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Roommates, Family and Productivity

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It is often said that you are the sum average of the 5 people closest to you. While that is an extremely broad and sweeping generalization, but there is a certain degree of truth to it.

We all tend to mold ourselves to better suit the people around us – their habits, their ways of thinking, their personalities. Whether conscious or not, human beings are social learners – we learn best by observing our environment and adapting to it.

Back in the 1920s, Napoleon Hill wrote a book called The Law of Success. He’s better known for his classic Think and Grow Rich, but The Law of Success is really the definitive “here’s how you get successful step-by-step”. It’s also about 15 times longer than Think and Grow Rich. One of the concepts he talked about is the Mastermind.

Plainly put, a mastermind is a group of people who gather to exchange ideas and information for the benefit of others in the group. This way, the goals and aims of both the mastermind and each of its individual members are progressed.

What most people don’t understand, is that a mastermind works both ways. All the beneficial ideas that come out of a mastermind, become a positive influence in your life. All the harmful ideas that come out of a mastermind, also influence your life (cults anyone?).

And if this is true, then the 5 people you are closest to in your life are your “natural” mastermind. They are the people you interact with on a daily basis, and the people you bounce your ideas, your emotions and personality off for feedback.

For some people, the majority of these 5 people are their immediate family – spouse, children. For others, it’s their roommates (flatmates in the UK and housemates elsewhere in the world). To make up the 5 total, your boss or closest co-worker can probably be included in that mix.

We’re going to focus here today on the people that you live with – as they have the largest influence on you – and in particular, on your productivity. There is a lot to cover, but our main concern is the direct link between family, roommates and productivity. There is a lot to be said about boundaries, how to get along with your roommates, and how to all lift each other to new levels of productivity, performance and success, but that will have to be for another article.

Please note that this article is geared towards our “younger” readers – in their 20s and perhaps early 30s who are not yet married or living with a partner or children.

Living at Home

Let’s face it. Lots of young people live at home nowadays. Rising housing costs, rents, wanting to own an investment property first… the reasons don’t really matter all that much. What’s more important is that young people are often living under the same roof as their parents and siblings into their late 20s. Of course, this brings about certain challenges (and some benefits).

The big three productivity drains when living under the same roof as your parents and siblings are:

  1. A shared schedule.
  2. Emotional ups and downs.
  3. Unwanted events (also known as Family Commitments).

Every family differs in its dynamics and the degree of interdependence or independence of children, but assuming a fairly average family, these tend to be the largest issues.

A shared schedule often exists because of convenience. The tempo of certain things – like meals, social events, transportation – is often determined by other family members. This, especially if you have a finely-tuned schedule, can upset your daily rituals and routines.

Emotional ups and downs are part and parcel of living in society, but it seems that we all take our family for granted more than we do complete strangers. As a species, we are more likely to express emotional swings with our immediate relatives rather than say our friends or associates. And because emotions often govern what we feel like doing and when we do it, having irregular emotional ups and downs reduces productivity. There is also often the issue of emotional guilt – often present in the relationship between parents and post-adolescent children. Some of this is just teenage angst, but at other times it is legitimate – especially if a family member is trying to maintain an irregular eating or working schedule in an effort to boost their productivity or optimize their lifestyle.

Unwanted events and family commitments tend to be things that you can’t get out of simply because you live under the same roof as family or parents… even if they are a waste of time. Sure, there’s renewal of family connections and shared good emotions, but often when resistance arises it is for a good reason.

So living with parents seems like a bit of a drag… but there are benefits. The financial benefits are obvious: reduced rent, food costs, grocery bills and utilities. You likely also save on transportation. Usually, laundry is pooled in a parents-grown-children household which is actually a substantial productivity boost (ever had to wait at a laundromat for an hour? Not fun.) You also get the benefit of daily social contact. Which can be particular handy if you spend a lot of time in front of the computer working.

The Other Side

Let’s take a quick look at the “other side” – living by yourself. The benefits tend to be more emotional than financial, but as we know, productivity is often governed by emotion and mood. You gain a degree of emotional and scheduling independence. It is also likely that your relationships with your immediate family will improve due to distance and simply fewer contact hours. More importantly, your “inner game” will develop and you will learn to say “no” more – which is a good thing. Being able to say no to your family, and to others, is an important skill, especially when it comes to prioritizing tasks and being productive.

There are downsides of course. Everyday tasks that other family members were responsible for are now yours. You have to do a certain degree of “advanced planning” – with groceries, laundry, paying the bills, handling your landlord or building manager. With a bit of Asian Efficiency-style scheduling though, most of this is manageable.


This section is going to be of particular interest to people in college, or those of you living in big cities with housemates.

Let’s face it: there are good roommates and there are bad roommates.

Good roommates tend to make you more productive. Bad roommates tend to hurt your ability to get things done. Let’s look at why.

Good Roommates

In a nutshell, good roommates are those who do two things:

  1. Have good boundaries.
  2. Enforces those boundaries in a positive way.

To elaborate, boundaries are a concept proposed by Wayne Dyer in his book Pulling Your Own Strings. They are essentially rules that govern what we see as acceptable or unacceptable social behavior. So why is having a roommate with good boundaries beneficial to your productivity?

Well, they’re likely to call you out if you screw up. And they’re likely disciplined about their own productivity too. This in turn, helps you stick to your goals. While you’re sitting around playing Xbox and you see your roommate churning away at the computer… you start to question what it is you’re doing with your time.

Boundaries can be enforced in two ways: positively, and negatively. The difference is this: a boundary enforced positively, makes you feel empowered and that you want to live up to a certain standard. A boundary enforced negatively makes you self-conscious, insecure and less of a human being. Good roommates enforce boundaries positively.

Bad Roommates

Bad roommates (in terms of productivity and efficiency) are those with poor productivity habits.

If the people around you are always:

  1. Watching TV.
  2. Playing video games.
  3. Locked away in isolation.
  4. Doing non-productive activities.

… then you are also likely to follow suit and do these things. It’s only human nature to emulate and fit in with the social environment around us – it can’t helped. It gets worse if YOU have poor boundaries, because they will cross them all the time and leave things for you to clean up.

Next Actions

  • Think about the 5 people closest to you. Those that you spend the most time with. Look at their finances, their circle of friends, their social connections, their productivity and habits. You’ll likely find that you share a lot in common with them.
  • Read Pulling Your Own Strings by Wayne Dyer.
  • Recognize where others are hurting your productivity, and set boundaries around those areas.
  • Help the people you live with by setting a higher standard for yourself. Help pull others up.

Photo by: Christian Holmer

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Posted by Ryan  | June 16, 2012 at 10:44AM | Reply

Thanks for the article. I’ve been following your recent posts & I always open my e-mails. It’s a nice to have encouraging thoughtful articles coming around once in a while. I love GTD model, and have been struggling to implement it as I started a new job as the director of a library. With so much to organize and track, I’ve been good at collecting, but bad at reviewing and doing. Your articles keep feeding my determination. Thank you!

Posted by Aaron Lynn  | June 18, 2012 at 4:59AM

Thanks Ryan!

Posted by John Svirsky  | July 19, 2011 at 2:10PM | Reply

excellent article, truth is sometimes hard to accept. I recommend for all Napolean Hills’s newest book, Outwitting the Devil. It is fabulous and helping me move to the next level

Posted by AE Thanh  | July 19, 2011 at 2:27PM

Thanks for the kind words John! I had no idea Napoleon Hill wrote that book, I saw it just got released. I guess that’s another book to be added to my reading list.

Posted by Kiran Pagar  | June 5, 2011 at 9:22AM | Reply

V good article, Friend!
Learned Amazing thing!
Look around first; Goals at longer distance will come closer eventually!
Really helpful advice, (advice? nope) Guidance!
Thanks a lot!

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