The productivity myth

I love sleep. If I am allowed to sleep undisturbed, I’ll snooze for at least 10 hours straight. I’m a night owl and have been since I was a little kid. Sleep experts have been telling us for years that to be more productive, we should be sleeping no more than 8 hours and getting up early. Livestock early. Others swear by polyphasic sleep (think of the Seinfeld episode when Kramer tried a series of short naps instead of sleeping through the night). Rather than try to sort out conflicting data on sleep research or the opinions of productivity experts, I’ve come to this conclusion: the best measure of success is not productivity, it is happiness.

Strategic laziness
Strategic laziness

When I’m allowed to work late and get up late, I feel good. When I don’t, I feel bad. This may be why I’ve never thrived at school or working at a regular job. It’s torture for people like me, because it forces us into a schedule that’s at odds with our circadian rhythms. When researchers take a random group of people to study, and there are always some night owls among them, these are the people who do poorly on their productivity tests. There’s a reason for this: we’re tired. When you take late risers and make us get up early, the smug early risers will beat us every time.

In addition to having to deal with annoyingly cheerful morning people, we night owls are discriminated against in nearly every institution except night clubs. Consider standardized testing. Had I been allowed to take them at 8 p.m. instead of 8 a.m., I’d probably be wearing a varsity crimson H on my sweater right now. In fact one of my key criteria for choosing colleges was those who didn’t require the SAT, because my scores were so bad. Marks in all my first hour classes in high school and college were consistently a full letter grade lower than my other classes, even though I was more interested in some of the early morning subjects (physics, evolutionary biology, economics).

But it was my daytime jobs where I was clearly so disadvantaged that I knew I had to work for myself. I was frequently late, incoherent until about 10:30 a.m. and generally miserable. I don’t like coffee or cola, so caffeine never helped me. In one publishing company which eerily resembled the movie Office Space, my boss called me “Steve” the entire time I worked there and I couldn’t muster the initiative to correct him. The only upside to this was that this boss, a Canadian named Blake, asked me to make up business cards with his name in Chinese for his trip to the Beijing Book Fair. I gave him the characters “Pi Lei Ke”, which in Mandarin means “Ass of Thunder”. I left shortly thereafter, going out on a high note.

Read any personal development or time management guru and they’ll talk about the importance of getting up early if you want to be more “successful” or “productive”. Here’s a quote from a popular motivational guy named Steve Pavlina writing on his blog about how to get up early. He says he used to sleep late,

“But after a while I couldn’t ignore the high correlation between success and rising early.”

Really? So I guess Shelley, Churchill, Joyce, Proust, Edison, Darwin and so many great creative thinking night owls should have read Steve’s blog so that they could have been more successful. There’s new research that shows owls are smarter and make more money than larks and other studies that show we have more mental stamina. We owls have known this all along.

I’m writing this at 11:50 at night, and were it not for my wife’s urging, I’d keep writing until 2:30 a.m., which is when my creative energy tends to drop off. If you measure success in terms of achieving goals, my goal for this blog is to enjoy writing it and have readers enjoy reading it. Would I attract more readers or would they enjoy it more by my getting up earlier? I don’t know. Personally, I’d certainly be grumpier and enjoy it less.

Being productive is about getting things done, but this can also be termed efficiency. Merely being productive doesn’t mean we’re doing anything of real value. It just means we’re engaged in an activity, not necessarily accomplishing anything important. I could get up a 6 a.m. and do 10 meaningless things. I could get up an hour earlier and produce 20 meaningless things. I could produce any number of things, including greenhouse gases, but what does this have to do with success and more importantly, happiness?

Are we creating things that are meaningful to us? Are we enjoying the moment? Whose agenda are we following? What happens if we do less or don’t do it at all? Is humanity be better served by what we’re doing? Would doing more make us significantly happier?

In my mind, success is about happiness that comes from being engaged in a meaningful activity. As I write this I am happy. If I doubled my writing productivity it would not make me doubly happy, it would probably just stress me out. So the myth of productivity is that the more we do, the more successful and thus happier we’ll be. The work ethic has so corrupted our happiness that we feel guilty if we do less, yet it is exactly by doing less, that things become easier. Push, and you will find resistance. Relax, and the world will unfold itself at your feet.

Here’s a great quote from Fred Gratzon, author of The Lazy Way to Success.

Now, I will readily concede that if you achieve something in one hour, you will achieve two somethings in two hours. If your desiring limit is 16 somethings, then you have found the right, mindless formula. But what if you want a million somethings? Then you need a new math.

The basis of this new math is the pure, simple, and elegant truth – SUCCESS IS INVERSELY PROPORTIONAL TO HARD WORK. This means, as effort and hard work become less, success becomes more. As you move towards effortlessness, success moves towards infinity.

The natural conclusion from this truth is that hard work is detrimental to success. One obvious clue is that the world is chock-full of hard workers (nearly everyone works hard) yet there are few successful ones among them. Yet for some cockamamie reason, people still cling to the notion that the harder they work, the more successful they will become. In reality, the only thing proportional to hard work and effort is fatigue.

Fred has a very cool 5-minute video on the virtues of laziness from the greatest minds in history. There are plenty of people leading this lazy revolution, notably uber kid Tim Ferris and his bestseller the 4-Hour Workweek. It seems like laziness is the new mother of invention.

I am living proof that being lazy (as defined by doing minimal work and concentrating on enjoying other activities) has significantly improved my life. When I bought a winter place in Thailand, I downshifted about 3 gears and spent most of the day reading, swimming, hanging out with my wife & friends, writing and designing. In the process, my income has more than doubled, I sleep a lot more, and am so relaxed my blood pressure and cholesterol are actually too low. I’ve been thinking about writing a book about how I deconstructed my life to achieve these things. Even better, someone could write it for me.

“The happiest part of a man’s life is what he passes lying in bed awake in the morning”
— Samuel Johnson

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