The Long, Stony Journey

This morning, as I was opening the front door to embark on a five-hour trip home, I noticed a sting in my big toe. “That must be a tiny stone,” I thought. For a moment, I stood there, deliberating. “Do I ignore it and just go?” Instead, I decided to take off my shoe and remove the pebble.

Whenever you find yourself thinking before you act, know that the pause is a gift. A lucky break offering the chance to insert some patience, mindfulness, or perseverance into your day. While these are all traits almost universally worth cultivating, some situations deserve our best effort more than others — and since they’re never in infinite supply, we must occasionally pick our battles.

Of such battles, a half-day tussle with a grievance that takes 15 seconds to fix is perhaps not the most deserving of our fighting. The stone is literally cold and figuratively indifferent, and if you can both easily see and remove an obstacle, why would you endure it?

Never start a long journey with a pebble in your shoe, and never waste your best performance on a challenge you can avoid.

The Right Kind of Discomfort

Ask a motivational guru peddling discomfort as the solution to everything, and he’ll tell you that, every morning, you should jump into an electrified pool full of sharks, punch six of them in the nose before eating the seventh one for breakfast, and then proceed to cold-email 200 venture capitalists asking them for $10 million each. Rejection, baby! It’s what makes the world go round!

No. Stop. Struggling is not the only way you can grow, and, actually, the comfort zone is where work gets done. Most of the time, discomfort must be carefully calibrated in order to yield its best-possible effect. Like too much Nutella on a piece of toast — and yes, there is such a thing — more hardship does not automatically lead to more improvement.

For the first nine months of 2023, working on Four Minute Books was comfortable. I was putting in serious hours, but I knew exactly what I was doing: publishing more pieces to get more traffic to the website. That’s it. That was the plan. Every month, I checked off box after box on Trello, releasing new writing, and tracking my stats as I went. Did the work still take a lot of effort? Was it boring sometimes? Was it challenging to write the best piece I could possibly write each time, and do so in a creative way? Of course, of course, of course! But it was the right kind of discomfort.

Then, in October, Google updated its magic formula, and my traffic went down the tube. Now, I’m stuck throwing darts in the dark, trying to guess and fix what’s wrong, all while thinking of and pursuing alternative solutions. This, too, is discomfort, but it’s the sort of discomfort I could very much have done without. When you’re thrown into a sink-or-swim situation, you’re by definition struggling to stay afloat. How could that possibly be your best performance?

Sometimes, a severe challenge will indeed bring out new sides of you and turn you into a stronger person — but it’s far from the only way to become a stronger person and rarely the path to achieving your dreams. That path is usually a long, winding one, and while venturing to a remote land is what might initially point you to it, once you’re on that path, what you must do is keep your feet moving and your eyes glued to the target.

My new situation forces me to look at my website from new angles. It makes me ask questions like, “Can I generate traffic from other sources? Can I better monetize what I already have?” It’s not without benefits, of course, but there’s no clear path to success. No guaranteed result, waiting to be collected as the reward for hard, focused work over a long period of time. The environment is murky, and the odds of getting everything back on track? Who’s to say?

Previously, I had identified a reliable connection: More posts, more traffic, more money. I had a certain traffic goal in mind, and the kind of discomfort I would have to endure to get there was clear. Given the choice, I’ll take the latter over the former any day. As long as you care about the goal, transparent discomfort is much easier to work with than nontransparent discomfort. You want to see the dip you’re descending into, not just step off a cliff and hope you don’t fall.

It’s true that discomfort is an essential component of both happiness and success, but it’s a more complex ingredient than we usually make it out to be. Dose your discomfort properly, and make sure you choose the right kind whenever you can. There are no prizes for punching sharks, but if you keep swimming in the right direction, perhaps one day you’ll find the magical island you seek.

Are You a Productivity Fashionista?

Writing about productivity is one of the easiest ways to get started writing. Why? Because both are ends and means at the same time, brilliantly justifying and enhancing one another in a self-reinforcing loop.

As you get serious about writing, you realize you’ll need a good system to ensure you’ll write every day, and as you become more productive in your creative output, you realize you’ll need something to keep talking about. Talking about your evolving system of work solves both problems — and that’s exactly what I did when I started writing in late 2014.

I dove headfirst into all kinds of productivity advice, be it from books, bloggers, or management gurus, and I tried various productivity systems and individual techniques. After a few months, I found what most people find when they go on a productivity spree: In theory, it all works if you stick to it rigorously, but in practice, you’ll likely have to cobble together your own approach — if not for your unique situation, then at least for your unique preferences.

While I was disappointed to realize that, despite being a disciplined person, I somehow did not have the discipline to stick to a structure like Getting Things Done, putting together my own system was fun! By late 2015, I had that system dialed in and working smoothly, and I called it “Master Productivity.”

As soon as I had published my last piece detailing my approach, however, my interest in productivity suddenly waned. After all, I had now been writing almost daily for over a year, and there was so much else to cover. Plus, I now had a system. It was time to use it rather than keep fiddling with it.

For the next few months, that’s what I did. I followed my morning routine, digital notes on my desktop, focused on a few key tasks each day, and blocked distractions as per my regimen. At some point a few months later, however, the inevitable happened: My life changed, and so did my routines. No system can last forever.

What surprised me, however, was that even though I didn’t repeat the whole process of studying, picking parts, and assembling a big machine, my system still evolved naturally. I’d make little tweaks here and there, then move on with my day. No deep dive, new book, or weekend seminar needed.

I’ve now been adjusting my system on the go for eight years — and I’ve stopped neither writing nor working since.

The productivity market is a billion-dollar industry. From cute apps to sleek task management software to enterprise certifications, there is no shortage of offerings trying to help us work better, smarter, and, most importantly — at least to our bosses — faster. In recent years, however, two new archetypal characters have emerged in this industry: the productivity fashionista and the productivity influencer.

The productivity fashionista does not care which work trend he follows as long as it is the latest one. He’ll spend one month taking notes in Obsidian, the next setting up a massive system in Notion, and the one after that abandoning both in favor of Roam Research. As a result, the productivity fashionista is always in the process of learning how to get more done, rarely in the process of actually getting things done.

Of course, the productivity fashionista’s equivalent on the supply side — the productivity influencer — is happy to feed him ever more new tools and systems to try. How about an in-depth review of Asana? Meet Todoist, the new Youtube channel sponsor! Oh, and here’s a how-to thread about how 1Password changed my life, just in case. Much like the productivity fashionista is indifferent to which software suite she wears as long as it’s trendy, the productivity influencer does not give a damn what she peddles as long as it sells.

If we allow these two characters to coexist, voilà, work becomes like attire: driven by forever repeating but ultimately meaningless cycles, limited in their frequency of change only by the imagination of those dishing out ever new tools and products.

“Product.” That seems to have become the defining part of “productivity.” What must actually be an ongoing, sustainable evolution of deeply personal attitudes and habits is wrapped in packaging film and sold one $9.99-unit at a time. Unfortunately, there can be no quick fixes for lifelong tasks, and both sides are paying the price for it — not in dollars but in life satisfaction.

The guru is dead, long live the guru. Having both consumed and spread ideas about productivity, I’ve learned a bit about both since my “retirement.”

If you’re an ardent follower of a singular productivity system, congratulations! You’re one of the thousands but few who found both a good match and the discipline to stick it out together well beyond the honeymoon phase.

If you’re a productivity fashionista, consider that no influencer can give you what you cannot give yourself: a coherent work structure that will function until the end of days. We all have changing needs from being babies to having them and everything in-between, but perhaps your fluidity is a strength in that rather than a weakness — and perhaps you don’t need anyone to spoon-feed you what your gut already knows. Let your way of working evolve organically and from within yourself, and you’ll always have a working system, no new app of the week, month, or even year needed.

If you’re a productivity influencer, consider upholding the golden guru standard of old: What David Allen has done with GTD is hard. He wrote a book, it became a hit, and then he stuck to his system for 20 years. If you can develop a system you truly believe in, promote it. License it. Teach it in small executive workshops and in front of large crowds. Refine it, sure. Even the best systems must inevitably evolve. But instead of constantly distracting your audience with new shiny objects, ask yourself if the tool of the day can ever really cut it. Deep down, I think you know the answer. Much better to serve a smaller but committed audience — because only commitment allows us to serve meaningfully in the first place.

If the entire productivity market disappeared tomorrow, would anyone stop showing up at work? Chances are, we’d rebuild the 1% of tools and systems used by a disproportionate number of people, then move on with our day.

Like writing about productivity or the back-and-forth between productivity fashionista and productivity influencer, self-reinforcing cycles are great to build momentum but questionable once self-reinforcing is all they do. After a plane is in the air, its direction is more important than its speed. Remember where you’re going — for as long as you do that, even if you don’t take the best path to get there, eventually, you’ll reach your goal, and, ultimately, that’s what productivity is truly about, isn’t it?

Satisfaction vs. Happiness

After she manages to sneak past his bodyguard, Ariadne Oliver catches her old detective-friend Hercule Poirot red-handed: one paw in the pastry box, the other in the sugar jar — even if the latter is only for his coffee. “Cakes for cases,” she critiques his retirement pastime. “Even picked Venice to hide in. A gorgeous relic, slowly sinking into the sea, just like your mind without a challenge.”

“I am much satisfied,” Poirot tries to assure his friend who, like many others trying to get around Vitale, has undoubtedly arrived with a supposedly sweet nut of a case for him to crack. Of course, Oliver has another idea: “This is happiness, not satisfaction,” she corrects him. “A writer knows the difference.”

As viewers of A Haunting in Venice, we immediately, instinctively know that what Ariadne Oliver says is true: Finding the time to watch a movie makes us happy, but only if it’s a good one will we also feel satisfied when it’s over. Likewise, a case-less Sherlock Holmes will soon turn his apartment into a shooting gallery, for his mind “rebels at stagnation.” Happy? Perhaps. But not satisfied.

Oliver never clarifies how specifically the difference manifests itself in her work, but as a fellow ink-slinger, I have several inklings. When I write a clever-sounding paragraph, I am happy. Satisfaction, however, only comes after I’ve realized it is too bombastic, verbose, or distraction-laden mere minutes later — and then fixed those mistakes. Happiness is pressing “Publish.” Satisfaction is reading an email that says, “This post made my day.” One is the result of relief, the other of resilience.

Relief can come from many places. Often, these places lie outside of us. Happiness can be accidental. A free piece of chocolate. A deadline that gets pushed back. Resilience, however, must come from the inside. Satisfaction means delivering ourselves by ourselves, to ourselves, and often from ourselves. It’s the act of doing the right thing that sets us free — and no amount of macarons can beat that feeling.

It’s good to feel happy from time to time, but it’s satisfaction that we can’t live without — and after he finishes his sugar-laden breakfast, even the world’s greatest detective must admit: His friend arrived at just the right time to put some life back into his life.

Our Beautiful, Irregular World

As he walks around Akihabara, showing an eerily human-like AI version of his deceased lover Tokyo’s tech district through his phone, mad scientist Okabe Rintaro finds it hard to believe. No, not his situation. In his search for Steins;Gate, he’s found himself in far stranger places still. It’s Makise Kurisu’s never having seen the Akiba evening lights that strikes him.

“Have you never been here at night?” he asks her. “Do you even have to ask? Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I don’t have legs! Otherwise, I’d be strolling around here all the time. But I’m only a program.”

Rintaro gasps. Once again, he had indeed forgotten. So many time jumps. So many different world lines. After a while, it all starts blending together. Which version of Kurisu was he talking to now? Ah, what would it matter. It was yet another version of her he would have to leave behind — this time, it was deleting the AI that was the necessary next step. But none of their countless encounters across time and space ever ended without a lesson, and this one was no exception.

“Are all districts like this at night?” Kurisu asks. “No, not all of them,” Rintaro answers. “Shinjuku and Shibuya are pretty lively, even at night. In Ginza, on the other hand, it is much quieter than here.” “Huh. Fascinating!” “Do you like Akiba?” Rintaro asks the shimmering lady on the screen. “Yes, very much! I like the wild and colorful flurry of activity. It’s as if there were no rules here.” And then, the AI imbued with brilliant young scientist Makise Kurisu’s memories explains what no AI will ever be able to understand:

“Here, where I exist, everything has its reason, a purpose, and a function. What’s not necessary will simply be deleted. Ballast will be shed without hesitation. Everything is organized efficiently. Your world, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. It almost looks like pure chaos. Much here is unnecessary, and seemingly pointless activities are on the agenda every day. Decisions are made that are obviously wrong — but that’s also how coincidences happen, and the meaningless suddenly attains meaning. This complex interplay gives birth to the most wonderful events, and all kinds of encounters. A program like me could never recreate such a complex world.”

“Show me the sky!” Kurisu makes her last demand. “What a majestic view! Believe me, this world in which you live is much more magnificent than you even realize. Time passes. Chaos and coincidence create miracles — and those give everything meaning. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”

Just like the fact that this observation did not come from a human being, it kind of is, Rintaro concedes without words. And yet, a few hours later, he must hit the Delete-button and be on his way. Another world line with another Kurisu awaits. Maybe this time, if one of the infinite, chaos-born miracles permits, she will be the real deal, and the meaningless will suddenly attain meaning — just like in our beautiful, irregular world.

And Restart

When the rain catches you off guard on the way to work and you arrive dripping wet without a spare change of clothes, you set down your bag, hang your jacket over your chair, and go to the bathroom. You take off your sweater, dry your face and hair as best as you can, and restart.

When you come out of the meeting and the project has been choked to death by some higher-up dialing the funding down to zero, you grab a coffee, open the window, and stare into the sky. You allow different priorities and ideas to drift in and out of your mind for a while, and eventually, you sit back in your chair, roll it towards your desk, and restart.

When the last beer happened to be one too many and you can’t get out of bed before 1 PM, you shuffle to the bathroom, down some water, and brush your teeth. You preheat the oven for a frozen pizza, take a shower, and restart.

When you know the date didn’t go well and they probably won’t call you back, you walk by your favorite bakery on the way home. You treat yourself to a vanilla tart, thank the smiling lady behind the counter, and remind yourself that kindness never expires. Then, you go home, put on a movie, and restart.

When the dashboard doesn’t show the numbers it’s supposed to show, you grit your teeth and watch your plan crumble right before your eyes. You close the laptop and take a walk. Then, you come back with a new idea, a better metric, or a different direction, and restart.

When your son returns from the game looking like he was the football instead of the player, you gasp, rush to your medicine cabinet, and pull out the disinfectant spray. You keep talking to him, put ice bags on his cheeks, and restart.

When your masterpiece launches to the sound of crickets instead of roaring applause, you crank up some Eminem and revel in your being misunderstood. You browse your drafts folder, laugh maniacally, and pick your next magnum opus. You turn your anger into new inspiration, and restart.

When life throws you off course, that doesn’t mean you were on the wrong one. Perhaps it’s just a test. How badly do you want it? Are you willing to get up, dust yourself off, and realign your vision with the target? A challenge is nothing more than a question, but the only answer we can give lies in what we choose to do. So whatever curveball hits you right in the gut at full speed, breathe. Calm down, recover, and collect yourself. Even if the entire world falls off its axis, you can always find your center. Summon new strength. And restart.

The Right to Do Nothing

It’s a tricky one. Overuse it, and you’ll end up doing nothing on plenty of days when you haven’t actually earned it. To the driven individual, however, the opposite is the problem: When will you allow yourself to completely turn off?

As a writer, I have so many daily and weekly commitments, doing nothing feels unfathomable. Between push-ups, meditation, and this very blog, there really aren’t any days when I “do nothing” aka am completely unproductive. On some days, of course, the pull to do so is still very strong. When I’m sick, for example, or after I shipped a big project. The best I can do is the minimum, and depending on one’s standards, that minimum might still be quite the high bar.

When you do something every day, you know it’ll always get done. You don’t have to worry about losing your edge — but you also don’t get that nice, liberating feeling — the lying-down, fully-stretched-out-limbs kind — of a day with zero obligations.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’m a miser for denying myself this feeling, or if it’s a young man’s foolish dream to begin with. Once you have children, I imagine you won’t have a zero-obligation day for the next 20 years. You forfeit your right to do nothing. Perhaps it’s best to give it up voluntarily beforehand?

I don’t have the perfect answer to this conundrum. I just know my desire for space is changing over the years. As I get older, I’d often rather do nothing than something irrelevant, and sometimes, I plainly just don’t feel like doing anything at all.

Overall, however, I still rarely get that feeling, and it seems like I’ll do plenty even if, on occasion, I exercise my right to do nothing. How long will that hold? Who knows? But your right to do nothing is worth thinking about — and worth trying to cash in when you really need it.

Stubbornness as a Differentiator

Chances are, someone else was in a similarly hopeless-seeming situation as you not too long ago. Perhaps the only reason you haven’t heard their story is because they chose to quit.

Sometimes, stubbornness is the sole differentiator. There are plenty of Italian restaurants in Munich, and most of them do fine. There are lots of startups offering the same goods and services. The pie is usually big enough — maybe not for everyone, but sure enough for everyone who’s willing to persist.

Our cause is rarely truly lost. Often, it’s our energy giving way. If you can reach deep inside yourself and pull up some more of that fire that incessantly burns in there forever, you can likely make it to the other side.

The good kind of stubbornness is doubling down on the right things when others walk away — and it might be the only difference between getting washed away and being one of the few left standing at the end of the storm.

Just Enough Slip

After Munich was covered in 50 centimeters of snow within as many hours, all Google Maps predictions were off: The tram, bus, and subway connections it suggested weren’t running, and both the frozen streets and walking routes would take twice as long.

What the two remaining modes of transportation had in common, however, was that both required just enough slip. It’s natural to watch every step when you’re walking on ice, but actually, as I would discover over the following days, striding somewhat confidently while allowing a little bit of wiggle room increases your speed without making it much more likely you’ll fall. Your body can handle tiny skids here and there — it just won’t let it slide (pun intended) when you lose control of one foot completely.

Similarly, cars have traction control systems for a reason: You don’t want to screech across the bend into the nearest lamp post, but you also need a little bit of slip to get going from a standstill. Since almost all cars have traction control these days, you can drive on ice and — with more caution — still reach your destination.

Our natural tendency is to want to eliminate room for error entirely, but even if that was possible, often, it would not be the best condition for optimal performance. Don’t run blindly into a minefield, but remember: Just enough slip is better than none, and sliding can be faster than walking as long as you don’t fall.

Who You Used to Be Doesn’t Matter

It only matters who you choose to be right now.

Who cares about your seventh grade baseball trophy, the time you got fired over an embarrassing mistake, or yesterday’s unsent email? Mostly, it’s you. Often, it’s only you.

But what can you do for us? What can you do right now?

Letting go of the past is a reminder to serve those you seek to serve, but it’s also a service to yourself.

You’re not beholden to yesterday. Act in the present. It’s the only place where things get done.