Productivity, willpower as a limited resource, and how I do my best to hijack the system
Happy January everyone. Classic yuppie New Year’s post combined with men’s podcast episode, as reflected by the nasty-sounding title. I think everyone wishes they could be more productive; very often, productivity is standard “type-two” fun: it’s grueling or a chore at best in the moment, but it’s satisfying to look back at it afterwards and be proud. For the purposes of this model, I define productive work as optional tasks that lead to desirable long-term outcomes. This could be grinding out a spreadsheet for work, going to a gym, or even cleaning a corner of the house. It’s not only nice to be productive, but also necessary for most people to sustain themselves, short of the few trust fund babies who don’t desire a sense of self-fulfillment. Despite this, I am not a highly productive person. But I do my best, and think that putting my thoughts to paper would be valuable for myself and my readers.
The issue is that no one can be constantly productive. Especially in today’s world of instant gratification, finding the willpower for type-two fun, or even making lunch is often the whole battle when TikTok and UberEats hang within easy reach. Even without these distractions, work drains enough willpower and energy that there isn’t much left for productivity. If productivity is hard to do because it is optional, I consider work the necessary actions that people do. This includes basic biological functions and hygiene, but also extends to certain other rote behaviours such as showing up to an office job in the case of a white collar worker, or going to the library in the case of a student: existence in these places do not necessitate work or productivity. It’s not your fault. The grind of everyday life is enough to wear down motivation until one is incapable of desire to do any further.
I picked up on this early on in my career. Despite having a job that wasn’t particularly demanding, the pre-pandemic environment necessitated that I spend two hours a day commuting to the office, eight hours there, and then two more hours back. That left me with very little time to do much else. Add to that the other demands on time that aren’t productive but are tiring, such as type-one fun, or spending time with family and friends, and there isn’t time for much else. Though it’s easy for billionaire influencers to calculate how much free time someone has and conclude that they have no grit, the reality is that it’s not easy to find the motivation to do anything productive outside of work.
Not only have I realized that productivity is hard, I’ve also come to view willpower as a finite resource, for me anyways. That is to say that there is only so much patience over a given timeframe. It must be rationed, and used either slowly throughout the day, in intense bursts, or long burns that leave me completely worn out the next day. I’m not denying that some people simply have more willpower: I spoke to one of my friends about no longer having any willpower for productivity after work, and he told me what he did: he woke up three hours before starting his commute every day to study and prepare for a new job. That man had grit. I don’t have the same amount, but there is a way that I’ve been able to better harness what little I have.
Like the thousands of self-help books written before this blog post, I’m here to expound on the power of habit, and the many flavours it comes in. The longer a habit is maintained for, the harder it is to break. I stretch, work out, and write regularly. Not doing so gives me a certain anxiety now: a feeling that I have failed in my pursuits, as well a fear that the habit I’ve fought so hard to maintain will be broken. Habits are also best when regularly scheduled: I write mostly on planes these days, and publish a thousand words of writing once a week. I run once a week on the weekends. Like sleep hygiene, habit hygiene leads to the association of certain tasks with times, places, and people. As time progresses, these activities require increasingly less willpower, until the act of sustaining them is like brushing one’s teeth or showering: still not effortless on a terrible day, but unavoidable on a regular one.
There are other tricks that I use to force myself to become productive. One is to tell as many people as I can that I will do something I know I will have a hard time doing: quitting alcohol, running a marathon, writing once a week, to name a few. The more people know about it, the harder time I’ll have worming my way out of it. Another trick is to use guilty energy to fuel my work. If I’ve spent an entire Saturday morning at home, playing video games and scrolling through Reddit, and I have dinner plans, then at three or four in the afternoon, a switch somewhere is flipped. I know that I’ll have no time to write or exercise later, and I often have my most productive chunk of work during that time.
Likewise, if I am going to a party later in the evening, but I have done nothing all day, the hours leading up to the party will be filled with furious work in an attempt to catch up to where I think I should have been. In the first exercise, the desire not to be made a liar fuels me along with raw willpower, and in the second, the understanding that I won’t need any willpower for the next few hours allows me to burn through my reserves. The answer is to be as productive as possible while using the least willpower.
The intention of this post isn’t to guilt readers into productivity. Rather, I aimed to share how I can be productive, while recognizing that productivity is a challenge for most people most days. Willpower is a limited resource after all, and when one is plainly out, it’s best to recognize that instead of berating oneself for not being productive, or even worse, refusing to enjoy the time one is spending with their family and friends. A fun movie I watched last year was Banshees of Inisherine, an Irish production about a man who decides to cut ties with a friend because he thinks his friend is getting in the way of his artistic development. This happens to people addicted to productivity, concerned that enjoying life will get in the way achievement. Attaining one’s goals isn’t mutually exclusive with enjoying life and the company of loved ones. Take the small achievements as they come, and be productive at the expense of mind-numbing social media scrolling, not quality time.