How to Do the Work You Love: 5 Principles for Values-Based Productivity

I tend to be pretty productive.

In addition to my full-time job as a psychologist and spending quality time with my wife and daughters, I write at least a couple articles each week for my newsletter, host and produce two podcasts, exercise a handful of times per week, read a few new books each month, and then regularly tinker with new projects and hobbies.

Interestingly, this rarely feels like work to me. In fact, the more work I do, the more energetic and productive I feel—something more than a few people have commented on with confusion.

I often get emails or messages from people asking me to describe my techniques and strategies for being productive. And while I’ve written about these before, the more I consider my own productivity, the more I realize it’s not really about techniques and strategy; it’s about principles.

The reason I’m able to be consistently productive and have it not feel like work is because my work aligns well with my values. When you’re doing something you love, it doesn’t feel like work.

I believe the key to aligning our work with our values comes down to principles—relatively stable rules for ourselves about what we should work on and how.

What follows are the 5 most important principles that govern my work and allow me to work both productively and enjoyably.

1. I say “No” to almost everything

As Greg McKeown notes in his excellent book Essentialism, “the Latin root of the word decision—cis or cid—literally means “to cut” or “to kill.”

I think an underappreciated idea in productivity is that it’s actually pretty easy to do the right thing, or the productive thing, when you’re good at saying no and willing to kill off the unproductive things.

This is why most people who seem really productive don’t necessarily describe it as strenuous and burdensome all the time. And in fact, if they’re honest, you’ll often hear highly productive people say things like, “It just feels easy to me.”

Being productive and staying consistent with your goals are all much easier than you think if you’ve developed the ability to say no.

Of course, the hard part for most people about saying no is that it leads to some pretty powerful emotion: When we say no to a request to take on a new project, we worry that we’ll be letting the other person down or that they’ll be angry with us. Or we have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) about some new idea, so we chase after it distractedly instead of staying focused on what we need to do.

The key to being good at saying no is to build a higher tolerance for difficult emotion.

2. I Only Choose to Work on Things I Genuinely Enjoy

I try hard not to fall for the trap of getting involved with work that I like the idea of but not the experience of.

Positive experience (i.e. reward) is the key to short term motivation, which results in progress and long-term habits. Which means that if you want to achieve a long-term goal or stay productive with something until then, you must consider how rewarding the activity itself is.

You must give yourself permission to work on things you actually enjoy.

Of course, all work involves aspects that are not enjoyable. But I try to be very intentional about only choosing work for myself that I know is inherently rewarding and enjoyable to me.

The big obstacle here is usually ourselves. Specifically, our own pessimistic and negative self-talk which says things like:

  • That’s just your weird hobby/interest… nobody else is going to want to read/buy/listen to your ideas about it.
  • That’s not real work.
  • This sounds good now, but I never follow through on things in the end, so why even start…

Remember that your thoughts are just thoughts. They’re not Gospel.

And if you can get good at re-training your unhelpful patterns of thinking and self-talk, you’ll be much closer to choosing work that is inherently enjoyable, rewarding, and therefore motivating.

3. I’m Deliberately Contrarian

My instinct is always to do or think the opposite of what most people around me are doing or thinking.

In fact, I get uncomfortable when I’m surrounded by people who all think similarly—even if it aligns with my own thinking—and deliberately say or do things just to stir the pot.

And while I’m sure this is annoying to people around me, I honestly don’t care that much because it really helps me. Specifically, the habit of thinking and acting like a contrarian helps me be more creative and adventurous in my own work because it fosters divergent thinking.

Here are some examples:

  • Most people sleep in and stay up late. I get up early—even on the weekends—because being alone in the early morning hours gives me the solitude and stillness that I need to think creatively and rigorously about difficult concepts I want to write about. I get that this makes me appear sort of “productivity-pretentious” to a lot of people. But that’s fine. What matters is that, for me, choosing to disregard the common practice of sleeping in whenever possible resulted in an amazingly fruitful source of creativity and productivity.
  • Most people gab with friends on the phone. I rarely talk to my friends on the phone, and if I do call my friends, it’s scheduled. But I’m also regularly reaching out and making connections with interesting writers and thinkers I encounter online. Do you know what percentage of new subscribers to my newsletter actually reply to my welcome email and say hi? About 0.05%. I always reach out and say hi when I join someone’s newsletter or when I follow someone interesting on Twitter. This simple against-the-grain practice has lead to so many interesting connections and discussions that it’s hard for me to imagine where my work would be without them.
  • Most people spend a lot of time-consuming social media. I try to produce my own media for social channels. The vast majority of my time on social media involves sharing my own work and thoughts or connecting with interesting people. Social media is a tool to serve my own goals, not an end in itself. The choice to deliberately not use social media as entertainment, and instead, treat it like a tool is contrarian but awfully productive (and, imo, far more enjoyable).

To be clear, I do the opposite of what I see most people doing not because I think their approach is bad. I’m pretty agnostic about what other people choose to do with their time and energy.

I do the opposite because it’s more helpful to me and my goals and values. And while “just going with the flow” may work out really well for some people, I would suggest that if you want to break out of your current way of operating or create something new, the habit of thinking and acting like a contrarian is worth experimenting with.

4. I Take It Easy on Myself. Like, Really Easy.

When I procrastinate on writing and blow whole a morning’s work (Yes, it’s possible to be productive and procrastinate), I don’t make too much of it. Seriously, the entirety of my self-talk in response to wasting a whole morning’s worth of proclivity usually boils down to: “Eh… bummer.”

This is important because if my self-talk is mellow and easy-going, it means my emotional reaction will be proportionally mellow and easy-going. In other words, I may feel a twinge of regret or guilt, but that’s about it. Which is crucial because it allows me to get on with my day productively instead of wallowing around in a vicious cycle of self-recrimination, epic guilt, and further procrastination and self-sabotage.

It’s like an old professor and clinical supervisor of mine used to say:

Falling off the wagon isn’t the problem. It’s the rolling around in the mud that gets you.

Most of us were trained from birth to use harsh words as motivation to get our work done and succeed. We learned this from all the well-intentioned if psychologically unsophisticated people around us from parents and teachers to coaches and managers who taught us to be harsh with ourselves when we slipped up because it would “teach us a lesson” and make us fear slipping up in the future.

Seems to make sense. But it’s a terrible idea.

Behind every major procrastinator is a vicious mental habit of brutally harsh negative self-talk. On the other hand, if you can cultivate an inner voice that’s gentle, you’ll not only feel a lot better, but you’ll end up getting way more done in way less time.

Check this out: Gentle Productivity: How to Be Productive without Being Hard on Yourself

5. I Married Someone Awesome

I guess getting married isn’t a principle exactly, but striving to surround yourself with great people is. And whom you choose to marry is perhaps the most impactful decision that comes from that principle.

Having a supportive, loving spouse who’s not afraid to either call me on my bulls!t or give me a little unexpected praise and encouragement, is probably my ultimate productivity hack.

It’s hard to have the inner peace and confidence required to do meaningful, creative work when your primary relationship is chronically stressful, emotionally volatile, or even abusive. On the other hand, the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve got a soul-mate who’s always in your corner ready to help and support you no matter what is an asset to doing good work that’s impossible to overstate.

So, while falling in love and tying the knot is often—and to some extent should be—a spontaneous, organic, and intuitive process, if you’re not married already but want to be in the future, I’d strongly recommend making it a far more deliberative and systematic process than you think you need to.

It’s unlikely that any decision you make in the future will be more impactful on you—for better or worse—than whom you decide to marry or partner with, including on your capacity to do important work and be genuinely productive.

And if you’re already married or partnered, I’d urge you to consider the following: An investment in improving the quality of your marriage or romantic partnership is likely to pay larger dividends to the quality of your work in the long-run than just about anything else you can do.

All You Need to Know

While there are all sorts of productivity tactics and strategies that can help us be more productive to varying degrees, it’s helpful to clarify your larger productivity principles.

What are your guiding lights for doing great work?

In my life, the ability to be productive and do the work I love is largely the result of a handful of principles that have become so internalized that they’re essentially a part of my identity now: Saying “No” to the non-essential, Only saying “Yes” to genuinely rewarding work, Taking it easy on my self in my self-talk, and investing in my marriage and closest relationships.

Want to get serious about productivity? Take a break from the tips and tricks and consider your productivity principles: What are the overarching values and commitments that set the stage for you to produce your best work?

1 Comment

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Hi Nick,
I hope you are well. Really happy I’ve subbed to your newsletter, amazing articles. I’m not sure how often you are asked this but may I request a small piece from you please?

I take it you are from the US, I myself am from the UK and a lot of the children aged 16 and 18 have taken their GCSE and A level exams which im guessing would be some sort of equivalent to your SATs. A level’s being the decider for which University someone goes to and GCSE being the decider for what A Levels people do. It’s a bit long to explain over email but essentially they are quite life changing to many of us especially A levels.

Of course as with any exams, many students will and will have not reached their required grades. May I please request whenever you can to write a small piece on career choosing based on successful and unsuccessful grades and how students should react to their grades and plan the next steps in their lives. I have been reading the 4 decisive tips article and 5 principles for value-productivity but if you can recommend me other articles from the archive please to help me with this venture.

All the best

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