Balancing Productivity

May 5, 2020

In the film Monster’s University, Sully and Mike Wazowski learn how to scare humans.

They have two different styles: Mike reads everything there is to know about scaring, while Sully simply practices being scary.

Alone, they struggle. Sully is terrifying but ignorant, and Mike has encyclopaedic knowledge, but can’t frighten anyone. They both end up having to leave scaring-school. Together, though, they make an awesome team. With Mike as the mastermind and Sully as the executor, they work their way up from the bottom of Monster’s Inc., earning many awards along the way.

I try to categorise behaviours into two types: active and passive. I think everyone has a natural frequency, a baseline percentage of how much of each behaviour they engage in. Personally, I am a bit like Mike Wazowski. I love learning about and thinking about things. I am less good at actually doing the things. My new year’s resolution was to adjust this natural frequency.

In a time of coronavirus, the temptation to slip into 24-7-passive-consumption-mode is stronger than ever. I’ve revisited this resolution as a reminder: life is more fulfilling when you take out less than you put in.

Goal: Produce more stuff, consume less stuff

Spend more of my time actively doing things, instead of passively witnessing them without engaging. This means more writing instead of reading, more tweeting instead of scrolling. Overall, less thinking, more doing.


Two reasons:

  1. I like learning, and I believe we learn best with a balance of active and passive activities.
  2. I find active behaviours more uncomfortable to begin, but more fulfilling to have completed.

Learning requires balance

To learn effectively, you need both active and passive behaviours. Consider learning a language, like French. Passive activities, like reading Tintin, listening to Radio France, or watching French Netflix, are helpful in absorbing grammar and vocabulary. But you’ll never know how good your French is unless you have to write or speak it. When you do, you crash into reality, and discover how shit your French really is. This suggests areas where you might improve, and more passive activities to consider. The feedback loop between active and passive promotes long-term learning.

Put another way, learning something new is like constructing a computer program. Passive behaviours are like learning new functions and operations, and rewriting parts of your code. Active behaviours are like running the code. You can certainly learn how to write better code by reading books. But in the end, you always have to test it. And how many times does code run properly the first time?

Experiential knowledge stays with you. It’s why I got good at physics (problem sheets are just maths puzzles — which I love), why I can create a workout routine in 5 minutes (I’ve designed dozens for myself over the years), and why despite thousands of hours of reading I am a sub-mediocre writer (I’ve only spent hundreds of hours writing).

Productive discomfort

Active things don’t have to be productive” in the sense of work — Playing saxophone and cooking a new dish are both productive activities, even though they have no bearing on my career.

Whether an activity is productive or not depends on the domain and your relative experience. Sports, like skiing, can be relatively productive depending on the intensity at which you push yourself. Floating down blue pistes all day is the alpine equivalent of mindlessly scrolling Twitter — I get an instant dopamine hit, but don’t learn anything. I am unlikely to look back on the day’s efforts satisfied.

To me, productive activities satisfy two qualities:

  1. Experiential learning — actually doing things, failing, re-adjusting, improving.
  2. A sense of fulfilment — does carrying out the activity feel meaningful?

A productive behaviour, usually has some kind of activation energy to start, is pleasurable to do successfully, and feels fulfilling after completion. The space of productive behaviours is vast and changing all the time. On Monday morning, perhaps the most productive thing to do would be to draft a blog post on an idea bubbling up from my conscious. On Tuesday, instead of writing something else, the most productive thing might be to finish what I’ve started.

Fulfilment is proportional to discomfort. At any given moment, the task that feels most uncomfortable to start is one of the most fulfilling activities to complete. There is no trick to overcoming this discomfort, other than practice. Productive activities are like cold showers: Take a deep breath, steel yourself, and begin. You’ll soon be glad you did — the water’s warmer than you think.

Thanks to Krish Khubchand for a recent discussion.