Tag: Productivity

Why You Shouldn’t Slog Through Books

Our system for reading 25 pages a day has been adopted by many of our readers and members of the learning community to great success. A couple points have been misinterpreted, though, so we want to clear them up.

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Reading is a way to open windows into other worlds that cross time and disciplines. While most of us don't have the time to read a whole book in one sitting, we do have the time to read 25 pages a day (here are some ways you can find time to read). Reading the right books, even if it's a few pages a day, is one of the best ways to ensure that you go to bed a little smarter than you woke up.

Twenty-five pages a day doesn't sound like much, but this commitment adds up over time. Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. If you read 25 pages a day for 340 days, that's 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend the daily 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books written by Robert Caro are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces — War and Peace, and Anna Karenina — come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, you’d have knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

That leaves the following year to read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1,280), Carl Sandburg’s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell’s Johnson (1,300), with plenty of pages left to read something else.

This is how the great works get read: day by day, 25 pages at a time. No excuses.

We hold to this advice today. But there are two areas that have been misinterpreted over the past year, so let's clarify them and make sure everyone is set on the right course.

Twenty-Five Pages a Day: Minimum, Not Maximum!

Our friend Ryan Holiday had an interesting retort to our piece, saying that while he agreed with it, he found it impractical in his own life.

Farnam Street had a post recently talking about how the way to get through big books is 25 pages a day. I don’t totally disagree with that, I’ve just found that style is nice in theory but less effective in practice. Really, it’s about whether you can go through large blocks of time at this thing, concerted but sustained blocks of effort—almost like a fartlek workout. Because broken up into too many pieces, you’ll miss the whole point of the book, like the proverbial blind man touching an elephant. Those who conquer long books know that it’s not a matter of reading some pages before you fall asleep but rather, canceling your plans for the night and staying in to read instead.

I suspect that our disagreement is one of degree and perhaps misinterpretation. We totally agree on the point of reading in long, sustained blocks. That's exactly how we read ourselves!

The point of assigning yourself a certain amount of reading every day is to create a deeply held habit. The 25-pages-a-day thing is a habit-former! For those of us who already have a strong reading habit, it's not altogether necessary. I love reading, so I no longer need to force myself to read.

But many people dream of it rather than doing it, and they especially dream of a day when they will read for hours at a time with great frequency, as Ryan does and as we do.

The problem is, when they start tasting the broccoli, they realize how tough that commitment can be. They think, “If I can't read for hours on end, why bother starting?” So instead of doing their daily 25 pages, they don't read anything! The books sit on the shelves, collecting dust. We know a lot of people like this.

Those folks need to commit to a daily routine — to understand what a small commitment compounds to over time. And, like us, most of these people will naturally read far more than 25 pages. They will achieve the dream and plow through a book they really love in a few sittings rather than with a leisurely 25 pages per day. But creating the habit is where it starts.

Eventually, you’ll love it so much that you’ll force yourself to read less at times so you can get other things done.

Don't Slog Through Books You Don't Like

The other misconception comes from the meaty books we referred to: long ones like The Power Broker, War and Peace, and Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Some readers took that to mean that they should attempt these huge tomes out of pure masochism and use the 25-page daily mark to plow through boredom.

Nothing could be further from the truth! (Our bad.)

Too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

If you've gone through our course on the Art of Reading (which we recently updated and revised), you'll realize that there are many better strategies than plowing ahead. You must pursue your curiosities! This is by far the most important principle of good reading.

The truth is that when you're super bored, your interest and understanding come to a screeching halt. There are many, many topics that I find interesting now which I found dull at some point in my life. Five years ago, there was no possible way I would have made it through The Power Broker, even if I tried to force myself. And it would have been a mistake to try.

Here’s another unspoken truth: Any central lesson you can take away from War and Peace can also be learned in other ways if that book doesn't really interest you. The same goes for 99% of the wisdom out there — it's available in many places. Unfortunately, too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The better idea is to read what seems awesome and interesting to you now and to let your curiosities grow organically. A lifelong interest in truth, reality, and knowledge will lead you down so many paths, you should never need to force yourself to read anything unless there is a very, very specific reason. (Perhaps to learn a specific skill for a job.)

Not only is this approach way more fun, but it works really, really well. It keeps you reading. It keeps you interested. And in the words of Nassim Taleb, “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction; magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Thus, paradoxically, as you read more books, your pile of unread books will get larger, not smaller. That’s because your curiosity will grow with every great read.

This is the path of the lifelong learner.

Why Cross-Pollinating Your Work, Works

At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.

Sandpaper Without the Sand

In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.

This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.

Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?

…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.

3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.

The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.

Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.

By adding just a little disorder, a company can give its employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we're stuck in our little box.

Crop Rotation

A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.

Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.

… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.

Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises'. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock unlock another.
  2. A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention—we’re like tourists gaping at details that a local would find mundane.
  3. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed, by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.

The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)

We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.

Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.

If you want more, check out our other post on Messy, it’s a great book if you are looking for ways to facilitate a bit more creativity in your life.

Making a Change: One Small Step

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
— Lao Tzu

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Change is hard. But what if we could make it a little easier? As Lao Tzu so eloquently puts it, maybe we just need to focus on that first step.

This is the time of year for New Year’s resolutions. It shouldn't surprise you that we tend to be pretty terrible at following through on them.

The average American makes the same resolution ten years in a row without success. Within four months, 25 percent of resolutions are abandoned. And those who succeed in keeping their resolutions usually do so only after five or six annual broken promises.

With a track record like that, it definitely seems like time to look at the problem differently. There is an interesting short book by Robert Maurer called, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way; in it, he uses his experiences as a clinical psychologist using something called Kaizen to help people make changes in their lives.

Kaizen has two definitions:

  • Using very smalls steps to improve a habit, a process, or product.
  • Using very small moments to inspire new products and inventions.

For this discussion let's focus on using it to help remove roadblocks to the behavior we are seeking, or to add roadblocks to behavior we are trying to discourage. As Maurer puts it, “using small steps to accomplish large goals.”

Thinking About Change

First, let’s take a look at change. Meaningful change is pretty hard. Our lives are homeostatic systems — they want to come back in alignment with what is comfortable.

We also live in a culture that tends to feel that bigger is better. We think that big steps or big dramatic changes will produce big results. And while this may be true a small percentage of the time, or may seem logical, it’s very rare and difficult to implement. Smaller steps are more doable both for our mind and for our body.

Let’s use the example of exercise for health. Many people want to live healthier lives and there is plenty of evidence that movement helps us to achieve those goals. However, we are often pushed to believe that only a certain type or certain level of exercise will get us where we need to be. We decide to make a drastic change to get a drastic outcome.

The issue is it’s very hard to go from no exercise to an hour at the gym everyday. The gym is expensive, you have to fit it into your schedule (travel and time there) and you have to stay motivated to go regularly to get those results you want.

The Kaizen way would be to pick one small step. It should be something relatively easy, something that takes little time and effort. For example, if you drive a car to work, purposely park as far away from the door as possible. If you bus, get off one stop earlier. But, initially, choose only one thing and do that one thing until it becomes habitual. Maurer suggests thirty days.

It almost seems too simple; so simple that you might think that you are effecting little to no change. But these changes are additive. Imagine if every month for a year you added a healthy habit to your life.

Those changes may come about slowly but they can end up being quite dramatic. In combination, they can be exponential. A total change.

The quick extreme change can actually cripple people into inaction. We reason, why bother if I can't succeed 100%?

Too often, you meet with success in the short term, only to find yourself falling back into your old ways when your initial burst of enthusiasm fades away. Radical change is like charging up a steep hill – you may run out of wind before you reach the crest, or the thought of all the work ahead makes you give up no sooner than you’ve begun.

There is an alternative… another path altogether, one that winds so gently up the hill that you hardly notice the climb. It is pleasant to negotiate and soft to tread. And all it requires is that you place one foot in front of the other.

So let’s make our way back to New Year's. These types of resolutions don't work because we command ourselves to implement them in their entirety starting the very next day. It’s almost like setting yourself up for failure on purpose. So, instead of looking at the resolutions the traditional way, let’s look at some of them Kaizen style.

In the book Maurer walks us through some of the common resolutions he’s seen and the small steps that his clients have used with success in the past. Just don't forget that any change requires eating the broccoli.

Small Steps for starting to exercise:

  1. If you can’t bring yourself to get off the couch, purchase a hand grip to squeeze while watching television (or squeeze old tennis balls). This will burn a few calories and get you accustomed to the idea of moving your body again.
  2. When you’re ready to get moving, walk around the block once a day, or take one flight of stairs instead of the elevator.
  3. Pass one additional house per day, or repeat one extra step on the staircase until you find the habit growing solid.
  4. To further increase your appetite for exercise, think about the activity you would most like to engage in – swimming? Skiing? Tennis? Find an attractive picture of that activity and place it on the refrigerator, on top of the television, or in the corner of a mirror.

Small Steps for saving money:

  1. Set yourself the goal of saving just one dollar per day. One way to do this is to modify one daily purchase. Perhaps you can downgrade from a large, relatively expensive latte to a small, plain coffee. Maybe you can read a newspaper for free online instead of buying one at the newsstand. Put each saved dollar away.
  2. Another tactic for saving a dollar a day is to share a daily indulgence with a friend. Buy one large coffee and pour it into two smaller mugs. Buy one newspaper and swap sections.
  3. If you save one dollar each day, at the end of the year you’ll have $365. Start a list of things you’d like to do with that extra money and add one idea each day. You’ll learn to think about far-off, more sizeable financial goals rather than immediate cheaper pleasures.

Small Steps for asking for a raise:

  1. Start a list of reasons you deserve more money for your work. Every day, add one item to the list.
  2. Spend one minute a day practicing your request to your boss out loud.
  3. Increase this time until you feel ready to make your request in person.
  4. Before you actually ask for the raise, imagine that the boss responds poorly – but that you walk out the door feeling successful anyway, feeling proud of our effort. (This step – really a form of mind sculpture – helps you manage any lingering fears.)

Small Steps for using time more productively:

  1. Make a list of activities that take up your time but are not useful or stimulating to you. Watching television, browsing through stores, and reading things you don’t find pleasant or productive are frequent sources of poorly used time.
  2. Make a list of activities you would like to try that you feel would be more productive than your current ones. Each day, add one item to the list.
  3. Once you have identified more-productive activities that you’d like to try, go ahead and give them a whirl – but in a very limited, nonthreatening manner. If you want to keep a journal, do so – but promise yourself to write just three sentences per day. If you'd like to take a yoga class, you might begin by just sitting in the studio’s lobby and watching students pass in and out. Soon, you will find yourself participating more fully in your activity. And you’ll hardly notice that you’re spending less time in front of the television.
  4. Each day, write down the name of one person who you feel is living a productive life. Then write down one thing that person is doing differently from you.
    (If you want to me more productive might we suggest – Productivity That Gets Results)

You will notice that some of these steps themselves are additive in nature. It’s helpful to look at the behavior you are trying to change and break it out into bite sized pieces. This will serve two purposes: it will give you more insight into the behavior itself; and it will break out the problem into sensible small steps for you to tackle.

One Small Step Can Change Your Life is a small book filled with big ideas. Much has been written about Kaizen and how it has revolutionized business practices, but it’s also interesting to look at this idea from a more personal perspective.

But first, let’s take just one small step. Good luck with your New Year's resolutions.

What Are You Doing About It? Reaching Deep Fluency with Mental Models

The mental models approach is very intellectually appealing, almost seductive to a certain type of person. (It certainly is for us.)

The whole idea is to take the world's greatest, most useful ideas and make them work for you!

How hard can it be?

Nearly all of the models themselves are perfectly well understandable by the average well-educated knowledge worker, including all of you reading this piece. Ideas like Bayes' rule, multiplicative thinking, hindsight bias, or the bias from envy and jealousy, are all obviously true and part of the reality we live in.

There's a bit of a problem we're seeing though: People are reading the stuff, enjoying it, agreeing with it…but not taking action. It's not becoming part of their standard repertoire.

Let's say you followed up on Bayesian thinking after reading our post on it — you spent some time soaking in Thomas Bayes‘ great wisdom on updating your understanding of the world incrementally and probabilistically rather than changing your mind in black-and-white. Great!

But a week later, what have you done with that knowledge? How has it actually impacted your life? If the honest answer is “It hasn't,” then haven't you really wasted your time?

Ironically, it's this habit of “going halfway” instead of “going all the way,” like Sisyphus constantly getting halfway up the mountain, which is the biggest waste of time!

See, the common reason why people don't truly “follow through” with all of this stuff is that they haven't raised their knowledge to a “deep fluency” — they're skimming the surface. They pick up bits and pieces — some heuristics or biases here, a little physics or biology there, and then call it a day and pull up Netflix. They get a little understanding, but not that much, and certainly no doing.

The better approach, if you actually care about making changes, is to imitate Charlie Munger, Charles Darwin, and Richard Feynman, and start raising your knowledge of the Big Ideas to a deep fluency, and then figuring out systems, processes, and mental tricks to implement them in your own life.

Let's work through an example.

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Say you're just starting to explore all the wonderful literature on heuristics and biases and come across the idea of Confirmation Bias: The idea that once we've landed on an idea we really like, we tend to keep looking for further data to confirm our already-held notions rather than trying to disprove our idea.

This is common, widespread, and perfectly natural. We all do it. John Kenneth Galbraith put it best:

“In the choice between changing one's mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”

Now, what most people do, the ones you're trying to outperform, is say “Great idea! Thanks Galbraith.” and then stop thinking about it.

Don't do that!

The next step would be to push a bit further, to get beyond the sound bite: What's the process that leads to confirmation bias? Why do I seek confirmatory information and in which contexts am I particularly susceptible? What other models are related to the confirmation bias? How do I solve the problem?

The answers are out there: They're in Daniel Kahneman and in Charlie Munger and in Elster. They're available by searching through Farnam Street.

The big question: How far do you go? A good question without a perfect answer. But the best test I can think of is to perform something like the Feynman technique, and to think about the chauffeur problem.

Can you explain it simply to an intelligent layperson, using vivid examples? Can you answer all the follow-ups? That's fluency. And you must be careful not to fool yourself, because in the wise words of Feynman, “…you are the easiest person to fool.

While that's great work, you're not done yet. You have to make the rubber hit the road now. Something has to happen in your life and mind.

The way to do that is to come up with rules, systems, parables, and processes of your own, or to copy someone else's that are obviously sound.

In the case of Confirmation Bias, we have two wonderful models to copy, one from each of the Charlies — Darwin, and Munger.

Darwin had rule, one we have written about before but will restate here: Make a note, immediately, if you come across a thought or idea that is contrary to something you currently believe. 

As for Munger, he implemented a rule in his own life: “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Now we're getting somewhere! With the implementation of those two habits and some well-earned deep fluency, you can immediately, tomorrow, start improving the quality of your decision-making.

Sometimes when we get outside the heuristic/biases stuff, it's less obvious how to make the “rubber hit the road” — and that will be a constant challenge for you as you take this path.

But that's also the fun part! With every new idea and model you pick up, you also pick up the opportunity to synthesize for yourself a useful little parable to make it stick or a new habit that will help you use it. Over time, you'll come up with hundreds of them, and people might even look to you when they're having problems doing it themselves!

Look at Buffett and Munger — both guys are absolute machines, chock full of pithy little rules and stories they use in order to implement and recall what they've learned.

For example, Buffett discovered early on the manipulative psychology behind open-outcry auctions. What did he do? He made a rule to never go to one! That's how it's done.

Even if you can't come up with a great rule like that, you can figure out a way to use any new model or idea you learn. It just takes some creative thinking.

Sometimes it's just a little mental rule or story that sticks particularly well. (Recall one of the prime lessons from our series on memory: Salient, often used, well-associated, and important information sticks best.)

We did this very thing recently with Lee Kuan Yew's Rule. What a trite way to refer to the simple idea of asking if something actually works…attributing it to a Singaporean political leader!

But that's exactly the point. Give the thing a name and a life and, like clockwork, you'll start recalling it. The phrase “Lee Kuan Yew's Rule” actually appears in my head when I'm approaching some new system or ideology, and as soon as it does, I find myself backing away from ideology and towards pragmatism. Exactly as I'd hoped.

Your goal should be to create about a thousand of those little tools in your head, attached to a deep fluency in the material from which it came. 

***

I can hear the objection coming. Who has time for this stuff?

You do. It's about making time for the things that really matter. And what could possibly matter more than upgrading your whole mental operating system? I solemnly promise that you're spending way more time right now making sub-optimal decisions and trying to deal with the fallout.

If you need help learning to manage your time right this second, check out our Productivity Seminar, one that's changed some people's lives entirely. The central idea is to become more thoughtful and deliberate with how you spend your hours. When you start doing that, you'll notice you do have an hour a day to spend on this Big Ideas stuff. It's worth the 59 bucks.

If you don't have 59 bucks, at least imitate Cal Newport and start scheduling your days and put an hour in there for “Getting better at making all of my decisions.”

Once you find that solid hour (or more), start using it in the way outlined above, and let the world's great knowledge actually start making an impact. Just do a little every day.

What you'll notice, over the weeks and months and years of doing this, is that your mind will really change! It has to! And with that, your life will change too. The only way to fail at improving your brain is by imitating Sisyphus, pushing the boulder halfway up, over and over.

Unless and until you really understand this, you'll continue spinning your wheels. So here's your call to action. Go get to it!

What Can We Learn From the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

To learn is to broaden, to experience more, to snatch new aspects of life for yourself. To refuse to learn or to be relieved at not having to learn is to commit a form of suicide; in the long run, a more meaningful type of suicide than the mere ending of physical life. 

Knowledge is not only power; it is happiness, and being taught is the intellectual analog of being loved.

— Isaac Asimov, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters

 

isaac-asimov
Fans estimate that the erudite polymath Isaac Asimov authored nearly 500 full-length books during his life. Even if some that “don't count” are removed from the list — anthologies he edited, short science books he wrote for young people and so on — Asimov's output still reaches into the many hundreds of titles.  Starting with a spate of science-fiction novels in the 1950s, including the now-classic Foundation series, Asimov's writing eventually ranged into non-fiction with works of popular science, Big History, and even annotated guides to classic novels like Paradise Lost and Gulliver's Travels.

Among his works were a 1,200 page Guide to the Bible; he also wrote books on Greece, Rome, Egypt, and the Middle East; he wrote a wonderful Guide to Shakespeare and a comprehensive Chronology of the World; he wrote books on Carbon, Nitrogen, Photosynthesis, The Moon, The Sun, and the Human Body, along with many more scientific topics. He coined the term “robotics” and his stories led to modern movies like I, Robot and Bicentennial Man. He wrote one of the most popular stories of all time: The Last Question. He even wrote a few joke books and a book of limericks.

His Intelligent Man's Guide to Science, a 500,000 word epic written in a mad dash of eight months, was nominated for a National Book Award in 1961, losing only to William Shirer's bestselling history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

His science-fiction books continue to sell to this day and are considered foundational works of the genre. He won more than a dozen book awards. His science and history books were considered some of the best published for lay audiences — the only real complaint we can make is that a few of them are outdated now. (We'll give Asimov a pass for not updating them, since he's been dead for almost 25 years.)

In his free time, he was reputed to have written over 90,000 letters while keeping a monthly column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for 33 years between 1958 and 1991. Between the Magazine and numerous other outlets, Asimov compiled somewhere near 1,600 essays throughout his life.

In other words, the man was a writer through and through, leading to a question that begs to be asked:

What can we mortals learn from the Prolific Mr. Asimov?

Make the Time — No Excuses

Many people complain that they don't have time for their passions because of the unavoidable duties which suck up every free moment: Well, Asimov had duties too, but he got his writing career started anyway. From 1939 until 1958, Asimov doubled as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, during which he completed 28 novels and a list of short stories long enough to fill most writers' entire career. He simply made the time to write.

In a posthumously published memoir, Asimov reflects on the “candy store” schedule implanted on him by his father, who'd worked long hours running a convenience store in New York after emigrating from Russia. As Asimov became a professional writer, he kept the heroic schedule for himself:

I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don't take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I'm on vacation. (And even when I'm in the hospital.)

In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store. Of course, I'm not waiting on customers; I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

Know your Spots, and Stick to those Spots 

“I'm no genius, but I'm smart in spots, and I stay around those spots.”
—Thomas Watson, Sr., Founder of IBM

Even though he'd been writing in his spare time as a professor, Asimov was not doing any academic research, which did not go unnoticed by his superiors at Boston University. Asimov's success as an author combined with his dedication to his craft had forced him into a decision: Be an academic or be a popular writer. The decision needed no fretting — he was making so much money and such a large impact as a writer, he knew he'd be a fool to give it up. His rationalization to the school was wise and instructive:

I finally felt angry enough to say, “…as a science writer, I am extraordinary. I plan to be the best science writer in the world and I will shed luster on the medical school [at BU]. As a researcher, I am simply mediocre and…if there's one thing this school does not need, it is one more merely mediocre researcher.”

[One faculty member complimented him on his bravery in fighting for academic freedom.] I shrugged, “There's no bravery about it. I have academic freedom and I can give it to you in two words:

“What's that?” He said.

Outside income,” I said.

In other words, Asimov knew his circle of competence and knew himself. He made that again clear in a 1988 interview, when he was asked about a number of other projects and interests outside of writing. He demurred on all of them:

SW: Do you have any time left for other things besides writing?

IA: All I do is write. I do practically nothing else, except eat, sleep and talk to my wife.

[…]

SW: Have you ever written any screenplays for SF movies?

IA: No, I'm no talent for that and I don't want to get mixed up with Hollywood. If they are going to do something of mine, they will have to find someone else to write the screenplays.

[…]

SW: Do you like the covers of your books? Do you have any input in their design?

IA: No, I don't have any input into that. Publishers take care of that entirely. They never ask any questions and I never offer any advice, because my artistic talent is zero.

[…]

SW: Do you have a favorite SF painter?

IA: Well, there is a number of painters that I like very much. To name just a few: Michael Whelan and Boris Vallejo are between my favorites. I'm impressed by them, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything – I don't know that I have any taste in art.

[…]

SW: Have you ever tried to paint something yourself?

IA: No, I can't even draw a straight line with a ruler.

[…]

SW: Do you have any favorite SF writers?

IA: My favorite is Arthur Clark. I also like people like Fred Pohl or Larry Niven and others who know their science. I like Harlan Ellison, too, although his stories are terribly emotional. But I don't consider myself a judge of good science-fiction – not even my own.

Asimov knew and recognized his own constitution at a fairly early age, smartly seizing opportunities to build his life around that self-awareness in the way Hunter S. Thompson would advise young people to do years later.

In a separate posthumously published autobiography, Asimov reflected on his highly independent nature:

I never found true peace till I turned my whole working life into self-employment. I was not made to be an employee.

For that matter, I strongly suspect I was not made to be an employer either. At least I have never had the urge to have a secretary or helper of any kind. My instinct tells me that there would surely be interactions that would slow me down. Better to be a one-man operation, which I eventually became and remained.

Find What you Love, and Work Like Hell

To be prolific, he warns, one must be a
“single-minded, 
driven, non-stop person.”
— Interview with Isaac Asimov, 1979

Although Asimov was working the “candy store” hours and producing more output than nearly anyone of his generation, it was clear that he did it out of love.  The only reason he was able to write so much, he said, was “pure hedonism.”  He simply couldn't not write. That would have been unfathomable.

One admission from his autobiography tells the tale best:

One of the few depressing lunches I have had with Austin Olney [Houghton Mifflen editor] came on July 7, 1959. I incautiously told him of the various books I had in progress, and he advised me strongly not to write so busily. He said my books would compete with each other, interfere with each other's sales, and do less well per book if there were many.

The one thing I had learned in my ill-fated class in economics in high school was “the law of diminishing returns,” whereby working ten times as hard or investing ten times as much or producing ten times the quantity does not yield ten times the return.

I was rather glum after that meal and gave the matter much thought afterward.

What I decided was that I wasn't writing ten times as many books in order to get ten times the monetary returns, but in order to have ten times the pleasure

One of Asimov's best methods to keep the work flowing was to have more than one project going at a time. If he got writers' block or got bored with one project, he simply switched to another project, a tactic which kept him from stopping work to agonize and procrastinate. By the time he came back to the first project, he found the writing flowed easily once again.

This sort of “switching” is a hugely useful method to improve your overall level of productivity and avoid major hair-pulling roadblocks. You can also use this tactic with books to improve your overall reading yield, switching between them as your mood and energy dictates.

Never Stop Learning

If anything besides sheer productivity defined Asimov, it was a thirst for knowledge. He simply never stopped learning, and with that attitude, he grew into a mental giant who was more than once accused of “knowing everything”:

Nothing goes to waste, if you're determined to learn. I had already learned, for instance, that although I was one of the most overeducated people I knew, I couldn't possibly write the variety of books I manage to do out of the knowledge I had gained in school alone. I had to keep a program of self-education in process. 

[…]

And, as I went on to discover, each time I wrote a book on some subject outside my immediate field it gave me courage and incentive to do another one that was perhaps even farther outside the narrow range of my training…I advanced from chemical writer to science writer, and, eventually, I took all of my learning for my subject (or at least all that I could cram into my head — which, alas, had a sharply limited capacity despite all I could do).

As I did so, of course, I found that I had to educate myself. I had to read books on physics to reverse my unhappy experiences in school on the subject and to learn at home what I had failed to learn in the classroom — at least up to the point where my limited knowledge of mathematics prevented me from going farther.

When the time came, I read biology, medicine, and geology. I collected commentaries on the Bible and on Shakespeare. I read history books. Everything led to something else. I became a generalist by encouraging myself to be generally interested in all matters.

[…]

As I look back on it, it seems quite possible that none of this would have happened if I had stayed at school and had continued to think of myself as, primarily, a biochemist…[so] I was forced along the path I ought to have taken of my own accord if I had had the necessary insight into my own character and abilities.

(Source: It's Been a Good Life)

Still interested? Check out Asimov's memoir I, Asimov, his collection of stories I, Robot, or his collection of letters, Yours, Isaac Asimov: A Life in Letters.

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.