Allow yourself to rest and boost productivity

This is a bit counterintuitive. When we must be most productive we tend to throw in everything we have and be obsessed about it. Instead, we should calm down, maybe even rest, and be very accurate about how we apply our energy.  I guess it is a bit easier for people trained in some martial arts. Not for me… More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Using mindfulness to boost productivity

We can use mindful relaxation or meditation to improve productivity:

  1. Relax and rest, recuperating energies before and after the hyperproductive stage.
  2. Meditate and watch for the new ideas that surface.
  3. Daydream about things you would like to do.
  4. Feel compassion towards other people and their needs.
  5. Use self-compassion to heal

My texts are very compressed. Below I will try to open up and explore some aspects of this paragraph.

Why only 95%?

Being born in a competitive environment, I used to get pretty high grades. Typically I got 95% of my tasks correctly. Yet each time everyone used to ask: why only 95%? Why not 100%?  As a child, I kind of felt bad about it. Why cannot I be a perfectionist and get the perfect score?

As a grownup, I actually feel very good about 95%. Being a perfectionist is a lot of extra stress. There is a curve where the return on investment is really bad, and it is above 95%.

Usually, up to 20%, there is a cutoff. You can invest more and nothing happens. Between 20% and 80% the improvement is fast and linear. Above 80% there is a slow saturation. Some of the efforts go into overlearning: retaining the skills longer rather than improving them. Yet up to 95% there is still clear progress. And then something happens. Above 95% there is no clear improvement path. Every small issue counts. To improve further requires a huge amount of effort. This effort can provide better returns elsewhere.

How good is good enough?

A company has to release the minimal viable product. It can be embarrassing, but it has to be good enough. Unless you are Apple, and then it has to be nearly perfect.

Basically, the level of good enough is set by expectations. The higher the expectations, the harder it is to meet them. A company like Apple has significantly more products in R&D than the products released to the public. Because the expectations are high.

A regular startup company simply does not have the budget required for perfection. The minimal viable product will usually be embarrassing. Yet it will do the work, and provide clear value to the customers.

At school, 90% is usually good enough to get to the next level (grad school, PhD, postdoc, tenure), often good enough to get a scholarship.

Pareto rule states that 80% of the result requires 20% of the effort. 80% of the effort goes into the last 20% of the result…

Do not go for “Wow!” or even “I did the best I could.” You do not get to the next stage based on your efforts. A simple “That will do” is enough.


Workaholics notice that they are much more productive after a day off. Athletes take a day off to rest before an important event.

It’s easy to think you’ll start taking time off after you start actually achieving hyper-productive things. However, if you’re in the habit of overworking, you’ll probably need to lead with taking time off, and your increased productivity will follow.

The reason for this is pretty clear. You need to have some extra resources to generate extra productivity. And if you exhaust all of your resources, you can simply hurt yourself. So try to get a rest before an important event.

In school, I used to learn and practice throughout the year. A week before the exam I used to start reviewing all the required materials, doing the exercises. Then, the day before, I slept, ate, and watched TV. So on the day of the exam, I was very sharp and got my 95%.

Others put all-nighters before the exams. An hour before the exam all they could talk about was the material. And they got 75%.

Then I did not understand the dynamics. Now I do. I did the right thing almost instinctively – due to the coaching I got as a chess player.

Avoid exhaustion

When we are productive, it is easy to continue with the momentum. It is easy to exhaust all the extra energy we collected, and then some more. If this happens, the next several days will be spent in slow recuperation. Athletes can actually afford this. Students often have exams a day after day. Corporate employees have to deliver and always be ready for an emergency.

Becoming more aware of your “I’ll just do one more thing” thoughts will help you curb boom and bust cycles of activity. Learn to stop working before you’re completely exhausted, even if you’re “on a roll” with whatever it is you’re doing.

Usually, there are only two reasons good enough for such exhaustion. One reason is a qualifying event, like a championship. Another is an emergency, like a forest fire.

Avoid being sucked into a shrinking universe

Doing the same things over and over eventually reduces our universe. We stop noticing things. Quite often we do not even know what will give us pleasure anymore.

If you’re in a habit of overworking, you probably habitually brush off thoughts about things you’d rather be doing with your time. If you’re very entrenched in overworking, you might even find it hard to think about other ways to spend your time that would feel as valuable as working. Start collecting your ideas.

Having a life beyond the main effort is one of the ways to increase creativity and decrease injuries.

In chess, about half of the champions were absolutely obsessed with the game. Another half had other things in their lives. Who do you think ruled the chess world longer? A hint, Mikhail Botvinnik was an engineer and a computer scientist, not just a chess player. Bobby Fischer dropped out of school.

Getting to peak performance is hard enough. Staying there for a long time is harder. It requires an additional set of skills.

A radical change

When we talk about diminishing returns for the efforts, there is one thing we need to remember. Top performers occasionally come with game-changing solutions.

Each paradigm shift required a lot of creativity, tenacity, and desperation. People who are not top performers will not demonstrate the advantages of the new approach well enough.  The top performers will not usually try radically new things unless they are desperate.

The best ideas come from a larger universe: other disciplines and hobbies, mentors, improvisation with peers, pop culture. They often need time to be processed, and surface again in our mind when we least expect them.

From compassion to action

Some of the biggest motivators are compassion for other people and their need, and obligations to other people.

The compassion for other people makes us feel better and motivated. The mechanics are not very clear. It has something to do with oxytocin, “the love hormone”. Buddhists of the Mahayana school use compassion as a device for personal ascention.

Feeling obligation to other people is another motivating mechanism. Once we tell someone we will do something, or see that they need something to be done, we are highly motivated to help them.

Yet another mechanism is the need of other people. Once we see a need that is not properly met, we start creatively looking for solutions. Some of the best ideas are born this way.

Is compassion for everyone? This is not clear. At least 50% of us can benefit from it. Some might not. Do not worry, there is a good alternative.


Being compassionate to yourself is another idea that works for at least 50% of us. We kind of push ourselves too hard. Will you beat someone for his failure as much as you beat yourself? You will probably try to calm him down instead.

Self-kindness means being nice to yourself. Treating yourself with consideration, gentleness, and thoughtfulness in the face of suffering or missteps. 

Common humanity involves seeing the common issues of all people. Probably the mistakes we make are quite common. Everybody makes mistakes, everybody suffers and struggles. This does not make us less human, it makes us more human if anything. If we work hard for what we believe in, do everything we can, we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Grounding means being a part of something real.  Whatever games we play, no matter how important they seem, are less real than our family and our basic existence. We breathe, drink and eat, walk and sleep – these things make us real. And nobody can take them from us.

If work dominated your every moment would life be worth living?

This is a good existential question. For the Sisyphean activities, the answer would probably be negative. If we consider highly stressful competitive action of the kind we see on TV dramas about doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, the answer is not very clear. What about my jobs? Creating content of all sorts is one of the best games I know, and I earn money by doing that!

Sometimes, the best jobs are the jobs that do not allow us to stop and smell the roses. When I was young I remember years that I did not notice the taste of food – so invested I was in my work. And then suddenly the obsession passed. The strange thing is: my productivity went up immediately and has been high since…

Go figure…


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