The Human Flourishing Project Episode 8: Relaxed Productivity (part 1) by Alex Epstein


Background / Introduction

Welcome to the Human Flourishing Project, I’m your host, Alex Epstein.

As you might guess from the title of this show, if you are new, this is a show about human flourishing. Now flourishing means for any living being to exist to its highest potential, and human flourishing means human beings existing to our highest potential, which is a really difficult thing for human beings because we are so complex. We have so many different mental and material needs that it is hard to figure out how do we make those all work together so we can get the most out of our lives.

This show exists because I want to flourish, I want other people to flourish, and so therefore, I need to study human flourishing. And on this show share my study of human flourishing. One thing that I have noticed on my study of human flourishing it is really important to think about the mental systems or knowledge systems that we are using to pursue knowledge of human flourishing.

If we just look for knowledge of human flourishing one thing we will find is there is not enough focus on it in the culture so that is one big thing. But even when people do talk about human flourishing or aspects of human flourishing they say all sorts of contradictory things and it is really hard to know what it true so the only way to get around that is to think a lot more carefully about how we go about acquiring knowledge and really striving to get real knowledge so on this show sometimes talk about how to out improve systems for getting knowledge. Sometimes I talk about specific studies that I make and then I try to share how I got to that knowledge. So hopefully that was a decent background for those that are new. For those who have been listening, thanks for listening. Last week we discussed the topic about rejuvenation, that was episode 7. If you hadn’t heard that it will be relevant to today’s topic, you can listen in either order but probably not a bad idea to listen to the last one first. Because rejuvenative is very really relevant to today’s topic which is relaxed productivity.

Time: 2:22 Relaxed Productivity

And what is relaxed productivity and why is it so important to human flourishing. Well relaxed productivity, it’s not any kind of formal, commonly used term, but I like it alot as a shorthand for a certain way of experiencing productive work. It’s a way of experiencing productive work that combines a bunch of things at the same time that are very satisfying and very enjoyable. So I include, I feel sense of purpose, I feel energy, I feel confidence.
And one of the hallmarks of that is I feel relaxation. Even if I’m working hard, even if there is a lot of intensity, there is a fundamental relaxed quality. And the best analogy I can think of if is if you see a great athlete performing, of course they will use a lot of effort, but there is some fundamental ease that they have that really captures something important in life. So that is what I think of when I think of relaxed productivity, and I also think of ok what is the opposite of relaxed productivity. And I sometimes think of this as tortured productivity. Sometimes even if I’m doing quite a bit, I’ll feel unclear on my purpose, I’ll feel a lack of energy, a lack of confidence, I’ll feel stress. And this is just not flourishing there is something off. And the state of relaxed productivity is so important because it is so enjoyable by itself and we spend so much of our time working-that is just a state to aspire in and of itself. But it is also nourishing for the rest of life. When I am experiencing relaxed productivity regularly it just makes everything better vs when experiencing tortured productivity it makes everything worse.

Now in general, relaxed productivity is something that I’m pretty good at. And when I look at how I work and how I feel, particularly when sometimes people work with me they often remark that hey you seem very at ease, they don’t have a sense of, it seems odd to them that I am able to create a lot and then be very relaxed, and part of that I discussed last week is rejuvenation. Is Making sure I’m going through certain processes that rejuvenate me all the time. I live in Laguna Beach I love to go into the water. I love to take certain kind of naps, which I talked about last week, I call them Seinfeld naps. You will have to listen to last week to understand why I call it that. I ride an electric skateboard called a one wheel. There are A whole bunch of things that I do . I meditate, I do transcendental meditation, particularly the first thing in the morning. That is really important to just having a certain energy level and relaxation. Definity a lot of other things involved in relaxed productivity, so if just rejunavite, but get a lot of other things wrong, you are still going to have tortured productivity.

Something I am unusually good at but it is so important that I feel like I need to be way way better at it. And about two months ago, I turned 38, on aug 1, and I made a resolution that relaxed productivity is going to be the dominate work state of mine for the rest of my life. Now interestingly, certain things came up in my life soon after that made me realize, there are certain conditions in my life that are antithetical to relaxed productivity, so I’ve experience less of it in the last two months than certainly I had intended to. But one of the benefits of that is it has caused me to think about ok what are the causes of relaxed productivity. So that I can experience it more and hopefully so you can experience it more as well.

So I’m planning on doing several shows devoted to this topic where I talk about different fundamental drivers. Or another way of putting it is - different practices and policies that lead to relaxed productive and then looking at the opposite which ones lead to tortured productivity.

There are a whole bunch of these, and one that I covered last week is regular rejuvenation. Today I want to focus on one big idea. One big practice which I found has enormous leverage in leading to relaxed productivity, and absolute just productivity.

And I call this separating what thinking from how thinking.

time : 7:30 Separating what thinking from how thinking

And to elaborate a little bit more of course I’m going to elaborate on this for the rest of the show. It means separating the process of figuring what work to do, from the process of how best to do it. Figuring what to do is one process and figuring out how best to do which is really what a lot of the doing it consists of, that is another process, and I’m going to argue it is an absolute mess when these are combined. So that is the big concept today is separating what thinking from how thinking. I have no idea since just speaking into a microphone now, if that initially resonates with you but I think once I go into it you will see this is a huge thing. To start off I want to share an experience that I have had a lot in my life. It is a form of tortured productivity. And it is a form that is definitely caused by getting this issue wrong. I’m guessing everyone listening has experience this at one time or another.

And this is the tortuous experience of spending a work day unsure of what I should be working on. Give you example from current life. his is the type of thing, using experience from my own life. I wake up in the morning. Say I have two things scheduled on my calendar, but besides that I haven’t committed to what I want to do. Different options start to run through my mind. Should I work on sales, that is obviously important, or maybe on advertising, so that will generate more prospect for sales, or but wait a second should I even do sales in the business, or should I just be recruiting someone else. Maybe it is inefficient to be doing this myself. Or maybe I should focus on improving our products, so can better serve customer needs make advertising and selling and everything else easier. But at the same time part of my job is, maybe the most important part I need is to write content for the public and I haven’t done much of that lately. And that is really important too. And I have this article / video concept I’ve been working on about how Elon Musk thinks and think that could be really valuable to people and bring a lot of attention to the human flourishing perspective on that. So maybe I should do that and what about my email have this huge backlog of email so I’m thinking about this, ruminating about this, then I think I can’t think about this all day I have to get started on something so let’s work on this elon musk article. By the way, audience, I am actually working on this, hope you like it when it comes out soon. So I’m starting on the article and I start thinking about how to do it. How to make progress on it, which is itself a massive mental undertaking. Thinking about how to understand how this guy thinks. Then trying to figure out What is good about it what is bad about it. How to explain about it that to someone who doesn’t expect to agree with me, maybe someone who is a 100 % fan of Elon Musk, and I’m only a partial fan how do I persuade them. There is all sorts of complexity and difficulty in the how of this work task and anything else. I need lots of mental energy and lots of sharpness but what I am experiencing during this, I am not feeling that. By the time I have gone through thinking through what should I be doing and all this ruminating and uncertainty I feel drained. My energy is low my confidence is low, my motivation is low. I’m stressed by all these other things in my mind. Whatever else I do during the day I don’t feel that good and at the end of the day I’m not sure what I have accomplished. If you have never experienced this congrats and I honestly say please email me and tell me how you have been able to pull this off. There is a lot to learn. Not saying this is impossible just saying in my experience with myself and anyone else I have ever met. It is rare. Because this situation of working throughout the day but not really being sure that we are doing the right thing or what we should be doing, it is so miserable and so common to the point where for many people it is a constant.

So what is behind this, because I’m going to argue it is this issue of combining what thinking with how thinking. But you might think and the way I used to think of it, by the way anyone who listened to the opinion story episode I just violated one of the principles of opinion stories.

If you noticed that very proud. If you listen to that episode. I think that is episode 6 you can see what I am talking about. Kind of an inside thing. But, I’ll say it differently the way I thought about this for a long time is that when I’m experiencing these miserable days where I’m not sure doing the right thing it is because I’m over committed and therefore overwhelmed. I’ve just set my life up so I have so many things to do, therefore, I’m never going to get to them and so I’m always going to have on my mind oh I could be doing this, I could be doing that. And I thought this for a long time, and then I remember I was listening to set of lectures by the productivity guru, David Allen, who created the Getting Things Done System, which is an interesting system in particular for making sure you know what you have committed to and have that written down therefore can manage it. So in that respect he has an interesting system with important insights. But I just remember as an aside he made not a main point, but it stuck with me over and above everything else in that course. And I don’t have the exact wording but he said something like, is it any surprise that there is more things that we would like to do than we have time to do them. And I just that thought, oh of course that is obvious, right it is inherit in life, all things being equal, there are many things we would like to do that we don’t have time to do. If we don’t feel like that there is something wrong with our values because then we don’t love life enough. With most people, we have way more stuff I would like to do if I had we had more time than with the 168 hours a week and let’s just 80 years that I have to live. And so why is this so important. What it means is that there is always the potential to feel overcommitted and overwhelmed because there is always more things we would like to do than there is time to do it. So, if we do not figure how to manage that then we are always going have this uncertainty about are we doing the right thing. It is not that I’ve actually committed to things where I have 170 hours in a week that I absolutely need to do or else going to die. It is not that situation. There are just things I would like to do and I haven’t sorted them out so feel like have to do all of them. That means the key is not to strive for a life where do not want to do all these things, instead it means we need to very very carefully decide in advance of doing things wherever possible what we want to to and what we do not want to do. We need to prioritize very very carefully, making sure that we fit in everything in life that we want to fit in. We are going to talk about a little later how I do this but it is just important that this is a necessary goal post. That In life we need to engage in this thinking and this is very difficult thinking to do. It is very difficult to figure out give the amount of time I have what do I really want to spend it, on recall with human flourishing we have all these aspects of life we want to integrate. It is not easy to figure out how much time on this and how do these all fit together. But that is thinking that we really really need to do because otherwise people who talk about oh I do not plan and what not. No matter what, we will always spend our time in very very specific way once it is done. We are always spending it in specific ways, so we can either take control of that and figure out what specific ways we will use our time or we can just not do that and be at the mercy of whatever occurs to us and we will almost certainly not do a whole bunch of things we would have done had we thought about it.

Time: 18:10

So at the beginning of the day, when I have this torturess experience of I do not know what I should be doing. That is a good in that I should be thinking of that. The bad thing is that I’m combining it. Is that I’m doing it at the wrong time. I’m trying to do it on the same day and early in the day, before I think about how I’m going to do the actual work that I chose to do.

And the thing is each of those is a difficult thing and each requires 100 percent focus and they work very very poorly together. So when we try to combine the what thinking and the how thinking what happens is usually we decide we can’t finish the what thinking because it takes a lot of time to get right assuming we have not done a lot of it to date. So we do an aborted version of that and then jump into the how but then we cant be at ease during the how Bc don’t have confidence in the what. And then if we don’t have ease in the how the work gets worse in terms of the quality of it the absolute quality of it and And our experience of it.

This to me is a tragedy that people going through life doing valuable work but not doing it in a way that as nearly as enjoyable as it could be
And it is not as good for other people as it could be . I use the word tragedy very deliberately. This is something I want to avoid as much as possible and I want to help others avoid too. This is why on my birthday this is the thing I thought about, I want relaxed productivity to be the norm because it is so enjoyable and because the opposite is so unenjoyable.

Time: 20:15

How do we do it. Well, if it doesn’t work to combine the what thinking and the how thinking then it stands to reason it works very well to do each of those rigorously, but separately. I started discovering this years ago in my early 20s when starting my career, I would notice that if I planned the week even two hours on Sunday the week would get way way better. And then I noticed if did three hours it would be even better. Then at a certain point if I spent all day on sunday planning the rest of the week to the point where I I really knew what I wanted to do at every given time and I had everything taken care of, I’ll be totally happy all my bases will be covered. Even spent whole day on that it would be worth it because I can get so much done during those times, but part of me resisted, well this is just too much planning, I don’t want to be an over planner. Came to realize we have to deeply respect the part of life figuring out what to do. That is a very complex thing and it requires a lot of strategy and a lot of prioritization. The key is doing that as it’s own work and then get to the point where do the how work with total serenity. And a concept I use to describe this is calendar comprehensiveness.

Time: 21:52 Calendar Comprehensiveness

Calendar comprehensiveness means that on my calendar, on my literal calendar whatever using to determine what to do to in the future, the time on that is allocated for everything I really want to do. When my calendar is comprehensive everything I really want to do there is time to do that on that calendar. And that is a magical state of calendar comprehensiveness because whatever I’m doing focus on it with confidence that this is a great thing for me to do. And I’m going to take care of all other things in their own time. And I find that when I am in that state, particularly if I’m doing work I really like I’ll just go into that and it is just so relaxing. Even though it’s intense, something about it it is just a wonderful feeling. And I was having that today with preparing this episode, which this episode required a bunch of new thinking as do most of the episodes. And certain things I was confused about for little while. The way I blocked it out I knew ok everything will be taken care of at another time, but during x amount of time, just work out this episode, certain calm that comes over me just think I’m going to figure out whatever I need to figure out to do this. When it comes to the other things I will figure them out later, and that is a really great feeling. So you might be wondering ok how do I achieve calendar comprehensiveness.

Time: 23:40 Time Blocking Activities and Categories

There are lots of options, this is a big topic and I don’t claim to have the best way. There is a very powerful concept pretty sure is universal or at least capturing something that is almost universal. And this is time blocking. A concept you may have heard. It is a specific approach to it, time blocking both activities and categories. And emphasis categories. So if you look up time blocking you will find a bunch of different types of definitions, but it usually used to mean a certain approach to activities, which is to take any given activity you intend to do and you schedule it during a specific time window or time block. Then you just do it then to completion. An analogy people often use is a meeting or an appointment. When we schedule something as an appointment we have a Certain relaxation we have because I’m going to talk about that then. I do not have to think about it before or after, at the moment I just have this serrentity of knowing this area of life is taken care of. And what time blocking does is not just with appointments, but with something that is much more important often which is our own productive choices. So years ago in 2014 when I was writing my book and I had a business to run and all these different things going on. I had five months to write the book. I would time block 3.5 hours every morning from 730 to 11 and it was on my calendar- work on book and on specific days give myself specific assignments, like write this many pages or get the outline done, the more specific the better. And as a check on this I would send a report to a friend of mine. And that would just be a great thing and what I found what that not only was I ensuring I had a lot of time working on the book, but that I would optimize that time with the book because there is something very powerful with having a deadline. Ok I have to finish x amount of work in y amount of time. If I really take that seriously my mind will find more optimal way of doing things. And part of that is it will prioritize decisions. Like maybe this isn’t your favorite sentence, but you need to write 50 sentences in this block so you have to leave that alone now and maybe come back to it later versus having no sense of time or no boundaries I can’t decide how to do it intelligently. Because I’m acting like there is infinite time. So sort of like the person who doesn’t plan their life, they are acting like they have infinite time. So that is a big example of time blocking- time blocking a book. But, I do the same thing even for things that are small. A lot of my time blocks are half hour, where if I give myself a definite objective. Ican stack half hours and get a ton done. Put in the calendar I write it there either directly or sometimes the details of it are in a different place. Like with sales, if you use a crm, like salesforce or hubspot, I use hubspot at the moment. You just say clear salesforce tasks. Salesforce will give you what you need to do at a given time. Still I have this serrently and ease ok this is exactly what I need to do. So when I time block activities look at my calendar and I’m good to go. This is an enormously valuable tool, but I think to really use it use it in a way that will help us flourish, we need to time block in a bigger and broader way as well because the question comes up when I’m allocating all these times how do I make sure I free up the right amount of time for all the aspects of life. Including all the different types of work I need to do and then there is the whole rest of life. And the only way I found of doing this in a way that makes relaxed productivity consistently possible is at least for me, is what I call category time blocking.

Time: 28:50 Category Time blocking

This means I don’t just decide how long activities will take, I decide how long categories in my life will take. How much time am I going to spend personally. How much time on certain relationships or on sales. Sometimes people find this constraining, but as I said earlier we have no choice going to spend finite time in certain ways. It is question of do we take control of that and experience ease and confidence, or do we leave it outside our control and then always have the nagging knowledge of knowing not getting done what we really want to in life. If we think about time blocking categories, how much time in my life do I want to spend on all the different areas, it leads to amazingly valuable thinking. It is the kind of thinking that needs its own focus. Can’t mix with doing the work. We need to dedicate time to do this, I really like Sundays although often I do Fridays when I can get away with it. Fridays are even better and then sometimes if it is longer term stuff like what I want to do in life sometimes evengins for me are good for that. What I would caution against is spending too much time, oh I have to work out everything before I get any work done that is dangerous. Longterm get clear on time blocking and priority for years but the unit I find most useful is by week. Just make sure next week make sure have things blocked. Here is an exercise to help you with category time blocking. Just start with work and add personal later. Take the kinds of work you do and divide them into three to eight categories. At the moment I have mine divided into eight because we are short staffed and a whole bunch of other reasons, would not recommend having eight. Here are mine:

time : 31:10

Fulfillment- delivering to our clients, delivering speaking and consulting Public Content - creating public content particularly on energy, most of what I do Selling - selling to prospective buyers of speeches and consulting Prospecting - which means generating prospective buyers through advertising Management - managing our finances and people Upgrades - making sure to make improvements to products and systems making sure I’m spending time on innovation and improvement, not just the status quo. Human flourishing project- time block to get this podcast to a good level and can work on future aspects of the project Planning - need a bunch of time every week to decide what to do and sometimes time for longer time planning

So, come up with these categories and for each try to identify. Look at a google calendar or equivalent and get a sense of how many hours a week do you want to work in each area. Start with the week. Now, for each of the areas I want at least three hours, some of them a lot more I write down a number by each. There are a whole bunch of ways to apply this to a calendar depending on how you do it, but the key is when thinking about any given category I have an idea how much time am I allocating to a certain category. Once I have specific number allocated then I can think really really clearly about what I want to do and what I don’t want to do, because un general do things that drive the most results and I’m really weary of anything that doesn’t Because I realize I have so little time. Say I have five hours a week to work on sales. What is the best possible use of those five hours. Oh I just want to chat, then if I infinite time oh maybe something will come out of it. But if only have five hours I think, oh that is cannibalizing something else. I find this enormously helpful to have these time allocations and then to apply them. Look at in general how much time do I want to spend on each area. Focus on one area at a time. Ok just with selling how much time want to spend time with selling. Then just with management - how do I want to spend my time there. It makes thinking about how much time in general. And then how much time on activities in each category. Verses if I have a list of 40 activities from different categories. It is overwhelming. And don’t have a way of prioritizing. And often do things that are too short term because I’ll feel like maybe I should just do all selling because I think selling is important. But these other things are important too. And there is a parallel to life. All these aspects of life that are important. How much time each one of these going to get. Then we can really optimize. One other little tip here is that is good to have buffer time. Good to also have rejuvenation time. It is really important to have good energy and good focus, but good to have buffer time too because on a given day if something comes up if we are totally booked, we become overwhelmed, so a little bit of buffer time can do wonders for relaxed productivity. So I gave the example of work but, you can imagine to do the same for personal life. You can do the exact same thing for personal life, might say I’m blocking off this day of the week on personal time in general, and I want to spend this amount of time on this person. This amount of time on jujitsu. It is just so valuable to have an idea how much of my life do I want spent on this category and then within that what is the best use of this. That gives me calendar comphresivemness. And that gives me a calendar that is engineered for human flourishing. Time: 35:50 Now all things being equal we want to be long term about this. It’s really good if I can have not just the week but have the 90 day period is a common one, sometimes people use a month, a half a year, multiple years. These are all really good, but I find that just for day to day success I at least need the week blocked out. It does not work well for me if I don’t and I have not seen it work well for anyone else if they try to decide everyday what to do because the thinking is just too complex and you wont get that far in it and so you will do a mediocre job figuring out what do to and then you will be all messed up for executing it. So my preference have at least a day a week where if I need to have entire day to get to calendar comphre then if I can do that then the week is almost like skiing, its downhill, you put yourself at the top of the mountain and there is this incredible almost this almost gravity. All you have to do is this specific thing at this point in time. I set it up so it is something you can do, there is an incredible confidence of just, ok this is what I need to do, I know I can do it, ok I did it. That is just such a great way to exist, and it all comes from this calendar comprehensive. And the only way we are going to get that is by separating out very deliberately the thinking about what we want to do in life with how we are going to do it. If we can do that we have a big piece of the productivity puzzle. Rejuvenation not the only one, there are a whole bunch of things that go into having the best experience of productivity. Because productivity is so much of life I think it is worth spending a lot of time just looking how do we we experience productivity that is really consistent with us flourishing.

Time: 38:00 Conclusion

So I look forward to people’s feedback on the episode and on the topic. Please email me at Always good to get your thoughts. And you might think he is overwhelmed with emails, but most people don’t send really thoughtful emails since a lot of people think I get to many and won’t look at them. In this topic in particular I will look at it and good chance I’ll will respond. So that is our show for this week. Relaxed productivity part 1, that is the big topic. The specific idea was separating what thinking from how thinking and the then the specific tactic for getting there was focusing on calendar comprehensive through time blocking both our activities and categories of life. Hope you enjoyed it. One more thing. I forgot the exercise. I want you to share with the group any tips you have on how to separate what thinking from how thinking. I’m interested in other ways to do this, because there is so much leverage here and I can always do it better myself and I would love to hear your idea.

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Hope enjoyed show and hope you listen again next friday. This is Alex epstein and this has been the human flourishing project.