I often get people asking me:
How do you do so much without looking like you do a lot?
How do you read so many books?
How do you write so much?
How do you manage all that with a full time doctor job? And how do you still manage to find so much time to connect?
I used to respond by saying I wasn’t doing as much as I might appear to. But I’ve come to realise that’s the point: a lot of seemingly productive people are famously more relaxed than you might expect.
The conversation about productivity has long been dominated by the hustle and grind types (perhaps because they are hustling). It’s little wonder many people seem to think of “productivity” as almost a dirty word, conjuring up images of a joyless life of producing “results”, or at best making them feel unproductive because they’re not out there grinding all day everyday.
As we say in Nigeria, “life no hard reach like that.” At least it doesn’t have to be. Yes, there’s a lot that’s hard about life, but that’s precisely why it doesn’t need our help adding to how hard it already is.
But before I get into what I’ve learned about how to be get things done without overdoing things, I need to clarify something. These are less about tactics and more about perspective: not what to do to be productive, but a way to think about productivity. As such, it might be more helpful to read this not so much trying to keep every single one in mind, but looking for which most speaks to you and focusing in on that as a jump-off to considering necessary changes. I’ll share a few questions at the end to help with that as well.
With that said, let’s get into it.
For every yes, a thousand nos.
That’s from Apple’s product philosophy: for every released product and feature, there’s a ton that don’t make the cut. Similarly people see what I do but not what I don’t: how I read or write a lot but not how I don’t get out much or how I skip some TV and even how much I don’t read.
Being productive isn’t about doing a lot. It’s about being brilliant at a few carefully selected areas. It’s easy to feel like everything is important, but that’s precisely why we can’t let everything be important to us. Recognise that saying yes to anything means saying no to a thousand others. And then own the yes as confidently as you own all the no’s it makes inevitable. And then you can experience the joy of missing out instead of doing things you don’t actually care for.
Do what you really want to
Not just what you think you should. This follows on from the first: it’s important to be clear about what I’m saying no to, but it’s just as important to really lean in on what I say yes to. I used to watch football, because that’s basically Nigeria’s national sport, and everyone watches it. But I realised as I grew older that I’d mainly been watching it so I could participate in conversations about it, but didn’t really care for it myself. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t care.
So I stopped watching. It’s been years now and I still mostly don’t watch football or sports in general. Which freed up lots of time to do other things I found way more interesting, like reading, or writing.
As far back as secondary school, I chose subjects not based on their “strategic value” but because they were interesting to me. That meant working my way through an algebra textbook during a holiday felt not like work, but as fun as finishing my favourite video games. Working on what you care about energises you. If it’s draining, maybe you don’t really care about it. Which is where the next bit comes in…
Want what you have to do
The hard reality of life is that what we want and what’s good for us don’t necessarily align. Bringing the two together—learning to want what’s good for us—is what it means to gain wisdom, and a lot of therapy work is really about building this alignment. Also, some things can’t be avoided and if we hate doing them, we’re really hating essential parts of our lives.
Either way, the first step is recognising that acquired love is just as strong as the spontaneous kind. So while I used to dread having to cook, and avoided it until I got married and couldn’t anymore. I’ve been learning to love it—by learning to get better at it, getting apps for easy recipes and using it as a time to catch up on podcasts and TV—and I at least like it now. And where I can, I automate things! That it’s an acquired taste (pun intended!) doesn’t make my liking it any less real.
Cancel “I don’t have time”
I often joke that there’s two kinds of readers: those who read when they have time, and those who make time to read. It’s obvious which ones get far more reading done. One of the most amusing things I hear people say is, “I wish I had the time to do [insert supposedly important thing] but I’m just so busy!” You can see the problem with that: it implies the person doing the thing just happens to have more free time.
But even if they do have more free time than you, it doesn’t change the fact that you probably have some free time, and it’s okay to own how you use it. And if you happen to not use it for something we claim to be interested in, maybe you’re not that interested? Rather than moan about not having time, it’s far more useful to ask yourself: Do I want to make time?
If you answer is no, then stop saying you don’t have time, and instead own your choice to not make time. But if your answer is yes, the next point is for you.
Do what you can
A work colleague used to complain about being too busy to read like she used to before medical school and motherhood. She was convinced I was only able to read so much because I was unmarried (at the time) and without kids. After I got over my initial irritation at the idea that my choices had nothing to do with it, I realised she really did want to recover the delight of reading. So I suggested she forget all about her ideas of how much reading she should be doing and just read when she could. We talked about it and it came out that she felt she could make a bit of time before bed, and I suggested aiming for just a chapter or half an hour, whichever was shorter, and only reading more if she had time. A few months later and she was delighted to be able to call herself a reader again.
The thing about “not having time” is the part that’s unsaid: “time to do as much as I think I should.” The answer is to do what you can, then. As GK Chesterton wrote, “Whatever is worth doing is worth doing badly.” If it’s really important to you, a small but repeated form of it beats nothing at all.
Share your work (and find your people)
Everything is better together, and productivity is no different. The highs aren’t as high and the lows are lower when you’re alone—and the fear of missing out hit harder. In every area I’ve experienced growth, it was far faster—and more fun!—when I had company.
That said, the quickest way to find your people is to put yourself out there, whether that’s sharing with friends and family or putting your work and learning online for others to find—and find you. Sharing helps others realise they’re not alone too, so it’s a win-win. And the funny thing is the more you share the more people tend to feel like you’re doing a lot. And in a sense, you are doing a lot—just not for yourself. Think of everything you share as a beacon in the night, a light to let others who might be wandering know there’s someone out there and they’re home.
Rest is a weapon
I learned this first from (all of places!) Jason Bourne, as a teenager reading the Robert Ludlum novels about the assassin in secondary school. It was something Bourne used to say as he would find a cheap motel where he could sleep despite being on the run: “Rest is a weapon.”
Back then I thought of sleep as an interruption that was a necessary evil. Sleep was not something I did, but something that happened to me. And if I’m being honest, I still struggle with getting enough of it. As I’ve gotten older, though, and my body less tolerant of inadequate sleep, I’m more grateful than ever for the lesson, and more appreciative of the Judeo-Christian practice of Sabbath, which frames rest as a spiritual practice. I now go to sleep instead of just falling asleep, and I do it knowing that time spent asleep is not wasted, but refreshes and energises me.
Putting it all together
Which of the points speaks most to you? One is fine, but pick no more than 3. Remember every yes is a no: if you say yes to them all, you might overwhelm yourself and not have a chance to really say yes to any. So even if you feel they all resonate, which 3 would be most significant? Then for each of your 1-3 ask the remaining questions.
What perspective have you held in place of this one? You have to clarify what you’re going to be saying no to if you’re going to say yes to a new perspective.
What would help you keep the new perspective in mind? It can be as simple as a sticker on your bathroom mirror or poster on your wall to remind you. Or it can be a new habit you form (preferably a tiny one) to remind yourself to lean into a new way of seeing. Try not to make it too big, so it won’t be hard to sustain.
Who can you recruit for this new path? The easiest way here might be to think of a friend or loved one who embodies the new perspective already. Talk to them about it and hear how they live it out and what they struggle with. You can always go farther when you have some companionship.
How will you catch yourself slipping back? Acknowledge upfront that you will. That’s path of any journey, and you’re more likely to go far when you admit it. Because then you can be on the lookout. What are your patterns right now? Identify how they tend to begin. Simply being aware increases your chances of knowing when it happens. You can also ask your friend from the previous question to let you know when they catch you.
And if you notice at the start that you do it a lot, that might feel bad, but it’s really a good thing: it means your awareness is increasing.
Go forth and be stresslessly productive.