The first hard truth of productivity is that you can’t do as much as you think you can.
You can make hundreds of calls a day. You can close dozens of deals. You can write thousands of lines of code. You can recruit dozens of candidates. You feel invincible and immortal in your mind.
But statistically speaking, you are average.
You inflate what you are capable of. You aren’t an outlier. You don’t scale the same way a computer does. You are, alas, a human. It’s easy to ignore median output and assume that you are an incredible exception that works in a flow state, at will, ad infinitum.
But as a human, you have built-in limitations. These limitations are physical, mental, social, and chronological. Until you recognize those limitations, you’ll never feel productive; you’ll always assume that you could be doing more. The first step to being truly productive is to have an honest assessment of what you are realistically capable of doing.
There are limits to what your body is capable of doing–both in one-time activities (e.g. pulling an allnighter), and over weeks, seasons, and years. Your body requires regular, quality sleep to function correctly. You need to eat properly and allow your body to digest the food. You need to maintain your body with regular exercise. You will face the limitation of sickness once or twice a year. Your body will respond negatively to repeated stress. If you travel a lot, that takes an additional toll on how productive you can be.
Think about the times you thought you could just work through the night on a project, skip a meal, or relied on ridiculous amounts of caffeine or other drugs to keep going. What about the seasons when you got so busy that you quit exercising or eating well?
If you were to go back and judge your productivity during those times, you would probably find that you weren’t much more productive than seasons where you treated your body right.
Accepting your physical limitations means acknowledging that these shortcuts are actually detrimental to your productivity.
For most of humanity’s existence, ‘work’ has meant relying on our body and mind working together, whether as a hunter-gatherer or an early farmer. Once the industrial revolution came about, our bodies were no longer a match for the machines. But, we were able to create and move to an enormous amount of jobs that are based mostly only on our brains. In fact, we can be ‘productive’ knowledge workers while letting our bodies rot.
But our brains have limitations. Just like the rest of the body, the brain isn’t meant to work for hours on end; it requires breaks, variety, rest, and maintenance.
When you add in the required breaks, it’s unlikely that you have much more than five or six hours of highly productive mental work in you every day. Sujan Patel, who runs nine companies, admits that he only gets in six hours on a great day. When you try to go beyond that, your work becomes sluggish and you grow increasingly inefficient.
Accepting your mental limitations means acknowledging that you have a limit on how much mental work you can do in a day, and intentionally providing your brain with rest and other activities.
Hopefully, you have people in your life whom you care about. These people will need you from time to time.
You might be the mother or father of young children, or the child of rapidly aging parents, which both require a lot of time and energy. Your spouse needs you to spend time decompressing and talking about the day.
Emergencies happen and you may need to take a trip to the hospital or make a meal for someone. You promised the kids a camping trip over the summer. Your friends plan a week-long fishing expedition.
The truth is we cannot function without these human interactions.
We usually sum up social limitations with the phrase “Life happens.” The more people you know, the more chances that these social limitations will be present in your life. Social limitations are a great reminder that we are much more than our jobs. You shouldn’t feel bad about not hitting your numbers at the office the same week that your cousin got married and you decided to fly out a day early to spend some extra time with family. These are sacred, human events and we shouldn’t look down on them.
In a world that feels infinite, it’s easy to fall into the trap that we think our time here is infinite as well. But we need to constantly be reminded that we have time limits. You only get a certain number of trips around the sun.
Especially if you live in an affluent society where your basic needs are met and you have no concerns about food, water, and shelter, time truly is the main limiting factor in your life. If nothing else, your ability to be productive is directly limited by the number of hours in a day. There’s only so much work that can be packed in. You only get to be the age you are for one year and then you must get older.
Living within your limits
All of these limitations are good, but our first instinct is to deny or minimize all of them. We believe we can push our bodies even further, that doing more work is just a matter of willpower, that we could get so much more done if it weren’t for the people around us, and that somehow our time supply is limitless.
You will never feel like a productive person until you accept the limits of productivity. We’ll talk more about what it means to accept those limits, but the most important starting place is to stop and see yourself for the social human that you are.