You Don’t Need Moderation
Work, Creativity, and the Fallacy of Restraint
My wife and I are currently enjoying a much-needed vacation in Hawaii. We’ve been going non-stop for the past two years, and we’re in need of a little time away. And yet, the thing that comes to mind amid this time is not a feeling of pause, but of pursuit. While I very much enjoy the downtime and relaxation that comes with a vacation, I love the way it reignites my fire, causing me to reflect on the entire idea of balance and moderation.
A few years ago I started thinking about how best to catalyze chaos amidst the ever-changing world in which we find ourselves. Well, it’s been three years and while things are definitely different, one thing hasn’t changed: our collective appetite for work. So today’s article is about moderation, and whether it’s necessary for everyone.
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This little daily ritual keeps me focused and grounded.
It’s something I try to stick with every weekday, because it helps me avoid overcommitting to too many meetings, too many to-dos, too many agreements.
But recently I realized something: it doesn’t actually work.
Well, it works, but not as intended.
I know this, because I finally sat down and looked at the data.
At the beginning of each new year, I reflect on what I’ve accomplished in the last twelve months and what I’d like to tackle in the coming year. During this practice, I evaluate not just how much I completed, but how I felt about what I completed, and how much effort it took to complete everything.
This year, when I looked at my stats, they were pretty staggering. I’d worked an average of 50-60 hours each week, taken 2-3 weeks off, and only completed 60% of the goals I’d set out to accomplish at the beginning of the year. All in all, it didn’t look great. And yet, my feelings told a different story.
I felt accomplished.
I felt energized.
I felt ready for more, not less.
For most, the outcome of a process like this leads to a goal of working less, scaling back, or finding ways to optimize. And I’ll admit that, for most, this is the right outcome. I’ll play along with the typical work-life balance narratives that even I espouse on a regular basis. Yet, when it comes down to it, my ambition won’t rest. The list of objectives for the coming year just gets longer and longer. And before you tell me about the 80/20 rule, Buffett’s 5/25 rule, or any other prioritization framework, know that I both know these and still find myself in the same situation.
Because, the truth is:
I willingly overstretch myself.
On any given day, I find myself toggling between:
three books in progress
dozens of article or newsletter drafts
hundreds of open browser tabs
thousands of ideas
For me, chaos breathes life into an otherwise mundane existence.
In fact, managing the chaos often feels like a dance does.
You can learn to dance by following step-by-step instructions; right hand on your partners shoulder, step forward with your left foot, slide your right foot across…and so on. Or, you can watch someone dance and find your own groove. Instead of resisting your natural flow, you can learn to embrace it and move with it.
If you are resisting something, you are feeding it. Any energy you fight, you are feeding. If you are pushing something away, you are inviting it to stay.
— Michael Singer
My fragmented, overworked, chaotic existence goes against all conventional productivity advice and breaks all norms. Most people simply cannot understand how—or why—someone would be a willing participant in such circumstances, especially when it comes to work. We’re willing to accept and embrace a lack of moderation when it comes to particular hobbies, passions, religion, and so many other aspects of modern life.
And yet, when it comes to work, the modern narrative tells us to cut out as much as we can.
Like sugar, work is best consumed in small doses, only when necessary.
While work might produce a nice, temporary high, enjoy too much and you’ll crash.
Or at least that’s what we’re told.
But creative work is different. And makers of all kinds — painters, artists, musicians, etc. — often find that creativity blurs the line between what is considered work, and everything else. Putting artificial constraints on your creative brain, telling it to turn off, rarely works.
Constraints are incredibly powerful tools for creativity. But creativity and innovation aren’t always about limitations. In fact, creativity and innovation often come from connecting disparate ideas or concepts. As David Epstein points out,
Modern work demands knowledge transfer: the ability to apply knowledge to new situations and different domains.
The transfer of knowledge and the ability to apply it across different domains requires expansion, not contraction. The constraints of typical productivity advice turn moderation into frustration. Which is exactly why I choose to accept life without moderation.
Where you see chaos, I see creativity.
Where you see obstacles, I see opportunities.
And, when it comes to work, my brain wants more.
As I wrote in 2020, I think this is crucial for most people to find ways to do the minimum amount necessary to get the most monetary value for themselves. It’s the most logical way to approach anything so transactional: maximize ROI.
But the I in ROI isn’t the same for everyone.
I’ve come to realize that moderation just isn’t for me. And it’s not easy, but nothing in life is easy. Instead of fighting it, I’ve learned to harness it and use it to my advantage.
Accepting and integrating chaos might be the fastest way to find the signal of creative inspiration. Whether it’s work, a hobby, a book, or a creative endeavor, keeping your momentum is the key. If you let doubt or fear stop you, it just might bring all other creative outlets to a screaming halt. Take on more than you think you can handle, and see where each permutation takes you.
And, just in case you missed it…
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Until Next Time!
That’s it for this week. As always, if you like the content, please do me a favor and share it with your friends — this newsletter runs on overpriced whiskey and reader engagement.
Thanks for reading, and see you soon,
— Kevin K. (@kkirkpatrick)