Productivity and the Art of Sacrifice

Introduction to deliberate sacrifice

The word ‘sacrifice’ has very negative connotations. It is my aim in this essay (2000 words) to break those negative connotations and turn the word into a powerful tool to get you motivated and achieving the things you want in your life.

Everybody in their life makes sacrifices. Every time you choose one thing over another, you are making a sacrifice. Most of the time we don’t even think about it, certainly not in terms of sacrifice. My decision to have a beer is very rarely taken in the light that the next morning I will sacrifice some mental acuity.

But if you start making deliberate sacrifices then you will create a coherent life, where everything you do is targeted towards your goals. Drinking heavily is not coherent with my chosen goal of writing – so I will sacrifice drinking.

The basic idea is that most people need to make sacrifices in order to achieve their goals. Most people have to earn a living to look after themselves, their families, their homes. This means that if they want to achieve something over and above these basic demands on their time and resources, then they must make sacrifices, deliberate decisions to forego things that damage their chances of success. But this need not be negative. I argue that deliberate sacrifice is a great thing, giving you purpose, motivation, drive and achievement.

5 Reasons why deliberate sacrifice works

1. Deliberate sacrifice commits you to your goal

If I decide to wake up every day at dawn, then every morning I’m going to think: ‘What the **** am I doing up this early? I could be in bed!’ But if the decision was a deliberate sacrifice, then I will have a convincing answer to this question. I am up at this absurd hour because I want to write. I want to be a published writer. I want to entertain readers. Without this sacrifice I realise that I won’t make it. So I had better make good use of the time, or it will be a wasted sacrifice and I really might as well have spent the time in bed. The more you sacrifice, the more you had better succeed.

2. The act of sacrifice gives you a strong motivation for your goal

From the commitment, comes motivation, almost without asking for it. Doing something a lot forces you to ascribe value to it. This increases your motivation for doing this valued task.

3. The act of deliberate sacrifice gives you purpose and drive

Because you have chosen the sacrifice to direct yourself towards your goal, your life becomes a conduit for that goal. It makes you appear driven and feel driven, which becomes a virtuous circle. The more you do it, the better you feel about it and the better you become.

4. Deliberate sacrifice makes your life choices easier

You now have a convincing answer – convincing both to yourself and to others – to queries and temptations. What are you doing to achieve your goal? Do you want to come out and get smashed tonight?

5. Sacrifice is noble and will give you respect and self-respect

Saints make sacrifices. People will respect you for making the sacrifice. It shows that you are serious about achieving your goal. Of course, a lot of writers have found success from writing 10 minutes a day for 25 years, but making large sacrifices to find 2 hours a day will vastly increase your chances of success. Sacrifice is a noble pursuit, it gives structure to your life where before there was just a hotchpotch of unstructured haphazard ideas. I had the goal of becoming a writer for about ten years, but until I started making big sacrifices, it never felt like a realistic prospect. It was always just a loose collection of dreamy ideas: some day I would make it. I would write one day and not again for a week. I would jot down a bunch of story ideas. I would read a couple of books about writing. But after making significant, deliberate, sacrifices, people can see that I take myself seriously. I have their respect (until they read my book – ha!) and I have my own self-respect.

Sacrifice and Priorities

Sacrifice is not the same as prioritising.

Sacrifice is the action that backs up your priorities. A priority (or a goal) is meaningless if it doesn’t require a sacrifice to achieve it. It would have no value. It would be farcical to ‘prioritise’ eating lunch. It does mean something to prioritise writing a novel. This is a huge commitment and demands huge sacrifices.

Prioritising is the decision to do something, sacrifice is the doing.

For example, I have prioritised writing. But what does that mean? The only thing that means is that I need to find time to write. It is the sacrifice that tells me what I should do. It tells me that I should get up early, which means that I must sacrifice my evenings, which means that I must sacrifice a large part of my social life and that I should sacrifice drinking alcohol. OK, now we have some actions.

Because the sacrifice is deliberate (directed towards my goal) I now know why I am getting up early, why I am not going out late, why I am not drinking.

How to sacrifice deliberately

Know your goal

Make it one goal. There is enough going on in your life already. Focussing on one goal at a time will greatly increase your chances of success. If you have many goals (like me), just start with one.

Work out what it is you need to achieve the goal

Usually just time. Sometimes space, sometimes resources.

Work out the sacrifices

Work out if you think the goal is worth each sacrifice. Usually, any sacrifice is worth it if you want your goal enough. If you don’t want the goal enough to make the sacrifice, then you probably want to find another goal – or you are happy with your life as it is!

Work out the secondary sacrifices

These are sacrifices that flow from your initial sacrifices. My initial sacrifice was simply to get up early. But that means no evenings, no social life, no drinking. Make sure you are OK with these secondary sacrifices, otherwise your primary sacrifice will collapse and your goal will fail.

Choose the sacrifices

Now choose to make the sacrifices. Think about your justifications for the sacrifice, be ready for your own doubts and the doubts of others. Get that glint in your eye, the determination for your sacrifice and for your goal.

A Sacrifice Audit

There are four varieties of sacrifice. Examine the sacrifices you are making in your own life and decide what type they are and (ideally) make sure that they are voluntary and worthwhile.

1. Voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you have decided to make

You know why you are making them and you are happy with them. It is important that these sacrifices are also worthwhile. If they are not actually helping you towards your goal, then you are just playing a martyr for no good reason – relax and stop making things harder for yourself. Also keep reviewing your sacrifices. I might find in a few months that I become more disciplined and that I am able to write 2 hours a day without making the evening sacrifice. Who knows.

2. Sacrifice by extension: Sacrifices that flow from other sacrifices

These are the secondary sacrifices that flow from your primary, voluntary sacrifices. Make sure you are aware of these AND are happy with them. If you are not, then your primary sacrifices won’t last either. For example, for the sake of my writing, I have sacrificed my late evenings for early mornings. That is fine. But it also means that I am sacrificing a large part of my social life. I really need to be in bed by 10.00 or 10.30 at the latest. Any later than that and I suffer the next day. You can see the conflict with this sacrifice and my social life. Especially living a good 30 minute cycle from most of my friends.

3. Non-voluntary sacrifice: Sacrifices that you have not consciously decided to make, but that you are making anyway

Make sure you realise what these are and that you are happy with them. If you are happy, then they are after-the-fact voluntary sacrifices. If you are not then they are after-the-fact involuntary sacrifices. Turn these non-voluntary sacrifices into deliberate sacrifices. If you can pin these phantom sacrifices down, then you will become much more self-aware and even more focussed. For example, because I’m not going out in the evenings a lot, I’m not socialising a lot and because I’m using my time for writing, I’m not putting time and effort into my romantic life. So I am single. I have only recently become aware of this sacrifice, yet it is a sacrifice that I am inadvertently making anyway. Am I happy with it? It is impossible to say. Sometimes I am, sometimes I am not. But I know one thing: it gives me more time for writing!

4. Involuntary sacrifice: Sacrifices you are making that you really don’t want to have to make

You have deliberately decided not to sacrifice this, but you are anyway, against your will. The more of these that you have in your life, the unhappier you will be. Don’t expect to eliminate all of them, but try to come to terms with them. You may find that some of them are sacrifices by extension without which you will blow your goals. I regret having to spend less time with friends, but have come to terms with it, transforming it (sometimes) into a voluntary sacrifice. If these sacrifices become overwhelming, take a sacrifice holiday. Break your involuntary sacrifices for a day and come back tomorrow, refreshed and more focussed. I have toyed with the idea of taking Sundays off, but I haven’t yet because I have been enjoying the focus and determination that comes with the sacrifices. Just make sure that you are sacrificing the right day – for example, if you want to take Sunday off, make sure you drink on Saturday night – not Sunday!

A road map of sacrifice (thanks to Dan)

  • Our time on earth is scarce.
  • We can’t do everything.
  • We must make a choice.
  • To enable this choice we must make a trade-off with other potential choices: a sacrifice.
  • By consciously sacrificing the things we haven’t chosen, we give value to our choice.
  • The more it hurts to make the sacrifice, the more we value our choice and the more determined we are to achieve our goals.
  • Sacrifice gives value to our goals. It gives meaning, drive, motivation and, perhaps, happiness.

Where this idea came from

This theory of sacrifice grew out of my own experience and my readings of how other people have achieved the things that they have wanted to achieve in life. Because of my interest in writing, my examples come from writers. Murakami wrote in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ of the sacrifices that he made in his life when he decided to work on his writing full-time. He wrote of the decimation of his social life. He wasn’t upset by this sacrifice, but it really brought it home to me: for this to work, you must make sacrifices. Malcolm Gladwell posits the 10,000 hours theory of success. Whilst I realise this isn’t a hard and fast rule, I am nowhere near that figure. This isn’t going to work without hard, hard work: so where am I going to fit those 10,000 hours in? Sacrifices must be made.

You don’t have to look far for writers who made sacrifices – and they are generally not the clich├ęd ‘starving artists’: Jack Kerouac lived with his mum, Vladimir Nabokov lived in hotels most of his writing life, Henry David Thoreau built himself a house in the woods and lived there for more than two years. By simplifying theirs lives and making those sacrifices, they carved out the time and resources they needed for their writing. Sometimes the sacrifice isn’t voluntary and this inadvertently becomes the making of the writer. Oscar Wilde famously spent two years in gaol, Anne Frank’s horrific sacrifice was the writing world’s gain, likewise Primo Levi. Erwin James was just a brutal murderer until he was imprisoned and became a famous diarist.

I am lucky enough to be in a situation where my sacrifices can be deliberate choices and that I have the opportunity that sacrifice brings to make my life the life I wished for.

1 thought on “Productivity and the Art of Sacrifice”

  1. Interesting thoughts – I was thinking about sacrifice myself recently.
    This essay seems to be kind of about sacrifice for oneself though. I reckon sacrifice for others can also be important and has its own dynamics in terms of how it affects our lives – another essay perhaps.

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