To be productive and happy

Do we have to choose between productivity and happiness? Can’t we have both? There's a way.

Do we have to choose between productivity and happiness? Can’t we have both? Sometimes, it feels like a dichotomy. You can only have either productivity or happiness but not both.


The path of pure productivity
The path of pure happiness
The path of productivity and happiness
Input goals, not results
Flow over inspiration
Dispassion and detachment
Systematizing vs humanizing

The path of pure productivity

The productivity path is primarily concerned with achieving goals. The goals are often results-oriented. This approach is engrossed in giving the best input possible and expecting the best output. It’s an extremely tight approach. There’s a feeling of devastation that comes when the results don’t conform to our expectations. That feeling cascades in other areas of life. This will get things done in the short-term but it can be draining in the long-term.

Pain points of the productivity path include toxic productivity, the busy badge of honour, and superiority complex.

  • Toxic productivity is the never-ending quest to produce more. Your self-worth is attached to your ability to create increasingly impossible outputs. This mindset takes its toll on your mental, physical, and social health. You’re restless and overwhelmed almost all the time.
  • The busy badge of honour comes from a work culture that rewards those who appear busy. If you look busy, you must be getting a lot of work done. Someone once said that if you want to appear productive, talk on the phone while walking around the office with a stack of papers like a headless chicken. For a little while, it may look good on the outside but the impression doesn’t last. In the end, busy work doesn’t equal real productivity.
  • Superiority complex, in this context, is the desire to prove yourself by outworking everyone else. Your self-worth is attached to your work status. Underhanded tactics, including constant judging and manipulation of others, eventually become necessary evils. This mindset is destructive inside out.

The path of pure happiness

The happiness path is primarily concerned with avoiding goals. You cannot fail if you do not try. This approach is concerned with neither the input nor output. It’s an extremely loose approach. The attitude often sounds like, “I’ll get to it when I get to it”. This won’t get things done consistently. At other times, it comes down to overwhelming fear.

Pain points of the happiness path includes guilt, laziness, and avoidance of responsibilities.

  • Guilt is what most of us feel when we go down this path. We’re guilty of prioritizing what we want instead of putting in our fair share of work. Conscience consumes you (for those who have it).
  • Laziness could take over. We begin to neglect what we have going for us. It’s more painful to take a chance than to fold. Folding then becomes the default. It leads to lethargy and atrophy.
  • Avoidance of responsibilities is the constant attempt to pass the ball to someone else – because of the fear of missing the shot. It leads to selfishness and crudeness.

The path of productivity and happiness

The productivity and happiness path is concerned with doing something meaningful to you. This approach is concerned with giving the best input possible and being ok with the result, even if it didn’t turn out as expected. It’s a balanced approach. There’s joy in just doing the thing itself. The process is the reward. This will get things done consistently and it won’t be draining.

Pain points of the productivity and happiness path includes appearing like you're lazy, settling for less, and lowering your expectations.

  • You appear incomprehensively lazy. The superficial metrics might show underperformance. For example, you’re not putting in 40 hours a week to generate income like everyone else. Not everyone will see beyond that. The fact that you have other means that generate the same amount of income or more will not count. You have to decide that this kind of opinion won’t get to you.
  • Aren’t you settling for less? Instead of living the widely accepted lifestyle – study, get a job, buy a house, and make a family – you design your lifestyle so that it fits you better. Imagine a doctor turned YouTuber. Even if they’re a thousand times happier and wealthier that way, not everyone will get that. You have to decide that this kind of opinion is not important.
  • Are you lowering your expectations? No. I think you’re raising it. An efficient and effective process no longer cuts it – it has to be enjoyable too. It’s not enough anymore to throw everything you got on the wall until your arms fall off, you have to aim and be purposeful. You’re more deliberate about what you do because you want something more specific. Cookie-cutter results are off the table. You care about custom results, the ones that cater to your needs and wants.

Shifting priorities

When we take the third path to be both productive and happy, our priorities shift. Now we focus on:

  • Input goals, not results.
  • Flow over inspiration.
  • Dispassion and detachment.
  • Systematizing vs humanizing.

Focus on input goals, not results.

We’re use to SMART goals. These are specific, measurable, actionable, relevant, time-bound goals. Goals like this are usually output-oriented. An example of an output-oriented goal is, “I want 1k blog subscribers a year from now”.

One downside of an output-oriented goal is that we end up relying on metrics outside of our control. So, no matter how hard we try, we don’t always end up getting what we think we deserve. As with the example mentioned, it will be difficult to control the number of people who will sign-up, no matter how much effort is put into blogging.

It’s also somewhat unreasonable. First, it’s unfair to make yourself walk on fire, then hope that some external force will reward you. I think the evaluation of success should be up to you and that you should be the main person who gets a say in that. Second, it’s not fair to put the onus on the universe either. Not that it conspires against you. But it won’t align the stars for you to become successful. You have to align the elements yourself.

The alternative way to think about productivity is through input-oriented goals. For example, “I will publish one high quality article every week for fifty weeks”. Regardless of how many readers end up signing, I know that I have full control over the task of showing up and writing. I’m not counting on others to evaluate my effort for me. I’m accountable for my input, my process, and my output. That is incredibly liberating.

Flow over inspiration.

It’s easy to mistake being productive and happy with having constant inspiration. Without inspiration, work could feel forced. But inspiration is finicky. You can’t count on it to always be there for you. When you go to work on what matters to you, how sure are you that inspiration will show up? If you’re on a career marathon and inspiration just isn’t there anymore, what happens then? Inspiration is not a reliable productivity partner.

Flow is foreseeable. Flow occurs when the required ability to perform a task is just above the available ability. You can design your tasks to work this way. Decide how challenging you want to make it, try it, and make adjustments based on the immediate feedback. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike – start, test, and adjust. With increased quantity, the quality also increases.

Dispassion and detachment.

It seems counter-intuitive but dispassion and detachment are important in order to be productive and happy. They make productivity predictable. They help guard our happiness.

The road to becoming productive and happy is bumpy without dispassion. Too much self-compassion leads to self-pity. Too little is unnecessary self-torture. Also, the word passion seems to have lost its power over the years. Over again, we’ve seen the phrase “passionate about [x]” tossed carelessly everywhere. The reality is, it’s ok to fail, and that’s it. It’s healthy to pursue what excites you, and that’s it. There’s no need to involve esoteric emotions that could backfire anytime.

Detachment is equally important. It teaches us to stop trying to control the things that were never meant to be controlled. By letting go, we’re not losing anything. We are freeing ourselves of a burden. It wasn’t meant for us to shoulder. Instead, channel all the creative energy to your craft.

Systematizing vs humanizing.

A lot of things are excusable if we use the ultimate alibi, “it’s human nature”. Imagine how much cruelty and agony in the world we could avoid if our reasoning didn’t hinge on “because it’s human.” “He did that because he’s human”. Yet someone worse off than him does the opposite every single day. “What can we do? That’s just her nature.” Yet we can do so much else, and so can that person. We attribute a lot to human nature. Not the human. It has become a shameful crutch for achieving productivity and happiness.

Humanizing can turn out to be an unstable strategy for achieving productivity and happiness. Think of willpower, motivation, and hope. Willpower runs out. So does motivation. The perfect condition can’t be counted on to show up, especially when you need it. No matter how much hope you have.

Operating at an optimal rate no longer have to depend on subjective qualities. I suggest that it shouldn’t. We can think in systems instead. Thinking this way makes it easy to trace dips in productivity and happiness. We can diagnose, fix, and monitor after. It also helps identify conducive conditions for peak performance. Systematizing allows us to duplicate these conditions using defined steps. With an objective process, productivity is more predictable.


We don't necessarily have to choose between productivity or happiness. We can be both productive and happy. We shift our focus and look more at input goals, not just results. We prioritize flow over inspiration. We maintain dispassion and detachment. Perhaps most importantly, we rely more on systems, not on the ultimate human-nature alibi.