“Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.”Franz Kafka
In my last article, which you can find here, I discussed the notion that productivity is more closely linked to what you do—rather than how fast you do it—and the two skills which I think will generally be most valuable in the future: the ability to think critically, and the ability to concentrate.
Today I want to cover some of the topics we looked at last time, but through a slightly different lens.
I think this is important because, in order to gain a thorough understanding of something, you need to work through it— be it a perspective, problem, philosophy or whatever—with a variety of different terms and ideas substituted into the equation. Doing this allows you to see if the wisdom it supposedly purports is immutable, highly specific, or somewhere in-between. This is the process of checking how fundamental the logic is, and today’s article, as well as the others that follow in this series, hopes to achieve this purpose.
To do this, first, we will look at the idea of doing the most valuable thing and how it applies to competition. Secondly, we will again look at concentration, and assess how it may be of use for generating novel insights when used effectively. The exploration of these ideas should somewhat map onto to the two skills I introduced in Part 1— critical thinking and concentration —respectively.
Productivity & Competition
In regard to doing the most valuable, effective thing, let me introduce Peter Thiel’s idea that competition is for losers.
Thiel explains that the notions we commonly hold are that competition is for the strong and/or smart. In Thiel’s conception though, this is the exact opposite of the truth.
Those who are smart and strong enough do not get sucked into unnecessary competition, as competition comes with significant physical, psychological and financial costs (depending on the type of competition, though business usually comes with all three). Thiel believes that the strong and smart instead focus on what they should do and not just get drawn to where the crowd is.
Thiel suggests that rather than competition providing the force to work against, the real battle—and value—is to be found in creating the first of something, or as he calls it, going from Zero to One (which is the name of his book that the following quotation and the many subsequent ones are from):
“Every moment in business happens only once. The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.
Of course, it’s easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1.”
To relate this back to our evolving analysis of productivity, consider that if there is a strong need to do things faster, and more efficiently, then there’s a strong likelihood that your value is tied up in speed—a highly competitive process.
You might be an employee trying to outcompete one of your co-workers for a promotion, and thus you want to churn through more work than they do in order to give yourself a better chance. Or you may be a business in a full industry and you’re trying to streamline your processes as much as possible so that you can serve more clients and capture a larger portion of the market share.
Contrast this against a highly specialised skill or a company that caters to a niche market, and the value placed on efficiency is greatly diminished. In this instance, your value is much more strongly linked to producing an outcome that cannot be found elsewhere.
To illustrate this point, let’s use a scene from the brilliant film—evidenced by the fact that it has an unbelievable score of 100% on the hypercritical film review website Rotten Tomatoes—Toy Story 2.
In this scene Al (from Al’s Toy Barn) is waiting for the character, known as The Cleaner, to reattach the severed arm of Woody (as well as paint over the iconic “Andy” written on the bottom of his boots). Al, who is impatient and undoubtedly anxious, proceeds to ask…
Al: “So, uh, how long is this gonna take?”
To which the reply by The Cleaner is…
“You can’t rush art.”
These four simple words convey more insight than the casual viewer may pick up and are highly relevant to our purposes here. To put it into our terms, The Cleaner’s response reflects an effectiveness form of productivity. If The Cleaner was a more chatty fellow, he may have said something along the lines of…
“If you want it done fast, then you do it. Oh, you can’t? Then be quiet! If you don’t have the requisite skills, then you’re at the mercy of someone who does.
Keep this scene in mind whenever you’re deciding a task to undertake, work to produce, or skills to develop. If it isn’t going to help produce art, in one form or another, then get used to feeling rushed.
To relate this to Thiel’s point, getting drawn into competition is a sure-fire way to reduce the uniqueness of your skills and what you produce. This is inherently going to place greater emphasis on the need for efficiency in your life and much less consideration for how effective it is. Thiel makes a related point in his book when he states:
“In the most dysfunctional organizations, signalling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work.”
This is the whole looking-busy-seems-impressive-but achieves-nothing-while-working-efficiently-gets-things-done-but-appears-lazy problem.
Thiel’s observation about signalling corresponds with reports made about a vast amount of companies, however, we can take the organisational element out of it and apply it to ourselves as individuals.
Rather than conforming to the gravity of planet Social Media (a gravity which is explained not by the theory of relativity, but of mediocrity) and continuously posting, highlighting how productive you have been—a signalling process—get to work on doing something that’s actually valuable.
Until doing work and signalling-that-work-is-being-done are entirely the same, with a transfer efficiency of 1:1, every unit of resources spent on signalling is coming at the cost of actually doing.
This starts to lend support to the idea that being effective and producing valuable work requires a large degree of focus. Regardless of whether the distraction comes in the form of competition, or in the need to signal that we are working, neither is maximally conducive to productivity. Having the ability to blind yourself to these distractions is essential.
I will close out this section by referencing Thiel once more:
“Rivalry causes us to overemphasise old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past”
This encapsulates the threat that competition poses on productivity well. Antagonism creates a vision that looks backwards, or at best sideways, rather than forwards. It is a process that quickly becomes competitive at the cost of being innovative.
At this point, you might ask: But aren’t we concerned with being productive, not innovative?
To which I will respond:
When it is done well, innovation is productivity, they are one and the same. However, successful innovation is the solving of real and current problems, not old ones or the problem that you want to solve—including your desire for more money. An orientation which is more focused on production (of value), rather than profit, or posturing, is almost certainly going to win out in the long run. Einstein made almost this exact point when he said, “strive not to be a success, but rather of value”.
To tie this back into the first article of this series, critical thinking is the most generalised version of any skill that I think can reliably find problems, and help you assess whether they are worth solving. Concentrating on those problems, and working through hurdles and distraction, is the surest path I can think of when it comes to productivity and successful innovation. Do not fall for the trap of competition or the signalling of work being done. They are short-term strategies focused on climbing the ladder faster—but the most important thing is working out whether the ladder should be climbed in the first place. If instead, you decide to innovate—building yourself an aeroplane, a rocket, or god-knows-what—you’ll leave the ladder-climbers behind you. Looking like ants, to boot.
Concentration & Creativity: Friends or foe?
In this section, I want to examine another potential benefit of my proposal to develop the ability to concentrate. One that I don’t think is often thought of as being related to the skill.
This counterintuitive benefit of concentration and the ability to stay on task is abstract insight.
I say counterintuitive because I get the sense there are two distinct archetypes that people have in mind when they think about these kinds of things.
The first is The Concentrator.
The Concentrator is an extremely methodical, intensely focused, but rigid style thinker. They may have the ability to concentrate and produce large amounts of technical work, however, they tend to have distinct cognitive buckets and sharp boundaries between them, which diminishes abstract thinking. They might be good with numbers and are likely to grow up to be a scientist or work in data-processing.
The second is The Creator.
This “thinker” is almost the polar opposite. Though this kind of person likely does not identify as a “thinker” anyway, instead they are someone who prioritises what they feel or experience. They do not sit and work for hours at a time, but more so follow the lead of their passion as it ebbs and flows. This person is considered creative and views the world in an abstract manner, with blurred and very few boundaries. This is the stereotypical artist.
I introduce these stereotypes because I now want to tell you that they are wrong—to a degree. For starters, there is more of a link between art and science than the false dichotomy that many presents, so there is more intra-individual (between individuals) similarities than is typically conceived. More importantly, though, for our purposes here, both archetypes appear within our own brains—we simply need to learn to access them and make the most effective use of them.
To do this, I recommend starting with Archetype #1, The Concentrator—they are the key.
The reason for this is because the state of non-concentration is our default. The name of the system in our brain that takes over when we lose concentration or stop effortfully paying attention to a task is literally called the default mode network. Because it is the default, it is easy to do. Concentrating is the hard part and the skill that needs developing.
The default mode network is involved in mind wandering and hypothetical simulation, which usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future rather than the task being performed.
This need for mind-wandering may seem out of place in an article on productivity, however, I will elaborate on its relevance, and explain that the connection between concentration and seemingly spontaneous creative or abstract insight is two-fold.
Firstly, with insufficient conscious control, the abstraction and simulation processes of the default mode network can begin processing more irrelevant information, generating creative solutions for problems not worth solving.
To illustrate this point, solving anthropogenic global warming, and deciding what you’re going to do next weekend both require running creative and simulation-based aspects of our minds—but one is a lot harder to remain focused on. Humans are cognitive-misers, we will not focus on a hard problem or run energetically-expensive brain structures without conscious effort and control.
For this reason, effective creative thinking must still occur within the boundary conditions of conscious concentration.
The second reason that concentration needs to be sufficient in order to maximise creative or abstract insight, is because of how it can free up the resources so that thinking can occur in the least restrained manner.
The idea of having precise attention is so that it allows you to be maximally productive in a period of time so that you can more completely move off the task when it has been adequately worked on. The sharpening of this boundary between working and not working is what will likely help generate the more conceptual and abstract ideas that I was alluding to. We are seeking to operate in more distinct states of black and white. Moving throughout the day in a constant shade of grey is not an ideal way to make use of the various functions of your brain.
Let me explain.
If you are unproductive because you are consistently getting distracted, then the length of time you are working on a task maybe 6 hours instead of 4 and a half. While 90 minutes may not seem a big deal, this kind of behaviour adds up over the course of a day, week, month and year (which is a timescale you should visit frequently when considering your business or career).
This additional 90 minutes creates time-pressure and begins to blur boundaries between various tasks or commitments. You experience tension due to incomplete tasks piling up and uncertainty about which one you should be working on.
If you are consistently operating in a state of stress, and quasi-work, then it is unlikely you will have deep or creative insights about what you are working on. This is because, as I’ve mentioned, making these kinds of previously unseen connections are a product of the default mode network, which does not run when attention is precise, or stress is high.
We are evolutionarily programmed to see the world in a black-and-white, two option manner when we are in a stressed state (this is the basis of our “fight-or-flight” response to a threat). When danger is perceived, we become hyper-alert (which switches off the default mode network) but we cannot make the most effective use of our analytical thinking systems, as being in danger is clearly not the time for time-consuming calculation and methodical elimination of options.
While we tend to think of our fight-or-flight response only in relation to a physical threat, psychological stress does the exact same thing to us also.
If you have put yourself under self-inflicted time-stress due to your inability to not check social media or your favourite websites for more than 15 minutes at a time, then your ability to produce novel ideas through mental-simulation and calculation is significantly diminished.
Creativity requires options (more options than just black or white), and in order to have options, you must have the ability to explore things that may turn out wrong or inadequate. Time-stress—as well as other forms—takes that required margin-for-error and makes it vanish. A sense of threat is no time for exploring the potentially incorrect.
Ultimately, this is the second reason why you should develop your ability to concentrate.
If you don’t, you will likely end up with the worst of both the archetypes I mentioned previously. You’ll have the lax attitude of “the artist” towards completing tasks, and this will breed the rigid thinking of “the scientist” due to various stressors and time-pressure.
However, if you hone your ability to concentrate and stay on task, you will allow yourself to experience the best of both worlds. The ability to produce large amounts of work that requires intense thinking, while also generating novel, creative and abstract insights throughout the process—in particular the downtime you can create for yourself by working efficiently during other periods of the day.
We tend not to see the connection between creativity and concentration, as creative inspiration tends not to occur when we are concentrating. And if it does, it occurs for a separate project for the one we are working on. However, as we know, creativity is, in part, seeing the connections that are not easily seen. With this in mind, for the sake of your own creativity, I encourage you to concentrate more. It may sound counterintuitive, but it will result in you being a hell of a lot more unique and effective in what you produce.
Today we explored Peter Thiel’s concept that competition is for losers, which highlights the costs of focusing more on our opposition than on our potential for innovation. We discussed the short-term nature of signalling, as opposed to doing, and we then established a stronger link between concentration and creativity than most tend to think exists. All of this is related to producing work of value. Which again, I believe is predicated on the two skills of critical thinking and concentrating.
Next time I will name-and-shame what I conceive to be the biggest productivity leak and how we can go about mitigating it.
Thanks as always for reading.