10 Projects Per Life

That’s one.

In his podcast interview with writer Susan Cain, Tim Ferriss accurately observed that “When the people see the finished product, it’s easy to assume that it comes from an attribute as opposed to a skill.” In other words: as soon as you’ve got something done, the thing, to outsiders, looks like it results from a gift that came naturally to you. From an attribute you already had. Innate almost.

Overnight successes, of course, don’t exist.

Finished products are always preceded by many thrown-away drafts, dead ends, wasted words and failed book proposals (for writers). And as Susan replies to Tim, “Often, when you see someone who’s really good at almost anything, it’s because they actually started out exactly the opposite. And then they cared so much about fixing that problem.”

A close cousin of this attribution error is best labeled as — for lack of a better word — the hidden costs of some product. Hidden costs are time-investments invisible to readers and customers, which they, therefore, don’t realize to have gone into making something or getting somewhere.

For instance, when you launch an online course, most of the work is just starting, Sarah Kathleen Peck explains: “Management, maintenance, fielding customer questions, updating videos when they become out-of-date — and then the cascading effect of updating the email sequences, customer reminders, lecture notes, and sales pages — builds up.”

Like plaque on teeth, the detritus of any project [always] begins to build. [For example,] how much time is spent updating and editing past materials? You can fill all of your time just managing the current projects, or editing past projects. — Sarah Kathleen Peck, Less Time Than We Think

And that’s not to mention the research and writing itself that doesn’t necessarily make it into what you end up publishing or talking about in the course. Malcolm Gladwell has said that he spends three hours of thinking about writing for every hour of writing, and I’ve found that to be an accurate ratio.

The link: in both cases, what you actually see (the skill or the (written) output) is only the tip of the iceberg. But because the water hides the rest, folks don’t see it, and it’s all too easy to confuse the tip for the whole thing.

In order to produce work that the world does see, you have to first be willing to produce the work that the world doesn’t see. — ZatRana

In each project, you have to do a lot of shit people don’t see. Can’t see .This is a realization that hits everyone who creates stuff for a living sooner or later.

And when it does, there are two ways to respond.

Only one of them — the road less traveled — leads to long-term fulfillment.

Solution 1: Hidden costs? Do more

Hidden costs typically arise when scale increases. Show up down the road. They are largely invisible until your project has passed a certain critical mass. We don’t realize we’re taking them on when we start out.

Since they only appear after a while, we probably hadn’t planned for them. For these awesome but time-consuming reader comments and correspondence. For these interviews people now want to do with me. For these pieces I’m asked to look at. For having to figure out how Medium’s new curation system and algorithm(s) work and also what the hell is a lead magnet? (I actually had to google this last week. After 15 months of an online presence (thanks, Aram.))

Again, once you have some multi-year projects going, “you can fill all of your time just managing the current projects, or editing past projects.”

But I don’t care about doing ongoing maintenance and upgrades, even though they are real costs of business.

So I schedule hidden costs during off hours. At evenings devoid of social plans. During dinner and lunch. They shouldn’t take away from prime time; hence go into low-energy hours. When I can only take a light cognitive load.

This is the first way to tackle this issue: double down on your total productivity.

It’s how I managed my hidden costs for almost a year. By lengthening my workdays.

I’ll go to bed 30 minutes late tonight if I can’t finish today’s to do list in the final minutes before it’s time to hit the sack.

Why this doesn’t work

It felt good. I did a lot of stuff. Created huge amounts of output. It tasted like I was doing what I ought to — diligently, effortfully, working hard.

It also felt bad. Because I didn’t want to do marketing and emails between 8 and 11 PM on a Tuesday. But hey — I had more important things to do during brighter moments and I couldn’t move these hidden costs to these precious hours because they were already filled up with reading, writing and PhD stuff.

I had to bear the burden of hidden costs during hours I didn’t want to be working, or cut in the time allocated to research and writing. The latter, obviously, wasn’t an option.

Something, however, about this approach was bugging me. It’s not me. I don’t want to be this kind of person. Ticking off items from your to-do list at 10 PM, e-mailing at 11 PM, do whatever you want, but I’m out.

So, after many mental battles, I sacrificed some research hours, moved hidden work into the day hours, and freed up all hours after 4 PM.

I know I could be more productive. But I choose not to.

I don’t know if this was “the best choice ever!” I honestly don’t. It might cause me to miss out on writing that one viral article. Or it might slow the growth of my platform, leaving me unable to get a book deal when I want to.

That’s fine.

The case against maximizing productivity

And that’s not because resting circles back and secretly boosts your effectiveness. The goal is not to, in the end, be more productive anyway. No. Give up on maximizing that.

A bunch of people desire to squeeze all they can in their days, and out of every second.

‘Getting the most out of your day’ means: maximizing productivity.

Time is slowly taken up by the demand that existing projects have on their attention. But we long to rush headlong in a new project, regardless. Because then we can add another line to our CV. Or get these extra e-mail subscribers. To afford this, hours we once allocated to family and friends get nibbled at. Self-care also goes out of the window. We stop exercising. Sleep less.

It feels a bit off at first. But scaling back is out of the question. And we don’t want anything less than all the views we can get. And take part in all the cool projects we can. The FOMO is huge.

But, hey, at least we’re growing.

For somefemale peacocks, the male peacock with the shiniest feathers is the one with whom she wants to make baby peacocks. But they are damn heavy to carry.

The lesson of hidden costs is not: you need to do a lot of work the world doesn’t see, so you better optimize yourself to do as much as possible and keep up regardless.

The goal versus the way to get there

If you keep running, just for the sake of running, you’ll never get anywhere. I know this sounds cheesy. And simple. And obvious. Perhaps a bit condescending, even.

Yet I want you to think about it anyway. I believe the biggest mistake people often make is that they confuse a means for an end in itself.

Take my own case. Cutting in the hours devoted to my core activities — reading and writing — to give myself more free time because I could move dealing with hidden costs to early afternoons made me happier. It got me from just on the edge of being almost stressed out to being my old, happy, singing-all-the-time self again.

Yet, reducing the number of hours available for my core activities felt like a crime.

I’m a writer, so shouldn’t I do as many high-quality blogposts as I can manage while being (kind of) happy and healthy and et cetera? Mission, making a difference, blah blah blah.

Balancing on the edge of a little bit stressed out, seemed to be the strategy to get the most out of myself without succumbing to burn-out. Like I was gaming the system.

There is a vague moral sense of doing my job here. The ‘myth of being worthy’ is a powerful motivational force.

However, it (i) springs from a false cultural narrative and (ii) is an unhealthy source of drive because it is externally motivated. Doing as many as high-quality essays as I can muster is, in a sense, admirable. But, let’s be fair, it also vastly overestimates my own importance.

I suspect one of the reasons some people work so hard is so they don’t have to spend too much time thinking about their existential angst.

Being a good writer, making readers think, these kinds of things — those are goals. The number of blog posts is at most an instrument and at worst a vanity metric.

In any case: it’s running for the sake of running.

Let’s say I had to quit 20% of my writing hours. That would mean that, keeping everything else constant, I’d produce 80 instead of 100 blogs a year. Like, who cares? Or that I’d finish my dissertation in 18 instead of 15 months from now. Again: is that such a big disaster?

Of course not.

Solution 2: Hidden costs? Do less

If you’re still reading, you probably recognize yourself in my struggles.

Let me, to end, suggest what I think is the correct response to the discovery of the unexpected magnitude of hidden costs.

Hidden costs mean that projects, beyond a certain critical mass, consume more energy and time than you had allocated at the outset. Rather than working more hours, this means we should do fewer projects.

Realize that small projects are usually unfulfilling. Don’t waste your time on them. It’s difficult to do a great job at work you don’t care about. And no one cares about work which only raison d’être is pumping up your business card.

Don’t overestimate the importance of your work. Protect your off hours. Your sleep. Your exercise. Sacrificing them is a mistake:

If doing anything brings you more anxiety or unease or worry or stress or anything negative than it brings you happiness and peace of mind and comfort and security and whatever else you’re looking for, then you’ve overcomplicated it. — KrisGage

For myself, I’ve noticed that the temptation to schedule low-cognitive-load tasks at 8 PM never seems to go away completely. I use it as a reminder to actively guard my priority-based boundaries.

Setting boundaries is all about your values — about what’s important to you, about what you care about and what not.

Never put your family, friends, or significant others low on your priority list.

I’ve only turned 26 a few weeks ago, but here’s my hypothesis: if you get to do 10 big projects in your life, you’re lucky.

The days are long but the decades are short. — SamAltman

You only get 10.


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