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Freedom Casts A Killing Curse On Your Productivity

There is a curse you have to bear when you’re an entrepreneur. I would say it affects students strongly as well, though not quite as much.

It manifests itself in a variety of ways: dark circles under the eyes, frustrated outbursts decrying personal under-achievement, refusals to hang out with friends on a Saturday night because, “I just need to get this thing done.”

The curse is this:

As an entrepreneur, virtually everything is my life is left up to me. This means that everything I do requires that I make a decision to do it.

This was not really a thing when I was a child; my mom made the decisions. I didn’t have this freedom in school, either. Nor in any of my time spent employed by others (though my level of autonomy grew with each successive job), nor in the ROTC fitness class I forced myself to take during my sophomore year.

And you know what? I kind of miss those times.

Many of you are probably occupying specific bodies, which are tied to ID cards, which have their information mirrored in databases, which are read by other bodies – all caught up in a web of information that leads to one simple, inescapable conclusion: you’ve gotta be somewhere and do something today at a set time. 

And someone’s gonna kick your ass if you don’t.

Those of you in this position would probably do almost anything to be in my position. To have complete freedom of choice; to be able to wake up each day and think, legitimately, “I wonder what I’ll do today?”

For those of you who want to be in my position, I generally have two pieces of advice: Don’t knock your current situation, as we all have to go through it and pay our dues – and secondly, be hustling like mad in your spare time if you want to get out.

When people actually take those two things to heart, I have a whole host of other advice. But that’s a topic for another day.

Today I invite you to look at the downside of this utter freedom. Put simply, shit doesn’t get done.

Total freedom invites a host of problems to weasel their way into the walls of your mind, and to impede your progress:

These problems can and do affect almost everyone. There is a direct correlation, however, to the amount of autonomy and freedom you have and how badly you can be impeded by them.

Let’s take ego depletion for example.

The psychologist Roy Baumeister did lots of smart tests with lots of people. He then fed the data from these tests into a strong Brownian Motion producer, and came to a stunning conclusion.

Kahneman summarizes this conclusion in Thinking, Fast and Slow:

“An effort of will or self-control is tiring; if you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes around. This phenomenon is named ego depletion.”

An interesting thing about ego depletion is that you can override it as long as there is an external stimuli motivating you to do so.

To put that in simpler terms: You shut up and get to work when someone’s threatening to put a boot up your ass.

Unfortunately, there usually isn’t a threatening boot anywhere near me when I work. As a result, ego depletion often gets the best of me.

It’s certainly easy to wake up in the morning and make a to-do list like this:

Strike List
This app is called Strike, and I love it.

When I make these kinds of lists, I’m usually excited to get to work. I’m just giddy to get all of this stuff done. I’ll feel so accomplished, I think.

But then I’ll finish my kanji reviews, and going on to textbook work seems less appealing. I’ll force myself through the textbook work, and then have two things checked off my list.

Man, that was hard. 

Next thing you know, I’m staring at my open fridge or driving trucks off of mountains in Just Cause 2, instead of writing my article.

My saving grace is that this doesn’t always happen. Many times I’ll start working and somehow drop into a state of easy focus, which lets the words pour out quickly and effortlessly.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (another prominent psychologist) coined this as flow. I’ve always called it being on fire – but both terms are equally apt.

It’s described as a “state of effortless concentration so deep that people lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems.”

Being in the flow state is amazing, and it’s where my best work comes from. It’s very memorable as well; I can still vividly recall the night during my junior year when I randomly decided to redesign this blog. I stayed up until 6 A.M. the next morning coding, tweaking, and designing – all without realizing how much time had passed me by.

The flow state is elusive, however, and I’m not always in it. And I’m certainly not the only one; every entrepreneur struggles with getting into this state – and with being productive in general.

Just take a peak at blog posts written by other business owners I’m either friends or fans of:

I’d wager that almost every prominent blogger who even flirts with how-to, instructional, or motivational content has, at some point, written an article about how to be productive. They probably did it right after kicking themselves for not being productive.

And, or course, this isn’t even close to the first time I’ve written about something productivity-related; in fact, my very first article was on time management.

However, being a college success blogger, I think failing to write about productivity would be rather missing the point, wouldn’t you?

Even though you’re probably still a student, loaded up with classes, projects, clubs, etc… you’ve still got a far greater degree of autonomy than you had in high school.

Sure, you’ve got to go to class – but your classes are quite possibly spread out through the day. Most students don’t usually have a solid, 7-8 hour block of class in college. Homework is usually given more time for completion as well, and your mom isn’t yelling at you to do it anymore.

So it seems we have some common ground, you and I. We’re both blessed with lots of unstructured time in which to do work – I more than you, certainly, but you’ve still got it too.

How do we deal with all this freedom and still stay productive?

How do we prevent ourselves succumbing to distractions, ego fatigue, and and the like?

I submit that we need less autonomy. We need a boot behind us, threatening to kick us halfway to the moon if we don’t put noses in books and fingers to keys.

We definitely don’t have to go join the army to get that autonomy. But there are things we can do to create “imaginary drill instructors” that help us get things done. Calendars, accountability buddies, specific methods of working, etc.

Next week, I’ll get into detail and show you some specific techniques I’ve been experimenting with in order to work better.

Update: Done! Check out 30 of my favorite productivity hacks if you need to get some shit done.

Now, though, I’d like to hear from you: What do you do to keep yourself productive?