The Internet is swamped with productivity advice about how you can work for less while being more productive than ever. The problem with most of this advice is that it’s not only misleading but counterproductive and even harmful.
Productivity advice is as old as the concept of work itself, but the current mass craze can probably be traced back to Tim Ferris’ “The 4-Hour-Work-Week” phenomenon. The other day, self-improvement blogger Mark Manson jumped on the “work less, do more” bandwagon by penning an article about some of the hacks he discovered that enabled him (drums roll, please) to work less and output more. First, he noted that productivity is deeply personal; what works for one person has no correlation as to what might work for others. His biggest takeaway, however, was the realization that productivity decreases after a certain amount of time, and, in order, to become super productive, you must leverage your time properly.
The first point is right on the money. We all have our own routines and habits that we’ve developed through trial and error. If you’re the most productive in the morning, there’s no need to force yourself to work at night. If you work better while listening to music than being in complete silence, then, by all means, continue working while blasting heavy metal music. (I’ve recently made peace with the fact that no matter how much I want to work in a social environment surrounded by other hustlers, I simply cannot get anything useful done unless I’m alone in a room with the door closed. Sadly, fun and sociable venues such as co-working spaces are out.)
Of course, the author cannot make an argument in favor of something without also making an argument against something; he needs an enemy. In this case, that enemy is the opposite of working short hours: working long hours. According to this productivity theory, there’s no point of working long hours when you only have a couple of hours per day where you’re productive anyway. Never the one to miss an opportunity to rip on anything even remotely resembling a religion, he bashes the so-called “Religion of Hustle” as a useless activity that has no correlation to productivity.
Essentially, why hustle or work long hours, when you can work productively a couple of hours, and then, for the rest of the day, play video games, floss your cat or jerk off on Facebook?
Why work 12–16 hours per day when you can work a couple of hours thanks to beautiful buzzwords such as “leverage” or by “outsourcing” the rest of your work to some guy in Bangladesh?
This article summarizes what’s been driving me absolutely crazy the last couple of years as every man and woman, their mom and their dog has been busy jumping from one productivity “life hack” to the next.
There are so many problems with this type of advice that I don’t even know where to start. Let’s begin with the audience this advice is aimed at. This type of advice works well for a specific type of individual, namely the same guy who’s giving this advice in the first place: the highly successful. The guy who’s already made it.
This type of advice seems to either work for Tim Ferris himself or the guests on his podcast who miraculously all built multi-million (or billion) dollar businesses by working a couple of hours a day or week.
If you’re already built something very successful, whether it’s a product, service or a blog, then you know exactly what’s the best use of your time to grow your product even further. If you have a super successful blog, you know that you should be writing specific type of content and not tinkering with the font or the design of the opt-in form. The colors of the opt-in form don’t matter that much compared to the actual content because you’ve already built a name for yourself, specifically as someone who’s an expert in a specific subject area.
On the other hand, if you’re just starting out, then building an audience is much more important than penning the perfect article because without an audience you don’t yet know what kind of content your audience is interested in — you don’t yet have an audience. Spending days or even months writing some super amazing article without an audience that’s eager to read it is an unnecessarily poor use of resources and time.
For everyone else who doesn’t have a best seller in The New York Times and a famous blog or podcast or a smiling picture with Tony Robbins, this advice is as useful as telling someone how to invest their million dollars so it becomes two million. Of course, to be eligible for this advice, you must first have a million in the bank just like you must be already successful to find the “work less, do more” advice useful.
This advice is also sneaky and seductive because it acts as junk food for your brain. It satisfies you taste buds, temporarily quenches your hunger, but ultimately fills you up with empty calories, thus furnishing your body with no nutritional value whatsoever.
In psychology, this is called “survivorship bias.” Successful and famous people can say pretty much anything, and their words will be forever immortalized into “productivity advice.” So, if Bill Gates or Michael Jordan jotted down some productivity tips on a piece of toilet paper, specifically where you only need to work a couple of hours and reach eternal happiness while making a boatload of money, you’d be hard pressed to ignore it. After all, it’s Bill Gates or Michael Jordan, two guys who are super successful in their respective fields. Their words carry weight.
But what you’ll never hear about are the guys who actually worked a couple of hours a day or week and never achieved anything noteworthy. Or, on the other side of spectrum, the guys who’ve worked 16 hours a day and also never achieved noteworthy. Or anyone in between.
History is written by the victors and self-improvement advice is written by successful bloggers with millions of monthly visitors, which essentially guarantees you’ll never hear from the losers who failed because they lacked focus, were unlucky, didn’t know what they were doing, or read one of Tim Ferris’ books one too many times.
The black box of success
The core problem with this kind of productivity advice—and this is crucial—is that you have no fucking clue what these successful bloggers did while they were trying to become successful.
Every successful and famous blogger is born a regular Joe that’s unknown to everyone except his mom, his dog and a couple of close friends. What you don’t know is how they went from average Joe to superstar Tim. You don’t know if the blogger was good friends with Huffington Post’s editorial board and used those connections to successfully pitch an article that was featured on the front page. You don’t know if the person was indecently grabbing women in Japan like that Swiss douchebag, giving him instant hate and massive publicity around the world.
Maybe he spent his previous life vehemently assaulting feminism and SJW’s to bait newspapers into giving him free publicity, and then, as soon as he reached a certain number of twitter followers, turned around and became everyone’s nice guy.
Maybe he was already a YouTube superstar who decided to go into writing (and shut down his channel) after building a massive audience on the video hosting platform.
Or, maybe, just maybe, he was a regular but persistent guy who, for years, lived in obscurity, slaving away 18-hour-days trying different things, building tons of different blogs until something finally clicked.
Essentially, what you see is some guy with millions of loyal fans telling you how to do the same. What you also see is some guy trying to save you out of your misery because he discovered that “one weird trick” that helped him become super productive in the last couple of months after 15 years of becoming an “overnight success.” You’re operating blind and all you see is the final, shiny super successful product—a site with thousands or even millions of visitors who have nothing but praise for his work.
In a sense, it’s like browsing your Facebook feed that’s replete with pictures of people vacationing on tropical destinations or seeing a family with smiling newborns. But never hearing the guy who had to slave long days and nights in a dark cubicle in order to get that vacation to Playa del Carmen, or the newborn parents who’re enduring sleepless nights and endless quarrels as a result of their newborn baby.
In a nutshell, all you really see is the amazing stuff without all the shitty stuff.
The bottom line is that you really have no clue whatsoever. Unless you’ve directly worked with the person, you just can’t peek inside someone else’s black box of success.
One of the important rewards of being an entrepreneur (apart from not having a boss shouting orders over your shoulder, and the possibility to make more money as to compared when you’re working for that boss) is if you stick around long enough, you’ll eventually learn “secrets” behind why certain things started working or “clicked.” These are the epiphanies and the “ah-ha” moments. It’s the secret sauce.
As someone who’s been hustling for a decade while building various online businesses, I’ve certainly learned my share of those. Obviously, more successful entrepreneurs know more secrets. Only they know what it took to reach a crucial milestone (ie, millions of visitors in traffic or mid to high five figures per month). Only they know that exact moment when things “clicked” and their business took one step closer to being on autopilot.
These secrets are never simple one-word answers such as “branding,” “leverage,” or “outsourcing.” One of the reasons it’s challenging to write about them or learn them in some college course is because writing and teaching is structured to appeal to a mass audience rather than very specific tweaks that explain why certain crucial situations clicked.
Other than experience, the best way to learn these secrets is from another entrepreneur in a personal 1–1 setting. While traveling and living around the world, I’ve met and befriended tons of self-made guys who’ve built very successful, in some cases multi-millionaire businesses. During our lunches all we did was discuss various business tips, tricks and secrets. I told them what worked for me and they told me what worked for them. Hour for hour, it was one of the most productive uses of my time for as long as I could ever remember, if not ever—certainly much more productive than reading about guy throwing around abstract terms such as “work less” and “use leverage.” (This is also why 1–1 mentoring with someone successful can be super useful. In fact, my mentoring sessions are nothing but the transfer of these “secrets” from my brain to yours.)
I’m sure you’ve read this far because you’re waiting for me to offer you a silver bullet. You’re waiting for me to replace someone else’s “silver bullet” with my own. My motivation for this article, however, was to show you—and perhaps confirm your hunch—that there’s just no substitute for persistence and trying different things until you they click.
There’s no shortcut. But I’m no super-super-successful blogger, so no one is going to listen to a guy like me tell you what you don’t want to hear. You’re hoping for a shortcut, that mythical “leverage” that will allow you to work less and output more. Well, here’s your mythical leverage: become famous and write about “shortcuts,” “leverage,” or other buzzwords that you can masterfully insert right behind a sob-story describing in excruciatingly detail how you suffered for many years until you accidentally stumbled on some silver bullet. Then, package all of that in a 1,500–2,000 word article. Success! There is your “leverage.”
One thing is for sure: the fastest way to torpedo your business is to take productivity advice from super successful people who attempt to take valuable experience and then compress it into some buzzwords which are then packaged and sold as complete solution for all your problems.
Don’t fall for this entitlement. You haven’t earned the right to work less. You haven’t earned the right to know any shortcuts. You haven’t done the work, so why should you be entitled to knowledge that can only be obtained as a by-product of work?
Until then, you better make best friends with the only allies you’ve got: grit and hustle. That means working until you cover all your bases, until you’ve tried everything and exhausted all your options. The specific amount of hours will depend on your will and drive to succeed, but I can certainly tell you it’ll be much more than merely two or four hours per day or week or month.
Having these important tools in your arsenal will help you navigate uncertainty while you’re inching closer to successfuly carving your own piece of the pie.
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