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 clichéd ‘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.

17th of April: The Windmill, Brixton

I shall be giving a 5 minute lecture on:

‘A Fantastical History of Thee Bicycle’

At the Paul Hawkins & Thee Awkward Silences album launch, ‘Apologies to the Enlightenment’. Look ee here for more interestingness on that fine band: http://www.silenceisawkward.com/

This shall take place at The Windmill, Brixton, London on Saturday, April 17th from 6pm. See here for knowledge about the venue: http://www.windmillbrixton.co.uk/

The show, besides me and Thee Awkward Silences, also features more lecturers (A Radical History of Britain among others), more bands (David Cronenberg’s Wife, Tim Ten Yen, Extradition Order, Steven Evens, Superman Revenge Squad), DJs and a barbecue.

Unmissable.

The facts on the ground (A love story)

I loved her from the minute I first saw her. You didn’t think that could happen, but it does. She didn’t show much interest in me. She didn’t even seem to see me, to be honest with you. And she was talking on the phone to her boyfriend. So there was no point trying to talk to her, was there?

A year later we got talking, me and her. I found out that she didn’t have a boyfriend any more. To my surprise we really got on. For a month or so we spent every minute we could together. But I was scared, not like I was with you. I couldn’t deal with it. A couple of times I stayed over at her house, but nothing happened. A couple of times she stayed over at my place, but nothing happened.

Then she got another boyfriend. And I met you.

That’s the facts on the ground.

22 Tips for 100 Push Ups

I am now on week 10 of the 6 week program ‘One Hundred Push Ups’. I finally feel like I can say I have accomplished pretty much what I set out to achieve: I have done 100 consecutive push ups (or press ups, as I call them – like I’m a button or something) on no less than three occasions.

So here are my hot-tips for anyone else wanting to take the pain.

22 Tips for 100 push ups

  1. Press ups are hard bloody work. By the end of a good session, you will be sweating buckets. The floor below you will be damp. Which is nice. Maybe have a towel close to hand, certainly in the latter weeks.
  2. Give yourself a good reason for doing this stupid regime. Mine was to be able to show off in the pub.
  3. Get yourself an ups buddy. Otherwise the first few weeks will seem pretty stupid and pointless: ‘I did 10 press ups!’ isn’t going to impress anyone else.
  4. Press ups make your legs wobbly. You also might not be able to move your arms much.
  5. After a hard session, do not expect your arms to respond when you want to get up. You will have to roll onto your back, bring your knees up and then roll onto your side so you have some leverage. This is normal.
  6. Don’t try carrying anything immediately after a heavy session. You will drop it.
  7. For this reason, don’t drink from a glass. But do drink (water).
  8. Eat an egg soon after for muscle-loving protein.
  9. Try not to strain your neck – it hurts. Looking forwards, as opposed to downwards seems to help. However, it is a fact (I reckon anyway) that contorting your face into stupid grimaces and making ridiculous noises DOES make that last set of 10 easier.
  10. Eventually you will stop making grunting noises that make people think you’re watching porn.
  11. Feel good about it. Feel really good about it. Make a spreadsheet or something, tick things off.
  12. Make sure you have access to the regime at all times. You don’t want to miss a day just because you don’t know how many you should be doing. No excuses.
  13. Don’t fuss over what time of day to do them: it’s going to hurt like fuck anyway. It’s supposed to.
  14. You can do it through (non-ups related) aches and pains. 6 hours of cricket and trampball on the Sunday and I went for a hard session on the Monday. Just get on with it. No excuses.
  15. You can do it through illness (although probably not serious illness – seek medical advice, blah blah blah.) I did it with a nasty chill. Yeah, sure I was sweating like a fat man in a sauna, but it was worth it for the achievement.
  16. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It is better to enjoy it and finish it than to make yourself miserable and fail. If you fail at one level, just repeat it the next week.
  17. Or change the regime. I failed twice on Week 6 Level 2 and couldn’t face doing it a third time so I just switched to Week 6 Level 3 – much harder. To get through it I increased the length of time between reps and just about got there. The next week I did my first hundred. Mess around with the regime to suit you, but make sure you stick by the goals you set.
  18. The ‘6 weeks’ claim is just a target. It took me until Day 1 of Week 9 to get to 100 consecutive press ups. Just keep going.
  19. Don’t stop when you get to a hundred. Just keep going.
  20. Invest in new shirts for your new arms.
  21. Just do it.
  22. When you’ve done your hundred, start on the ‘Two Hundred Sit-Ups’ regime 🙂

Murakami on Writing and Running

A review of: ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’ by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a writer (and runner). That, according to the final pages of this book, is how he would like to be remembered on his tombstone. And, according to the vague thesis of this book, writing and long-distance running are not dissimilar. In fact, Murakami says that everything he knows about writing, he learnt from running.

So what was that?

Writing and Running

Murakami identifies the three most important character traits for a novelist to possess:

  1. Talent.
  2. Focus. Murakami works for 3 or 4 hours in the morning. During this time he is totally focussed on his work-in-progress. He doesn’t think about anything else at all.
  3. Endurance. A novelist needs the energy to focus every day for 6 months, a year or 2 years at a time.

For Murakami, talent is innate. The other two traits, however, you can train, in the same way that you train your muscles for a marathon. Focus and endurance are trained by sitting down at your desk everyday and working hard. They are just like muscles, obedient work-horses who take pain with fortitude as long as you prepare them gradually and don’t give them a chance to relax and think the work is done. Murakami has a goal not to give his muscles more than 1 day’s rest at a time.

A fourth characteristic is needed in the training: Patience. You’ve got to keep up this training regime and have faith that you will improve – and you will – but it will be gradual and you may not notice anything for a long time.

The good news is that building focus and endurance can make up for a lack of talent – and can sometimes unearth it.

Murakami likens writing a novel to hard physical labour. Writing itself is a mental activity – but finishing a novel is more like manual labour. Murakami also suggests that writers have to deal with all the toxic elements of humanity, which is extremely tiring. To be able to do this for more than a few years you will need to have great physical strength.

With this in mind, the reason to combine running with writing is obvious:

The main goal of exercising is to maintain and improve my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels.

Writing

The story that Murakami tells of the start of his career as a novelist seems too good to be true. He describes the moment he decided that he could write a novel – he just had the idea. He was 28 at the time. Six months later he had finished his book. Then he sent it off to a competition, which is duly won and suddenly he was a published novelist. So he wrote a second one soon after the first and they were both short-listed for a prestigious literary prize.

The bare facts hide the hard work: Murakami worked late into the night – sometimes til dawn – to fit his writing around his work. Even today, he admits that writing a novel is still hard, hard work – like digging a deep hole. The only thing that has changed it that he has become more efficient.

Murakami also says that those two early novels were very different to the sort of books he felt he wanted to write. These early novels were simplistic and drawn from the life he witnessed as the owner of a jazz bar in Japan. This is not a sustainable way of writing, Murakami says: at some point you’ll run out of crazy stories to tell. He didn’t feel capable of writing a complex, intelligent novel whilst also working full time. So he quit and started writing longer, more sustainable novels.

His early novels were successful and enabled him to move forward as a writer, but now his life is totally focused around writing. He talks quite movingly about the decisions that he and his wife made, that they would wake with the Sun and go to bed not long after its setting. This meant losing out on a lot of social life, but these are the sacrifices that must be made, just as you have to sacrifice time in your schedule for marathon training. So now he gets up early, works for 3 or 4 hours and then spends the afternoon doing less taxing chores. Murakami also naps a lot. He takes a 30 minutes nap after lunch and has got so good at napping that he does not feel sluggish afterwards.

I found this passage particularly revealing about Murakami’s philosophy of writing:

As I write I think about all sorts of things. I don’t necessarily write down what I’m thinking; it’s just that as I write I think about things. As I write I arrange my thoughts. And rewriting and revising takes my thinking down even deeper paths. No matter how much I write though, I never reach a conclusion. And no matter how much I rewrite, I never reach the destination. Even after decades of writing, the same still holds true. All I do is present a few hypotheses or paraphrase the issue. Or find an analogy between the structure of the problem and something else.

Murakami shares one discovery that set him free in his writing: he realised that if only one in ten people who read the book absolutely loved it – then that was enough. This freed him to simply write the way he felt like and to stick to it.

Running

Murakami talks a lot in the book about the meditative aspect of running, as well as its physical benefits. He mentions one marathon runners’ mantra in particular: ‘Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.’ He enjoys running for its lack of competition – the competition is with the clock and yourself, not the other runners.

He also talks about his philosophical attitude to age and its physical deterioration. He knows his times will never improve again, but he will carry on showing up until he can’t any longer. He is very proud of his record of successfully finishing the marathons he enters.

Encouragingly, he also says that he was never able to keep a diary for long – but kept up a runners journal. Incidentally, Murakami mentions that running is a great activity to do while memorising a speech: the rhythms get into the words and into your memory.

He tells us what motivates him to run when he can’t face it: ‘You don’t have to sit on a packed train with commuters or sit through boring meetings – don’t you realise how lucky you are?’ Compared to this image, running doesn’t seem so bad and he hits the streets with the air in his lungs.

Murakami has also run one ultra-marathon (62 miles). He says this event is:

An action that deviates from the ordinary, but doesn’t violate basic values – you’d expect it to afford you a special sort of self-awareness. It should add a few new elements to your inventory in understanding who you are. And as a result your life, its colours and shape should be transformed.

This was the case for him, after his 62 mile ultra-marathon he lost the appetite for running everyday. It wasn’t necessarily that he had run too much in one go – he lost interest in running everyday no matter what. He’d moved into a new zone, the amount of adrenalin he secreted during marathons went down – so he moved onto triathlons. Murakami would like to do an Ironman, but is scared that the training for it would interfere with his writing job. This is the same reason why he didn’t do more ultra-marathons. Remember, the reason for running is writing, not the other way around.

Murakami now does a marathon in winter and a triathlon in summer. This is how the rhythm of his year works. He is always in training.

And Me?

I believe a lot of what Murakami is saying and found his simple attitude encouraging. When I cycled to Bordeaux (547 miles) I felt strong and powerful, almost omnipotent. I was certainly transformed and was forced to shake up my ideas of what was possible. I felt I could do anything, anything at all. Surely, (although I don’t know yet) it will feel the same to write a novel – to finish a novel, that is. This is my marathon. When I finish, it will be done and my conception of what I am capable of will be transformed again and I will kick on to the next and the next and the next.