Why Freedom Is the Enemy of Productivity

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The counterintuitive truth of high performance

Everyone runs after more. More time. More money. More resources.

And the lack of the above leads to excuses:

“If only I had more money, I could run my business”

“If only I had more time, I could finish the project”

“If only I had more engineers, I could deliver the product”

On the face of it, it seems completely plausible. But underneath the blanket, it’s a cop-out.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine this.

You’re in college and your professor gives you an assignment due six months from now. Now, I come into your life like a fairy and take all your responsibilities. Running errands, doing homework, doing the laundry — anything and everything that distracts you. In other words, I leave you with no excuses.

Instead, I leave you only with one task. Completing your assignment. I wish you the best of luck and come back the week before the due date.

What do I find?

You haven’t even started working on it.

If only I had a week more, I promise I’d finish this,” you say.

That is the paradox of more.

We’ve all had this feeling. When we think we have ‘all the time in the world’ to work on something. But ask yourself, how often do you work on it?

On the flip side, under the pressure of a deadline, you get things done no matter what.

Why Limitations are the Key to Success

Why is it that we are quick to finish a task with a looming deadline but a task without a deadline becomes an open-ended slog?

One explanation can be the Yerkes-Dodson law. It states that the productivity of a person increases with the increase of stress but only to a certain point; after which productivity declines.

Deadlines trigger a stress response which leads to a boost in performance. This stress can come for various reasons — the consequences of not meeting the deadline, the limited time to complete the task, and so on.

Whatever the case, deadlines, and restrictions work fantastically.

To extrapolate this idea, we can say that limitations get work done, even though we think the opposite.

Take me, a writer with a day job, for example. One of the main reasons I publish 4–5 articles a week is that I have a day job.

Seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.

The fact that I have less than three hours every morning to complete my writing along with other tasks of running a business is a big motivator.

Over the past week, I had to transition from an intern to a full-time role in my company.

This transition came with a week-long gap. I was off work, waiting for the HR team to complete some formalities and sign tons of papers.

I thought this week would be great. I’d write a lot and get more things done.

“Yeah, you wish!” said my mind.

The truth is, I did write a couple more articles in total. But apart from that, I was mostly completing shallow work, reading, or watching Suits.

So, while I’d love to have my side-hustle full-time, I’d probably not be as productive if the day is an open-stage.

Play Alongside Your Willpower

The other reason complete freedom doesn’t work is it leaves you with tons of extraneous decisions.

Should I write a post? Should I design my website? Should I reply to comments? Should I file my taxes?

That is the danger of having no limitations. The absence of routines leads to no priorities which lead to poor performance.

More importantly, it leads to **decision fatigue **— you’re no longer able to make good decisions because you’ve made so many.

In one study, researchers found that prisoners who appeared in the morning got parole 70 percent of the time and those who appeared at night were paroled less than 10 percent of the time. The judges were apparently tired of making decisions and with time, the quality of decisions dropped.

The worst part is your depleted willpower reserves. Coupled with decision fatigue, it inhibits your ability to make productive choices like reading a book over watching Netflix or eating a salad over a bag of Doritos.

Discipline Equals Freedom

It’s clear that the best way to use limitations in your life is to build a routine. A routine frees you of the need to think about every single step that you’ve to take.

In a world full of chaos, good habits and routines provide a sense of calmness and much-needed certainty. Without this stability, doing great work is not possible, because you’ll just be all over the place.

Jocko Willink wakes up at 4:30 a.m everyday and heads straight to his workout. He also posts a picture of his watch on Twitter.

Jack Dorsey wakes up at 5 a.m, meditates for an hour, drinks Himalayan salt juice, walks about 5 miles to the office, eats only one meal a day, and meditates or another hour upon returning home.

Nikola Tesla ate dinner every day exactly at 8:10 p.m and did all things in multiples of 3 — walking around the block 3 times and so on.

Willaim James said this famously about the power of habit,

For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

If every task throughout the day is a subject of ‘volitional deliberation’ then you’ll not get far.

By building a routine, you not only free up your willpower but also automate good decisions. You box yourself out of distractions and undesirable behaviors.

This is the freedom we’re after. The freedom from distractions. The freedom from fighting impulses throughout the day.

A good routine practiced enough starts to build momentum. And with momentum comes the power of compounding success to skyrocket your growth.

Call To Action

With the onset of the pandemic, I’ve known many people who threw their routines out. This, as we saw, is a recipe for disaster.

Times like this are exactly the type of uncertain situations when you need the comfort of your routine. This is when you need to have systems in place to ensure you don’t pay attention to what’s going on. To ensure you’re still able to produce great work.

Besides, what’s the other option? Having no routine? That should be out of the question because the truth is, if left to our own whims and fancies, we’ll destroy ourselves.

Be inspired by one of the people I mentioned or do it yourself. But build a routine today.

It doesn’t have to be fancy. Waking up, brushing your teeth, and walking for ten minutes is also a routine. Start small. Start now.

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Written on September 3, 2020