All or Nothing Productivity: How Excellence Creates Excellence
There’s a popular saying.
“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”
I don’t like it.
It’s true, of course. Nothing good in life comes without a tradeoff. But many people misunderstand this. They tend to think that all downsides are equal.
An example. People say things like, “Oh, I want to go to the gym. But I’ve got to focus on my career right now and my work and I just don’t have time. I’m so busy!” The underlying assumption: we must choose between our health or our work.
Let us look at an excerpt from Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile:
“…it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks.”
There’s an asymmetry at play here…
All or Nothing Effects
I’m interested in a lot of things—philosophy, entrepreneurship, biohacking, movement, psychology, writing, social dynamics… I can go on and on.
At any time, I have half-a-dozen projects going on. Recently, I’ve noticed something interesting: When one thing is going well, everything is going well.
Let me explain.
Let’s say you randomly choose one week of my life from the past year. You have a little computer that pulls up all of my “data” from that week.
First, you check my biology. My body fat is under 10%. I’m strong (I just PR’d in the gym). My blood work is excellent. Looks like I’m in good health.
What does the rest of my life look like?
Writing? I averaged 2000 words a day. Reading? Four books finished and twice as many started. Copious notes too. Social life? Excellent. Happiness levels? Consistently 7+/10.
Compare this to another week, when things are not going so well…
My abs have disappeared. Blood pressure is high. Joins are inflamed. I’m sleeping less, eating poorly. Writing quality has dropped. I’m struggling to read, and wasting time on social media. No human contact all week. Happiness levels are at a 4/10 and dropping…
You get the point.
When one thing is good, chances are everything is good. And the opposite is true too.
It’s Not Just a Hamburger
Now, what does the above have to do with you?
Follow me along for a thought experiment…
On your way home from work (you’re walking) you catch a whiff of a rich, salty smell. Hamburgers, from the local fast food joint. Lunch was 6 hours ago. “What the hell,” you say, “it’s just a burger. It won’t matter in the long run…”
This is where people get caught. Most of us see decisions in a vacuum.
Yes, a single hamburger won’t make you fat or unhealthy. That’s not the point. The real risk is in the downstream effects of your choices.
Let’s follow the stream downwards.
You eat that hamburger. It sends a rush of pleasant hormones to your brain. You’re happy. The food toxins are absorbed through your gut lining and flow to the brain. Bam, brain fog. Clouded judgment.
Suddenly, fries don’t sound so bad. So you eat some fries. Well, what the hell. Why not some ice cream too.
We’re not done yet.
When you bought that hamburger, you flipped a switch in your brain. The switch says, “Hamburgers OK.”
Guess what happens tomorrow when you walk by the same burger joint? It gets a bit easier to do it again. By eating that burger, smoking that cigarette or shoplifting that pack of gum, you’ve made that much easier for the you of tomorrow to do the same thing again.
So no, it’s not “just a burger.” We’re talking about how one decision affects every single decision for the rest of your life.
That’s the power of downstream effects.
Spirals, Circles and the Power of Momentum
Now, let’s connect downstream effects with the topic of “all or nothing” productivity.
Let me introduce two mental models: the virtuous circle and the minus spiral.
The Japanese love making terms that don’t exist in English, and minus spiral (pronounced mainasu supairaru) is one of them.
I like to think of the minus spiral as a whirlpool of negativity. Bad decisions cascade into more bad decisions, which then trigger more bad reactions… Like some crazy nuclear reaction, you get stuck in a downward spiral that is almost impossible to escape from.
The virtuous circle is the opposite of the minus spiral.
Making good decisions, working on health, spending time with good friends, doing good work… All these things feed into one another. More of one thing can lead to more of another.
The farther you are “up” the virtuous circle, the easier it is to stay there.
Excellence creates excellence.
The Takeaway: Invest in Momentum
When you’re charged with positive momentum (you haven’t had junk food in years, you’ve got lots of positive people in your life, you’re working on fulfilling work), bad decisions are easy to recover from.
But when you’re stuck in a minus spiral—hurtful people around you, a shitty job, bad diet, poor sleep, etc.—good decisions are impossible. If you fall too far, it’s impossible to get out without help.
The takeaway: the less positive momentum you have, the more important it is to make the right decisions.
Now, when I recognize I’m losing momentum or even drifting into a negative spiral, I’m willing to spend a lot of resources—money, time, energy—to make sure that things don’t get worse.
Next time you catch yourself asking “What’s the harm?” or “What’s the point?”, don’t forget about the downstream.