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Are Productive Habits the Result of Social Status?

Examining the relationship between status and getting things done.

Key points

  • Many believe that small habits lead to productivity, but the truth may be the opposite—that high status leads to productive habits.
  • Studies have shown that dominance in the group hierarchy predicts blood levels of serotonin in male vervet monkeys.
  • Raising one's status first by starting small may be a more effective way to become productive.
Manoj Seenivasan/Unsplash
Source: Manoj Seenivasan/Unsplash

You’ve probably read numerous studies suggesting successful people regularly perform certain routine habits and tasks associated with high levels of productivity. In fact, it might be said that a high percentage of the productivity industry is based on this belief —just wake up an hour earlier, write up a schedule of high-reward actions to take in the morning, drink eight ounces of water with lemon first thing upon rising, write three pages in longhand to clear your mind— the list goes on and on.

Many of us have tried at least some of them. We’ve tried to wake up earlier, drank our water, wrote our “morning pages,” etc. But what if this is a myth? What if success—high social status, in other words—is the cause of a person being able to perform those magical habits, instead of the other way around? What if status comes first?

I began to think about this years ago, in the midst of the women’s movement. We were forming small “women’s liberation” groups, getting our articles published, and getting media attention when suddenly those habits that had always eluded me—like waking up early and writing daily—suddenly became easy. Almost automatically, they were the things I wanted to do; the most natural things in the world.

A few years later, our movement grew less newsworthy, and again, it was hard to get out of bed in the morning. Writing daily was a thing of the past.

Look to Our Evolutionary Cousins

When trying to understand something, it’s always a good idea to look at our evolutionary cousins—i.e., other primates.

About a decade later in the early 1980s, after I’d started to wonder about my own ups and downs in productivity, researchers found in a series of studies of male vervet monkeys that changes in status—that is, dominance in the group hierarchy induced by changes in the environment—predicted blood levels of serotonin. And dominant males had higher levels.

In one study, an alpha (dominant) male was placed in a room by himself with his group of followers—males and females—in a room next to him. They were separated by a one-way mirror—the dominant male could see his followers, but his followers couldn’t see him. He beat his chest, giving his usual signal, “Here I am, your leader.” Of course, since they couldn’t see him, they didn’t bow down, signaling submission as he’d expected. Watching his unresponsive followers, the alpha male’s neurochemistry went haywire—and his level of serotonin and other neurotransmitters dropped dramatically. He stopped the behaviors signaling dominance.

In other words, his performance dropped. Those habits—like waking up early and pounding his chest—fell away.

What Does This Mean for You?

What does this mean for you and your obsession with productivity? Maybe it means high status comes first, and all the great habits we believed—mistakenly—would lead to high status were instead the results of high status. So what does that mean, concretely?

Go for status first.

Start small; very, very small.

Find one friend (or work colleague, or, if you’re a writer, one reader who you know likes your writing). Let’s stick with the idea that you are a writer just starting your career. Go to work writing for that person alone. Make sure you check in with her regularly. Get feedback, and cherish every compliment. Start reading her writing too, if she’s also a writer.

Build that relationship. Ask her what would be helpful for her. Ask her what questions she has that she’d like you to write about. When a second reader shows up—and she will—do the same thing. Build a relationship with your second reader.

Your performance will already be improving. This works. Your status will be going up, and with it, those magical habits. By the time you have five, six, or seven readers with whom you’re interacting regularly, your status will be rising. Keep it up.

Your Circle Will Keep Growing

As your status rises, those habits you thought would lead to success are happening almost like magic. You’ll have a list of things your readers have asked you to write about—so that list of high-reward activities will be formed with little effort. You’ll wake up early, eager to get a start on the day, eager to write the article answering one of your reader’s questions. You’ll gain a few more readers. Your status will rise, and closely behind, your productivity.

Think about people you admire and whom you see as highly productive. Chances are, they may already be influencers of one type or another, or they already run a start-up or have a thriving business. You may have believed they began with those small habits that grew into highly productive lives. But more often, you’ll find they found a way to achieve higher status before they were able to do all the habits and tasks that made them productive.

Give this a try, and let me know how it works.


Raleigh, M.J.; McGuire, M.T.; Brammer, J.L.; Yuwiler, A. (1984). Social and Environmental Influences on Blood Serotonin Concentrations in Monkeys. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 41:405-410.

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