Why you don’t always have to be productive

Akiff Premjee
September 8, 2020

I started writing my newsletter back in June 2020. My initial goal was to stay consistent and publish once a week. I had read enough productivity articles and watched enough Thomas Frank and Ali Abdaal videos to know that consistency was king. If you want outputs, do something over and over again and eventually the compounding effect will create growth. Seemed simple enough.

I was 10 weeks in and pretty proud of myself for staying consistent. I dedicated Monday evenings to writing to make sure that I published something by Tuesday. I pushed away studying on Monday nights and also built accountability with my friend Wesley, who is also building a writing habit.

Everything was going well. I was enjoying writing, publishing and the dopamine hit of having a 10 week streak. I had a Notion dashboard to track my progress, fully built with an idea pipeline. I was engaging with people on Twitter and growing my audience there. I was approaching my secret goal (that I told myself wasn’t my goal) of 100 subscribers by the end of 2020.

And then life happened and I missed an issue.

My 7-year-old dog, Luna, passed away suddenly due to complications after a surgery. On top of keeping up with family who were going through an emotional time because of all of this, I was also moving to a new apartment which ended up taking two days and an all-nighter because of odd times that I could get access to a UHaul truck. I was also in the last week of my Pediatrics rotation and had to study for the final exam which I ended up cramming for two days before given all that had happened with Luna and moving apartments. It was the perfect storm.

It’s safe to say that the newsletter didn’t come together last week.

I knew that not publishing my newsletter wouldn’t impact any of my readers. It’s not like I’m a huge publication and people are waiting to see an email from me in their inbox each week. However, I felt defeated on a more personal level, as if I had let myself down. I had been doing something I was proud of and maintained it for 10 weeks in a row and was seeing results. Missing a week wasn’t something I wanted.

But then I thought about it and just said, it’s fine.

Hustle culture has taken over our feeds and makes us feel like that we have to always be on and working. If we’re not, then we aren’t trying. I really don’t like that mindset. I can’t tell you how much I cringe when I see a GaryVee clip saying that you have to work 15 hour days to get results and that hustle is life. I couldn’t disagree more. (Nat Eliason wrote an article on this if you’re interested)

I think it’s okay to not be “productive” all the time. We are not robots or machines that are built to consistently work. We need time to recharge and regroup. However, more fundamentally than that, I think we approach productivity in the wrong way. We think of it as what we should be doing in any given time to have the greatest output. Instead, if we think about productivity from a different lens, I believe we will actually be both more productive and more content with what we are doing with our lives. Productivity should include the following aspects:

Find What You Enjoy

Instead of creating goals and aspirations based on what everyone says you should be doing, figure out the things that you want to be doing and enjoy doing. You will inherently be better at these things because you are intrinsically motivated to do them.

This makes sense logically in any other area of life - if you want to be healthy then find healthy foods that taste good too you. You wouldn’t eat broccoli instead of cauliflower if you really hated broccoli and liked cauliflower right? So then why are we doing similar things when it comes to productivity? Find what you enjoy and do that.

Michael Ashcroft described this as “non-coercive-productivity” in a recent tweet and phrased it in a way that I really appreciated:

If you just take a look around Twitter and the varied amount of people who are building in public you see the outputs of this. People spending time on work that they appreciate and like benefits them in two ways:

  1. They are more prone to engage with their work and create better products and outputs.
  2. Audiences and consumers like to see a creator’s journey, leading them to engage with and support whatever that creator is building. Everybody wins.

Y-Combinator famously said “Build something people want.” Well, I think this is changing to “Build something you want.” The people will follow.

Reframe Productivity

Productivity shouldn’t just be about work that leads to outcomes in your professional life but should also include things that benefit your personal well-being. There is no reason why working out, spending time with your family and friends, or even relaxing for an evening watching a TV show to recharge your brain can’t be seen as productivity.

Limits are the key here, and I think we confuse not having limits in place with being unproductive a lot. I think it’s okay (and even necessary) to take time to recharge but having a plan and knowing what you want to get done by when is also important.

I had this experience this past weekend. I had just finished my Peds rotation after a tough week of moving and family stuff going on and decided to take Saturday and Sunday off. I did a few tasks (e.g. unpacking) and got on a couple of calls that excited me but outside of that I didn’t do much and instead watched David Blaine’s Ascension with a friend.

I think a lot of people (myself included) see a holiday weekend as an opportunity to catch up and be productive on all of the things they’ve been putting off. I took a different approach this time and treated Labor Day Weekend as a holiday and vacation from doing anything I would usually call productive. The result is that I feel great going into this week as I start my NICU elective and am recharged to work on my side projects - something I wouldn’t have felt if I had just put my head down and worked all weekend.

Account for Life Happening

Life happens to all of us.

I had a lot going on last week that came in the way of me being “productive” for my newsletter. But I can’t say I wasn’t being productive or doing meaningful things. Supporting my family through the passing of my dog, moving apartments to decrease my rent and increase my living space, and studying for my Pediatrics exam were all activities that led to positive outcomes that I needed in my life last week. Just because I couldn’t fit in my newsletter doesn’t mean I wasn’t productive.

This goes back to reframing productivity but also knowing that there will be times where things will happen and we won’t get anything done. We won’t be able to focus because a loved one passed away or we may be feeling drained from everything that is going on in the world today and just want to sit in bed and eat ice cream.

We feel super guilty about doing this because we think: “Others are able to get through stuff like this so why can’t I?” Well, let me be the first to tell you that others don’t just get through stuff like this. We’re human and when human things happen to us, we need to take time for ourselves. I’m here to tell you that you should “do you” when you need to.

Life happens and sometimes we can’t account for everything. That’s okay.

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