Last week, some girl at school knocked over her juice and killed the power for a whole group of tables. As a funny result, I get to enjoy my friends’ confused looks whenever they enter the library, because they’re startled not to see me in my usual seat. I might as well carve my name into it, because every week, Monday to Friday, from 7 AM to 7 PM, I practice Charlie Munger’s version of assiduity: I sit on my ass and do stuff.
And yet, barring a few mini jobs, I never worked a day in my life until I was 19. You could say I’ve come a long way with productivity — or that I’ve become a workaholic. But I’m neither proud nor ashamed of either of those things. Because what’s changed even more in the past eight years than how I approach productivity is my perspective of what it means.
I’d like to share some of that perspective with you. Hopefully, it’ll help you find the right balance at the right time.
One Hundred and Twenty Pounds
In On Writing, Stephen King tells a great story from his childhood about the time he helped his uncle fix a broken window, using his grandfather’s toolbox:
“We finally reached the window with the broken screen and he set the toolbox down with an audible sigh of relief. When Dave and I tried to lift it from its place on the garage floor, each of us holding one of the handles, we could barely budge it. Of course we were just little kids back then, but even so I’d guess that Fazza’s fully loaded toolbox weighed between eighty and a hundred and twenty pounds.
[…] When the screen was secure, Uncle Oren gave me the screwdriver and told me to put it back in the toolbox and “latch her up.” I did, but I was puzzled. I asked him why he’d lugged Fazza’s toolbox all the way around the house, if all he’d needed was that one screwdriver. He could have carried a screwdriver in the back pocket of his khakis.
“Yeah, but Stevie,” he said, bending to grasp the handles, “I didn’t know what else I might find to do once I got out here, did I? It’s best to have your tools with you. If you don’t, you’re apt to find something you didn’t expect and get discouraged.”
Productivity is a behavior. Humans tend to label behaviors as either right or wrong and most of us file productivity under ‘morally correct.’ Regardless if such categories even exist, this leads us to feel we should always be productive. We turn the behavior into an end when it’s nothing but a means. We collect as many tools, tricks, hacks, and tactics as we can, but ultimately, productivity is just a toolbox.
You can decide when to bring it and when to leave it at home. How big it should be and what tools you want to include. You can even take out certain tools temporarily and bring a lighter version. Clearly, there’s a lot of choice involved in productivity. But making it the default is not something you should do lightheartedly.
Because the nature of this relationship is not unilateral.
Another Uncle’s Advice
Unlike Stevie’s, my uncle isn’t too great at fixing things around the house. But he’s a partner at a big consultancy, and that’s pretty rad too. So when I asked him after graduating high school, he told me what degree he’d get at which college, and off I went. There, I first learned the meaning of hard work. The schedule and studying kept me busy a good 60 hours a week, especially during exam season.
Another part of the career plan he gave me was to study abroad, but in the US, college is different. More recurring assignments, less pressure to ace finals. Suddenly, I found myself in a small town in Massachusetts with lots of time on my hands. I didn’t need to work as much and eventually, I used my freedom to start questioning the map I had asked him for.
To a certain degree, you can influence how productive you are, regardless of your current task. You can figure out different behavior hacks, become more self-aware, and scour your work for shortcuts. But to a much bigger extent, the larger mission you’ve dedicated yourself to inevitably impacts how and how much you work. Most of all, it changes how much you want to work.
Your toolbox is a natural byproduct of the choices you make not just in your career, but in life. Therefore, the straightest path to changing how productive you are is changing your life. This may sound either obvious or really obscure, but for me, it’s a hard-earned lesson eight years in the making.
Let’s just say it took me a while to see.
My Favorite Synonym
Besides wandering off into the woods and around the lake, I spent a lot of that fall in the US reading. Blogs, like James Altucher and Zen Habits, and books like The Alchemist. The more I read, the more I thought “why can’t I do that?” Read a lot, write a little, and make a living that way. It sounded easy. It felt like fun. And if I was gonna work a lot, I’d much rather do this than design slides to help some corporation squeeze 0.2% more out of their EBIT.
It would be another two years before I ever put pen to paper, but that was the first time I dared to imagine something different. I found the courage to dream. Whether you call this fantasizing, career planning, or crafting a vision doesn’t matter, as long as you remember it’s the most powerful way you have to control that toolbox.
Vision is a wonderful word, because it contains two things: what you can imagine and what you can see. If you’re really honest with yourself about what kind of work you want, no matter how ridiculous it may sound, you get a clear image of your dream job. Maybe for the first time. And if you’re then really honest about how far away you are from that image, or that you might be headed in the wrong direction, gears start to click.
Of course, there are cases where the fog won’t clear. Sometimes, you can’t see ahead more than a year, or it might take the better part of a decade to figure out ‘your thing,’ but that’s okay. Because if you let your productivity follow your vision, you bake life’s imbalances into your expectations of work.
This is not only natural, it’s healthy. It’s not about always being productive, it’s about always being productive enough. Enough for that current stretch of the road, wherever it may lead.
Here’s where mine lead me.
One More Tool in the Box
When I finally started writing in 2014, I set goals left and right. Write 250 words a day, publish once a week, get 10,000 subscribers, make $1,000 in a month, whatever you could quantify, I would put on some physical or digital sheet and pin to the wall. As a self-starter, this helped me a lot at first, but eventually, I realized goals are just another measuring stick. One more tool in the box. But it’s no good to bring your hammer each time, when sometimes, your vision requires nothing but screws.
Gradually, my goals transformed into themes. This was a subconscious process and to this day, I still use goals, though I do it much less and they quickly wander to my mind’s back burner. But looking back, I can pinpoint that in 2015, my theme was ‘commit.’ I learned to stick to things and see them through, even though no one told me to do them. In 2016, my theme was ‘invest.’ I wrote daily summaries of book summaries, and while that may sound stupid, I somehow felt the returns would come later. They did. In 2017, my theme was ‘grow’ and in 2018 it’s ‘leverage.’
None of these indicate anything about my level of productivity, because instead of dictating desired outcomes, they help me cultivate a mindset. A mindset that lets me deal with my work in whatever way makes the most sense at the time. And whenever my vision changes, which is about twice a year, so do my themes and what they mean. Sometimes the changes are small, sometimes they’re big. But they always come from a good place.
I’m not in a rush anymore, and even though I work a lot these days, I feel calm while I’m doing it. For example, I took a ten-minute break between that last sentence and this one. Not because I needed it, but because it’s good to get fresh air and talk to a friend. It’s in line with my theme, because once I publish this post, it’ll be out there forever, working for me. That’s the leverage part, the part that matters. Not whether I can finish this ten minutes earlier. And while the theme itself is just another tool, it helps me lift the box.
Because now I can approach it from the right angle, even if that angle is different each time.
My dad has a toolbox too. Just like Stephen King’s grandpa’s, it’s old, leathery, and sealed shut with big latches. But it only has one handle. So whenever he let me carry it when I was little, I was struggling, because I could only grab it at one end with both hands. Life isn’t like that. Your toolbox is different.
In 2,000 year olds words, written by ancient philosopher Epictetus, translated for modern times in The Daily Stoic:
“Every event has two handles — one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other — that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.”
I’ve spent a lot of days working hard on things I didn’t care about and I’ve wasted a lot of days not doing enough for the things I love. There were seasons when I was always on and seasons when I was always off. But no matter whether I did too much or too little, each time was a result of trying to lift the toolbox at the wrong handle.
What I’ve learned about productivity in the past eight years is that it’s mostly a consequence of the choices you make about life. The only thing that should inform those choices is your vision, your big dream, your future so grand you barely dare to imagine. Once it does, this vision will trickle down into your every behavior. First in goals, then in themes, but it’ll sink in deeper by the day. Until your vision not only shapes how you do things, but who you are; who you’ll become. The person you were meant to be.
To this day, I’m my dad’s assistant when we fix stuff around the house. But now, carrying that toolbox doesn’t feel so heavy. Maybe, it’s because I’ve grown so much. Or, maybe, it’s because your productivity is a reflection of your courage to imagine.