I used to be the kind of person who starts many different projects but never finishes them. I would get really excited about something and immediately get to work, riding the initial enthusiasm. “This is it, this is the thing I will spend every waking hour on until it becomes successful”, I thought. I started picturing myself as my heroes, crushing my goals every day, and earning my place at their side.
But that was never what happened. Instead, I would reach what marketing guru Seth Godin calls The Dip — the point at which everything becomes muddled and hard, and nothing is happening despite your enthusiasm. I desperately wanted to “put in the hours”. But as the resistance grew, it became increasingly hard to do so.
The outcome I wanted suddenly seemed less urgent. Despite being a long way from success, it became challenging to fill up my days with things to actually do. Eventually, I quit and moved on to something else.
I started to question myself. Was I lazy? Did I not have what it takes to perform at the highest levels? Would I end up a failure for the rest of my life? I remember thinking it shouldn’t have to be this hard. At least, I really wanted to believe that. It turns out I was right.
I now consistently work for 10–12 hours every single day, 6 days a week. I have done so for the last 18–24 months. And when I say work, I mean it. I don’t look at my phone. I don’t take long breaks. I work.
More importantly, I don’t have to force myself to do this. I am not advocating that you should make yourself work 12 hours a day when every fiber of your being is telling you not to. That is a sure path to burnout. The number of hours you work is not ultimately important anyway, as we will discuss later. When you have the right building blocks, it doesn’t really feel like working. It feels like simply being alive and doing your thing.
These three building blocks stacked together create something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s what allows for extreme productivity to happen in a sustainable way.
You first need something that feels meaningful to work on. You need an aim, outcome, or vision, that you desperately, genuinely want to turn into reality. In my case, that thing is helping to take back human health.
The best “proof” of this in my opinion is the conclusion reached by the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, as presented in his classic book Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl was a survivor of several nazi concentration camps. During his time in the camps, he studied what it was that made his fellow surviving prisoners able to endure some of the worst circumstances ever known.
He concluded that the primary motivational force in humans is to find meaning in one’s life. The two primary ways to find meaning is through work and love. In both cases, you put something else (to an extent) above yourself. Here lies an important distinction for our purposes: work is one way to find meaning, but it’s not enough. You also have to love the work.
If you think about it, there are many things you wish were different in the world. There are many outcomes that would be meaningful to you. But if you consider spending the next 5–10 years on one of them, there are very few you would actually enjoy working on. In much the same way, there are many people you find attractive, but very few you would enjoy spending years working on a relationship with.
Your intrinsic motivation mostly determines what you actually do want to spend your time on. According to Self Determination Theory (SDT) — one of the best-recognized models for intrinsic motivation, self-regulation, and well-being — there are three psychological needs that must be met for you to thrive. These are competency, autonomy and relatedness. According to this theory, the less intrinsic motivation people find in their work, the less likely they are to remain in their chosen career.
You cannot succeed in something you just want to get done as soon as possible so you can move on to the next thing. You must choose something you would enjoy spending years working on. When I think about my future, I genuinely feel that I would be lucky if I get to spend the next 10–15 years doing what I do now.
It might be cliché, but you need to honestly ask yourself: would I do this for free or without having the potential of making money from it? Sometimes that’s hard to answer with confidence early on, but you should have a gut feeling.
I don’t know if I would actually do what I do for free. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that every day, I feel like I would. When your work feels like something you would do even if you didn’t have to work, there is nothing pulling you away from it.
If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.
— Lucille Ball
The last building block is more practical than philosophical. If you only have a couple of things to get done without any real deadline, you can still do meaningful work that you love. But you won’t be extremely productive.
When you have a long list of things that all seem equally critical to the outcome, and you have to prioritize them carefully, you will have more respect for each thing on the list.
Most of the time nowadays, I’d rather work than relax or take time off, because that allows me to clear tasks so that I can get to the next, even more important task. And that takes me closer to the outcome. And that is what drives me.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should make up a bunch of tasks so that you can prioritize them. I’m saying that extreme productivity won’t ensue until you have more work than you can handle.
Should you be so focused on output or should you direct your attention more toward results?
— Benjamin Hardy, PhD
The most important takeaway is that you shouldn’t try to be extremely productive. There is no inherent value in being busy. The race for who is the worst workaholic is for insecure losers. Stay away from it.
When you find something that feels meaningful to you, that you love spending your time on, and when that gives you more work than you can handle, extreme productivity will become a necessity and will ensue automatically.
Instead of beating yourself up for not being able to work extremely hard on something, start doing the hard work on yourself to find out what that thing really is. Like Steve Jobs famously said: “If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking”.
Think about what will give you competency, autonomy and relatedness. Think about what you spend an unreasonable amount of time or money on. Think about what kind of things you used to do as a kid, before extrinsic motivation consumed you.
My goal is to work a couple of hours a day with a samurai-like-focus on results. This way I can achieve my big aim and still have time to develop and enjoy all aspects of my personality and life. Until I get there, I will continue simply being alive and doing my thing.