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Category Archives: Productivity

Focusing is an Art, Not a Science

Productivity is all the rage. People want to get more done in less time. Productivity systems abound: Getting Things Done, Pomodoro, the Seinfeld thing, etc. There’s certainly something to be said for each of them.

But have you thought about something a little simpler and more basic: How to focus? Like, really how to focus your mind on one hard, long project until it’s done?

Productivity systems are great in that they keep you accountable for getting lots of task-oriented work completed. But they don’t answer the larger question, which is: What do you do that creates value in your career? And more than that, what are you doing that’s going to have a cumulative effect, that’s really going to matter years down the road?

I see these two concepts as intertwined and incredibly important, and ignored by overly task-oriented productivity methods.

The first is figuring out where you’re going to create a massive amount of value in your career, The second is figuring out how you’re going to carve out the time and energy to focus deeply on the first.

The thing is, that type of work — whether it’s building a new product, writing a book, learning a hard subject, building a keynote speech, writing a complicated piece of software, whatever — doesn’t happen by saying “I’ll get to it”, and then allocating 15 minutes here or there in between checking your email and going to meetings.

It happens by stringing together sessions of deep, focused effort. Hours at a time, over and over. The intense kind where you sort of lose yourself and wake up later with a lot of awesome work done.

Learning how to do that kind of work, I think, is something of an art.

I say “art” for a reason. I see a lot of people out there promoting their “science-based” system for getting a lot done. Let me tell you something: The word science is being used to fool you and trick you. To make you salivate, Pavlov-style. “Science” is not some monolith that tells you how to create really meaningful work. There’s no “science” of success. There’s no “science” of productivity. That’s pure charlatanism.

Doing great work is an art. A group of researchers can’t answer the complex question of how to live and work correctly; the real world is too varied. We don’t live in a controlled experiment and we’re not lab rats, or worse, college students in psych labs.

Some scientific research papers can certainly give you hints on how the mind works, sure. They might even tell you a few things about information retention and task-based memory. I can see how that might be useful.

But that’s a long way away from creating a career you care about, where you regularly do focused, meaningful work that feels satisfying. Your life is not the one measured in the labs: You’re not trying to memorize flashcards or strings of numbers; what I’m talking about cannot be boiled down to rigorous science. (And anyone who reads Farnam Street knows the deep respect I have for real science.)

No — it’s art! Or more properly, artisanship. And the essence of being an artisan is that it’s deeply personal: It has to speak to you. You must be willing to put your soul into the game. This means everyone will go about the Art of Focus in their own way. It takes experimentation, dedication, and an understanding that no one can do it for you.

I even called a course I put together The Art of Focus, for this very reason. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to “scientifically” solve your problems or fix your brain, like you’re a mouse in a lab. I just wanted to give people all of the tips and tricks I knew about doing focused, meaningful work, so they could build a system themselves.

Because the truth of the matter is that, however you go about it, you do need to build your capacity for hard, focused work. That is vital in an age of complexity, where we need to carve out a niche. Most of us aren’t making widgets anymore, and much of that work is being replaced by machines anyways.

And if you’ll let me be controversial for a second, I think that’s a good thing for humanity. Humans aren’t meant to live on a factory assembly line (or the white-collar equivalent – spreadsheets and Powerpoint). We’re meant to lose ourselves in valuable and satisfying work that smacks of originality and humanity.

I know a lot of finance people who want to switch into some related craftsmanship, or writing, or software-building, but not the other way around. Do you know any woodworkers who want to switch into finance? Do you know any writers who want to switch into corporate accounting? Me neither.

But in order to build an awesome career doing hard but satisfying long-term work, you need to build your ability to focus for hours at a time. You need to learn hard skills. You need to let go of multitasking, distraction, and the temptation to be “busy.”

I built the Art of Focus to get people started on that path, but I recommend doing it any way you feel comfortable. With apologies to Phil Knight, just do it.

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have

one-leg-man

Echoing the comments of William Deresiewicz, Charlie Munger offers some sage advice on multi-tasking:

I will say this, I know no wise person who doesn’t read a lot. I suspect that you can read on the computer now and get a lot of benefit out of it, but I doubt it will work as well as reading print worked for me.

I think people that multitask pay a huge price. They think they’re being extra productive, and I think they’re (out of their mind). I use the metaphor of the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest.

I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.

Concentrating hard on something that is important is … I can’t succeed at all without doing it. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.

It sounds counter-intuitive but if you want to increase discretionary time and reduce stress you need to schedule time to think. The tiny fragments of time many of us find ourselves with have a negative effect on our ability to think deeply about a problem. Furthermore they impede our ability to learn — we stay at a surface level and never move into a deep understanding.

Deresiewicz warns: “You simply cannot (think) in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”

The opposite approach is to focus on a problem or subject and try to achieve a deep fluency. How many of us, however, have time? We don't do the work required to have an opinion. Instead we operate with surface knowledge. We tackle problems with the first thought that comes to mind. Because we make a poor initial decision, we spend countless hours attempting to correct it. No wonder we have no time to think. We're not heeding the advice of Joseph Tussman and letting the world do the work for us.

We sound good and yet and we fail to learn — in part because everyone else is doing the same thing. Well, when you do what everyone else does, don't be surprised when you get the same results everyone else gets.

If you want to get off the same track that everyone else is on, start scheduling time to think. That's what Munger did when he sold himself the best hour of his day. Structure your environment in a way that promotes thinking and reduces interruption. And match your energy to your task.

How David Allen increased Drew Carey’s Productivity

David Allen

Comedian Drew Carey outsourced the development of his productivity strategy to David Allen, author of the cult classic, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, who “taught him how to adhere to specific next steps rather than abstract larger goals.”

Allen's system, outlined in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, focuses “on the minutiae of to-do lists, folders, labels, in-boxes.”

When he began working with overtaxed executives, he saw the problem with the traditional big-picture type of management planning, like writing mission statements, defining long-term goals, and setting priorities. He appreciated the necessity of lofty objectives, but he could see that these clients were too distracted to focus on even the simplest task of the moment. Allen described their affliction with another Buddhist image, “monkey mind,” which refers to a mind plagued with constantly shifting thoughts, like a monkey leaping wildly from tree to tree. Sometimes Allen imagined a variation in which the monkey is perched on your shoulder jabbering into your ear, constantly second-guessing and interrupting until you want to scream, “Somebody, shut up the monkey!”

“Most people have never tasted what it’s like to have nothing on their mind except whatever they’re doing,” Allen says. “You could tolerate that dissonance and that stress if it only happened once a month, the way it did in the past. Now people are just going numb and stupid, or getting too crazy and busy to deal with the anxiety.”

Instead of starting with goals and figuring out how to reach them, Allen tried to help his clients deal with the immediate mess on their desks. He could see the impracticality of traditional bits of organizational advice, like the old rule about never touching a piece of paper more than once— fine in theory, impossible in practice. What were you supposed to do with a memo about a meeting next week? Allen remembered a tool from his travel-agent days, the tickler file. The meeting memo, like an airplane ticket, could be filed in a folder for the day it was needed. That way the desk would remain uncluttered, and the memo wouldn’t distract you until the day it was needed.

[…]

Besides getting paperwork off the desk, the tickler file also removed a source of worry: Once something was filed there, you knew you’d be reminded to deal with it on the appropriate day. You weren’t nagged by the fear that you’d lose it or forget about it. Allen looked for other ways to eliminate that mental nagging by closing the “open loops” in the mind. “One piece I took from the personal-growth world was the importance of the agreements you make with yourself,” he recalls. “When you make an agreement and you don’t keep it, you undermine your own self-trust.

Psychologists have also studied the mental stress of the monkey mind. This nagging of uncompleted tasks and goals is called the Zeigarnik effect and also helps explain why to-do lists are not the answer.

Zeigarnik effect: Uncompleted tasks and unmet goals tend to pop into one’s mind. Once the task is completed and the goal reached, however, this stream of reminders comes to a stop.

Until recently we thought this was the brain's way of making sure we get stuff done. New research, however, has shed preliminary light on the tension our to-do lists cause in our cognitive consciousness and unconsciousness.

[I]t turns out that the Zeigarnik effect is not, as was assumed for decades, a reminder that continues unabated until the task gets done. The persistence of distracting thoughts is not an indication that the unconscious is working to finish the task. Nor is it the unconscious nagging the conscious mind to finish the task right away. Instead, the unconscious is asking the conscious mind to make a plan. The unconscious mind apparently can’t do this on its own, so it nags the conscious mind to make a plan with specifics like time, place, and opportunity. Once the plan is formed, the unconscious can stop nagging the conscious mind with reminders.

If you have 150 things going on in your head at once, the Zeigarnik effect leaves you leaping from “task to task, and it won't be sedated by vague good intentions.”

If you’ve got a memo that has to be read before a meeting Thursday morning, the unconscious wants to know exactly what needs to be done next, and under what circumstances. But once you make that plan— once you put the meeting memo in the tickler file for Wednesday, once you specify the very next action to be taken on the project— you can relax. You don’t have to finish the job right away. You’ve still got 150 things on the to-do list, but for the moment the monkey is still, and the water is calm.

This is how David Allen solved Drew Carey's organizational problems.

“Whether you’re trying to garden or take a picture or write a book,” Allen says, “your ability to make a creative mess is your most productive state. You want to be able to throw ideas all over the place, but you need to be able to start with a clear deck. One mess at a time is all you can handle. Two messes at a time, you’re screwed. You may want to find God, but if you’re running low on cat food, you damn well better make a plan for dealing with it. Otherwise the cat food is going to take a whole lot more attention and keep you from finding God.”

Still curious? Check out how I've helped thousands of people increase their productivity.

How Warren Buffett Keeps up with a Torrent of Information

A telling excerpt from an interview of Warren Buffett (below) on the value of reading.

Seems like he's taking the opposite approach to Nassim Taleb in some ways.

Warren Buffett on How he Keeps up with Information

Interviewer: How do you keep up with all the media and information that goes on in our crazy world and in your world of Berkshire Hathaway? What's your media routine?

Warren Buffett: I read and read and read. I probably read five to six hours a day. I don't read as fast now as when I was younger. But I read five daily newspapers. I read a fair number of magazines. I read 10-Ks. I read annual reports. I read a lot of other things, too. I've always enjoyed reading. I love reading biographies, for example.

Interviewer: You process information very quickly.

Warren Buffett: I have filters in my mind. If somebody calls me about an investment in a business or an investment in securities, I usually know in two or three minutes whether I have an interest. I don't waste any time with the ones which I don't have an interest.

I always worry a little bit about even appearing rude because I can tell very, very, very quickly whether it's going to be something that will lead to something, or whether it's a half an hour or an hour or two hours of chatter.

What's interesting about these filters is that Buffett has consciously developed them as heuristics to allow for rapid processing. They allow him to move quickly with few mistakes — that's what heuristics are designed to do. Most of us are trying to get rid of our heuristics to reduce error but here is one of the smartest people alive and he's doing the opposite: he's creating these filters as a means for allowing for information processing. He's moving fast and in the right direction.

How Successful People Increase Productivity

increase productivity

I get asked about productivity habits all the time — by best selling authors, Championship NFL coaches, Fortune 100 CEOs and countless others. I've packaged that advice into a webinar on how to be insanely more productive, which has helped thousands of people dramatically increase their productivity. 

Here's one secret that successful people use to increase productivity. 

They avoid to-do lists. These lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time.

“Scheduling,” says Cal Newport, “forces you to confront the reality of how much time you actually have and how long things will take.”

It's really easy to add things to a to-do list. Because it's so simple, these lists tend to grow and grow. Even worse they encourage us to say yes to almost everything because, well, we can just add it to our list. This means we're not discriminating and we're not as conscious about controlling our time as we should be.

As Steve Jobs said, it's easy to say yes but the real value comes from saying no. Warren Buffett agrees: “You’ve got to keep control of your time, and you can’t unless you say no. You can’t let people set your agenda in life.”

Most people have the default of saying yes to everything. Personal relationships aside, the default, however, should be no. This is how you increase productivity.

When you schedule things, you are forced to deal with the fact that there are only so many hours in a week. You're forced to make choices rather than add something to a never ending to-do list that only becomes a source of anxiety. And you can't just schedule important work and creative stuff. You need to schedule time for rest and recovery and mundane things like email.

Scheduling things also creates a visual feedback mechanism for how you actually spend your time — something we're intentionally blind to because we won't like what we see.

Just as important, you need to think about your energy levels and when you schedule these tasks. This is another key to increasing productivity.

A lot of people I've offered productivity advice to spend hours a day on email. It's not uncommon for people to tell me their job is moving email around. That's how the modern office works right? While many of these people hate email, it's not within their control (or mine) to change how the organization works. Instead I help them look at what is within their control — the time of day they invest in email. I've discovered most people use some of their most productive and high-energy time on … email. That means that some of our best mental energy is being used on the low value add task of email. A simple change to schedule “doing email” for times when we have less energy makes a world of difference to both productivity and happiness.

Being more productive isn't always about doing more, it's about being more conscious about what you work on and putting your energy into the two or three things that will really make a difference.

Yes! I want to be insanely more productive.

9 Habits You Need to Stop Now

habits to stop

Rather than read all of these self-help books full of things you should start doing to be more productive, it's often better to look at what you should stop doing that gets in the way of productivity.

Looking at a problem backwards is called inversion and it's often a better approach.

With that in mind, Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four Hour Workweek, recently talked about this in a short podcast on productivity tricks.

Here is Tim's list of nine things you should stop doing right now.

1. Do not answer phone calls from people you don't know.

The logic behind this one is that calls from people you don't know are often disruptions. Further, these calls can sometimes surprise you and that puts you in a poor negotiating position. Just let it go to voicemail.

2. Do not e-mail first thing in the morning or last thing at night.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, says “One of the most important tricks for maximizing your productivity involves matching your mental state to the task.”

In fact matching skills to the time of day is one of the most important changes you can make to improve your working habits.

You want to get out of a reactive loop. If you move creative and thinking work to the start of the day, when we're at our peak, you'll have the rest of the day to be reactive.

The window for peak performance is two and a half to four hours after waking. In Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream: A Day in the Life of Your Body, Jennifer Ackerman explains:

Studies show that alertness and memory, the ability to think clearly and to learn, can vary by between 15 and 30 percent over the course of a day. Most of us are sharpest some two and a half to four hours after waking. For early risers then, concentration tends to peak between 10 A.M. and noontime, along with logical reasoning, and the ability to solve complex problems.

Email is the king of making us reactive. How many times have you gone to the office, noticed you had a free hour, opened up outlook and had that hour disappear. Email makes us reactive. There is also some psychology at play here, email offers us variable reinforcement. It's like cocaine for the brain and it makes us feel important.

Tim says checking email in the morning, “scrambles your priorities.” And checking email right before bed, a habit most of us have, impacts your ability to sleep.

3. Do not agree to meetings or calls with no clear agenda or end time.
This is a personal favorite of mine.

Tim says:

If the desired outcome is defined clearly with a stated objective and agenda listing topics/questions to cover, no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes. Request them in advance so you “can best prepare and make good use of the time together.”

If the agenda is not clear, force people to make it clear. It's easy to call a meeting, especially in large organizations. The person who wouldn't otherwise be entrusted to spend $100 of the company's money can easily call a meeting with 10 people and spend more than the $100 in time. Making the agenda clear and specific inserts friction into the process. Not only will meetings generally be better and shorter, there will also be fewer of them.

4. Do not let people ramble.
This is one I hadn't really thought of before. Skip the small talk. If you're answering your phone say “I'm in the middle of something, but what's up?” That helps people get to the point.

Tim says “a big part of getting things done is getting to the point.”

5. Do not check email constantly.

In The Tyranny of Email, John Freeman explains:

Working at the speed of email is like trying to gain a topographic understanding of our daily landscape from a speeding train—and the consequences for us as workers are profound. Interrupted every thirty seconds or so, our attention spans are fractured into a thousand tiny fragments. The mind is denied the experience of deep flow, when creative ideas flourish and complicated thinking occurs. We become task-oriented, tetchy, terrible at listening as we try to keep up with the computer. The email inbox turns our mental to-do list into a palimpsest—there’s always something new and even more urgent erasing what we originally thought was the day’s priority. Incoming mail arrives on several different channels–via email, Facebook, Twitter, instant message–and in this era of backup we’re sure that we should keep records of our participation in all these conversations. The result is that at the end of the day we have a few hundred or even a few thousand emails still sitting in our inbox.

So why do we email all day? I think we like the attention email gives us. Email is addictive in the same way slots are — variable reinforcement. Tim calls email the “cocaine pellet dispenser.”

6. Do not over-communicate with low profit, high maintenance customers.
While Tim doesn't extend this to people, we all have people in our circles who consume a lot of our time but add very little meaning or value in return. You can minimize these (unhealthy) relationships.

7. Do not work more to fix being too busy.

This is really a matter of priorities. As in, you're not making decisions. You need to say no.

Ferriss suggests defining your “one or two most important to-dos before dinner, the day before.” Work on those the first thing the next morning.

If you don't know your real priorities, everything will seem important and urgent and that's a recipe for disaster. The sweet spot is feeling busy but not rushed.

8. Do not carry a cellphone or Crackberry 24/7
Tim calls this a “digital leash.” I agree. I hate to tell you, but odds are, you're not that important.

9. Do not expect work to fill a void that non-work relationships and activities should.
Tim says:

Work is not all of life. Your co-workers shouldn’t be your only friends. Schedule life and defend it just as you would an important business meeting. Never tell yourself “I’ll just get it done this weekend.”

Work expands to the amount of time you give it. This is Parkinson's Law. When you give it a lot of time, it will consume that time. Give it less time and you'll be more productive.