The secret to happy productivity

Alex Sugg
Alex Sugg

It was spring of 2007, and Arianna Huffington was working at breakneck speed. She had launched The Huffington Post a couple years previous, and the site was quickly on the rise as a new and fresh alternative voice in journalism. And as you probably guessed, she never stopped working. Like, ever. Which is normal, right? It makes sense to work 24/7 and never get any rest when you're trying to build a start-up?

That is what she thought, until she woke up in a pool of her own blood.

One day, Huffington's body finally had enough. She collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, and when she fell, she shattered her cheekbone, and it was the wake-up call of a lifetime.

This is the problem of not refilling our energy when we are running dangerously low.

Now, in contrast to Huffington's story - I want you to picture someone sitting at home on their phone. This person is an aspiring designer, and they're looking everywhere they can to get inspired. They're taking in all of this great information from designers that they want to be like someday.

Before you know it, it's getting late, and the designer goes to bed. This becomes a pattern. Consuming content at all times, without ever opening photoshop in the process.

This is the problem of not exerting the energy we slowly store up.

So on the surface, Huffington's overexertion and the designers' overconsumption seem entirely disconnected and opposite of one another. But actually, they're just two different symptoms, from the exact same problem. It's a problem that you, me and everyone else has to deal with. It's a problem of energy balance.

The past two weeks have been some of the most stressful of my professional life. I can't get into all the details, but to put it plainly - I am just done.

After working through weekends, nights, and long days and giving relentlessly to my work, where I'm responsible for creating and distributing hundreds of pieces of content every month, I have had nothing left to give.

So in sitting here, I've been really challenged on how to restore myself. How to refill my tank, so I can continue being excited to create and make stuff outside of my day job.

And then I remember other seasons of my life where it wasn't like this at all.

I've had my times of being like the designer described earlier. Where I am in a consuming mindset and not making anything. I've always had dreams of using my skill in audio to make a podcast that I am really proud of that helps people, so I naturally, I listened to lots of podcasts to learn and get inspired.

The more I listened, the further I got away from creating my own. I had (literally) so many other voices in my head that it clouded my ability to find my own voice. So I just never started. I kept consuming, but never did any of the stuff I actually wanted to do.

That is my story, but I am sure you'll find yourself falling into one of these two categories today. Maybe you'll find yourself in the other a year from now like I did. But I have learned that we don't have to live in one extreme or the other. There is a way to create the balance we are looking for.

You are a car

So pretend with me that you are a car. You get to be whatever car you'd like. I'd like to think I am a Range Rover or a G Wagon, although, in reality, I'm probably more of a Honda Pilot.

So you're a car, and your driver is a pizza delivery guy. His name is Pete. He's jumping in and jumping out, he's all over town and sometimes goes off-roading between deliveries (you can hear my New Mexico roots here)

The point is, he drives A LOT. But what would happen if Pete just decided to see how far he could go without ever refilling the tank? Might save him some money... Might save him some time... It'll be fine, right? Obviously, this is a terrible idea.

So if this is clearly a horrible plan, why do we do this with our work? How can we ever expect to keep driving all over town, and go off-roading with no gas in the tank? How do we think we can work at breakneck speed without totally burning out?

If we don't stop to refill, we will breakdown on the side of the road.

But out of nowhere, Pete lands a sweet job as a pro gamer working from home. So he finishes his final delivery, goes and fills up his car and then drives home. When he parks you (the car, remember) in the driveway, and you just sit there. And you keep sitting there. A week goes by before Pete decides it's time for some groceries and sunlight, and so he goes to start you (the car), and the battery died.

The battery died because the car wasn't being used. No matter how much gas you have, if you don't drive, you will eventually breakdown.

So what am I trying to say here? You are a car. You are designed to drive. To take adventures. Not sit in the driveway, collecting dust. You will find yourself unhappy and disappointed if you sit there with a full tank and never use any of it.

That's not the end of the story, though, thank goodness.

Luckily, Pete's neighbor had some jumper cables, and they got the car started, and Pete took it for a drive. He starts driving the car every few days just to make sure it doesn't break down on him again - because he now he knows that is what a vehicle is designed to do.

I want this podcast to be your jumper cables. If you're in this space, you need to use what is in the tank. There is plenty of gas, now it's time to drive.

Balancing energy merely is examining our inputs and our outputs and finding a center in between the two.

Our creative projects should look and function like a healthy diet. Overeating without exercise will result in being unhealthy. Under nourishing your body will being overactive will cause you to burn out.

We eat the right amount of calories to burn later. This same cycle should apply to our work.

I have three suggestions on how to approach this problem on either side of the coin. You might be more like Arrianna Huffington right now, running on nothing. Or you might be like the designer - who is full of information and inspiration but is not being productive in the way they want.

Regardless of where you are, it's vital to learn to balance your energy in the right ways.

So step one :

Acknowledge the need for input and output

The first thing is acknowledging what we need. For some, our input needs to be examined. This has been me recently. In my exhaustion and continuous output of so many projects, I found myself burnt out. But the other side is acknowledging the need to create more. Do you need to take the car out for a joy ride? Burn some of that gas that's been sitting in the tank?

Guide the direction of your energy

The next and most difficult is having a say of where our energy is going. Where are you giving your best energy right now? This could look like prioritizing sleep so you can get up earlier to get an hour of a project done. Or this could mean reading a book throughout the day instead of looking at your phone. We can take ownership of our energy.

When all else fails, unplug from the sources that drain you.

Most things work after you unplug them and plug them back in. Try to unplug from the source of your burnout. Is that work? Is that Instagram? Find the thing draining you, and take a break.

How can you find a better balance in your energy?