time for leisure. Because when you’re nose-deep in a pile of shit, you don’t smell it anymore. It’s only when you take a step away that you can see it for what it is.