Look Lazy, Be Productive

There’s a huge difference between looking productive and being productive. It’s one I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self.

About seven years ago, I had big ambitions. I was going to run my own online business and be successful. Unfortunately I didn’t have any direct role models of people who had already done what I wanted to do, I could only read about them.

One inference I made is that most successful people are incredibly productive. But because I had never met any of them, I had to guess what that would be like. And, like many people, I assumed that meant ruthless focus and monastic self-discipline.

So I tried to emulate that model. I tried to avoid anything that looked “unproductive” like watching television, drinking or relaxing. I replaced them with reading, work and exercise—all things I had associated with being productive.

It’s probably obvious I was no fun at parties.

Looking VS Being Productive

Sometime later I started to actually meet successful people. Much to my surprise they weren’t the Randian titans of discipline and focus. In fact many of them were the opposite, drinking, relaxing and full of vices.

But even more surprisingly, they still got a lot done. Even though they hardly abstained from enjoying life, they got way more done than I could.

It was around this time that I realized the difference between looking and being productive. Being productive means getting work done. It means being efficient and focused when you work, but it doesn’t mean anything about your off-hours.

Being Productive Allows You To Appear Unproductive

The reality is, the people who have the least fun aren’t the most productive. They’re the people trying to “look” productive. The students who spend their lives in the library to look like they’re working hard. The office drones who stay late every evening even though their output is dwindling.

These people, like I once did, confuse being productive with looking productive. And, at the end of the day your boss, professor or team members care about results, not how hard you appear to be working.

The impression I give on this blog is that I’m productive. I’d say it’s more or less a fair one (although there are many people more prolific than me). But if you talked to anyone who knows me personally, that probably isn’t the surface impression they have. They know me as the guy convincing people to go to parties and who never appears to be working at all.

It isn’t that I’m lying to them or to you, it’s simply that I don’t care about appearances. I aim for ruthless efficiency in my working life so that can enable me to be relatively carefree and fun-loving in my personal life.

Work Hard, But Have Fun Too

During the MIT Challenge, I’ve been working up to 60 hours per week, much of it on hard-focus activities like watching lectures at twice the speed or reading textbooks. I’ve also shared as much as possible about my working routines and the learning techniques I’m using.

But that hasn’t stopped my personal life. I still go out for drinks at least once per week, meet people, go on dates, exercise. Blogging friend Maneesh Sethi, who recently came to stay with me for a week said he was surprised by how relaxed I seemed.

I say this not to brag that I’ve achieved some nirvana work-life balance, or that I have some exceptional ability. Many, if not most, of the successful people I know have similar tendencies. They stop worrying about “looking productive”, get their work done and enjoy life as much as possible.

The goal of productivity, and all the ideas I try to teach, isn’t to become a monk who can work non-stop without tiring. It’s to get a lot accomplished, in spite of not being monk-like. I respect the person who can calmly executes projects more than the person who constantly complains about working too much.

Two Reasons Success While Enjoying Life Isn’t a Contradiction

Part of the problem is our entire conception of work and life puts them at odds. We talk about work/life “balance” as if the two things were weights on a scale that too much work or too much fun would ruin the equilibrium.

The first reason this scale metaphor holds little weight is that “productivity” can’t be stripped from the human element. Most of the successful people I know owe much to having built extensive social networks. It’s a lot harder to make friends if you never have fun.

The second is that fun replenishes the very mental energy you need to work. I take a day off every week, which often means going to a party and sleeping in, even when I’m incredibly busy. The reason is that even though taking time off looks lazy, it results in higher performance work which more than pays for its costs.

Perhaps the image of me as being a serious, humorless work-horse is a remnant of my days where that probably would have been an apt description. Or maybe it’s a feature of the topics I like to write about—I have many articles about my work philosophy and none telling the story of how I was attacked by gypsy dogs walking back drunk from a party in France.

However, I think part of it is simply because someone who hasn’t developed productive habits, it’s difficult to conceptualize a way of getting work done that doesn’t require unending hours of grueling labor. But the concept of productivity isn’t at odds with being relaxed, they’re almost synonymous.

  • http://www.stevevox.com Steve Vox

    great post. A lot of people think if they are working all the time that they must be making progress. I don’t think it’s how much you work but how much you get done efficiently when you work. Working more doesn’t mean making more progress.

  • VA

    This is a really good point. I think it is cool that you are encouraging people to have fun. However, it kind of sounds like you are also encouraging everyone to go out and get wasted. Or maybe I just feel that way because I do not like getting wasted. I like having fun and I’ll go out to a party every once in a while. But there are other ways to relax; the key is to figure out what is relaxing and fun for *you*. Personally, it took me a long time to figure it out. Tried partying getting wasted and stumbling home for a while and found that although it made for fun stories I got nothing positive out of it.

    So in short I would say find something fun but make sure it helps to reload your energy and keep you relaxed like Scott is saying. There is so much more out there than partying and getting wasted though.

  • anonymous

    Why do you equate relaxation with vice?

  • http://oneway-up.com Chris

    You’ve opened my eyes with this article, thank you.

    I was the one that looked productive rather than being productive and having fun/social life.

    Thanks Scott!

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young


    Of course you don’t have to party. It’s merely an example.


    Well “vice” is a general catch-all term for bad habits or non-virtues. People define them differently, but my point is that the most productive people aren’t all paragons of virtue leading monastic lives.


  • http://twitter.com/boyveasley William Veasley

    “Working more doesn’t mean making more progress.” – Steve Vox

    That is a brillant thought, and one that I have never thought about. I try to push myself to work, work, work, and work some more, but without having any fun.
    I am going to start finding more activities to do that I will enjoy. After reading your article, I want to try working hard at night and having fun during the day, when life permits.
    We only have one life. It is best to stop being a workaholic and spend time enjoying life, at least this is what I am going to start telling myself.


    God bless,
    William Veasley

  • Arjan

    Great post, you definitely nailed it! In Dutch we have an proverb wich can be translated to English as: “The bow can’t always be tensed”, meaning that periods of hard work need to be followed by relaxation.

  • Islam

    The article is awesome, it helped me find out that I’m one of those unfortunate people who try to look like working, thinking that if they do so they will achieve more. I always find it hard to get things done camparing my classmates who enjoy themselvees much more than I usually do. Let me give you an exemple: I’m in the 1st year of an engeneering school where I’m enrolled because I have brilliantly succeeded the exam of entry. Since the beginning of the school year, I’ve started to gradually feel demotivated due to a combination of events like: 1-having fought with my flatmate who is in the same time classmate; 2-finding it hard to pick the right material to work on which, I might have convinced myself, is impossible to find; 3-having almost no time to work!!! Ireally want to work, but my family do hardly understand that I have to work in order to succeed. I need a piece of advise to reorganise my life.

  • http://www.inspire-me.org.uk JenP

    Interesting post….but I sometimes think productivity is too highly prized.
    I’ve stopped trying to be productive. I’ve stopped making lists. I’ve stopped worrying about achieving my goals. I just do what I feel like doing every day and I’ve tried to cut out all the unnecessary stuff in my life – I have even gone freelance so I don’t have a regular day job. And I am really, really happy as a result.

  • Mac Leshabane

    This is a fantastic post that comes at a time I’m beginning to re-approach my attitudes towards productivity. I’m one that has for a long time been the busy, busy, busy guy who prided himself on withholding from partying and general enjoyment. As a result I’ve had a past year that has seen my social circle dwindle to a vacuum of nothingness, and I’ve left the job that I thought needed me to be in a perpetual state of busyness. Sadly there is little fruit to show from those labours.

    So armed with the wonderful and practical insight gleaned from this post, I’m looking ahead to a year where my productivity will be much more pronounced, and I’ll some fun on the way there too!

    Nice one Scott. You never cease to enlighten!

  • Kris

    As someone who has just started writing freelance from home, this article was a real eye-opener! Don’t over-plan everything, and even though we should work hard, too much planning can actually get in the way of our work. Great advice, thanks!

  • Jim

    I enjoyed your post!

    But, just wait until you get a wife, small children that require attention and/or teenagers with activities every day. Then see how easy it is to balance and not look frazzled!

    Just another challenge, I think.

  • Charlie A

    Great article and I agree whole heartedly. It’s something I constantly try to tell some of my closest friends and colleagues. Prioritise and be effective. Don’t just work more hours and assume tht equals more progress!

    On the vice issue. I have the same feeling. To answer the earlier comment, vice equals relaxation because relaxation is what you should be doing, but it feels like a vice because it’s ‘naughty’ and unproductive at a time when you could be being productive. That’s my explanation for when I feel guilty playing ps3 after a days work anyway


  • w

    This isn’t strictly accurate though:

    “at the end of the day your boss, professor or team members care about results,
    not how hard you appear to be working.”

    It might be true for professors and team members, but from what I can see,
    bosses often have no other definition of results other than how busy their
    underlings appear to be.

    Your namesake Adams has said quite a lot of insightful things on that topic. :)

  • http://alazanski.com alazanski

    Great post.

    I, too, spend a lot of time on personal development, and if there’s one thing I learned in the past couple of years, is that if you’re not happy, if you’re not satisfied with yourself, if you’re not looking forward to the upcoming day, you’re usually not productive.

    I personally get in a great mood every morning by writing down all the things I’m grateful for, and all the things I love in life. I notice, that when I’m happy and joyful, things just fall into place.

  • Sam

    @jenp : I don’t think your point is same with scott’s(in exact).He is not suggesting a laicadesical & unplanned way of life,that way is diametrically counter productive.in such environment nothing wil be achieved (in the long run).

    @ scott
    just as you are an example of a former workaholic,i think such way of life(conc. Discipline) is required in an individual’s life to instill into him the productivity habit, after which s/he will now allow the habit as a spring board into high efficiency. Or wht do u say?

    Finally, scott, I don’t like going personal.but in this case am compeled to(so i wish it won’t be an offence). So are you a christian? If yes can you give some relationships b/w ur life and ur faith.i’ll be grateful to get ur response(could b thru my mail if necessasary)

  • Stephanie

    Excellent post! Oftentimes, I find it’s my party-going friends who have their scholastic affairs in order rather than the ones who complain about not being able to go out. The thing about the party-going friends is you never see them in the middle of the day on a weekday.

  • Abhishek

    hello scott,
    I’ve somewhat different opinion on this.
    Trying to look productive is the first step to become productive.
    because when we try to pretend to be someone then I think it is the first step to inculcate a new habit. It is just similar to a small child who tries to imitate elder people by pretending to be someone else, And in the process he acquires some of the traits of that elder person. You tried to look productive some seven years back, that was the first step of your becoming efficient, and now after seven years of hard work and analytical thinking you have increased your productivity. I hope you are getting my point.
    Suppose, you are trying to break a stone with the help of hammer. If stone does not break after 19 attempts but finally breaks in 20’th attempt, will you still call first 19 attempts as futile?
    My intention of giving above example is that process is more important when we try to achieve anything. And in the same way “trying to look productive or pretend to be productive” is just another part of the process which helps to keep you focussed. And once productivity gets ingrained in our character then it becomes part and parcel of life and you start to get more time for other important stuff.
    And now as you have achieved your desired productivity level after years of single minded devotion, then why do you want to ignore your first step of success ladder ??
    By the way, don’t you think enjoying ‘work’ itself is much more fun??
    If you want more discussion on this issue then you can always e-mail me. I would really like to have discussion with you on this issue and on ‘nature of work’..

  • http://www.scotthyoung.com Scott Young


    I’ve already written a lot about the process of becoming productive, at least from my perspective, and it’s about habits. So, in that sense there can be some value to going overboard initially and then scaling back some of the irrelevant scaffolding to productivity.


    Part of the point of this article, however, was explaining what true productivity “looks” like. As I mentioned, I was under the false impression that people who are productive are universally serious and monastic in their focus. But if productivity “looks” like someone who wastes no time (which also means he/she enjoys every moment not working) then I would have approached it differently.


    That depends on where you work. Most people I know who have specific deliverables at their job are evaluated largely by how much they accomplish. Not true for everyone, but if your boss is smart he hires/promotes people who get things done, not people who look busy.


    True–but I write from my experience, which is all I can do.


    Fair enough. But, for me, productivity is the process of getting more from what I want out of life. I set goals and work on interesting projects because those are the things I find fun.


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  • Sally

    Very close to my heart this heart, this article. That was the story of my life (& very accurately so). I say was because I’m working on changing it, the idea that you must be mentally occupied all the time to be “productive” is deeply ingrained so its going to take some active work to yank this one out. Wish me luck!

  • Thomas01

    Brilliant post. I think the problem of the popularity of this hard work idea is that hard work creates a psychological comfort, to the extent that individuals feel they are being productive and successful if they are busy or ‘working hard’ irrespective of the quality of that hard work. Additionally, in a similar fashion, in jobs with no key deliverables or strict targets, seeing busy employees provides a sense of comfort to a typical boss who thinks seeing workers working really hard implies a maximum usage of human capital. I would say that working hard is actually a very lazy strategy, whats key is actually thinking about the smartest way of doing your work. Working smart is always the quicker and in some cases, the only way of getting challenging things done. In my experience, successful people know smart ways of doing things, they have an excellent sense of cost/benefit and are very diligent in working out the smartest way to work on any given task/goal. Beyond this they can party, drink and laze about all they like and still come out on top.

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  • Nathan Glenn

    I am the same age as you, and I think we’ve been through the same phases. I stopped reading fiction books in high school. When I was a missionary, our leaders taught us not to waste a moment. I spent every waking moment studying or talking, with great results for my language skills. Then I went back to college and had jam-packed days full of studying and working, again with (what I thought were) good results. Unfortunately, this attitude had a negative effect on my development in other areas; I was at a religious school, but religious activities often made me nervous because I wasn’t “getting anything done”. I would bounce around between studying different technical fields, not getting very much done because I didn’t actually have the energy to deeply understand anything, the way I packed my time in. I just felt anxious to master everything in sight. Of course, I felt burned out after graduation, but when I no longer had jam-packed days I also felt pretty lost. Three years later I’m finally getting the hang of living a normal life. Reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was sort of a turning-point for me, where I realized that there are many aspects to living a good life, and they don’t all involve mastery of technical subjects. These days I’m enjoying reading classics and sc-fi on a daily basis, and I’m getting more study done, and enjoyably.
    As a side-note, though, I live in Japan, and though my company is more progressive, it is commonly known that it is important to be at work just to show that you are working hard. If some people are staying late working on something, the attitude is that you should stay late too to show team spirit. It’s also a little frowned-upon to take all of your vacation days in a year. I ignore these cultural values and go home on time and take all my vacation :)

  • Nolana

    Can you please discuss how you manage to do this?