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.


  • 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?

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