Rahaf Harfoush masterfully unpacks history, psychology, philosophy, and more to discover how we got obsessed with hustling / productivity…and how that obsession often hurts our creative output.
- How productivity and creativity are incompatible
- The reverberating negative impact of the 2008 economic recession on how we work
- Best practices for optimizing your limited reserve of energy
Rahaf is a Digital Anthropologist, Best-Selling Author, and Speaker researching the impacts of emerging technologies on our society. She focuses on understanding the deep (and often hidden) behavioral shifts that are taking place within organizations and individuals as global digital infrastructures enable the unprecedented exchange of ideas, information, and opinions. She teaches Innovation and Disruptive Business Models at SciencePo’s Masters of Finance and Economics Program in Paris.
She’s worked with organizations like Starwood Capital Group, Deutsche Bank, Estée Lauder, UNESCO, The OECD, A1, ING Direct, and more.
Items Mentioned in this Show:
- Sponsored Message: Learn Faster with Blinkist
- Sponsored Message: ZipRecruiter is the smartest way to hire
- Rahaf’s book: Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a World Obsessed with Work
- Rahaf’s website: www.RahafHarfoush.com
- Rahaf’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/rahafharfoush
- Article: Workism Is Making Americans Miserable
- Research: Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind
- Book: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
- Book: Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation by Wess Roberts
- Book: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz
- Podcast: The Dropout
- Tool: Star Trek TNG HD Ambient Engine Noise (Idling for 12 hrs in 1080p)
- Tool: OmniFocus
- Tool: David Allen’s Getting Things Done
- Previous episode: 015: David Allen, The World’s Leading Authority on Productivity
Rahaf Harfoush Interview Transcript
Rahaf, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.
Thank you for having me.
Well, I’m so excited to talk about your stuff, but first I want to hear about something you write that the world doesn’t see. You say that you write fiction secretly. What’s this about?
I just love losing myself in a good fiction story, so I’ve just been toying around with thrillers and murder mysteries and just things that I write. Nobody has seen any of this yet, so maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to release that, but it’s a really nice outlet. It’s really complimentary to the nonfiction writing that I do for my regular job. It’s an interesting balance. It stretches my abilities in different ways.
Well, so murder mystery, that’s intriguing. How do you come up with creative ways for people to die?
Let’s just say if anything was ever to happen to my husband and they looked at my Google searches, I think I would be in trouble.
Although that’s the-
I’m always Googling the most random things. It’s always like, “How long does it take for a body to do this?” “What happens if you do that?” My husband always laughs because he goes, “Honestly, you better hope nobody ever looks at your search history.” Yeah.
That’s actually perfect if you really were going to do some malfeasance, then having that as a cover would be great. “Well, I am an amateur novelist. This is all part of the research, detective. Look elsewhere.”
Yeah, that could be the big plan.
Well, again, I really appreciate you’re up late in France, taking the time to chat. I’m excited to dig into it. One book you’ve got out, it’s no secret, Hustle and Float. There’s so much good stuff in it. Could you share, for starters, perhaps the most surprising and fascinating discovery that you came about when you were putting the book together?
The most fascinating thing that I experienced when writing this book was how there was often a gap in my own behavior and my own knowledge. It was like really frustrating because or I would originally be researching stuff like burnout and the need to meditate and things like that. Then even though I was writing about them rationally, I would be doing behaviors that were the opposite. That was a thing.
The other thing was, this was a book that was written to try to understand why we often act against our own creative performance, against our own creative best interests. I guess what surprised me was that I was surprised by how much these forces were influencing my life and how much they were impacting the way I was approaching my job, my work, my performance, my productivity.
There were moments when I would finish researching something, identify how it was manifesting in my own life and just really be like “Wow, I cannot believe that this narrative that has developed over the last 50 years is the reason why I do X or the reason why I can’t do this, or that.”
That was really interesting. It was almost like peeling back the layers of an OS and kind of looking into the code and realizing there’s all sorts of stuff in there that are determining your decisions that you never knew.
That is very intriguing. When you talk about the phrase ‘acting against our own creative best interests,’ what exactly do you mean by that and can you give us a rich example?
What I found out in my own experience and in talking to hundreds of professional creatives—so strategists, entrepreneurs, leaders, managers, writers, designers, lawyers, accountants—was that people who were high performers or people who identified as high performers had all experienced at least once in their career a time where they were burnt out, where they experienced physical or mental symptoms as a result of overwork.
The thing that really intrigued me about this research was I asked them, “Did you try frameworks? Did you have the knowledge to prevent this?” They all said yes. This was really interesting to me because that meant that the problem wasn’t a lack of knowhow.
It wasn’t like you were going to open the door and be like, “Hey guys, I want to introduce you to this thing called napping, and this thing called vacations. You should really try it one day.” It’s like we all knew what we should be doing and none of us were doing it.
When I started to look to understand why, I realized that our work culture has taken two really big important concepts—productivity and creativity—and we’ve shoved them together to create our modern work culture. The problem is is that these two things are not compatible and when we try to chase our obsession with being productive, we end up hurting our creative performance. We end up getting in our own way.
We end up getting in our own way even when we know better, even when we feel tired, even when we sense burnout coming on, we can’t seem to stop ourselves. This contradiction in behavior from smart, intelligent, ambitious people—I was like, I have to figure out what’s going on. That’s kind of what the general gist of the book is about.
An example would be that you’re working on a client project or you’re writing something or researching something and you keep pushing yourself. Even though you’re tired and even though you know that the best thing you could do for yourself would be to step away, you don’t. You pull an all-nighter. You don’t get sleep. You start skipping meals. Your health starts to suffer.
You do all of these things in pursuit of this productive goal, but in reality every step that you’re taking is actually making it more difficult for you to creatively perform. I’ve seen this across the board. I have seen lawyers, I have seen writers, I experienced this myself firsthand.
I had such a severe round of burnout that I was incapable of doing anything for my job for weeks. My hair fell out. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. It was actually, in all honesty, absolutely terrifying. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I never want to experience anything like that again.
The fact that it was totally preventable, was the most frustrating thing because even when I was at my worst, even when I was so sick, I was still kind of shaming myself about it. Why weren’t you strong enough? Why can’t you just push through? Why can’t you just hustle harder? Why can’t you just keep getting up in the morning? There was this like never-ending narrative of shame that was pushing me.
That’s when I was like, okay, I need to get to the bottom of this because this way of working is not sustainable and if I want to have a long and fruitful career, I have to find a better way.
That is powerful. What drama, losing hair, unable to work. Wow. That is primed nicely. Then tell us, when it comes to these narratives or wrong ideas or these behaviors, what’s kind of fundamentally going on inside our brains that causes us to do these things that are working against our own interest?
What you realize is that you are this person and you think you’re this rational, intelligent person, but really you are in the middle of this crazy mix of I call them the three forces, which are your systems, your stories and yourself. In other words, the history, how our work culture evolved, how our thinking about idolizing productivity, why work is considered to be morally good, all these things, how those ideas developed.
You have just the history of productivity systems and how businesses evolved. You have the stories that we tell ourselves about success, so all those articles that you see about why you should get up at 4:30 in the morning to get the job done, how we sort of worship productive people, how any magazine cover, business magazine cover, you’ll see the ‘secrets of the highly productive people,’ ‘get more done.’
We have this reinforcing narrative that takes thing like the American dream, if you just work hard enough, you’ll be successful, combined with this obsession of being busy and productive. We have these stories that we tell ourselves about what success looks like in our culture.
Then finally you have ourselves, which is our body, how our brains and bodies are wired. These three forces together mix and they give us a very specific set of beliefs about the role that work plays in our lives, the role that it plays and links to our self-worth, to our identity, to our value in society, to whether or not we’re worthy, whether or not we’re enough, to whether or not we have accomplished our goals and what that means, to our social standing.
You have this really complex emotional relationship that’s been built on years and years and years and years of stories and belief systems and attitudes and reinforced narratives that you see in the media. Then you now have this new era of work, where most of us are being paid to do creative work, knowledge work.
Here we are trying to do a type of work, but we’re forcing ourselves to evaluate our performance based on systems that were designed during the industrial revolution, systems that weren’t designed for the type of work that we’re doing. They weren’t designed for us. Plus, we have this constant narrative that if we’re not always hustling, always pursuing, always chasing, that we’re shameful and that we don’t deserve our own success.
When you look and you see, for example, why is it that most people check email on their vacations or most people don’t even take the full allocation of vacations that they have, it’s not because they don’t want to enjoy their vacation. It’s because we have these deep drivers that are linked to our vulnerabilities and our ego that are convincing us that our work is linked to our worth as a human being.
Oh my gosh, this is so good, so good. What’s funny, as you were speaking, I was transported to a time I was on a fishing, outdoorsy vacation with my BFF, Connor, and company. We had a fishing guide. We were doing fishing. It was kind of fun to do, hanging out, nice sunny day. Then in the afternoon, I remember Connor, he looked at his phone and his emails and then he said out loud, “Why am I looking at my email?” He was like genuinely bewildered that it just kind of happened to his surprise.
Yeah, it’s a powerful motivator.
It wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t deeply addictedly habitual because some folks – I guess there’s a whole continuum or spectrum of that behavior. But it happened and it surprised him. I was sort of surprised as well. It was like, “Yeah, why do we do that?” It sounds like you’ve actually gotten somewhat to the bottom of the answer, why do we do that?
Yeah. It’s really sad in a way because we’ve put so much of ourselves, which is now tied up in our jobs. When I was going through my burnout, the thing that kept rattling around in my brain the whole time was, “If I’m a writer that can’t write, what do you do with a writer that can’t write? Who am I if I’m not a writer?” I didn’t realize how much I had absorbed that part of what I do into who I was.
Then you start to understand, okay, now we’re dealing with all of this economic turbulence, we’re dealing with automation, we’re dealing with new industries, we’re dealing with globalization and all of these things are shaking the foundations of what we use to define as work. The definition of what work is, what a jobs is, what a career is, that’s all changing. But all of that is so linked to how we see ourselves and how we see each other.
Of course we’re going to get a little bit nervous when people start rattling at that foundation. It makes sense that we’re behaving this way.
I’ll tell you a super really quick anecdote. During the 2008 financial crisis, this really crazy thing happened where a lot of people lost their jobs. A lot of people were out of work. There was a lot of panic. But during this time, job satisfaction went up.
Even though during the financial crisis when companies fired people that meant that the rest of the work had to be divided amongst the people that were left. A lot of people suddenly found themselves doing 1.5 jobs, 1.75 jobs, maybe even 2 jobs, but because everyone was so terrified of getting laid off, happiness at work during that time actually increased. Job satisfaction went up because people were just so grateful to have a job.
At the same time, they were too afraid to ask for time off, they were too afraid to ask for extra help. We sort of solidified this traumatic economic experience, but we fused it with this bizarre thread of happiness, which I think kind of scrambled our brains a little bit.
Then when the economy recovered, many companies didn’t hire all those people back because they thought, “Huh, we’re getting by fine without it.” Many people sort of kept the link between their job satisfaction and the overwork they were performing and that overwork became the norm and it also became a reflection of the security that they had during a time of incredible economic turbulence.
That’s fascinating. You’re saying that – and maybe you have some data to back this up – that if you look at workers in say 2000 to 2007, sort of pre-2008 recession, to now, there’s a whole lot more hustling and idolization of the hustle now as compared to a mere 12 years ago.
Yeah. Yeah and it almost acts like – in the book there’s a whole chapter devoted on it in the book, but it’s almost like a form of Stockholm Syndrome. We ended up being exposed to these really unpleasant working conditions. People were working twice as hard for half the pay basically or doing two jobs, getting paid for one job.
I think the Wall Street Journal called them the rise of super jobs, where suddenly everybody was expected to do a lot more than before. But at the same time, because we were so grateful for the opportunity, we were still like yes. It was still seen as a good thing. We almost emotionally imprinted a different norm of work.
I talk a lot about the history of work, but for our generation and for us and all of us now, the 2008 financial crisis was one of the most defining economic moments. Most people in some capacity were touched by it or knew people that were impacted by it. It’s this very important emotional part of our work history.
We sometimes overlook the fact that it kind of changed a bit our approach to how we look at what work norms were and we never really bounced back from that. Even though the economy quote/unquote recovered June of 2009, we still maintained those same behaviors. It’s not like the economy recovered and suddenly companies were like, “You can go back to working one job.” It’s like the economy recovered and they were like, “Yup, this is the new normal,” and we never went back.
Fascinating. Let’s talk about identity first because that sounds huge with regard to being a master skeleton key that can unlock a bunch of this stuff.
You reflected, “Hey, what do you do with a writer who can’t write?” I’ve got the tune ‘what do you do with a drunken sailor’ in my head now. That notion that our identity, our worth, our value is wrapped up in our work and what we’re producing, can you deconstruct this for us in terms of if that’s not it, what is, and how do we combat this tendency to identify our very worth with our productivity in our jobs?
It’s a really fascinating story because – I went back and I sort of traced the history of work, all the way back, especially in America, going back to the Puritan work ethic. I’ve heard this phrase – I don’t know how familiar you are with the Puritan work ethic – I had heard this phrase so many times over the years, but I never really understood the finer details of what that meant.
What did the Puritans actually mean? Where did this work ethic come from? It turns out that they believed that when you were born that your soul was predetermined, meaning before you were born God had already decided if you were going to go to heaven or not. God already knew. This was already all written. But they didn’t know, so they spent their entire lives looking for signs of which way God had decided, so signs that they were chosen or signs that they were not chosen.
Because of this, they kind of hypothesized that the type of person that God would choose would be somebody who was respectful, industrious, hardworking. These norms emerged where if you were hard working and if you were not lazy, which was also synonymous with being immoral, that if you were hardworking, then it’s clear that you were chosen.
From the very early, early point of work culture history, we started linking work with morality, work as being an indicator of the goodness or badness of your inherent self.
That’s so fascinating because I’m thinking right now from Christian theological perspectives, there’s plenty of occasions when Jesus went away to a deserted place or he was talking about Mary and Martha and how the person doing all the work – he was like, hey, the person not doing the work has actually chosen the better half.
It’s interesting that the Puritanical work culture chose to, I guess preferentially, select the verses that kind of promote the industriousness over the others because even in the scriptures themselves, there’s a pretty good case to be made for rest, silence, rejuvenation, and not just work, work, work, work, work.
Yeah. But you also have a lot of quotes about idle hands do the devil’s work. I think that’s it or something like that. From the very beginning, we started linking our work to our worth as a person. The work that we did was inherently linked to whether or not we were good or not.
That’s a really kind of fundamental building block right there. That also never really went away. We just built more and more and more on top of it. We just added more narratives. Then with the American dream it was – think about it this way – if how hard you work depends on your goodness or badness, then the American dream also says that if you work hard enough, you’ll be successful.
The problem with the American dream ideology is that the flip side was if you’re not successful, you’re not working hard enough. When you couple that with this Puritan ideology, if you’re not working hard enough, it must mean you’re not good enough.
All of the sudden we’re not just talking about a job. We’re talking about the moral sanctity of your soul. We’re talking about your worth as a person. We’re talking about the value that you bring.
We have created a culture now where, again, combined with the economic things that happened in 2008, combined with the way we worship startup entrepreneurs and tech titans and billionaires. All these little signals come together to form this almost concoction that creates this ideal of what we think work should be, the role it should have in our lives and who we are in reaction to what we do.
All of that together forms a really strong bridge between our vulnerabilities, our ego, our weaknesses, our insecurities, and we link all of that, we anchor all of that to our jobs.
This becomes really problematic because if you’re a writer that can’t write, if you get laid off during the recession, if you get fired, if there’s no work, then we have absorbed – we’ve imbued work with so much value that when we take it away, we are just kind of lost. We really take a psychological blow when somebody takes that piece of us away.
That’s why you see so much attitude. For example, think about how we talk about people that are on welfare. Think about how we talk about people sometimes who are unemployed. There’s all these attitudes that we have that if you start picking apart the pieces that make up those attitudes, you can draw a direct trail right back to this idea that your job is linked to your goodness as a person.
That’s some powerful stuff. So if we’re enmeshed in this and you want to escape and this is also reminding me of there’s an awesome article recently in The Atlantic about what they called ‘workism’ and how that has completely become sort of the new religion for many people.
Okay, if that’s where we are, point of departure, and we want some liberation from that so we can start making some wiser choices, set some prudent boundaries, get some rejuvenation, how do we, I guess, reprogram our brains here?
Yeah, often they say the first step is just recognizing that there’s problem. I think the first step is realizing that these three forces are influencing your life. They influence everybody a little bit differently. It depends on your own history, your background, the values that your parents instilled, the behaviors that you saw your role models.
They can manifest in a lot of different ways in people’s lives, but the first step is to recognize that they are there. The first step is to look at the things that you just assume were to be true about the world, about work, about yourself, and just start to question where those beliefs came from.
In the book, there’s a whole list of questions that you can ask yourselves, things like, “How important is your work ethic and your identity? What does hard work look like for you? Why is it important? Who are your work role models?” And to really just start to understand your own relationship with some of these concepts because the most important thing is getting out of your own head, getting out of your own way.
So many people will try – they’ll be like, “I’m going to wake up at 5:30 AM in the morning. I’m going to do David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I’m going to do inbox zero. I’m going to do-“ They try to do all these frameworks not realizing that the frameworks are just Band-Aids that are trying to address the symptoms.
What we have to do is really address the root cause, which is our fundamental relationship with our beliefs about work. To do that, you have to start by questioning everything you think you know.
Once you start asking yourself these questions, “Where do my beliefs come from? How do they manifest? How much do I like my identity and my job?” at least then you can start to see, the same way that I did, like “Oh, maybe all these articles I read about the top successful tips of entrepreneurs that always push the same type of thing, that’s a certain archetype, that’s a certain mythology that I’ve absorbed, but if I take a step back, that’s not actually linked to what I think a successful life looks like.”
You start trying to break apart, again, going into your OS, going into the programming, the algorithms and starting to say, “Are the assumptions that I used when making these predictions about how I see the world, are they really true or did I just accept them as true because of the media, because of our history, because of our biology?”
Once you do that, then once you see the forces, they can’t influence you that much anymore. Once you see them for what they are, then you can be the one to choose what serves you and you can be the one to choose what you keep and what you leave.
What’s really funny about this is I’ve had a lot of very polarizing reactions about this because so often, people want to pick up this book and they want to see some sort of five-step method, framework, easy acronym, let’s just get the solution right on the way. I’ll have people email me and be like, “You went too much into history. This is too convoluted. You didn’t get to the point. What’s the solution?”
It’s like, I feel like it’s a bit subversive, but it’s like, “Guess what? The only solution is, ironically, we each have to do our own type of emotional labor to figure this out. I can’t do it for you. You’re the only one that can unlock those belief systems, unlock that self talk, unlock all of those. I can’t do that for you and no framework will do that for you.” But there’s an impatience because everyone just wants a quick fix.
Yeah, this is so powerful and really potentially super transformative in terms of getting at the root as opposed to – I love GTD and David Allen, episode 15, so—
I love him. I love him. I use it. I use OmniFocus. I’m all about that.
Oh yeah. It’s my favorite, OmniFocus.
Yeah, but my point is OmniFocus and Getting Things Done will never fix you if you feel productivity shame about the fact that you don’t think you’re good enough unless you’re constantly busy.
Yes, absolutely. Well said in terms of the fundamental psychological belief identity stuff at root, certainly, as opposed to hey, GTD and OmniFocus as a tool in order to organize all the incoming stuff so you can feel good about where it’s going. Those are sort of two different things we’re solving for.
I guess what really gets me going here is as I reflect upon what you’re saying, I recently had a podcast interview with Michael Hyatt, and that will release a little after this one I believe, in which we talked about Elon Musk, who’s Mr. Hustle himself, like sleeping at the Tesla plant and doing all these things. He really does seem to be heroically idolized.
I thought Michael Hyatt did an awesome job. He said, “Well, I guess it depends on your priorities. He’s blown through a couple marriages. He’s had these troubles.” Then you’re right in terms of the hard emotional labor, you’ve got to thing though, it’s like, “Well, would I like to have a life like Elon Musk in terms of those pretty cool entrepreneurial successes, but at those costs, or would I like to have a life that is different and prioritizes things differently?”
Okay, but maybe I’ll push back on this a little bit because I don’t think that’s the actual choice. I think forget the personal costs. Put that aside for a second. Let’s just talk about performance. Let’s just talk about being an entrepreneur, you need out make the best possible decisions in order for your company to perform.
I want you to imagine yourself after sleeping on a factory floor. You just spent eight hours. You’re tired. You haven’t slept properly. Think of your state of mind. There’s no way that you’re going to convince me that the you that has had a terrible night’s sleep, that is uncomfortable, maybe has a backache, that crick in the neck, whatever it is that’s going on, you’re not going to tell me that that is the best version of you that’s going to make the best decisions for your business.
The problem is that we have started to talk about overwork as though it’s an admirable trait, when in reality when you look at creative performance from a biological perspective, from a psychological perspective, just all the research says the same thing, that you need to take breaks to let your brain recharge so that you are at peak performance.
You running this marathon, pulling all-nighters, not sleeping, doing all these things, sleeping at the factory, you’re not actually getting closer to peak performance. What you’re doing is getting closer to performative suffering so people can say, “Look how hard he’s working. Look how much he’s suffering,” because if you remember, the harder the work, the more deserving you are.
What he’s doing is he’s just hitting all of these emotional symbols to get us to say, “He’s so hardworking. Look how much he’s suffering for his business,” whereas honestly when I heard that I was like, “Elon, go home, man. Take a shower. Have a meal. Sleep for a couple of hours. Shut your brain off. Let it all settle down and then come back the next day and then you’ll be at the top of your game.”
I know myself when I’ve been overworked, I’m not producing my best work and I’m not making the best decisions. I make more mistakes and the quality of the work that I am producing is subpar.
I love it. All right. It’s like, hey, not only are we talking about outside work; we’re talking about inside work things and performative suffering. What a turn of a phrase. That’s lovely. That’s compelling.
I’m intrigued. You mentioned in the beginning you talked to a lot of high performers who experienced a bout of burnout at some point and they knew the things they should be doing with regard to hey, take a nap, take vacation.
Are there any things that you discovered that we should be doing that are not so obvious? You mentioned some good research and science associated with peak performance and creativity and what it takes. What are some of the key things we should do or not do that can prevent or rejuvenate us from burnout that really pack a wallop?
One of the things that I looked at was, again, how historically we’ve devoted a lot of the work systems that we have today, the 40-hour work week, 9 to 5, all that stuff. I think the biggest injury that has been done to us from many of these methodologies is the fact that we are expected as human beings to show up for work in the same way, at the same energy level that is consistent for the entire time that we’re at work, 365 days a year.
That is just not the way human beings are wired. We have ebbs and flows of energy, ebbs and flows of creativity. We have different cycles. We’re productive at different times of the day. We’re more productive at different times of the year sometimes.
One of the things that we have to look at is the way that you’re working, is it designed to maximize your performance? Are you actually creating a way of working that works with your strengths instead of just trying to take yourself and shove yourself in a system that was designed for work that you’re not doing, designed for a way of work and a type of work that no longer really exists for most knowledge workers?
One of the things that I found is really powerful is starting to reframe the way that we even approach performance. Not every task in a job is created equal. A big presentation that you’ve got is going to suck up a lot more energy than just doing some admin and answering emails. Or when you’re travelling, that’s going to take a different type of energy level than when you’re sitting at your desk working.
We have to start to think about how can we conserve and optimize for this type of energy usage. That often depends, like breaking away from this mold of needing to conform to some arbitrary metric like 9 to 5 or that you have to work in the same way from 9 to 5 in the exact same way at the exact same energy level.
If we start to accept that these cycles happen in our creativity, in our performance, in the way that we approach hard tasks, in the emotional response – often creative performance, it requires a lot of emotion. You’re really excited that you have an idea, but then you get kind of frustrated because you hit a block. You get sad because you think you’re not going to solve it. Then you’re elated when you do solve it.
Those emotions also take an energetic toll on you as well. But we don’t really create systems that take all of this into account. We need to design systems that are made specifically for creative performers.
That respect I would honestly challenge you to look at your own natural rhythms. I’m a night owl. I am not productive in the morning. For so many years I killed myself trying to fit into this standard, into this ideal, where I’m raring to go at 8 AM. That was never going to be me. I am honestly at my peak hours between 6 PM and midnight. That is when I do my best work. That is when I do my most writing.
I had to design a business that worked around that. I had to say, okay, there are days when I’m going to manage my energy. I’m going to work on a highly cognitive task in the evening, which means maybe in the morning I’m going to do some lighter stuff.
Once I started paying attention to when I needed to step away, when I needed to replenish, when I needed to downshift to easier tasks, when I needed to really hustle and focus on high cognitive tasks, the craziest thing happened, which is I was better rested, I was happier, and most importantly, my output—which is the thing we’re all obsessed with anyway—my output went through the roof.
That’s when I realized that your output, your creative output, is not linked to how hard you work, how many hours and how many nights you spend and how much you don’t sleep and how many meals that you skip. It’s really based on optimizing to the fullest possible potential this limited reserve of energy that you have, so how you’re going to invest it or you’re going to spend it, how you’re going to replenish it.
Then if you do that in a way that’s designed for you and your body, your performance, your success, your happiness, your relationships, everything will go through the roof.
That’s powerful. And you’re crushing it right now in your peak zone. I guess it’s just after midnight now in France.
That’s so good. Then I want to hear then, part of it’s just knowing yourself in terms of when you work best, you’re a morning person, you’re a night owl. Are there any kind of universal best practices that are great for allocating and optimizing and being strategically wise with your limited reserve of energy?
This is the funny thing, all the solutions that I’m saying, none of them are new. It’s not like somebody’s going to be like, “Oh, I should really take a break,” or “Oh, I should get a good night’s sleep.” None of this advice is new. What’s new is that now we have the ability to start unraveling why we’re not taking this good advice.
You know. Everyone who is listening right now, you know what you have to do, you know what your body needs, you know the conditions that you work best in. you know this. What’s more interesting to me is why you’re not doing it. What is blocking you? What is holding you back from this? Where did these beliefs that you have come from? Is it shame? Is it insecurity? Is it fear? Is it ego? Is it the need for validation?
Because those are the behaviors that are hidden, that work in the background that often sabotage you so that when you’re tired that little voice will say, “Are you kidding? You’re going to take a break? No way. You’ve got to push through. You’ve got to hustle, otherwise you’re weak, otherwise you’ll never succeed.”
For me the best practices are really about having these conversations with your friends, with your teams, with your spouse, with your family about the role that work plays in our lives.
I’ll give you a quick example, which is with my friends. I noticed when I was researching this book that oftentimes when I ask my friends, “Hey, how’s it going?” the response was always some variation of “Oh, I’m so busy. Things at work are crazy right now. Oh man, I’m so overloaded. I haven’t stopped running. I’m on the road nonstop.”
All of these, going back to that term that you love, performative suffering, was basically the same thing. It was just reinforcing verbally to each other in a social context how much we were working, how much we deserved our jobs, and how we were deserving of our success because of how much work we were putting in.
What we said as a group, we actually said we’re going to ban saying “I’m so busy.” Let’s dig deep and try to find something else out use to describe our lives. It really highlighted how much this idea of being hyper busy, hyper productive was a behavior that we were all holding up like it was some sort of positive ideal.
Again, there’s no quick fix here. You already have all the quick fixes. You literally have everything you need at this instant to optimize your creative performance, but what is it that is blocking you from doing that?
In your research, what have you found to be the most common blockers?
Shame and self-worth, thinking that you’re not good enough, thinking that if you rest it means that you’re not strong enough, it means that you’re not worthy enough, feeling the need to be validated, feeling like you don’t know who you are outside of your job. Those are the things that often manifest, especially in high performers because when you’re doing really well at your job, you’re even more tempted to link your job to your identity.
The funny thing is if you just start listening to yourself talk, like there were days where – and I run my own business, so I don’t have a boss telling me when I need to come in or what I need to be doing, and yet there were times when I was like the hardest on myself than any boss I’ve ever had in my life, where I said things to myself about why I couldn’t hack it or why I was feeling tired or how I could have hustled more or how I’m letting good business ideas pass me by or how I was watching an hour of Netflix instead of working on a side hustle.
All of these things that we’re constantly reinforcing these attitudes about my own self-worth, ended up really damaging the work that I wanted to do.
The biggest one is really feeling like you’re not enough, which is why when I work with groups, when I do these workshops and I go into organizations, I work with teams, it’s often saying something as simple as, “You self-worth is not tied to your productivity. Your value as a human being has nothing to do with your output or your job or what you do to pay your rent or what you do to pay your mortgage.”
Every time we have these conversations, the next day or two days later, inevitably, I will get a couple of emails of people saying, “I really needed to hear that. I really needed someone to tell me that this is not the sum of my identity.”
The flipside of that point, which is also interesting, is there are people – if you are not ready to hear this, if you are not ready to tackle some of these forces in your own lives, then much of what I’m saying is going to annoy you. You’re going to feel anger. You’re going to be like, “What is she talking about? She doesn’t know how to hustle!”
You’ve got to hustle.
You’ve got to go get it. I will tell you, that emotive response is also something that I’ve seen. Anger, defensiveness, being very insulted. I’ve had people tell me, “Well, you just don’t have what it takes to succeed. You just don’t know what hard work looks like,” the whole thing.
What fascinated me is not the criticism, so the argument, let’s debate, let’s debate whatever you want, but it always the intensity of the emotion, which gave me the inkling that it had very little to do with me and much more with how they were responding to what they felt was a perceived threat on their identity, their status.
If you feel those emotions, I would encourage you to just sit with them and really try to understand where that resistance came from because when I was working through this stuff through the book, I was really resistant to a lot of it. There were parts of it, took me months to implement, months to wrap my head around, months to really feel it in my gut. I was angry and defensive. I was like, “Well, this can’t be the case. I don’t know about this.”
But once you do that work, once you unravel all of those things, and once you get to the point where you feel like my productivity is not linked out my self-worth, what you might not know is that it’s incredibly freeing. It actually frees you up to take even more risks, to do even more things because you don’t really have anything to lose because you’re already enough. You’re already worth everything.
For me, for example with my fiction, that’s when I started working on fiction stories because why not? If it bombs, it bombs. If it never sees the light of day, that’s okay. I found it incredibly liberating to be so secure in the fact that I was enough and I was worthy. That the work that I was doing, while challenging, while enjoyable, while I really liked it, was not the end all and be all of who I was as a human.
Now, to the notion of you’re enough and you’re worthy and your value does not come from your work and your productivity, how does one arrive at that place?
Well, if that one is me, it’s when you hit rock bottom and you have nothing left. I had an option. It was either, “Okay, well, I guess I’m nothing because I can’t write anymore or I have to rethink the way that I look at myself.” It’s just a matter of really separating it. We have a really hard time doing that. We have to separate who you are, who you are as a human being. Your value and your self-worth as a living, breathing soul is enough in itself.
That could be something as simple as just reminding yourself of that, of recognizing that when you’re at work or when you’re doing really well at work, when you’re doing really poorly at work, that that is just a consequence of the information economy that we live in of jobs and all of that stuff. That is not tied to you. It’s kind of in the same way where – it’s almost the same kind of like Zen approach, where I don’t know if you’ve ever read The Four Agreements? I don’t know if you’ve read that book?
I have read the Blinkist summary of The Four Agreements.
Yeah. Actually, hilariously, me too. But the thing that I really took from that book was nothing has anything to do with you. If somebody’s angry or somebody is sad or somebody is kind of mean to you, that in reality when you really stop and think about it, it has nothing to do with you. That’s just a reflection of their own inner turmoil and their own inner state.
Once you kind of do that similar separation from your job, you kind of realize that it loses the power to kind of knock you around, for everything to feel so scary all the time, especially if you are somebody that self-identifies as a high performer and you have these big goals and big dreams and big risks that you want to take.
I found it incredibly comforting to separate that because that meant I could be a high performer, I could take risks, I could fail. I could have tons of failures and it doesn’t matter because my failure is not a reflection of my lack of hard work, which is not a reflection of my lack of moralness. That was really key for me. I actually found it made me enjoy my job a lot more because it didn’t feel like it was so personal to what I was doing.
That’s awesome. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?
Just again, don’t pick up this book if you want a quick fix. I don’t want to hear your angry Amazon reviews. If you’re not willing to do the work and to have a complicated nuanced look at our history and how we got here, honestly, this book is not for you.
But if you are really interested about the origin story of how knowledge workers and productive creatives, how we can thrive in this new environment, you have to know where we’ve been and how we got here. Then you can figure out where we’re going.
I just really wanted to put that disclaimer out there because I don’t want anybody to be disappointed. But if you are willing to do the work and if I can support you any way in your own journey as you’re answering these questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I would love to hear from you.
All right. Now could you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Ralph Waldo Emerson has this really wonderful quote about how – I’m going to paraphrase here, so please forgive me. He says something like “The implanting of a desire indicates that its resolution is in the constitution of the creature that feels it.”
Basically he says that if you have a desire to do something, if you have a dream to be a writer, to be an entrepreneur, to be a whatever, then just the fact that you have that dream means that there’s something inside you that can fulfill it.
As a writer, it’s a very lonely job sometimes. You’re kind of on your own. You’re facing your own insecurities every time you look at that damn blank page. There’s something really nice to say, “The fact that I really want to be a writer, the fact that this is what I love to do, must mean that something in me can do this.”
I always remind myself that, especially when I’m in that valley of despair. The implanting of that desire means that my ability to fulfill it is in me. I just find that very motivating.
Lovely, thank you. How about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?
My favorite bit of research was they took a person’s phone away, put them in a room and this room only had a device that if you touched it, you would get electrocuted. It turned out that people would rather electrocute themselves than be bored for 15 minutes. I thought that was quite telling about our addiction to information stimulation.
Thank you. How about a favorite book?
A favorite book. My favorite read of last year was Bad Blood about the Theranos scandal.
I listened to the podcast, The Dropout.
Absolutely riveting, like jaw dropping. If you had told me it was fiction, I would have said it sounds too crazy. But I just thought that book was such a wild ride, so many interesting things.
How about a favorite tool?
This is a little nerdy, but please bear with me. One of my favorite tools when I really want to get in the zone is I go on YouTube and there is an audio file of the sound of idling engines that the Starship Enterprise makes from Star Trek: The Next Generation.
I know this is super obscure, but I have literally listened to hundreds of white noise machines and they never seem to work and this noise is just – it’s just magical. It just envelops you in this cocoon of creativity. When I have that on with my noise cancelling headsets, I am in the zone. I am a writing ninja. If it’s your thing and you need something to kid of help you focus, check it out. I know it’s a bit weird, but I really swear by it.
You mentioned this before we hit record and I loved it. It’s not so nuts because crysknife007, thanks for putting this video up, he put up three of them – or she, I don’t know who crysknife is – their total views are just over five million.
I’m not alone. It’s really soothing. It’s really soothing. It’s just humming enough that it blocks out the noise, but not so much that it’s a distraction. I just find I can hear myself think better. A friend recommended it to me and it’s almost like been passed on from writer to writer in secret. I’m letting you guys know on this magical secret tool. If you do use it, send me a Tweet and let me know.
What’s powerful for me as well is because as I think about – so I’ve watched most of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, everyone on that crew is a high performer, from Jean-Luc Picard, Geordi La Forge, impressive folks. In a way, it’s kind of nice to have a sound that just reminds you, at least it reminds me, of excellence.
I think the dorkiest book I ever read was entitled Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s not bad. I think they were trying to just cash in on a built in audience of people who like Star Trek and leadership. Let’s see what we can do with this. But it was a fun read for young Pete at the time. But it’s true; those are some rock stars in their respective domains on the Starship Enterprise.
Yeah, and space is kind of like your imagination, sort of like the final frontier. It’s sort of like you’re exploring, you’re out there, you’re taking risks, you don’t know what you’re going to find. I just kind of find it – it gets me right into the zone.
How about a favorite habit?
A favorite habit is to leave your phone outside of your bedroom and to just not have it anywhere near you when you’re sleeping so that you can just kind of read for 15 – 20 minutes before you go to bed and just have that silence.
I’ve become very intentional about how I use my social media tools and realize how silence is becoming a very rare luxury and how most good creative ideas come from silence and come from periods of silence and to be very protective of that silence in your life. Especially if you’re a strategic thinker or researcher or writer or you need to solve problems or innovate, those moments of silence, cultivating habits where you block off times where you can have that silence, is the best thing you could do.
Is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with audiences?
I think it’s that we just have to get a little bit better at remembering why we’re working so hard. Many of us just fill all the efficiencies that we gain from all of these GTD systems, we were supposed to fill with the good things in life, instead we’re just filling them with more work. I think I always like to remember just what’s important. You touched on it with the Elon Musk example.
I think very few people get to their deathbed and say, “Man, I wish I slept at my factory a few more nights.” At the end of the journey, no one gets out alive, it’s like what is the important thing and to always remember your health is the most important thing, that’s a big one, as well as your relationships and nurturing the people that you’re with and loving them and being happy with them for as long as you have them because nobody knows what tomorrow will bring.
If folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
You can find me RahafHarfoush.com or on Twitter or really anywhere. If you just type Rahaf Harfoush, I’m pretty sure I can connect with you on your platform of choice.
Do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?
Yeah, take a look at your work hero, take a look at somebody that you really idolize and admire and challenge yourself to see how much of what you admire about them is their productivity and how much is what you admire about them is their creativity. Then see how you feel about the answers that you get.
So good. This has been such a treat. Thank you for going deep and staying up past midnight – when you do your best work – in France.
Yeah, I’m just getting started.
This has been a real treat.
Same for me. Thank you so much.