One year ago, when I published the opening post of The Human In The Machine, I doubted that I would be able to coordinate 365 posts–and as many writers–on the topic of productivity. While it was an awesome project, it also seemed like an impossible task to handle. Here's what I wrote:
In many regards, I doubt this project is feasible. Actually, I even think the 365 posts goal is probably impossible to achieve for someone who has a job, two kids, plays music, and practices sports. A publishing project like this one represents so many emails, so many parameters and variables, such a complex algorithm, so many unpredictable events, and such discipline that I can't possibly think I will be able to handle all the events involved in its completion for 365 days.
It's going to be like a year of Tetris. Without a break.
I was so right. And yet, 365 days later, not a single day had gone by without a post being published.
So, how did I do it?
Over the course of this year, I've spent a lot of time reading texts about productivity, thinking about productivity, and doing my best to be as productive as possible myself.
But, as much as productivity took a very important place in my everyday life during the whole of 2017–both conceptually and materially–the truth is that the satisfaction of achieving what I had set myself to achieve (publishing 365 authors) gradually faded. I grew tired of the idea of being productive–both conceptually and materially. Why? Because the product has way too much importance in productivity. And what do I mean by the product? The result. The goal. The end of the path.
Unsurprisingly, productivity inevitably carries with it the notion of a product (semantics never lies). In turn, the product inevitably carries with it the notion of its reception (Will the product see the day? How will it be perceived?), and the notion of reception, well, inevitably carries with it the notions of success and failure (Will the product be good?). So, at the very core of productivity lies this terrible question: Will I succeed? Whether your product is producing an online publication, or doing everything you can to be in bed at a certain moment and sleep a certain number of hours, or even the classic “list with every item crossed off before the sun goes down”, it makes no difference: the same terrible question still stands.
Being productive is not just about being efficient, it's about being efficient in serving a product
Success and failure are tied to productivity: The two possibilities are either floating in the air, or right there in your face, depending on your inner settings.
Yes, productivity serves a product. Being productive is not just about being efficient, it's about being efficient in serving a product, with the uncertainty of whether the product will see the light of day at all. And inexorably, the possibility that you might fail at producing the product leads to stress. (I'm merely establishing here that, biologically, our organism enters a state of stress when failure may be the outcome of our undertakings. How do you feel when it's 7pm and you haven't managed to cross off half the items on your list?)
The anxiety of reception
So, ok, when we talk about productivity, we raise the inevitable question of how the product will be judged. And therein lies the critical eye of others on our work and on us as peopler (Note that I'm deliberately leaving aside the question of our own judgement of our own work and of ourselves as people. Indeed, self-validation usually comes through the eyes of others—a statement that you will just have to buy, as proving it is beyond the scope of this article.)
With the internalization of others, and what they may think of what we produce, we're bound to suffer the alienation that comes with not being able to connect to ourselves. (“What do I think? I don't know: I'm so preoccupied with what people will think of my work and of me as a person.”)
Back to me. So, well, I grew tired of the stress and the anxiety brought into my life by the accomplishment of my product (in my case, publishing one new post a day). The alienation that comes with being productive (read “being oriented toward a product”) became a huge discomfort in my life. I gradually reached a point of thinking, “Hey, fuck productivity, and leave me alone, internalized others.” (These were the very words I was using in my conversations with myself.)
Yet I love being busy
Ok. So fuck productivity. Fair enough. But I love being busy: I love the adrenaline. And I love the “positive stress” that goes with being busy (a stress which energizes me instead of consuming my forces in a black hole–that's “negative stress”).
What I don't like, I’ve found out, is the product. To put it otherwise, I love “being in the moment” (when you do the actual tasks that make you productive) and I hate the projections tied to the result. Present vs. future. Pleasure vs anxiety.
Being disciplined is far better than being productive
I have two kids. I have a job. I practice sports. I play music. Add to this mix that I enjoy going out and partying–and I'm talking about 5am, dancing on the table type of partying. (“Wait, you have kids and you do that? Shouldn't being a father prevent you from having so much fun?”).
Obviously, I've had to be very disciplined to carry all the tasks that, put together, made me a productive enough person to shoulder a publication gathering 365 authors, on top of an already busy life. Disciplined, the keyword.
At its core, discipline–at least in the context of running The Human In The Machine–is about performing the same tasks at the same moment, no matter what. While productivity is a very “external” thing (the product we serve, even if this product exists inside of us!), discipline is extremely “internal”. There's no sense of reception with discipline: I look at myself through my own prism, not through the perception of others, and I feel what I feel.
I came to realize that discipline is calm and quiet, while productivity is busy and noisy. I have grown fond of the discipline required to publish The Human In The Machine, even in its least romantic embodiments (follow-up emails). There's something meaningful to these rituals–I didn't really try to understand their effects any further than that; noticing that they made me feel good was enough.
Being disciplined became more important than the accomplishment of the project itself. Success and failure faded away (they were still there, but a lot less deafening), while rituals and structure became more prevalent in my everyday life. I became less and less productive (read again “oriented toward a product”) and more and more disciplined (read "efficient for the sake of it”).
At some point during the year, I completely moved from being productive to being “just” disciplined. I think it was in September that I started not to give a shit about whether I would “make it” or not (again the words I used in my conversations with myself: please file all cursing during the rest of this article under this umbrella), pretty much when I decided to reboot The Pastry Box Project and when the amount of work I was adding to my already heavy schedule became close to untenable–not to mention the “reception anxiety“ resulting from reviving a successful project.
After this shift in my mindset, the regular rhythm and the quiet pace of being focused on the tasks at hand–and detaching them from their finality (the product)–quickly outflanked the agitation and the anxiety of being product-focused.
There were still deadlines, of course. And I don't want to sound like it wasn't a lot of work. But hey, if a day goes by without a post that's ok. The point is that I'm focused on my discipline, and I will keep on doing what I enjoy doing until I don't enjoy it anymore. (I haven't talked about the prison that productivity can become when you no longer like the product you're serving, as it's beyond the scope of this article, although I briefly mentioned this concept in my opening post.)
Ultimately, productivity kills the product
Let me go one step further in my rebuttal of being productive with a flashback to when I first understood something very important about myself.
I started writing a novel a few years ago. I would get up very early and write while the whole world was still asleep. I would do some rewriting during my lunch break. Then I would find some more time to write in the evening instead of, say, watching TV shows. By all standards, I was very productive–a goddamn huge problem, which ultimately led the product (the book) never to see the light of day. I always found that the characters were too intense, that the events I depicted were too politically incorrect, that the structure was too experimental. You name it, I picked at it. Bottom line, I was sure that no one would publish my book and couldn’t help but think what the fuck, I'm investing my energy in the wrong product.
So I started another book. Same output. So I started a play. Same output. Then I stopped writing for months, trying to figure out what would “work”, what people might want to read. I wanted to make sure that I wouldn't spend all that time working on a project that wouldn't see the day because, you know, it was too cutting-edge. After all, being extremely productive ultimately means betting on the right product, otherwise you're just potentially wasting your time, right?
Well, aren't we facing here a typical case where productivity kills all production?
Productivity, pushed to its most “efficient” level (the certainty that you're not wasting time and that the product will see the day), is, in actual fact, the most counterproductive approach you can imagine, because you will almost never carry something until its completion because of, well, human nature and doubts.
The perfect product is a byproduct
But I love writing. I love writing so much. When did things get so messed up that I would put more emphasis on my chances of being published than on the mere act of writing?
I recently started writing again. But this time, unsurprisingly, I'm focusing on the discipline of writing, and the life that comes with this discipline, and the pleasure that comes with this life.
At this point in my work, I couldn't care less about publishing my novel. If it happened, it would be great. And I would be proud and enjoy all the wonderful things that come with being published. If it doesn't happen, it won't prevent me from leading my life the way I want. In other words, the book being published is a byproduct of my discipline and my work ethic–it’s those traits that would enable me to write a powerful novel. Productivity, before my epiphany, was simply killing the product. Period. (I'll admit that I can be quite intense as a person and that I was pushing the concept of productivity quite far.)
Nowadays, I feel like a samurai (in its most idealistic–and unrealistic–depiction), dedicating my life to the practice and the perfection of my craft. Productivity at its worst, when it's pushed to the extreme of not wasting time and energy at all, will alienate you so much that you will not even know what you truly want to do. You lose your voice, so to speak. It's a lot nicer to dance like no one's watching.
A nice side effect of killing the notion of product is that there are no more “worthless projects”. Back to the coding side of my life–I'm building SuperYesMore when there are already tons of blogging apps. I. Don't. Care. I live for this shit. And the product (superyesmore.com) exists as a byproduct of my love for coding publishing tools and publishing stuff on them. Call it me indulging in the pleasures of my day and age. I have no fucking exit strategy. I just plan to keep on coding and publishing stuff, and getting better at it (and I'm cool with the fact that it takes time). You know, just for the satisfaction of doing what I like in an intense, disciplined, fulfilling way.
In conclusion, it's not going to make things easier, just less unpleasant
Now comes the part that will blow your mind: If the product is not important anymore–if you don't need to reach a goal–why not just chill?
The “just for the satisfaction of doing what I like in an intense, disciplined, fulfilling way” approach doesn't mean that I'm not tired, that my back doesn't hurt, that sometimes I don't want to just quit everything and leave forever and not do anything anymore.
So why push myself if there's no endgame requiring me to push myself?
My answer is going to be extremely simple and laconic: it's an either-you-get-it-or-you-don't type of answer.
Because it makes me feel better and a lot less depressed than when I'm chilling or doing things without engagement and sacrifice.
Thank you for reading.