Is the secret of productivity really just doing what you enjoy? | Oliver Burkeman

By far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether its fun to do

The problem with the genre of life lessons from the worlds most successful entrepreneurs is one of causal direction: just because Elon Musk works 120 hours a week, it doesnt follow that if you work 120 hours a week, youll experience Musks success. (Whether or not Musk has an enviable life isnt the point here; that depends on your enthusiasm for space travel and defaming cave divers.) Musk works insane hours because he wants to. We can argue about the psychological roots of that wanting: does it stem from a big-hearted desire to help humanity, or a pathological workaholism and desperation to prove himself? But either way, in some sense, Musk likes it; whereas if you tried to follow that schedule, youd have to make yourself do it. The same applies to less extreme advice. Write every day wont work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you dont at least slightly enjoy what youre doing.

This clicked into place for me as I read about the hyper-productive German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, in a fascinating book called How To Take Smart Notes by Snke Ahrens (based on the intricate index card system Luhmann used to organise his knowledge). How did Luhmann publish 58 books and hundreds of articles plus, impressively, several more books after his 1998 death, thanks to manuscripts he left behind? Because, said Luhmann, I never force myself to do anything I dont like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else. That sounds scandalously self-indulgent except that, as Ahrens writes, doesnt it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didnt feel like, but because of it?

Ive experimented with countless time-management techniques, but the results leave me forced to agree: by far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether its fun to do. The secret of productivity is simple: just do what you enjoy.

Oh, you have some objections? Thought so. A big one is the fear that if we just let ourselves do what we enjoy, wed waste (even more) hours each day on social media, or eating Nutella from the jar, instead of doing what mattered. Theres some limited truth to this: when youre just beginning a session of challenging work, you often need to give yourself a push, reminding yourself you dont need to feel like starting in order to start. But after that, its enjoyment thatll sustain your motivation, not productivity techniques. Indeed, they can make things worse: if you tell yourself you must spend, say, four hours every day on a certain project, come hell or high water, youre liable to turn something that once inspired you into something you cant bear to do.

The other big objection is that countless people dont have the luxury of enriching, meaningful work, so they can hardly organise their days by focusing on what feels good. This is true. But its not a problem with Luhmanns enjoyment-based approach to productivity. Its a problem with society the kind of problem, in other words, that no productivity technique is ever going to fix.


No Sweat, by the behavioural scientist Michelle Segar, advocates an enjoyment-focused philosophy of exercise, arguing that goals like staying healthy are too abstract to work the habits that stick are the ones you find fun.

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