Does it even matter if you're productive?

Day two of our Rethink the Future Summit.


Welcome to the second day of Rethink the Future, a virtual launch summit we’re hosting March 6th-10th, 2023. This is part two of today’s double feature on the future of work.

In this video, we’re speaking with Evan Armstrong, author Napkin Math by Every, who talks about our elusive pursuit of productivity and whether that’s even an ideal we should chase.

Click the above video to watch or read the complete transcript below.

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Elle Griffin: In one of your posts, “In defense of the unoptimized life” you broke down the concept of productivity and whether that's actually a productive goal. Is it?

Evan Armstrong: I just feel this great pressure to be like a better person. And I decided that was dumb. And I needed a post to justify not being a better person or not being productive. And so this was the result of it all.

Elle: There's this idea that if we optimize our lives, we can be the most productive, but what does that even mean? And how much are you actually increasing your productivity? And is productivity really the thing you want to be increasing anyways?

Evan: I just actually just published a post yesterday where, whenever you see anything that's so deeply psychological, whether it's productivity or creativity, what we want is rules, right? We want: “If I do X, I'm going to get Y results,” but because productivity is such a deeply personal topic, you can't make rules on how to be productive. So I think a lot of it was circling “maybe it should be less of us trying to build a ruleset or a lifestyle and more about us pursuing what feels right, and what ultimately makes us feel productive” and that's going to have better results anyways.

Elle: It reminds me of when Inc. Magazine published something that said all successful people wake up at 4am. And I just remember J.K. Rowling retweeting it, saying “piss off.” I mean, here's the most successful author of all time saying she definitely doesn't get up at 4am. So there are certainly ways that like, we don't need to follow all these rules for success.

Evan: As much as we wish that—whether we're writing or building startups—there was a formula, or a set of inputs that we could measure and track, that's just not the way it works. And I know this is woo woo, and it bugs me because I'm from a finance background and I wish I could just like give a formulam but it's based off of vibe. Like the vibe of your life does determine the quality of the outputs that you have more than any specific habit.

So the piece I talked about is like, “Oh, you need to do cold showers or ice baths” and you probably don't need to. I mean, I do personally, but it's not like “Ah, yes, every time I do a cold shower, I get a 20% improvement on my word per minute rate”—it just doesn't work like that. So people have to pursue what makes them happy. For J.K. Rowling? It's apparently not waking up that early.

Elle: You just said word per minute rate. That makes me wonder: what is the goal of our productivity? Like, what are we trying to achieve with the cold shower? We want to work harder? More output? What is the goal there?

Evan: Yeah, it's really good question. Especially when you think about it in the context of working in a corporation or building a solo business. Whatever it is, when you ask yourself, “Why am I trying to have more output and where's that output going?” of course you should work hard, but what you want to work on should really change. A lot of your hard work should be on your personal life or on your relationship with your with loved ones, or whatever it may be. So the work per minute rate is sometimes like I need to do some self-work, I need to take care of myself—that counts as labor in its own way.

Elle: I don't know why but I'm thinking of Alexander Hamilton right now—everyone was always shocked by how much he wrote, the sheer volume of writing he was putting out constantly. They were asking “why were you so driven?” But that to me makes sense because he was so driven because we were literally writing the Constitution and deciding what a country should be that's not run by a monarchy. That feels like such a worthy goal to me.

In that case, yeah, drop everything. I want to be really productive at this because this will be of vital importance for generations to come. But then I also think about the book Bullshit Jobs which posits that about 80% of jobs today have no real value apart from providing you a job that makes you money. And so that makes me wonder, like, what is our purpose in working?

I do feel some purpose and mission in my own personal work. Because as a writer, I'm writing about ideas and ideals that maybe will inspire people who read them and will change things. But I’ve also had jobs where I didn't feel that sense of importance. And if you don't feel that sense of importance, then what is even the point of putting out more output?

Evan: It's always funny to talk about this position because I do it from a position of immense privilege. There are very few working writers who can make it, that's so rare. And so it feels like kind of a dick move to be like, “oh, you should be less productive. You'll be happier.” Because they could be like, “ok, well, I have bills to pay. So thanks, Evan. Appreciate that advice. “

As to the Alexander Hamilton thing, you kind of just have to pursue where the energy takes you. I'm sure you've had this experience where you're fired up about an idea and you write 4,000 words in a day. And then the next day, you're just like, not feeling it. I'll have days where I sit here for eight hours and write a paragraph, if I'm lucky. And then other days I'll write two or three pieces all in one day. That’s because I tried to force myself to do something that I don't want to do. And again, that doesn't work if you're a sales development representative in Utah, like cold calling for software sales, but for what we do, it's it allows me the space to do that.

Elle: That's an interesting juxtaposition, the juxtaposition position between discipline and inspiration. I definitely come at my creativity from the standpoint of discipline, not inspiration. So I and I sit down and I write every day for my job. And some days you're right, maybe a paragraph comes out, and some days maybe five does, but to me, the discipline of coming back to it at the same time every day and sitting there and writing is what eventually turns into a piece. So it's not like I could just like not write on the days when I'm not inspired and only write on the days when I'm inspired. Like I have to have the discipline of doing it every day to then have inspiration.

Evan: I don't do that at all. I have enough things going on where, if I'm not feeling, I can help with the operations of the collective or have other things to occupy my time. I recognize this for myself and so I structured my content where I write once per week. It would be a little higher stakes if you're doing a daily publication schedule but I think if you do it right once it goes forever. And my experience has been that taking the extra time to do it right always matters more than taking the extra time because I have pieces from two years ago that still drive more signups than an average post that I published this week. That's what I try to optimize for.

Elle: Okay, so you’re driven to write one piece per week. Are you doing any kind of optimization of your life to make sure that that happens to its best quality?

Evan: I don't have a writing schedule. I don't have a set time I wake up or go to sleep or anything like that. I just try to go to the gym every day, and then I just try to make sure that my wife is happy, my dog is happy.

One thing I do a lot is cancel meetings. I only take five or six meetings a week at most. And then beyond that, I'll just refuse because I need open space so that I can write about whatever I'm interested in. If I've opened space, I'm just going to do what I'm interested in. Last week, I was interested in Rick Rubin and his new books, so I wrote about that. Now, I’m interested in Google vs. Microsoft so I'll probably write about that. So no plan and plenty of space is how it works for me.

Elle: I wonder if that's maybe how it works for everyone. I definitely agree that I need lots of space. I can't do a ton of meetings. I won't get my work done.

Evan: Do you schedule out here's where I'm gonna write today. Here's what I'm hoping to accomplish with my writing?

Elle: I write four weeks in advance. So I always four posts lined up when I'm writing. It's a self-preservation tactic. I need to know that I've got things lined up so that if I ever need to take a sick week or something, I'm not screwing myself. You know? It's like a way of making sure I always have stuff going on.

Evan: I mean, theoretically, I should have that too. I guess I should be more disciplined. Maybe I should be more productive and I would be able to do that. I don't know. I like that midnight the day before publication stress. I think it's good for me.

Elle: That would really stress me out. I have to do the writing in peaceful mode, like I've got plenty of time to do this and to make sure it's perfect.

Evan: The other thing I've learned when it comes to writing is that I can't tell what's going to hit anymore. I have no idea. This piece I'm talking about in defense of the unproductive life, I really thought was garbage. Like I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t do very well and it turned out to be the most popular thing I've ever written. And that has happened not just like rarely, but frequently where I'm unable to gauge how well a piece will do. I know what my baseline is. I know what I can hit every week of quality, but the stuff that really resonates or goes viral, it's very tough for me to tell.

Elle: No I can’t tell either. But I think that piece resonated with people who felt like “I don't want my life to be full of productivity hacks or trying to put out more output. Like why do we even need to put out more output?” I think it's kind of weird that we direct so much of our attention to this. It's like “oh, let me eat my Soylent Green shake or avoid eating altogether so that I can sit here and do whatever work I have to do.”

I was once talking to a CEO in Utah who told me that he had a driver that drives his daughter to and from dance class so that he could just show up at dance class, watch it, and then get right back to work. That was his optimization strategy so that he could, like optimize to get more work done. And I thought, “well, is that the right thing that you want to optimize?” I don't know, maybe for his family and his life, optimizing for putting out more work doing was the most important thing for him to prioritize. But I couldn’t help but wonder, “is work the thing you should be optimizing for?”

Evan: Yeah, especially funny in the Utah context because so many of the companies are B2B SaaS, which is deeply unimportant. Like it's just not at all. There’s nothing wrong with making money but you can't say that “my charting software really makes a difference in the world.”

I think that's the hard part too though, to not cast judgment on other people's lifestyles. Because it mind seem nuts, but if it works for you! Like the unproductive life is still one that's deeply energetic. And it's one where you pursue your passion and give yourself the space to be you. It's not one where you don't work hard. It's not one where you don't make sacrifices, but it's one where you only go where you're energized.

Elle: Everybody has to choose for themselves what they are optimizing for. And I always think about this at the beginning of the year. When it's New Year's resolutions time and you see a million articles saying that nobody ever sticks to their resolutions, no one ever sticks to their budgets, no one ever sticks to their diets. I’ve stuck to every New Year's resolution I've ever had because it’s always been something I really wanted to do. And what kind of life would it be if I like wasn't pursuing the thing that I wanted to do the most?

I'm so bullish on the things that I want to do. But I could also see where that means I totally fall off and I'm not optimizing for other things that are not my goals or not something I care about. So I think you have to be personally driven, whether it is B2B SaaS or not. You could be working for an HR software company and see a lot of value in that or really love your job and be driven to do it. That doesn't mean it's not useful to you.

Evan: Yeah, there's deep honor and respect for doing a job for the sake of doing a job. My grandfather didn't graduate high school—he drove a truck for his entire life. My grandma was a cashier and then a cashiers manager at K-Mart for her whole life. When you talk to them, it wasn’t like that was their calling. But they found a lot of joy in providing for my mom and for our family. And there's a lot of honor in that. So I don't think there’s a rule of thumb,

One rule of thumb that I didn't include in the piece was like the more stimulus use that's required to accomplish your daily tasks, the further away from being like truly productive you are. So if you need like 600 milligrams of caffeine to get through your day, you're probably just doing a job you hate. You know, your body's trying to tell you something.

Elle: Not to take this too existential, but the fact that we can even have a job that we're trying to be passionate about is a luxury anyways. You can look back at like 1870s, when most of the population was farmers. Then when the industrial revolution happened, it was like steel and building things and mining and a lot of the work was directly tied to human sustenance. But now most of our work is office jobs. So there's this need for us to now connect our office jobs to like the greater good somehow so that we are driven. It's kind of an interesting phenomenon.

Evan: Sometimes I wish we were like back in the manual labor days, like shoveling stuff. That was my job in high school. I worked landscaping and I enjoyed it. But I think you're right, like maybe it's just that the office environment is particularly soul-sucking. I don't know I don't work out of an office anymore. But I couldn't do it. It was it was very hard when I was in it.

Elle: I think a lot of people now are working remotely and finding alternatives. You mentioned this quote in your article:

We get so caught up in the daily grind, in the pursuit of the next step of the ladder, that we miss the point of being. I think the default state of life is that we will get filled up with small things. Whether small productivity improvements or minor inconveniences, it doesn’t matter. Either take away our chance to focus on something more.

I really liked that because it goes to what we're seeing right now. Like, what is this something more if we're not pursuing the next rung of the ladder? If we're pursuing the point of being then what's the point of being?

Evan: When you’re thinking “I must be more productive,” you'll try to save five minutes here or 10 minutes there, but in so doing, you find yourself so burnt out that you burn another 20 minutes on something dumb and you lost all that time on Instagram or Tiktok or email processing or whatever. So when we try to do these little 1% better gains, at least in my personal life, there's never been a big difference that comes from being a little bit more productive daily. It comes from taking big swings, which is I think, core to being a technologist and core to being from Silicon Valley. It’s a home run industry, we don't bother except for big swings. And so that's how I've tried to conduct my personal life as well. Like, I don't want to do anything unless it's a big swing.

Elle: You mentioned Instagram, social media. There's this idea that if I'm sitting on my phone looking at social media for 15 minutes that's taking away from me doing something else. I mean, it could be—I think it's different for everyone—it could be taking away from something else, even something else you'd rather be doing. Or it could be just your way of having downtime, which you would be spending in some kind of leisure activity anyway.

I know somebody who quit Netflix and that enabled her to write a book. I know other people who write with Netflix on. For me personally, I don't have any social media because I just hate it all. And so maybe that's a productivity hack that I'm not being distracted by it, but really it’s just that I don’t even enjoy it.

Evan: I think if your posts are written four weeks in advance, you are more productive than any writer I know. So maybe I should be deleting all my social. Well, the only social I use is Twitter, but I have to for work. And then I go on Facebook every day and I'm slowly deleting all the memories on there. Every day, I log in and delete everything from the memories tab. So that's about all the social media I use.

I think this is what's so hard about it, right? Like for some people, social media is productive and it's helpful. It's helpful and relaxing and good. For other people it's not, which is why when we're talking about why productivity hacks are so dangerous, it’s because we're trying to ascribe action to individuals that we don't know their lives. We don't know their state of being. And so when we're talking about being productive, it's really talking about empowering people to make their own decisions, and ignore what everyone else says. You just do you and that's probably going to be better anyways.

Elle: Certainly it's individualistic. Then, to your point, all the productivity stuff is stupid, because it’s too prescriptive and you're just trying to find a way to make life work for you.

Evan: I mentioned the Rick Rubin book—he talks about how each of us are vessels for the universe. He’s from Malibu and it shows in the book, like he's very energy and whatever. But it talks a lot about how the work of the artist is to remove things in your life pulling you away from the source of creativity, pulling you away from the energy of the universe.

So I think when we're talking about productivity—whether it's an ice bath or athletic greens, sometimes they help draw you closer, sometimes they take you away. And I think the reason this post resonated is it gave people permission to do what they think is best. Even if the gurus say it's a bad idea. Because you know your life better than anyone else. You can make your own choices.

Elle: That's why I really love Marie Kondo. I'm like a Marie Kondo diehard. Her Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up book was just so good because the whole concept of is: what do you want to spend your time doing? What do you want to spend your life doing? It's really easy for it to get cluttered with meetings or cluttered with social media or cluttered with kids’ games and dances. Or cluttered with work. It’s easy for your whole life to become cluttered because you continuously are adding things to your life. When what I think the productivity hacks are really trying to get at is like, what do you really want to do and optimize for? And then get rid of all the rest, canceling meetings or whatever it is that lets you do what you want to do.

Evan: I think that's exactly right. I guess living the unproductive life is about cultivating a sense of intentionality. One dumb example from my personal life is my wife and I found that we would watch TV together, but be on our phones answering emails while watching TV—what the hell were we doing? Like how much stimulus do we need? Can't we just watch a show and watch the show? And so we've ended up watching less TV but being much more intentional about what we're consuming, because we're saying no more phones while we're watching TV. And that's actually worked out great to be intentional about that. Even though TV is a time waster. It's actually been really beneficial.

Elle: But is it a time waster or what you need as leisure?

Evan: No, it's not. But like I think that's definitely the stereotype. Maybe the unproductive life is one where you approach leisure deliberately. Maybe that's a good way to think about it.

Elle: I like that. Approaching leisure deliberately, for sure. Because you could not.

Evan: To be unproductive is to allow yourself the space to just focus on something even if it feels trivial. And that's okay.

Elle: Before this, I was working as the editor for Utah Business, and I'm still the editor of a business publication. A lot of my interactions and interviews are with entrepreneurs, founders of companies, a lot of C-level executives that I get to talk to on a day-to-day basis. And I haven’t found that “Oh, you are so much more productive than the average person, you are on social media so much less, you watch less Netflix”—that's definitely not the case. I was just speaking with a founder last week who admits that he watches a show while he’s eating lunch, he looks at social media for a bit. They're doing the same time-waster things everybody else is doing. They're just optimizing for a different thing.

Evan: I started my career at this big 300,000-person company called Flex, a multinational corporation based out of Singapore, and it felt deeply dehumanizing to watch these people who mid-level managers just work their asses off and sacrifice family time for a company that doesn't even know who they are. It was just like they were eking out marginal gains. I'm sure you know people like this who pursue life one rung at a time and with each step up you get a little bit more work because you have to be a little more productive. I think the unproductive life is trying to escape that.

Elle: How would you apply that to the business world at large, like the average employee? Do you have a sense that there's something that needs to change? Or that everyone's just doing it? Right?

Evan: Definitely don't think we're doing it right. I think there's no hard and fast rule. I think it's more about acknowledging when you are not happy. I know many people who are very happy in the Flex-type environments or are very happy grinding it out in consulting. And maybe, to me, it's a little psychopathic, but that's fine. If it works for you, it works for you. I don't think you have to be at a place that's mission-driven. I don't think you have to be at a place that's changing the world. But I think you do have to be at a place where you're happy. And my experience has been, particularly in technology, if you're in the technology sector, pursuing your happiness ends up bringing you more wealth.

That's not necessarily true in media. But at least for a lot of your readers, who are technology people, if you pursue what you're energetic about in technology, you'll end up making more money than just grinding out somewhere that you're unhappy

Elle: That’s so new age of you.

Evan: I know. I really hate that this has happened to me. I can't tell you how much of my life was spreadsheets and then over the last few years, I've just completely switched to the other side. It's awful.

Elle: As a creative, you can do that now that you're gone full time in the writing.

Evan: I know that seven or five years ago, I’d be deeply annoyed watching this interview. But that Evan was wrong.

Elle: Okay, cool. So we don't have to be productive. One caveat to this: In his book about Netflix, Reid Hastings says he had some engineers who were worth 10 engineers. This one engineer would be super efficient and get a lot done whereas the next 10 engineers would be just putting in the bare minimum. So he was like, “I'd rather pay that one person $500,000 a year and not hire the other 10. So there is this idea, if not productivity than efficiency. One employee deserves more money then another because they produce more output or better output. So there is some tie, if not to productivity than at least efficiency.

Evan: Engineering is a really interesting one. Because it's very similar to writing in that you put words into a text editor. Those words have some sort of output and it's not like a code factory just as there's not like a writing factory where you can just sit down and eight hours later you have output.

My argument would be that for those engineers that are 10x engineers, they love it, right? Like they find deep personal joy in writing code. And the average software engineer may enjoy it or may just be a job. They get paid well and so they do it, but it's not something that they love. But I've never met a 10x engineer who isn’t deeply engaged in the process of what they do. And it's the same thing with writing.

A lot of people say they want to be writers, but they don't actually love it. They just like attention, or investigating things or they like Twitter, they like all the things that come with being a writer, but they don't actually love writing the act of writing itself, and so they never make it to the point of being a 10x writer because they just fall short because they are more interested in one of the adjacent things.

Elle: Yeah, that's a really good point. When I took a seven-week break in between my last job and this job, I ended up writing probably 20 to 30 hours a week anyways because I just love doing so much. I was like, “I'll just take this time and not do anything.” And then I was like, “I need to write this.”

Even now, I'll find myself reading a book at 6pm and I’ll think: “Am I reading this for work or for pleasure? Because this is totally what I'm writing about right now. And it's on that topic. Am I doing research right now? I would read this book anyway for leisure. So I think you’re right. Maybe if you're more passionate about it, or if you're really into it, then you are more productive and more efficient at it because that's what you're focusing on.

Evan: We do have to acknowledge the market and that certain passions within the market are much more highly rewarded. Like if I wrote exclusively about Icelandic juggling I would not do okay. But I'm a sicko, and I like spreadsheets and finance and technology companies. I got in trouble at my first job because I read too much technology news—I would get distracted and read Google's 10k for fun, or 100 pages of financial documentation. They were like: “you have to do your real job. You can't just look at this stuff.”

Looking back now, I probably should have leaned into that and started doing this sooner. But I think it can be be dangerous to just pursue your passion and hope it will all work. The internet makes it a lot more true than it used to be, but it's not universally true. If you happen to have an interest in something where the market assigns value, you can pursue that and it’d be ok.

Elle: There are a lot of thinkers out there who think that AI will take all of our jobs and the only ones left for us will be the artist jobs and the creative jobs and whatever our Icelandic juggling passions are. You never know.

Evan: We haven't covered AI today. But I do think AI probably changes all this, but I think there's like another hour-long discussion. But for now, I think that's actually probably right.

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