Rahaf Harfoush on how to master your productivity in a world on overdrive

Photo of Paul Sephton
January 28, 2020
Reading time
21 minutes

It’s impossible to briefly sum up Rahaf Harfoush’s career; and she wants you to know that you don’t have to fit into anyone else’s definition of success, as she’s absolutely created her own. She’s a strategist, digital anthropologist and best-selling author who focuses on the intersections between emerging technology, innovation and digital culture.

From working on Obama’s digital media team during the 2008 presidential campaign, helping identify disruptive-startups at the World Economic Forum, to writing New York Times bestsellers, Rahaf has her finger firmly on the pulse of digital culture. In this episode she talks about the difficulty of measuring success when your work is so varied, speaks from personal experience on the dangers of burnout and explains how to stay creative no matter what industry you’re in.

Paul Sephton: Rahaf, great to have you on the show today and I think it’s interesting when I look at your history because you were born in Damascus and then when you were quite young, you moved over to Toronto in Canada and now you are Paris based. You’ve also had some really interesting things come across your career including having worked on the Obama campaign and also consulted to major global organizations including Deutsche Bank, L’Oreal, UNESCO. Can you tell me a little bit about where you started out and how you sort of figured out this journey which you’re now on and so successful in?

Rahaf Harfoush: We always think of a career path as this linear, logical progression. And for me it was always a struggle to try to apply the advice that you’re given, which is focus and specialize and decide on what you want. And I could just never decide on what it is that I wanted to do, I wanted to do too many things. And so, my career path has been more of a long scenic hike I would say, instead of any sort of an efficient A to B. And my career has been punctuated by serendipitous opportunities that have come into my life, and at that moment when they come into my life, they challenged the things that I think I could do. And my response to those moments has always been to take a chance and to say yes. And so, when I first started speaking professionally, it was because I had been invited to a university to just talk to a class and talk to a bunch of the university students about my research that I had done at that point about Yes We Did, which is the first book that I wrote.

And somebody in that audience just happened to be from a speakers bureau and they said, “We’d love to have you, we’d love to bring you on.” And I had no idea that that was even really like a job that I could do, right? And so I said yes without having any idea. When I got approached to writing my first book, I thought what do I know about writing a book? And then I said yes and I jumped into that. And so, these sort of jumps have taken me to Geneva when I worked at the World Economic Forum. They’ve taken me to Toronto where I worked on my second book with my co-authors on The Decoded Company. And so it’s just really been this adventure of pursuing work that doesn’t really fit into a specific mold, but that fits into what I like, even if it doesn’t seem to make sense to the outside observer, there is a method to my madness I will say.

Paul Sephton: What a unique journey to have gone down. I heard someone just last week who was saying, “Pick a lane if you want to find success.” So, given the diverse career background that you’ve come from, what advice would you give counter to that to someone who was trying to figure out what to do but needing to experience a huge amount in order to get to that endpoint?

Rahaf Harfoush: I think that there isn’t one method that’s better than the other. I think some people are built to focus and to specialize on one thing and if they can do that well and more importantly, if they find that rewarding and challenging and fulfilling, then that’s fantastic and more power to them. But if I’m to talk to maybe the minority of people, the people who are like me who just struggle to fit into… to take that one box in terms of the industry you want to work on or the type of job that you want to do or the type of tasks or skills you want to cultivate, then I would just say that there is another option. And it took me a really long time to shed the expectations and the pressure of focus, focus, focus because people told me, Oh! Well, you can’t run a company and be a writer and do this, and work on other creative pursuits.”

So for the longest time I felt like a part of me was being pulled in two separate directions because I had to choose until I realized do I really have to choose? And maybe it’s a path that doesn’t look like somebody else’s path, but it’s a path that really works for me. So, it would be to just trust your own instincts about the things that you want to do and you like to do and to be okay to go against the grain of the majority of advice. And even for something like writing, one of the biggest pieces of advice that I’ve heard is that you have to develop this a daily writing practice. That you have to sit down at your computer and even if you’re only writing a hundred words, if you’re only writing for 15 minutes, that it’s essential to sit at that desk every day. But that never worked for me as a writer. I’ve never been a daily writer ever. And so I felt so bad about it until I just leaned into my own process and realize that I managed to write three books without cultivating a daily writing practice. And so, it’s like finding the strategies that just work for you.

Paul Sephton: I think by now as a New York Times best seller, no one can tell you that you don’t know how to write a book. Which brings us to your latest, the one which I mentioned beforehand, Hustle and Float. What caught my attention when I was reading it was firstly how you define creativity. So, with that in mind can you talk a little bit about how you got into writing this third book of yours and what led up to inspire it and bring it into being?

Rahaf Harfoush: After The Decoded Company, I’d come back home and having worked very hard on that book and very hard on the launch and all of that stuff, just found myself very restless. I didn’t know exactly what project I wanted to work on next. So, that restlessness, that open space on my calendar I found it very scary for some reason and ended up throwing myself into work, which is such an extent and almost like a bit of a panic state, that it ended up suffering from a massive episode of burnout. And when I say burnout I really mean burnout, I don’t just mean I was a little tired. I mean hair falling out, can’t sleep, can’t eat, completely incapable of putting together a coherent thought. And coming out of that, I started asking myself, “Why did this happen?”

It was completely preventable. I work for myself, I didn’t have a boss that was telling me I have to do this or have to do that. And as a researcher, I have sort of an obsessive quality where once I’m like on the trail of something, it’s very hard to get me to stop. And so it ended up turning into this three year research project that ended up spinning the history of productivity, the history of creativity or relationship work or relationship with our brains, the latest brain science. So, collectively the book ended up being a story, our story as creative professionals of where a lot of the ideas that we have about work come from, where the way we think of ourselves and our work ethic and our identity, the influences that we’ve had culturally, historically, and biologically.

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So, it was like an immense project and honestly half the time I didn’t even know what I was doing because it was such a vast thing to research, but the more I dug into it, the more I started to pull this thread and I started to realize that we as creatives, we are at the mercy of these forces. The history of the industrialization of productivity, the history of how we’ve traditionally looked at creatives, the messages that the media gives us about what success looks like, that all of those things are these invisible forces that are influencing the way that we work.

And that at some fundamental level, these beliefs, we’ve absorbed them so much into who we are, that they’ve started instead of helping us, they started hindering our performance, particularly for people who are creators. Meaning how I define creativity, people that are thinking or problem solving or strategizing or doing these highly complex cognitive tasks. We’re so obsessed with productivity. All we talk about is productivity and getting more done, doing more, working longer, working faster and being hard workers, waking up at 5:00 AM. And yet those same principles when I looked at all the research or the reasons why our performance wasn’t where it should be.

At some fundamental level, these beliefs, we’ve absorbed them so much into who we are, that they’ve started instead of helping us, they started hindering our performance, particularly for people who are creators.

Paul Sephton: So, you have the unique vantage point of having gone into the archives and looked through this entire history around our productivity cycles and creativity. Talk me through some of the inflection points which you might’ve noticed along the way. We’ve got big things in the last two decades, like the 2008 financial crisis and then I’m sure there were other factors which must have stood out for you. Not to mention the massive rise that we’ve had in technology in the last decade or two and how that is playing into every area of our always on and obsessed working and productivity culture where we try and hustle nonstop.

Rahaf Harfoush: When you used to work on an assembly line, your boss in the factory didn’t care if you are creative. In fact, they would prefer that you weren’t creative. They would prefer that you just punched in and punched out, did your job. So, all of a sudden organization sort started realizing that for the type of work that they needed, they needed people that were creative. And that’s when you kind of started to see the rise of most innovative place to work, most creative place to work. Creativity became an organizational priority. The problem is that creativity is, we now know from a science perspective is something that’s quite difficult to measure, it’s not something that can be forced into a productivity framework and as anybody who works in the creative field knows, I can’t ask you how many ideas are you going to come up with in the next eight hours?

Creativity became an organizational priority. The problem is that creativity is, we now know from a science perspective is something that’s quite difficult to measure

That’s just not how creativity works. So, therefore from an industry perspective, you start to see some of the tensions that were starting to rise for creative professionals specifically. The 2008 recession, that was one of the most traumatic thing, I think to happen to working people across all industries: blue collar, white collar in recent memory was absolutely devastating. What was interesting about the 2008 financial crisis however, was the emotional impact that it had. When people in the US… I’m going to talk about the US during this period of time, what you started to see happening was as more and more people were getting laid off, the people that were left, the people that still had jobs, felt enormously grateful for having that job. So, they were less likely to ask for vacation and less likely to say that they needed more help with their jobs, even though they were then doing the jobs of not just their own responsibilities, but expanding their responsibilities to cover the people that had been let go.

So, during this time the average person was doing maybe 1.5x, in some cases 1.75x jobs. So, the tricky thing though is that the reason that the economy recovered in 2009, was that all of a sudden companies started enjoying better profits because their costs were lower. And many of these companies once the economy recovered, didn’t end up hiring those people back. They thought, “Oh! We can make due with the workforce that we have,” right?. The crazy thing though is that during this period of time, job satisfaction went up and I talk about it like it almost seems like a Stockholm syndrome. We were being forced to endure these crazy circumstances, but at the same time we were grateful to have those circumstances when so many other people weren’t. And then finally you have a technological shift where with smartphones, and being able to work from anywhere, these devices were supposed to give us freedom.

But essentially the internet and this culture of overwork that started in 2008 and just kept going up until today. I don’t know if happening there is that we became able to have work follow us no matter where we were. And because we have this need to prove ourselves important and essential to our employers, to prove that we’re connected, committed, we have also created a culture where it’s very very difficult to disconnect and the internet has created this fallacy of constant urgency and constant connection all the time where everything seems super urgent. If you don’t respond to an email right away or a Slack message right away or a WhatsApp message right away, there’s like a social implications of what that means. We have a culture where even though we might rationally know that overworking isn’t healthy for us, there are too strong of influences culturally, socially, technologically, that are kind of forcing us to engage in these behaviors even though they might be harmful in the long run.

Paul Sephton: I think what’s really interesting is that we all attach a certain sense of self worth and more importantly identity to our jobs. And it’s not hard to see why when we’re spending minimum eight hours a day doing some kind of job, which over the course of our careers comes to define a lot of who we see ourselves as. So, my question then is how do you escape or disconnect this rat race and always on type of mentality which we have so ingrained now? Is that something which comes down to an organizational shift which needs to happen? Is it down to the individual? Or how would I be able to still feel like I’ve got this strong sense of self worth and identity without marrying myself to my job?

Rahaf Harfoush: Our relationship with work is so much more personal than we understand and so much more personal than we might realize. And when we’re talking about work, we’re not actually talking about work as you just mentioned. We’re talking about ego, we’re talking about morality, we’re talking about self worth, we’re talking about deservingness. And those things tie in very strongly with people’s perceived senses of success. So, if you feel like you are not successful… And this is what I call the shadow dream because if the American dream or the Canadian dream or the Danish dream, is that if you just work hard enough you’ll be successful.

Our relationship with work is so much more personal than we understand and so much more personal than we might realize.

Then the shadow dream the thing that we don’t say out loud is that if you’re not successful it’s because you’re not working hard enough. If you feel like you are not working hard enough, that is going to hit your sense of worthiness as a human being. What I think we need to do and it starts at the level of the individual, is just to start being aware of how these forces are influencing our beliefs about work and our behaviors about work. So, it’s almost we have to do, if you’ll excuse my pun, the real work, the hard work that we do comes at separating our self worth as human beings away from the job that we do.

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Paul Sephton: Now we get to jump into a topic, which I am particularly looking forward to getting your take on because you have not had a boss or manager to have to report to. You have been figuring out over the last little while, like you said, what works and what doesn’t. So, how have you come to realize what works best for you? What maybe doesn’t work so well for you? And what sort of metrics you hold yourself accountable to so that you can look back in the long run and see progress and performance but still take those breaks and rests when you need them?.

Rahaf Harfoush: Being your own boss is sometimes the worst because you’re… Nobody will work you harder than yourself. As an entrepreneur, you kind of only eat what you can hunt, right? So, there’s this constant pressure to be jumping up new business, doing all the things that we should be doing, maintaining things, growing this, doing this. And so it’s taken me some time to renegotiate what that relationship looks like even internally and setting boundaries for myself with myself about what I expect of myself when I’m working, and what I need from myself when I’m not working, which is I don’t need the guilt and I don’t need that. I don’t need myself whispering in my head about the to do list that I’ve sort of left. The forces that I identify have some float, which are the stories, the self, the historical, cultural, biological influences they show up in every single person’s life, but they show up differently person to person.

The hard work that we do comes at separating our self worth as human beings away from the job that we do.

So, your first step and my first step was just to understand how those forces were showing up in my life. And then what I ended up doing with that information is I said, “Okay, I’m going to put all these frameworks aside for a second, and I’m just going to focus on getting to know myself.” And so, what I did was I started paying attention for a couple of weeks of when I felt really good, right? What time of the day did I feel the most creative? What day of the week did I feel the most creative? And what I realized was that my creativity, my energy just have these very specific rhythms that were maybe not unique just to me but that maybe aren’t necessarily conform with everybody else, right? So, once I understood that, then I said, “Okay, now I know the optimal conditions that I need in order to do good work, my best work.”

Even for example, I learned that I don’t like writing for more than two consecutive days. After two consecutive days of writing, my brain is fried. So, pushing myself on third or fourth day, does it make any sense? I write less words, I’m tired. And those words end up being crappy words anyway. And the results honestly were amazing. I was getting just as more done. I was getting… This is the trick, I was getting more done. I was able to write a novel while working on project loads, while working on the research for my fourth book, I managed to find pockets of time that I never thought I would have to do all the things I wanted to do. And the key was that I didn’t sacrifice my health or my relationships or my emotional and mental wellbeing.

And that taught me that the system that we have that if we just keep pushing, that’s what we’re taught. If you just keep pushing, pushing through, you’ll accomplish something. At least for me that didn’t turn out to be true. And I would argue that for many people that doesn’t turn out, that won’t be true because if you take breaks… When I walk my dog on a non-writing day, I get all these ideas that I write down and then the next time I sit at my computer I’m ready and refreshed. So, it’s just really… To put it very simply, it’s just working with yourself instead of forcing yourself into a system that doesn’t make sense, it’s like we just need to be making systems that make sense for the type of work and the type of energy and the type of challenges that we have to face.

It’s just working with yourself instead of forcing yourself into a system that doesn’t make sense

Paul Sephton: So, two questions or a two part question which follows from that I think would be, what metric of time you consider most important to be able to measure productivity across as individuals considering these hustle and float cycles which we all have individually? And then, how should a company. And I think this is especially important, how should a company go about measuring productivity today in a true reflection of the reality of most people’s sort of work and energy cycles?

Rahaf Harfoush: I don’t know. I honestly can’t tell you what productivity metric works for you. What I can tell you about me is I got very clear on not just being busy for busy sake and not just having a full day and feeling good that I had a full day of drilling down on what is the important thing that I wanted, not just at work, right? But in life because yes I have a lot of ambitious goals, but I also would like to have a great relationship with my husband and friends and family and I’d like to protect my health, right? So, I shifted my focus away from the weird sense of pride I used to have when my calendar was jam packed with stuff. And I was like, “Oh! Look at my day, look how important I am, got back to back meetings, I’m not sleeping, I’m traveling so much and look how much I’m hustling. And all that is just propaganda. It’s called work devotion.

It’s that we as a culture have fetishized sort of being so struggling and sacrificing at work. And so we continuously display how much we deserve our success by showing others how hard we’re working on how much we’re sacrificing. Once you remove that from the equation, I started saying to myself, “Okay, what would make me really happy? What would I be satisfied with at the end of this quarter? Is it getting this draft? Is it a financial goals or whatever goal?” And then I worked backwards from that very simple planning. There’s some organizations that are doing really interesting things where for example, they say no meetings on one or two specific days of the week. Because how often when I used to work at an office, it’s like how often is your day just punctuated by meetings that sort of disturb your flow, disturb your ability to just deep dive into things that you’re trying to work on.

So, I think it’s also acknowledging that sometimes in creative jobs, the best thing that you can be doing for finding that solution or fixing that problem or troubleshooting that issue or thinking about the thing that you’re supposed to be thinking about isn’t staring at a computer screen. Maybe it’s going outside and sitting outside for 25 minutes. Maybe it’s walking around the compound, maybe it’s taking a bit of a long lunch, maybe as controversial as that may sound, maybe it means that a 3:00 PM on a Tuesday, if your brain is fried, you just go home and rest and get a good night’s sleep and come back the next morning and try again. So, it’s almost changing the way that we consider working. If you think about your own creative process, why is it that you will have that breakthrough when you’re staring off into space, when you’re washing the dishes and you’re walking your dog, when you’re kind of daydreaming?

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It’s because creativity needs buckets of unstructured time for it to actually start working. And productivity systems have taught us that we shouldn’t leave no minute untouched, no minute unjustified, no minute unplanned. We have to encourage these types of acceptable creative behaviors because that’s what ends up generating the results that organizations are so desperate to have with their innovative and creative workforce. So, you don’t talk to me about innovation and don’t talk to me about your new recruiting website or your new product or how your company uses Slack or Yammer or whatever it is. When in reality you don’t have the conditions in place that enable your employees to be creative, which requires unstructured thinking time and a different approach to measuring performance and then wonder why they’re not performing as well as you want them to.

Paul Sephton: Let’s zoom out then Rahaf from the work side of things, but let’s take a second to talk about technology then because we’re sort of in this swing between tech dystopia and tech utopia and these extremes, and I think right now we’ve got a fairly good check on big tech companies and big data and how tech is affecting us every day. What’s your lens into the future on what that is going to be like in terms of our relationship with tech or how we should change it now in order to have a healthy one in the future?

Rahaf Harfoush: What we are doing now is that we are trading convenience for decision making. We are outsourcing our decision making capabilities to an algorithm in exchange for some perceived sense of personal convenience and it’s up to each individual to say, “Okay, I need to take accountability for my data, for the tools that I’m using and for my influence as a consumer and my purchasing power as a consumer, whether it’s with my money or with my attention of who I’m supporting and why, and to push for policies that will sort of protect me and protect us.” That’s the first piece. The second piece is, I think that we all need to wake up real quick and start pushing as a society for better accountability and better transparency on some of these technological platforms. There are companies that grew so fast that impact billions of people that have had tangible effects now on elections, on democracy, on privacy.

We are outsourcing our decision making capabilities to an algorithm in exchange for some perceived sense of personal convenience

They are fundamentally changing, not only our ability to be informed and to make democratic decisions because you can’t have democracy without an informed populace, but they’re also influencing our ability to connect, to understand facts, to critically think, to engage in conversations that are uncomfortable with somebody that doesn’t agree with us, and that’s super dangerous. So, I think that we need to just kind of have these conversations with our kids, our friends, our policymakers, with our elected officials, and really push for the type of transparency and the type of accountability. When you have influence over billions of people, there should be an accountability for what content gets distributed on that system, especially when research has shown that the algorithm feeds individuals consistently more radicalized information that ends up skewing their worldview.

It’s absolutely crazy I think, safe to say it’s going to go down as one of the biggest sort of changes and turning points for us in history when it comes to the effects that we’ve seen in society from these giant network effects, businesses like Facebook and other tech giants who are major data lake harvesters. They’ve also done what you’ve termed the commercialization of happiness in terms of their platforms often being something we seek out a quick hit of dopamine on. So, my question for you in closing Rahaf would be, tell me a little bit about the commercialization of happiness and the way you see it and then perhaps something as an antidote for how we can reframe happiness free of these tech hits.

Yeah, so just like creativity has become industrialized within many industries, we’re starting to now see organizations that want their workforce to be happy. So, policies are being put into place to measure your satisfaction, to measure your happiness at work. And I think that’s like really problematic. And even beyond the organization I’ve just seen from my experience of digital culture that as a society we have become very much obsessed with this idea of happiness and being happy and what I call good vibes only. And it’s very funny to me because I think we’re actually doing ourselves an enormous disservice. Negative emotions are incredibly powerful in showing us that there’s an issue and can be incredible messengers that give us feedback on situations that we might not even be able to articulate. And sometimes I hear this conversation where when we start talking about things like anxiety, I keep hearing people use anxiety as though they’re like surprised that they have it.

And I’m not talking about the medically diagnosed condition, I’m not talking about any of that. I’m just talking about my personal anecdotal evidence where everyone’s like, “Oh, this makes me anxious, I have anxiety.” And sometimes I just want to say we have become so conditioned to be so obsessed with being happy that it seems like people don’t know what to do with themselves if they’re not happy, if they’re sad, jealous, angry, upset, bored or uncomfortable. And that to me is dangerous because I think that if one creativity…

Negative emotions are incredibly powerful in showing us that there’s an issue and can be incredible messengers that give us feedback on situations that we might not even be able to articulate.

What we know about creativity is that creativity is a very emotional process, right? And it includes a lot of negative emotions, believe it or not. You come up with an idea, you’re really excited, you hit a block, you get frustrated, you try something, it doesn’t work you get upset. It takes longer than you think. You feel sad, you feel like you’re never going to do it. You succeed again, you get happy. So, we need to train people how to be resilient to some of these emotions, how to navigate through them, because if we’re just constantly obsessed with creating happy workplaces, it’s just yet another thing that we do that is a disservice to our ability to be creative.

Paul Sephton: A final closing, deep insight around creativity. Rahaf it’s been an intriguing conversation and one of my favorite. Thank you so much for joining us on the Soundbar today and sharing some pretty interesting thoughts. We’re out of time for this episode. Thank you for tuning into the Soundbar. You’ve been listening to Rahaf Harfoush speaking about how to master the cycle of hustling and floating.

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