Productivity Gurus are the Instagram Influencers of Capitalism
On Unmentioned Assistant Syndrome and the Hierarchy of Work Needs
I recommend reading this in your browser, not your email. (I tend to edit, proofread, and do the “omg I can’t believe I didn’t link to that other thing” thing after I send this out.)
What would your schedule look like if you focused on maximizing your output for work? Here’s a sampling of Tim Ferriss’ day when he’s writing a book:
Astute observers will notice something about this schedule: it assumes that EVERYTHING IN YOUR LIFE REVOLVES AROUND WORK.
Spoiler alert: this is not the world I live in. It’s too easy for us to look at what people are doing—the visible pageantry and magic—and forget about the magician’s other hand, where the real work lies. One of Cal Newport’s first Deep Work-related epiphanies came after seeing how fellow super-productive fellow Adam Grant scheduled his days:
If he’s going to write a paper, for example, he puts aside two days, and does nothing else, emerging from his immersion with a completed first draft…. When you put aside only a couple hours to go deep on a problem, you lose a fair fraction of this time to remembering where you left off and getting your mind ready to concentrate. In other words, two days immersed in deep work might produce more results than two months of scheduling an hour a day for such efforts.
Cal never looked at Adam Grant’s other hand, the one doing the magic. What enables him to spend two days doing “nothing else,” and spend so much uninterrupted time working? We get the answer in paragraph 39 of this New York Times Magazine profile: Grant works 6 days a week, often as late as 11pm, because his wife does all of the housework, cooking, and childcare. His contribution and definition of being a dutiful partner? Showing up every night to taste his wife’s cooking.
Paragon of productivity they may be, isn’t it easy to get things done when you don’t have kids, a day job, and can outsource everything except editing your manuscript on how to be productive? These days assume no commute, no traffic, no cooking, and no chores/errands/household tasks. No sudden phone calls from loved ones, no lost items or technical issues, no surprises. Nothing demanding any of your time or energy outside of your preordained, self-appointed tasks. Food magically appears at the appropriate time. It assumes, in short, that the world will bend to your will.
Productivity gurus and thought leaders are the Instagram Influencers of Capitalism
Influencers’ chief role and talent is to exploit the art of impression management to sell us on a lifestyle. Today, work gurus are filling the same role. But because the aims are so similar and universal (work! live well!) I suspect it’s easy for everyone to forget about all the help they have: they all suffer from Unmentioned Assistant Syndrome.
They’re flaunting the tenets of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life to suggest that, if only we do X (take those supplements, block off time, buy that book), our lives would be like their lives: we’d all have successful startups, live up to our potential, and have TED talks.
A few years ago I interviewed sociologist Dan Chambliss, who wrote “The Mundanity of Excellence,” an ethnographic study examining the differences between swimmers at lower club levels and pre-Olympians. “Beyoncé is the face of an organization,” he told me. “She has a whole team behind her.” Experts get to be experts and household names, in part, because of this support; because they can outsource absolutely everything in order to focus on lending their faces to podcasts and speeches, and perfecting those skills of presentation.
I suspect, in fact, that most of us are simply surrounded by life events and don’t have wives or assistants (plural, in the case of Tim Ferriss) to alleviate the rest of our daily burdens.
Just imagine if Brad Pitt writing a book on dating: we’d read it, but wouldn’t get anything out of it. It’s the same problem when people like Cal, Ferriss, Huberman, and Adam Grant tell us about how to work: they’re oblivious to what I call the Hierarchy of Work Needs:
How can mortals work their way up the pyramid
Other people still need to be fed, not distracted, and not feel the weight of their phone because someone else might ping them. But the Instagram Influencers of Capitalism have someone to do that for them. They outsource that shit, and then they forget about the fact that that kind of stuff still needs to be dealt with. Hence underlying Cal’s obsession with the idea that kanban-style boards would alleviate burnout, the assumption we’re not achieving our full potential because of digital pings.
So much productivity advice emphasizes the importance of simplifying the rest of your life, minimizing “inefficiencies.” To see the ridiculous of this, let’s take it to the extreme, as exemplified by Mohism, a school of thought in ancient China that advocated devotion to efficiency and economic usefulness. “[Devotees] insisted on cutting away all ‘useless’ parts of life — art, luxury, ritual, culture, leisure, even the expression of emotions.” According to this advice, I should get rid of my dog.
Just fucking shoot me now.
Keeping in mind that I’m single and work from home, I recently had one of those those days:
8:30am: wake up, coffee
9am: walk Daisy, my dog
9:30am: eat breakfast; phone appointment with my doctor
10am: visit by my mom to help administer Daisy’s ear drops
11am: feed Daisy
11:15am: tend to “urgent” matters: respond to emails about meetings this week, respond to texts about dinner, take out trash, do stinky dishes, etc.
noon: call Petco about an online order SNAFU; call bank about a questionable recent transaction; order medication; fix something on my website; file mail from IRS
1:30pm: walk the damn dog
2:30pm: call vet to discuss the fact that my dog nearly bit me while attempting to administer ear drops; decide which blog post to write; put away clothes; try to fix a newsletter thing; consolidate To Do lists
3:30pm: turn off my phone/internet and frantically start writing
6:15pm: walk the damn dog
6:45pm: cook dinner for and with my family
7:30pm: eat dinner and watch a movie
9:30pm: walk the damn dog
10pm: wash my damn face, etc.
10:15pm: read City of Girls until I fall asleep
Get that? Little of “the kind of work that pays me,” plenty of domestic work, and nary a digital ping in sight.
The Art of Radical Acceptance
In the past, I would have fought every minute of the mess, seeing it as an affront to my limited, valuable time, and feeling victimized by the day’s woes. I would have been rude and short to people on the phone, cancelled my celebratory dinner, and been pissed off at my poor dog.
But after working with Voldemort for a few years, I’ve learned that insisting that every other aspect of your life revolve around work is the fastest route to being stressed out, alienating loved ones, and shrinking your world down to the size of a computer screen. It works for Tim Ferriss—and that’s great. Good for him.
But I welcomed that day when everything else interfered with my precious schedule because it means that I have a life. I work to make money. I earn money to do things like take my dog to the vet when she needs it and make a nice dinner for my family. I work to support the rest of my life — but the rest of my life does not live on money alone. It also needs my time and energy to flourish. And constantly seeing it as an opposing force is just going to stress me out.
And isn’t that really why I’m jealous of those Instagram Influencers of Capitalism—that perceived lack of stress?
But that’s exactly what I do to myself when I insist that the day should be different, that there shouldn’t be a line at the grocery story, that my dog should never get sick, or that it shouldn’t rain when I want to go for a run—I stress myself out.
Stress is also seen as a difference between what you have and what you want:
12-Step programs end with the Serenity Prayer, which is actually a perfect encapsulation for how to beat stress:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
Feeling like you need a Very Specific Schedule to get things your Very Important Deep Work done is the definition of fragility—requiring a perfect ecosystem to maintain basic functioning. Resilience is an organism or system’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances with minimal loss of functioning.
When our external circumstances change, and we can’t outsource everything, the worst thing we can do is stress ourselves out by insisting on maintaining a perfect schedule. Sustainable productivity allows life to enter in through the cracks, accepting that it’s the price we pay for having a life, and what we need to do to stay sane in the long-run.
It’s insanely elitist and fragile to claim that Very Important Work requires a particular ecosystem. Parents, people with multiple jobs, caregivers, students, commuters, people without assistants— these are the real productivity gurus. Sustainable productivity recognizes that our jobs (the things with employers, schedules, or what we do for pay) are not the only aspects of our lives where we need to get shit done.
Are you really a productivity guru if all you do is work? If you’re thrown off by a little ding and request that someone email you back? If your household contribution is to eat your wife’s cooking? Or are you just a great self-promoter—an Instagram Influencer of Capitalism?
Should you really be telling everyone else how to work?
And should we really be listening?