Given the current political situation in the U.S., my home country, I’ve found it especially difficult the last two weeks or so to be truly productive. My work feels irrelevant. My mind wanders to the possibility that I should quit writing about productivity and software to instead take on more investigative journalism or put my writing skills to use for an organization that is actually working to do some good in the world.
But I also have moments when I remember that I love what I do and that I believe my work is of some use to people, maybe even the people who run those organizations who do good in the world.
As a productivity enthusiast, I’m expected to give advice about how we can all regain focus and get back to our own work despite the upheaval that’s only just beginning in the American political system.
Not so. Instead, I say take a few lazy days. Take time to work through your emotions, whether it’s anger, grief, both. A few low productivity days aren’t going to kill you. They may even be more efficient in the long run than suppressing emotions to try and work in spite of them.
There’s an analogy I like to make about being productive, and to explain it, I have to tell you a story about hot dogs.
In the mid to late 2000s, Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut were fierce adversaries in the world of competitive eating. Kobayashi had been the reigning champion of The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, the annual competition on the Fourth of July at Coney Island to see who can eat the most hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.
In 2007, the then-unknown Chestnut took stage and gave Kobayashi a run for his money. Chestnut was the first contender who even came close to keeping pace with Kobayashi. The crowd went wild as these two men stuffed hotdogs and buns down their throats. In the end, the winner finished 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, while the runner-up only managed to consume 63. The winner was Joey Chestnut.
Chestnut’s upset put serious pressure on Kobayashi to reclaim his throne the following year. Their training got so intense that the rules of the contest were changed to shorten the hot dog eating time to only 10 minutes.
Summer 2008: Chesnut and Kobayashi tie, both eating 59 hot dogs and buns. The rules call for a tiebreaker contest, wherein the winner is whoever eats an additional five hot dogs and buns faster. Chestnut wins.
Now, we have to do a little math.
A single hot dog and bun contains somewhere around 275 to 300 calories. In 2008, both men at 59 hot dogs in the contest, plus five in the tie-breaker, making 64 hot dogs and buns per person that day. Going with the conservative estimate that one hot dog and bun contains 275 calories, each man’s total intake that day was 17,600 calories.
My question is why is neither Chestnut nor Kobayashi particularly fat, even though they ate 17,600 calories in a day?
The answer is simple. They don’t eat 17,600 calories every day.
The Hot Dog-Productivity Analogy
Both these competitive eaters observe a lifestyle of eating and exercise that keeps them at a much more modest weight than what they would be if they ate 17,600 calories regularly. But eating 17,600 calories once doesn’t balloon their bodies. To be consistently obese, they’d have to eat significantly more calories than they burn on most days. That’s not what they do. On most days, they eat much more modestly and get enough exercise to counter the calories they ingest.
The point is this: One bad day of eating, even if it is a remarkable 17,600 calories, doesn’t on its own make or break a person’s physique.
Anyone can recover from one bad day of eating. To stay trim, you have to eat the right amount of calories for your body and your exercise level most of the time. But you can have meals or entire days or perhaps even an entire week, when you eat abnormally, and still maintain your normal body weight.
The same is true with being productive. To be truly productive, you need to establish good behaviors around work, and most days, you have to stick to those behaviors to have an overall productive life.
With both food and productivity, no one expects anyone to lead a lifestyle that is 100 percent fit or 100 productive. It’s just not realistic. We don’t eat solely to fuel our bodies. We also eat for enjoyment. Super models nibble on the occasional French fry, and body builders might eat a bite of cake at their kid’s birthday party. People with extreme physiques (like super models and body builders) probably nibble fries and steal a bite of cake much less often than the rest of us who are reasonably fit. Either way, an overall healthy lifestyle can easily tolerate some deviation.
Likewise, we can’t be productive 100 percent of the time. It’s not realistic. We need to sleep and rest and play. We can’t demand 100 percent efficiency from our brain all the time. If we tried to do that, we’d quickly burn out and find our efficiency plummeting. Instead, we need to balance high productivity time with low productivity and zero productivity time. However, if we can get a sufficient amount of high productivity time in on most days, then a bad day (when we can’t focus because of the news of the world or even something personal happening in our own lives), we are not ruined forever. If you have a generally productive lifestyle, it will be able to tolerate a few bad days now and again.
When life gets in the way, we don’t necessarily always need to fight it to try and stay productive. Often, it’s better to deal with our stressors now so that we can get back to our regular routines soon enough.
Image from Fred Seibert, CC.