Sam Altman's Simple Advice On Being Productive—And Not Freaking Out When You Aren't

Y Combinator president Sam Altman shares some fundamental tips.

Why are we so obsessed with productivity? It’s a question Sam Altman is well-fit to answer. The 32-year-old Stanford dropout is president of Y Combinator, arguably the most successful startup incubator in the world. Altman is also the co-chairman, along with Elon Musk, of OpenAi, a nonprofit research company intended to advance artificial intelligence, and he’s an angel investor who has backed Airbnb, Reddit, Stripe, Pinterest, and more. He’s insanely productive.

But as Altman revealed in a recent post on his blog, he’s not immune to laziness or productivity-anxiety either.

“Like most people, I sometimes go through periods of a week or two where I just have no motivation to do anything (I suspect it may have something to do with nutrition). This sucks and always seems to happen at inconvenient times. I have not figured out what to do about it besides wait for the fog to lift, and to trust that eventually it always does. And I generally try to avoid people and situations that put me in bad moods, which is good advice whether you care about productivity or not.

His personal productivity hacks include things like using a Chili Padto sleep better, making copious lists, and saving meetings for the afternoon since that seems to work best for his body clock (we all have peaks and dips in our cognitive energy levels).

Helpful as these tips are, they’re personalized to Altman’s lifestyle. More valuable is the broad advice he offers on being productive—and not letting your productivity at work interfere with the rest of your life. He writes:

In general, I think it’s good to overcommit a little bit. I find that I generally get done what I take on, and if I have a little bit too much to do it makes me more efficient at everything, which is a way to train to avoid distractions (a great habit to build!). However, overcommitting a lot is disastrous.

Don’t neglect your family and friends for the sake of productivity—that’s a very stupid tradeoff (and very likely a net productivity loss, because you’ll be less happy). Don’t neglect doing things you love or that clear your head either.

Finally, to repeat one more time: productivity in the wrong direction isn’t worth anything at all. Think more about what to work on.

At the end of the day, productivity is just a means to fulfillment. If you’re being productive but don’t care about your work, it’s probably not worth it. If your productivity compromises your relationships, you’ll probably end up lonely. And if you’re profoundly unproductive one day, that’s probably because you’re a human being. Give yourself a break.