When you no longer have to work, how do you decide what to work on — and how much you work at all? Most people will never face this question, and so they zone out when others ask it.
Let’s consider a man named Jack. Jack thinks the above question is stupid. He assumes that if he didn’t have to, he’d never choose to work. In fact, why would anyone? Ironically, with that kind of mindset, if Jack came by some money, he’d just spend it all and, ultimately, be forced to go back to work.
Meanwhile, Blair has ventured deep into the world of work. She has studied productivity, time management, and flow. She knows about philosophical concepts like zen and self-actualization. She is thinking about leverage, delegating, and the impact her work makes on the world as a whole. Blair has had jobs where she was happy and jobs where she was miserable, and so, when she hears the above question, she is intrigued.
The reason Jack and Blair can barely have a conversation about work is that they’re too far apart on the Wheaton scale of productivity.
What’s the Wheaton Scale?
Wheaton defined 11 levels to show not just how one might become an expert in permaculture but also why it’s hard for outsiders and even community members to understand each other at times.
Someone at level 0 makes no conscious effort to preserve the environment, and their carbon footprint is really high. Someone at level 4 already grows 50% of their own food, and at level 5, people start teaching. Levels 8, 9, and 10 are reserved for the most revered people in the space, the ones who have not just fully embraced permaculture but also taught it to millions.
If you ask me, Wheaton’s biggest contribution isn’t the levels themselves but his observations on how people on different levels relate to each other.
If you’re on level 3, someone on level 4 looks cool. You admire them. A level 6 person you’ll still admire but start to struggle to understand. They’ll seem a bit quirky. And a level 9 person seems to just completely overdo it. You might even think, “That’s not permaculture anymore, that’s just nuts!”
Similarly, a level 5 person will look slightly ignorant but relatable if you’re on level 6. A level 3 person, on the other hand, might already seem like an idiot, and it only gets worse from there.
Wheaton finds all of these reactions to be inappropriate, and he’s right — because the Wheaton scale is much bigger than just permaculture.
Why Are Wheaton Scales Important?
The Wheaton scale is a concept. Once you’ve realized proficiency can create both gaps and connections in relating to others, you’ll see it everywhere.
A level 5 developer will struggle to explain basic concepts to someone at level 1 because they learned them so long ago. A level 3 writer thinks someone’s efforts at level 2 are “cute.” After all, they made the same mistakes last year.
Wheaton scales are important because they show us how the nature of a task transforms. They allow us to learn “in the right direction” and at least understand why we struggle to understand others.
As an amateur soccer player, I can admire Cristiano Ronaldo because on the outside, what he does looks like “more but better.” He dribbles faster. He passes more precisely. He shoots with incredible force. Of course, Ronaldo’s training plan looks nothing like that of someone in the lowest division of the German league — but at least externally, we can comprehend the result.
Someone at the base level, Scarcity, is in debt, effectively paying more than things cost. Until level 5, the scale is characterized by saving. Beyond that, however, it’s no longer more of the same. People become producers. They practice zero-waste. They build their own furniture. After level 6, people try to transcend the system of money altogether. They trade objects. They barter. They live an ostensibly frugal life that, in reality, is really about how they’ve redefined “wealth”. Imagine how that looks to someone who’s struggling to pay off their student loans.
The ERE community calls this the “fog of comprehension,” a problem that arises “because increasing competence is a difference in kind rather than degree” — and nowhere is this problem more pronounced than on what we can think of as the “Wheaton scale of productivity”.
The Wheaton Scale of Productivity
If Wheaton scales help us better understand our next career challenge as well as our peers in any field, one of the most useful Wheaton scales of all must be that of work itself. The following is my attempt at defining such a scale, the seeds of which came from Tony Stubblebine and Terrie Schweitzer.
Level 0 — Reactivity
This person takes no systematic approach to work whatsoever. They only do what’s necessary (barely show up on time), urgent (service the client in front of them), or what their boss repeatedly tells them to do. They’re only here to collect their paycheck and they only react to anything that threatens that prospect. They are unreliable and always on the edge of getting fired.
Level 1 — Infinite Scope
This person is already a 100% improvement over level 0. They are aware many things need to get done, and they actually aspire to do them. Unfortunately, their tool belt is so limited that all they can do is map out the infinite scope of todos. They accumulate tasks but have no system for structuring and completing them, so they spend a lot of time in paralysis. This person will do some things but not a lot and, often, ends up becoming a perpetual complainer about how there’s always too much work. Eventually, they resign to the chaos, do a bit each day, and wait for the weekend.
Level 2 — Project-Minded
This person makes an effort to sort tasks into larger projects, but there’s no prioritization of those projects. They work on whatever’s in front of them, and while they do get a good amount done, they still feel overwhelmed a lot. Whatever the boss’s whim of the day, they chase after it. When timelines accidentally line up, they get a glimpse of flow and enjoying their job, but most of the time, they don’t.
Level 3 — Max Output
This person is getting into more advanced productivity techniques, like the Pomodoro timer or Getting Things Done. They try to sort their projects in an order that makes sense, but they’re so excited about being systematic at work that they simply maximize their output altogether. The structure becomes their hammer, and everything looks like a nail. They’re busier than ever, and they love it. It makes them feel important. After a while, constantly being stressed catches up with them. They burn out. They realize: No matter how much I get done, there’ll always be more to do. Disillusionment sets in. This marks a critical juncture: They’ll either go back to level 2 or advance to level 4.
Level 4 — Work-Life Balance
This person understands that while there’s a systematic approach to getting things done, being productive is just one part of life. They take a holistic view of work, for example by deliberately designing their morning routine or a shutdown ritual at night. They realize the system they’ve discovered so far is just one of many, and that different tactics work for different people at different times. They know some projects are more important than others, and they develop an awareness around which activities induce flow vs. which only increase their pulse. They also try to say no more often. However, they still struggle to not overwork and tend to overestimate how much they can do.
Level 5 — Anti-Busy
This person develops a deep understanding that the opposite of important work isn’t busywork but rest. They can achieve more in four hours than most people do in a week because they ruthlessly prioritize the few essential activities that matter. They outsource what needs to be done but not by them, and they try to drop altogether what doesn’t matter at all. They no longer dive headfirst into time-consuming projects just to make more money, especially if they don’t align with their long-term career goals. They prioritize work they enjoy and that they are good at, and they rely on tools and tactics only insofar as they help them accomplish what must be done before another stretch of rest and reflection.
Level 6 — Impact-Driven
So far, this whole scale has been pretty self-centered. That’s because, at first, we work to earn money and thus survive. Then, we discover work can actually make us happy if we pick the right “what” and “how,” we begin to optimize for that. Only once our own needs are triple-secured and we really hit our stride does it occur to us: What I choose to work on will determine how useful I am to society. A level 6 person begins to seriously factor in this aspect, especially considering they no longer strive for max output. They want to use their skills for good while feeling good, and money is becoming an aside because they already have more than they need relative to their situation.
Level 7 — Lifetime Balance
At this point, I can only speculate because I’m on level 4 (more on that in a second), but I assume there is something beyond the impact that comes with an even greater sense of inner peace. The best way I can describe it is as “lifetime balance.” It’s easy for the impact-driven stage to become a shadow version of level 3: max impact instead of max output. Theoretically, level 5 should take care of that, but I have a feeling we can regress quickly. A level 7 person will pick projects based on their skills, enjoyment, and impact on society, but they will do so knowing work is only a small part of who they are, and there is no point in fighting death by trying to build some gigantic legacy construct. This person tries to be useful but mindful and is focused on doing what they can while they are here without worrying about what’ll happen after they’re gone.
I think the amount of work a person delegates will rise exponentially after level 5. I can’t sketch out how that happens because I’m not there yet and, as a writer with no ambitions to build a large company, I’m not sure I’ll ever be.
As Mark Hudson pointed out, Wheaton scales are usually exponential and sequential. You can’t skip levels, and someone at level 5 might be more than 100% more efficient/dedicated/experienced than someone at level 4.
My Journey as an Example
So, what does the progression through the Wheaton scale of productivity look like? Here’s my best guess, using my own life as an example.
My parents got me to level 2 by the time I was in high school. Usually, there wasn’t enough work to feel overwhelmed. In college, there was, and so one of the first things I did when I started writing seven years ago was to go study every productivity tool I could find and piece together my own system for max output. Driven by financial scarcity, I remained stuck on level 3 for five years, until I completed my Master’s and broke six figures in annual earnings.
In 2019, I managed to transition to level 4. I haven’t had any signs of burnout or extended periods of sickness since then, which is a good indicator, I think. Last year, I tried to jump from level 4 to level 6 and failed. Now, I know I need to reach level 5 first. If I don’t stop grinding and constrain how much I work, lesser priorities will keep creeping into my schedule, and my schedule will always remain full. I need to cultivate a true lifestyle of “not busy,” and, from there, pick a few projects that can really make a difference.
How Your Wheaton Level Affects Your Relationships
Last week, a fellow writer tweeted about rallying against declining stats. “Write more,” she said. Two years ago, I would have agreed. Now, I couldn’t. As long as you’re financially secure, the trend is your friend. Don’t fight it. Write less for a while. Do other things. Then, come back later.
Let’s say this writer is at level 3 and I’m at level 4. We’re only one level apart, but from her perspective, my advice might not make any sense. This only gets more extreme the further you and someone else are apart on the scale. If our two examples from the intro, Jack and Blair, are on level 0 and level 4 respectively, they’ll never find common ground. Unless Blair can conjure vivid memories of her time on level 1 or at least 2, or Jack can move up to level 2 or 3, they’ll struggle to relate, converse, and let alone work together.
A Wheaton scale explains how the nature of an activity changes as you become more of an expert in its corresponding field.
Wheaton scales allow us to see where we are and what we must do to advance. They also allow us to estimate where others are in their journey and thus better understand our relative position to them, which, in turn, can help or hinder how we connect with them.
The Wheaton scale of productivity is especially useful because it lets you make sense of the overall role work plays in your life. How big is that role? Bigger than it should be? Not big enough? What functions does work serve? Money? Happiness? Purpose? Does work contribute to your inner sense of peace or subtract from it? These are the kinds of questions the scale might help answer.
If you’re doing creative work — and today, all of us are — use the Wheaton scale of productivity at critical junctures in your career. Check-in with yourself. Contrast your situation with that of your peers, but make decisions based on where you are in your unique journey, not what anyone tells you, and if they ask you a question you don’t see the point of, remember: They may only be two levels ahead or behind.