There’s this trap I’ve regularly fallen into when trying to be more productive. I’ve performed activities, such as coding, designing, writing or exercise, in a tense manner, trying to perform at my peak, maximize output and get optimal use of my time.
Sounds good in theory right?
This has stressed me out and often made me not enjoy the activity in question, increasingly making it unappealing, affecting my net performance and productivity.
I’ve learned over time relaxation has profound benefits for performance and productivity. Relaxation makes the activity in question more enjoyable and more sustainable, which is important, as gains are made from consistent efforts that compound over a long period.
Some personal examples
In design, I’ve ruminated about font sizes, shades of color and spacing of element. Being hypercritical of my work and questioning can I do better, has made me slow to show others, get feedback and ship.
Often people have thought the design has been fine so long as usable, not caring beyond a point for sizing, spacing and shades.
With coding, I’ve dwelled on if code is abstract or reusable enough, trying to think of future requirements. At times this has caused analysis paralysis, increasing the time to ship and get feedback or deliver value.
Often speed to learning has been most important, not quality or abstraction of code. After shipping, there’s been plenty of time to refactor, implementing learnings.
For exercise, I’ve tried to hit new personal bests or match them each session. When due subsequently workouts, I’ve dreaded trying to match that level and beaten myself up if fallen short of it.
In reality, achieving my fitness goals has come from consistent moderate effort, with periodic increases in weight or pace and the occasional new personal best when the conditions are right. Now on my bad days, at worst, my workout is a glorified stretching routine, which is better than hiding under the covers and hating myself.
When writing, I’ve fretted over if I have too little or too many points, if the piece is too long or too short, and all the ways it could be misinterpreted. Such pieces have hung over me remaining unpublished and daunting.
Most often people have forgotten about the piece after some time or remembered the gist of it (which has been of sufficient value), or simply just don’t care. I’ve been stalled from moving onto the next piece, keeping me motivated and starting fresh with new ideas.
Overhead & bandwidth
This stress and angst is a lot of overhead, consuming cognitive bandwidth from the task at hand and associating negative emotions with the activity, which over time makes the activity seem unappealing and creates friction to performing it again. This also leads to procrastination to avoid such emotions.
In many contexts, this overhead does not provide any notable benefit, in fact, often it has a negative impact on performance and enjoyment, particularly on a long timeline. Given the parameters of time and impact, you can get the same result (or close to it) without this overhead, which sounds like a better deal.
The sentiment of relaxing for performance gains has cropped up in a few places recently and I wanted to tie these together. Here I’ve gathered some of these resources and mental models.
“Relax for the same result”
Derek Sivers is a fascinating individual. Among other things, he founded CD Baby, later selling it for $22 million and donating most of the money. I highly recommend the 2015 Tim Ferriss podcast with him (considered one of the best).
In that episode, Derek shares a story about himself regularly cycling as hard as he possibly could along a route by the ocean. He would cover 15 miles in 43 minutes.
Finding himself increasingly less enthusiastic about the cycle, one day he decided to relax and focus instead on enjoying the ride. He completed the same route in 45 minutes.
His take away was that all the hardship only got him a 4% boost. He could get 96% of the result in a far more pleasurable, and ultimately sustainable manner.
Which then makes me realize that half of my effort wasn’t effort at all, but just unnecessary stress that made me feel like I was doing my best.
You can read the story here.
If you want to really grow, or change behaviors, then you want what you’re doing to be sustainable. Real change and improvements are achieved with compounding effects and in the long term.
In knowledge work and physical exercise, optimize for consistency over intensity, as intensity often ends in injury.
The 85% rule
Hugh Jackman, more recently on the Tim Ferriss Podcast (also highly recommended) discussed athletes performing at their best when relaxed:
“If you tell most of A-type athletes to run at their 85% capacity, they will run faster than if you tell them to run at 100%, because it’s more about relaxation, and form, and optimizing the muscles in the right way”.
On the other end of the spectrum, Matthew Syed in ‘Bounce’, looks at the neurological side of this. In particular, ‘Choking’, what goes wrong when people do not relax and can’t perform under pressure.
Learning a skill for the first time requires conscious effort and is cognitively expensive. When doing this we use our brain’s ‘Explicit System’ (in the prefrontal cortex).
Over time, with practice and repetition, the skill transitions to the ‘Implicit System’ (using areas such as the Basal ganglia) and becomes more automatic (and less cognitively expensive).
‘Choking’ occurs when one is trying to perform under pressure and inadvertently tries to use the ‘Explicit System’ instead of the ‘Implicit System’ where the developed skill (and all its practice) lives.
Relaxing and letting the ‘automatic’ nature of the ‘Implicit System’ take hold, will use the right part of the brain. Farnam Street has an article that goes into more depth.
Pareto & Flow
I think it’s worth mentioning some related concepts: The Pareto Principle and Flow state.
The Pareto Principle posits:
roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the cause
Because the last 20% is so damn difficult to achieve, many people just ignore it. Often this is also the point of diminishing returns.
The first draft of this post took 60 minutes to write and had most of what I wanted to say. It took 4 hours of feedback and editing to get it into a publishable state. 20% of a company’s customers are responsible for 80% of the sales. According to Woody Allen: “80 percent of success is showing up”.
The founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, refers to himself as an ‘80%-er’ in his book “Let My People Go Surfing”. He either lets someone else spend their time achieving the remaining 20% or just ignores it. Perfectionism is often a mask for insecurity.
Flow is described as:
the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity
‘Flow’ occurs when our mental bandwidth is fully occupied by the task at hand (leaving no room for any other thoughts, such as concern or those of ego), and often at the point where our ability meets our comfort zone (so as not to be bored or unable to do the task).
While being in flow can look “intense”, there is a sense of relaxation accompanying the engagement, as one is not inhibited by stress or worry, weighing them down.
It’ll help your performance, keep your efforts sustainable over the long term, where gains are made and, most importantly, make life all the more enjoyable.
Ask yourself, how can I get the same result for less effort.