Let's do a thought experiment.
Imagine someone that gets things done. They work hard, speed through tasks, and work on self-initiated projects in their spare time. Next, imagine someone that's happy. They're present in conversation, confident without being defensive, and they put everyone in a good mood.
Now, imagine that these are actually the same person. Is she happy because she gets so much done, or is she productive because she's in a good mood? Which came first, productivity or happiness?
This is my proverbial chicken and the egg. Which side are you on?
The Productive Chicken
A year ago, I was on Team Productivity. I had moved to San Francisco and took a job as a designer/developer. I was super proficient in design–but code? Nope. Every time I thought I was advancing, something smacked me back down to Earth. Still, I was determined to "make it" as a front-end developer. I was heads-down at work and up late learning new things at home. I had three goals for myself: know a lot, be confident, and work fast. The stuff of Productive People.
As time went on, I had a couple of little wins. Every now and then I surprised myself by teaching a coworker something they didn't know. But every time I had one of those moments, I still felt like I only knew a tenth of what I should (I still don't know what promises are besides a complicated CS concept masked with an emotionally-charged name).
Within 6 months, I was burnt out and feeling like a fraud. Let's see how I was stacking up to my goals:
Know a lot. I felt like I learned maybe a couple of things well.
Be confident. How could I be confident when I felt like a pea-brain?
Work fast. Without self-confidence, I second-guessed myself and took twice as long on the simplest tasks.
Was I productive? Nope. Was I happy? You guess.
The Happy Egg
Fast-forward to today and I'm on Team Happy. I would love to tell you that I know everything, I'm the most confident person in the world, and I'm always on top of my game. I'm not! Case in point–I'm writing this article the day it's due.
But I am happy, and as a result, I'm more productive than I was before. I didn't make a conscious decision to change (I don't have that much control over my psyche). I stumbled upon the effect that happiness has on my output when I accidentally brought cats to work.
Well, not real cats. Back when I was on Team Productivity, I made a Chrome extension called Tabby Cat during a typical weekend dedicated to learning new things. The premise of Tabby Cat is simple–each time you open a new tab, you get a new randomly generated cat. It has a funny name, random color and body shape, and cool accessories like coffee and Raybans.
I released Tabby Cat expecting no one to use it. The Chrome Web Store was filled with to-do lists, note-taking software, and app integrations designed to help you focus. At the time, I valued productivity, but the idea behind Tabby Cat is undeniably counter-productive.
And yet... Today, over 200k people use Tabby Cat, and the vast majority of people use it during work.
The reason? Tabby Cat helps people step out back from their work and smile when they least expect it. Take these reviews as proof.
For me, Tabby Cat was the intervention that made me realize all the ways that my work processes were failing me. In my pursuit of productivity, I picked up habits that hurt my self-esteem and made it hard for me to succeed. Here are a few of the biggest realizations I had about myself, and how cats helped me turn them around:
I worked too hard. I used to have tunnel-vision at work. I'd put my head down and I wouldn't pick it back up until the end of the day. When a cat would pop up in a new tab, it helped me step back, smile, and breathe. As a result, my code made more sense than it did when I was a weird little work hermit.
I hid the things that made me happy. One day last year, a formidable coworker that I barely knew was giving a presentation when Tabby Cat appeared on their computer. It turned out that they loved cats as much as I do, and we later bonded over the common ground. With the ice broken, I was able to learn from this person and seek help when I needed it.
I put people on pedestals. After building Tabby Cat, I realized that other people's achievements are made up of the same little wins and little failures as my own work. It doesn't matter if the outcome is "successful" or not. I continue to find a lot of comfort and confidence in that thought.
My idea of success was too lofty and undefined for me to ever reach it. By focusing on how much I should know, how confident I should be, or how fast I should work, I was setting myself up for failure. I was chasing after a perfect version of myself that kept getting farther away. Even if I hit my goals, I wasn't happy enough with myself to accept them. Typical imposter's syndrome.
Now I chase the little wins. These are times when I do something I'm proud of, or moments when I make someone smile. Little wins are achievable and fulfilling. Happiness leads to confidence, and productivity follows suit.
Now, I have a new set of goals to be my happiest, most productive self.
Maybe share dogs.