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How to improve productivity: Do something unproductive

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Peak performance doesn’t come from being in race mode all the time; downtime is just as important, if not more.

How to improve productivity: Do something unproductive
Connecting the Dots—a series by GV Ravishankar, Managing Director, Sequoia Capital India, that explores and makes connections across a range of diverse ideas on scaling companies, personal growth and leading teams.
“Do something unproductive, dad!” my 14-year old son chided me recently. Given he sees me on calls and Zoom meetings all day or buried in a book on my Kindle—and seldom finds me lazing or watching TV—he thinks I am this focused workaholic who doesn’t know how to chill. There is some truth in that —but in my defence, I’ve made a more conscious attempt to reform over the last year.
For most of my life, I have had this tremendous FOMO and paranoia of being left behind if I was not always on. At school, I wouldn’t dream of missing a single class, even for family events. In college, I had a reputation for flaking on parties and didn’t skip a single class in two years. I stuffed my summer holidays with internships, industry projects or research work. In my current role, my calendar used to get so packed that my colleagues would complain how hard it had become to find a slot despite advance planning, and my heavy travel (pre-COVID of course!) didn’t help this. And worst of all, I used to be proud of this busyness!
The switch flipped for me at a global Sequoia meeting when during a team conversation, our senior partner Michael Moritz told us to “Never confuse travel for work!” Those words really struck home, and during the COVID-19 linked shutdowns, started to ring louder than ever before as I discovered how much more I could accomplish without travel. And now I would like to expand that advice to “Never confuse activity or ’busyness’ for work!”.
In this fast-moving world, companies see employees as assets whose productive time needs to be maximised the same way an airplane needs to be kept flying maximum hours or how a race car needs to minimise time at pitstops. But the fact is that peak performance doesn’t come from being in race mode all the time; downtime is just as important, if not more.
Invert, always Invert
Charlie Munger popularised the mental model of inversion when he said “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there”. Inversion refers to solving hard problems by thinking backward. The concept comes to us from German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, who supposedly solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy—“invert, always invert”. Inspired by that concept, and by the innocuous comment from my son, I started thinking about how productivity can be improved by understanding what makes us unproductive at work—and what the role of the hours we spend not working have to do with improving productivity. It turns out that unproductive activity, like calories or cholesterol, falls into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ buckets.
Defining unproductivity at work
Inverting the situation by asking what an unproductive day for me looked like, it became easy for me to see it. A day where I am running from one meeting to another, hardly having time to prepare or think, becoming agitated and less present because I am thinking about the next meeting, and spending time on calls and meetings to make some others happy. These things leave me exhausted and dissatisfied and make my day unproductive. A day where I travel six hours each way for a three hour in-person meeting in Mumbai is also an unproductive day for me. And a day where I am unable to give my 100 percent because I am feeling insufficiently rested or lethargic from having not worked out at the gym in a while is also an unproductive day for me. These were the things that I needed to change to become productive.
Getting productive by embracing downtime
Instead of obsessing about becoming more productive, I have started making changes and carving out quality downtime. Here are some of those things I do now (and will continue to focus more on). I will be the first to point out that this is all work-in-progress and I have a significant distance to cover:
  • Role of sleep: I have always needed a good eight hours and honestly, I didn’t look very cool back in college going to sleep at 11 PM every day where most people packed it in at 2 AM. But I knew to be productive I needed rest. While society seems to glorify the person who works more and sleeps less, there are more and more conversations these days about prioritising sleep. The book “Why we sleep” by Mathew Walker is an eye-opener when it comes to understanding the importance of sleep and certainly made me feel less guilty about hanging on to my eight hours. While this article isn’t about the benefits of sleep, I would rate sleeping well as the #1 productivity hack.
  • Thinking time: My mornings now have a block of time, typically 8 AM till 930 AM, when I try my best not to schedule meetings. This is the time I use to prepare for the day or for any pieces of work that require uninterrupted time. Being a morning person, mornings are my most productive hours and I try to use it for the most important things I need to do and for consolidating my thoughts. Microsoft Outlook now has a feature where it can automatically find an hour or two of “focus time” for you on your calendar.
  • Working out: Thanks to COVID-19 my workout discipline has improved a lot and sticking to a workout schedule of 4x a week has helped me feel more energetic. On the days I don’t work out, I go for long walks and use the time to catch up on podcasts and audiobooks. I seem to have more light bulb moments about work during these walks and hence this has become a great contributor to my work outcomes while helping me keep fit!
  • Meditation/Playing a sport: Playing a sport (Squash for me!) or meditating (still learning to manage the monkey mind!) has the effect of keeping your mind focused in one place and this has often been refreshing for me. Having a mind that isn’t constantly wavering, even if for a few mins a day or during those few hours of play, has the effect of rebooting the mind in a way where the impact lasts well beyond the activity itself.
  • Taking small breaks through the year: One thing I have learnt is the benefit of getting out of your city to a place that calms you down. Three or four short breaks a year can really help you refresh and recharge. Don’t save up days for that one long vacation!
  • My definition of being productive is to focus on the things that have nothing to do with the activity of working itself. It is hard for us and our society to not equate being busy with being productive but if we can learn to measure ourselves less on hours we spend working and more on the output we are able to generate, we would likely have higher performance and more time for a fulfilling life.
    So go on, do something unproductive. You’ll be surprised by the benefits over time!
    Do write in at ravi.gv@sequoiacap.com if you have ideas that the world should know!
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