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By far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether it’s fun to do

The problem with the genre of “life lessons from the world’s most successful entrepreneurs” is one of causal direction: just because Elon Musk works 120 hours a week, it doesn’t follow that if you work 120 hours a week, you’ll experience Musk’s success. (Whether or not Musk has an enviable life isn’t the point here; that depends on your enthusiasm for space travel and defaming cave divers.) Musk works insane hours because he wants to. We can argue about the psychological roots of that wanting: does it stem from a big-hearted desire to help humanity, or a pathological workaholism and desperation to prove himself? But either way, in some sense, Musk likes it; whereas if you tried to follow that schedule, you’d have to make yourself do it. The same applies to less extreme advice. “Write every day” won’t work unless you want to write. And no exercise regime will last long if you don’t at least slightly enjoy what you’re doing.

This clicked into place for me as I read about the hyper-productive German sociologist Niklas Luhmann, in a fascinating book called How To Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens (based on the intricate index card system Luhmann used to organise his knowledge). How did Luhmann publish 58 books and hundreds of articles – plus, impressively, several more books after his 1998 death, thanks to manuscripts he left behind? Because, said Luhmann, “I never force myself to do anything I don’t like. Whenever I am stuck, I do something else.” That sounds scandalously self-indulgent – except that, as Ahrens writes, “doesn’t it make much more sense that the impressive body of work was produced not in spite of the fact he never made himself do anything he didn’t feel like, but because of it?”

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