Want to be more productive? Don’t eat

I used to work in a department store on Sundays. Occasionally, on those days, I’d fast. I’d go sixteen, twenty, twenty four hours on nothing but water and peppermint tea. 

On those days, during my lunch break, I’d be sat in the canteen with my head in a book. Annoyingly often, someone would interrupt my reading to ask me a question to which the answer was quite obvious. “Are you not having any lunch?” I’d say no, hoping that that’d be the end of it and I could get back to my book. Nope.

They’d pause for a second with a look of bemusement on their face. Then they’d gather themselves and tell me that not eating is not healthy. That I needed to eat three or four times a day. That when they don’t eat, they feel weak and get the shakes. That they can’t not have something for lunch.

This scenario, which played itself out way more times than I’d have liked it to, always raised a question in my mind. What is more “not healthy?” Not eating for an extended period. Or being unable to go without eating for an extended period of time? To get the shakes and feel dizzy if you don’t eat every few hours?

Fasting is a dietary strategy. There are a whole host of different ways in which you can employ it. Intermittent fasting is what it’s called when applied in this area. A typical cycle could be an eight hour feeding window in which you consume the day’s food, and then sixteen hours where you eat or drink nothing, except water and black coffee. 

Fasting is also a physiological and psychological test. Physiologically, it compels your body to adapt to the absence of nutrition. To function without food coming in. Psychologically, it forces you to feel hunger and discomfort. Two feelings that modern life has divorced us from. 

An average day is an orderly, uneventful affair. We do similar things at similar times. But routine, comfort and the expected, despite making us feel good, can be overdosed on. Nassim Taleb makes this point in Antifragile. Any organic system needs disorder and randomness. Without it, they die. And fasting is one of the simplest, most effective creators of disorder.

If you don’t believe me, pick up a copy of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. He describes the interrogation techniques the Russian officers used in the prison camps. Do you know what he names as the most effective forms of torture? Sleep deprivation and hunger.

There’s another benefit to introducing fasting into your life, besides testing physiological and psychological hardiness. It increases your productivity.

On a normal day, you might eat three or four times. Each of those times, you have to prepare food. If you’re making an effort to eat well, some of these meals will involve the preparation and cooking of fresh meat and vegetables. Conservatively, you’re probably spending two or three hours a day preparing food and eating it.

Now imagine you’re under pressure. The obligations and commitments are stacking up. The work you need to do is swelling out of control. To get through it, you could pull an all-nighter. Or, you could fast and gain two to three hours in one day.

Time is zero-sum. We can’t magic more of it out of thin air. But we can change how we use the time we do have. And if you’ve got a lot to do, if you need to be more productive, there’s one very simple tactic you can use. But it’s one you can only use sporadically.

If you need to be more productive, if you need to find time, don’t eat.