Give in to the Machine

Some people have been asking me about productivity recently, close friends and acquaintances that have wondered how I got a book out, etc. Because goddammit, that’s a lot of words. And yeah, it is.

The truth is, I did have some idea of how to complete big projects, or make progress in some kind of huge endeavour beforehand, but most of what I learned was in Japan, studying in a Zen temple earlier this year.

Give in to the machine.

There, I said it. You want the liberty of a freelancer, to choose when you’re working and when you’re boozing it up with friends, but guess what?

Freedom is killing you.

When I was in Japan, I meditated about two hours everyday. Now, I do it barely at all. What’s changed? The system, of course. The routine was there beforehand, with social pressure to get me to behave and a daily set of habits that included weeding, sitting meditation, pre-set meal times, all of that stuff.

Now, my life is the opposite. I spend a few hours reading every day, whenever I want. I consider this valuable work, but I’m not in the machine. I’m free– TOO free, in fact.

This is the problem most of us with day jobs have too. We’re so used to being told what to do during the day that we never let our own internal machine develop.

We’re like “Yeah, finally I have time to do what matters to ME,” but then we don’t do it because we think the freedom is what allows for progress. It isn’t.

All the best work that I’ve done, the most progress that I’ve made, was done with the help of social pressure and a routine that was unforgiving of failure. If you’re from the Western world, I’m going to guess you’re the same.

We need to put ourselves back into some kind of set habits– as much as possible, in fact, if we’re going to make progress.

Think about it: Would you even have graduated high school if you weren’t forced to be there?





27 responses to “Give in to the Machine”

  1. evan Avatar

    I was think along these lines recently in anticipation of the new career I’m about to start and I hope I can be as productive on the side as you have been. It’s pretty obvious to me before starting this draining job that if I’m going to be able to accomplish all the other things I want to do with my life, I’m going to have to really start learning to budget my time more productively. Partly, this will require cutting out a bunch of shit from my life, that while fun, ultimately just sucks up time and energy without producing anything. Energy that I’ll need if I’m going to make any time outside of work for anything but the laziness of freedom. But, this is going to be like putting myself through culture shock.

  2. Brian Avatar

    This is so oddly true – I used to knock out 10-15 pages a day on screenplays when I had a full-time job. Now that I’m full-time freelance, it’s just not so.

  3. Alphonse Hà Avatar

    Interesting angle.

    Truth be told, I would of finished High School just because I needed to in order to get a B.A.

    I find my problem has more to do with my lack of sleep. I am very unmotivated when I’m sleep deficient.

    Yet, I can’t do anything to remedy it… quite furstrating.

  4. Julien Avatar

    @Alphonse: And why would you get a BA? I’m going somewhere with this. 🙂

  5. Brian Gryth Avatar
    Brian Gryth


    Like the post. Only question I have is, isn’t the opposite also true that structure is killing you? Isn’t success a balance between structure and freedom?

    Thanks, Brian

  6. Julien Avatar

    @Brian: I agree totally! It’s that ability to constrain YOURSELF so that you can build that success. Am I right?

  7. Colleen Wainwright Avatar

    Julien, I hope you’re going straight to writing a book about *this*.

    I loved Steven Pressfield’s take on it–that creative people are slinging hammers like everyone else, and that the work comes out of you imposing structure on yourself (deadlines, artificial or not; a set schedule for input/output/rest; etc), not airy-fairy visitations by the Creativity Elves. Hugh MacLeod harps on this all the time. So did Ben Franklin (I think Twyla Tharp does, too, but she’s buried in the to-read stack. I need some three hours of reading in my structure!)

    That’s pretty good company, indicating it’s a perennial issue. How’s about it, kid?

  8. Julien Avatar

    @Colleen, skip everything else in the pile and go to Twyla Tharp. You can thank me later. 🙂

    1. Sweeney Avatar

      I’m going to take this advice… I’m assuming you are referencing “The Creative Habit”..

  9. Jon Wortmann Avatar

    Absolutely right. Just started putting myself back in a schedule. I produced the most and was the happiest in college when I was playing intercollegiate tennis, working, and had a full course load.

    The same has been true when I’ve had a full work load and had a writing deadline.

    There’s a new scientific american mind article about the value of social groups on overall health.

    You’ve just added another benefit to plugging into community.

  10. Eleanor Muller Avatar
    Eleanor Muller

    Searching of the next new, new thing becomes an eternal quest for me online. So I’ve added a time management tool: my laptop’s battery life. As I login I turn off the power cable. If the battery goes flat before I logout it’s a non-negotiable cut off. And no, I’m not in the market for a better battery!

  11. Patrick Avatar

    In the same vein, my friend Tony just started doing this:

    Structure + routine + social pressure.

  12. Mair Alight Avatar

    For years I’ve thought I most highly valued freedom, autonomy, choice. The more structure I place in my life, the more I value my sense of order and ease that arises from its base. When I moved to choosing structure to support me instead of something that was compelling me, the more I have enjoyed it and benefitted from it. Hey-it’s allowing me the freedom to comment on this right now! LOL
    Thanks for the post and I’m grateful for Chris Brogan directing me to it.

  13. @TheGirlPie Avatar

    Amen and hallelujah! Starting my solo business (13+ years ago) gave me structure; running my business gives me… too much freedom to comment & tweet!

    The GREAT part is that, as self-directed createpreneurs, or whatever they’re calling us these days, WE get to build our Own Machine to give in to! Yay!

    Thanks Julien, and for the Twyla Tharp recco for Colleen, too; that moves it up my list as well.

    Your student,
    (not that annoying one in the front),

  14. Carol Avatar

    Excellent post! One thing I learned a long time ago is that one needs to put some structure into one’s working day, if it’s not imposed by the outside, such as with a full-time job. Now, I’m not saying that I always succeed in being as productive as I could be, but at least I’m aware of it.

    Also, now I’m motivated by you and Colleen to read Twyla Tharpe!

    Time to get into the studio and finish that sculpture I’ve been working on for my husband’s birthday in a couple of weeks . . .

    Keep up the good work!

  15. Teresa Basich Avatar

    Man, is this relevant to me right now or what (relevant to me, not or what ;-)). I work from home and it’s been quite the experience to set boundaries around my personal goals and my work. The hardest part of it all, really, has been realizing that the freedom I’ve been giving myself at the end of my workday has done nothing but paralyze me. With too many options come too many reasons to NOT do something. There’s also incredible stability and reduced anxiety in a routine — the bits of routine that we rarely appreciate, and that free the mind to really get stuff done.

    Awesome post, Julien. 🙂

  16. Tamsen Avatar

    There is something to be said for deadlines and time constraint. Just allow some time for flexibility to the social pressures. Clearing your mind actually enhances your ability to move through the structure. It’s like a dozen fresh baked cookies, eating one is much more pleasurable and ultimately satisfying than eating the dozen. Find your inner discipline. Thanks for another insightful post, Julien.

  17. Joe Sorge Avatar

    Nice! thanks for pulling this one back out!

  18. Tamsen McMahon Avatar

    I think I need to comment just so you have TWO Tamsen’s commenting on the same post. How often does *that* happen?

    We all need machines–some of us have them inside of us, others need to use what’s already there. I recently switched to working three days in an office and two days out. I’m finding (much to my surprise) that I’m far more driven and disciplined on the days I’m on my own, mostly because it’s now MY time, and I value that very highly.

  19. John Haydon Avatar

    Julien – This is totally relevant to me right now. Next Tuesday, I’m speaking at #140conf in Boston. It’s only for 10 minutes, but I’m scared to death. Last night good friend of mine said “You’ll do great. You’re smart and funny…” so I’m sure most of my fear is unfounded. That said, if I didn’t have the external constraint of this commitment, I wouldn’t have to face my prince of darkness – I wouldn’t have the opportunity to grow inside and out. Thanks, Julien.

  20. Michelle Avatar

    give into? sounds like it should be more like, become your own machine. 😀 cyborg right?

  21. Franis Engel Avatar

    People don’t work on what they really want because when something really matters, it’s survival-scary.

    Some solutions are to create a group of people who help each other work toward their dreams – Barbara Sher has a workable model for that. I also use Mark Forster’s “Auto-Focus” list-making tool quite a bit. (I seem to always need to have one thing I’m procrastinating!) If you have lots of interests as I do, I agree that you need any sort of system to track your progress. But if you’ve got one passion – allow absorption-flow create timeless time.

    I would have graduated high school two years early, but my parents died so it didn’t happen. There was nobody making me complete the one class of 2 years of required English. Fortunately, the teachers were happy to have me in their art, photography & ceramics studios while I cut all other classes. During those two years (in 1972) I won more than $4000. entering art competitions & scholarships on my own. Then I had a blast in art college with an insurance scholarship when I bought a house at an auction for that $4000- afterwards I became a self-employed sign painter.

    IMHO, the secret is, don’t get a job – start your own business. You have to expand or die when you’re working for yourself – so you learn to use your time well and think originally.

  22. Kara Avatar

    This might be exactly why I am struggling right now. 2 years ago I left a corporate job as my husband makes good money. I switched to personal training as I love helping people get fit but I have way too much free time on my hands and no real incentive to make money… and I am a bit lost and depressed. Will see how I can apply this. Thanks Julien.

  23. Sabina Avatar

    I couldn’t agree with your article more. Having too much free time, is almost harder then trying to fit in time for things that you enjoy and love when you are busy. The only problem is self-discipline when it comes down to organizing all your hours of the day.
    I’ve been sitting in this kind of abysmal situation for half a year now, and I have to say, having no structure is hard. Sure, I have the hours in the day to get everything done, if I could somehow force myself to do it.
    So I guess my question is, how do you create structure for your work alone? You mentioned making it peer pressure, but the last thing I want to do is make a facebook group about my passion…

  24. Renée Avatar

    Well done Julien.
    My first boss at my last corporate job was Miss Willy-Nilly. No structure, no plan, no direction, and my output was in some way reflective of that. My second boss was totally into regimentation and I was WAY more productive as a result of it. It came to the point where she only had to “supervise” me 10 minutes/week! I was like a machine.
    Fast forward 2 years and I am flying solo, and although I love it and have no desire to work for a permanent boss, I know my productivity is not the same and at times I am really drifting. That ability to reign oneself in can really be the difference between a succcessful entrepreneur and a failure.

  25. Z4usV Avatar

    This question at the end “Would you even have graduated high school if you weren’t forced to be there?” is interesting. My answer inspired by experience of myself compared to that of my wife. I followed lessons in Latin voluntarily, she obligatory. I liked it a lot and appeared to be useful for at least reading Italian. So for me the answer is “Yes, very likely I would given I like the subjects I need to complete with satisfactory results”. Were seven in my case. If you dislike too many subjects you’re forced to be successful in, you’re about to fail. With choices to make at a (too?) young age you can make or break your chances to get a valuable career in the future

  26. Aseem Avatar

    “All the best work that I’ve done, the most progress that I’ve made, was done with the help of social pressure and a routine that was unforgiving of failure. If you’re from the Western world, I’m going to guess you’re the same.”

    Very true.

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