“Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem.Zig Ziglar
We all have twenty-four hour days.”
We now come to part four. If you’re not up to speed, you can find:
For those who are up to speed, you may be wondering, how long will this continue?
Fear not, we are on the back end of the series, however, I still have a little more I wish to squeeze out of this topic before we put it to bed.
A Little Test
Before I go any further, take a note of what time it is. I’m asking you to do this because I want you to measure how long it takes to finish reading this piece, which you will then compare to the reading time listed above.
Today’s article is on the longer side, which I did intentionally. Everything that follows is based around concentrating, and I want you to have some objective feedback on how well you can actually do that.
To give you an idea, the reading time for these articles is based on the length of the article—that much is unsurprising I’m sure.
For the equation that determines the reading time, there is a setting that asks how fast you want to set the reading speed as. To give you some background, the average reading speed is ~225 words per minute, however, university educated individuals or others who read more on average for either professional or personal reasons (which is likely to be everyone reading this article) tend to read much closer to 250-300 words per minute.
For the site, I have simply set the reading speed as 225 words per minute—which as I said, is average, nothing impressive at all. For this reason, I implore you to track how long it takes you to complete this article. If you fall short of the average reading time, you might want to consider how well you can concentrate.
What we have covered so far in this series
As a recap: I believe two key attributes lay the foundation for essentially all productive behaviour. These are critical thinking and the ability to concentrate.
Last time we focused almost exclusively on the critical thinking element and this time we will do the opposite. Today’s agenda is concentration, and why I place such high stock in it.
A Story about a Bridge (and other side-plots)
Once upon a time there was a supervisor for a construction company.
This supervisor was very busy and had multiple projects that needed to be supervised and managed. Two in particular which were very important.
Fortunately, these two projects were relatively close to one another. Only separated by a river, which had a large bridge connecting both sides. What luck!
Unfortunately, however, the bridge had a toll—but it wasn’t much. It only cost a single dollar each time to cross.
The construction supervisor figured this was pretty cheap. Additionally, the toll wasn’t coming out of his pocket anyway, it was coming out of the budget for the two projects—so really, there was no reason to worry.
Because of all this, the supervisor figured that the best way to see the successful completion of both projects was to travel back and forth in a rather rapid manner, not spending too long at either site. This would allow him to stay up to date with the project and keep them progressing along nicely.
Or so he thought.
While this sounded good in theory, the plan ran into a number of problems. (Most plans do actually, see here for an overview of the planning fallacy.)
The first issue the supervisor encountered was the loss of time due to travel.
While financially each trip only costs a dollar, it also “costs” five minutes of time. The supervisor hadn’t really considered this originally. Of course, he figured it would take a few minutes of travel time, but what’s a few minutes, right? That’s nothing in the overall scheme of things.
But it isn’t just a few minutes though, is it?
Not if you are switching back and forth any number of times where n>1.
A day in which the supervisor crosses the bridge on ten occasions comes at the immediate cost of 10 dollars as well as 50 minutes of “lost” time. Crossing the bridge twenty times throughout the day obviously costs double that—20 dollars and 100 minutes of time.
Originally, the supervisor had considered the negligible toll and a few minutes of travel time as a small price to pay, especially if it allowed him to stay more up to date with each project and to keep them both moving. However, that was only considering the short-term and most direct costs.
Effective thinking, planning and decision-making requires more than that, it requires what is known as second-order thinking. In this case, that meant considering the indirect costs and the effect they will have over time.
Second-order thinking is thinking about the implications of decisions, not just the immediate outcomes. Going even further, third-order thinking considers the implications of those implications—a skill which requires much learning and experience to develop to a sufficient degree. For now, we will just stick with second-order.
Unfortunately, many go about major decisions in business, or more generally, their lives, without paying close enough respect to the second-order effects of what they think is the best decision at the time. This can be rather detrimental, as second-order effects tend to be the exact opposite of what the initial action intended.
For example, if you’re looking to save money, you might opt for the cheaper of two options. This will work out alright, unless you have gone too cheap. Just like Einstein said, “things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler” you should opt for as cheap as possible, but no cheaper. If you’re too frugal up front, you’ll have to be overly generous—even begrudgingly so—in the long run.
However, the inverse of this is also true. This is why skilled resource allocation is such a prized attribute in basically all domains and industries—there is no general rule that you can live by.
If you’re too liberal with resources initially—be it time, money or something else—then you might find yourself needing to cut costs at the pointy-end, right when you can’t afford to. But also, can’t afford not to. If at all possible, always avoid finding yourself stuck between a rock and being over budget.
The supervisor fell for this trap of being too carefree and insufficiently calculated from the start…
As we have established already, the more the supervisor switched back and forth between the two projects, the more money and time it cost—though the cost to both was minor.
Unfortunately, the supervisor hadn’t learned that while compound-interest can help make you wealthy with little additional effort, compound-cost can rob you of almost everything, regardless of how much effort you put in. Multiple small costs, if left unchecked, can get away from you rapidly.
Even if we were to just focus on one of the costs individually, such as the financial aspect, the slow and incremental decay of the budget on a daily basis adds up.
The implications of this is that when you start running into a tighter and tighter financial situation, you then need to budget more strictly—like I alluded to above. In cases like this, sitting down to work out a budget may save you money in the long run, but even doing it still costs you time. So, in fact, even though you might improve your financial situation by sitting down and adjusting (or creating a budget), you’re not profiting as much as what you could have if you didn’t have to absorb that cost in the first place.
This is reason number one why you should be careful with your resources. If you don’t back yourself into a corner, you won’t have to waste energy fighting your way out. Avoiding corners is a much better alternative than fighting.
Following on from this, the next major impact of a tighter budget is whether you have enough money to continue to pay all your workers to operate at the same time. It’s entirely possible—and maybe even probable—that you run into a cash flow problem. This means that you can’t afford to keep your concreters, your brickies, your engineers, your crane drivers, electricians and everyone else involved, all working at the same time. In order to have enough money to pay each of them, you may need to stagnate them. This delays the completion of the project.
Here we see the irony of second-order effects. The supervisor decided initially to switch back and forth between the projects because he felt like it was going to allow them to both progress at the fastest pace. In the end though, that decision was instrumental in delaying their completion.
Many situations in life are made more painful and complex, because our initial, intuitive response is almost the exact opposite of what should be done.
Consider the parent that tries to excessively quieten a disruptive child, which only results in causing a full-scale tantrum. The driver who is driving in the snow for the first time automatically tries to steer out of the skid once the wheels begin to slide, which only prolongs the loss of control. Or the organisation who is trying to squeeze every last ounce of output from its workers on a short timescale in order to maximise profits, but ends up significantly diminishing their returns over the long-run due to high staff turnover and burnout.
If you want superior outcomes, you need to make superior—and not just intuitive—decisions.
So, while avoiding being backed into a corner is the best initial strategy, if you do find yourself in one, be sure to do a quick appraisal of the situation before you start trying to fight your way out. If what has got you pinned in there is a Lernaean hydra, then you are better off—regardless of how counterintuitive it may see—to play dead or to try and reason with it. Every moment you spend fighting is just increasing the likelihood of your demise.
This ironic inversion of what is intuitive and what is best is a big issue when you find yourself with your back against a wall, but it isn’t the biggest.
If we return to the unfolding situation of our construction supervisor, I will now discuss what I think is the most hindering aspect of being too wasteful with your resources and running into a tight situation with regards to money and time.
The most pressing issue when the budget is tight, is who you lose the ability to pay first: The most expensive workers.
Why is this an issue?
Quite simply, things that cost more tend to be more valuable. This is a key lesson from economics in that there is no such thing as a “real” price for anything and therefore pricing is how we establish the value things. Overall, money is just the technology we use in order to abstract and exchange more specific forms of value.
With this in mind, however, a lack of second-order thinking tends to lead people to the conclusion that the highest paid workers are the most expensive and thus in any budgeting-situation, are the first ones on the chopping block. This is the wrong way to look at things. The purpose of budgeting is not to reduce costs, that is only ONE aspect budgeting. The actual purpose of budgeting is to positively influence the ratio of money-spent versus value-acquired.
If you are spending unnecessary amounts of money, then cutting superfluous costs is a great thing to do. However, expensive and superfluous aren’t necessarily synonymous. Sometimes expensive is essential.
The inability to pay those with the highest wages quickly becomes an issue for our supervisor, as the highest paid workers are the ones with the most specialised skills as well as knowledge and problem-solving abilities.
When a game is going down to the wire, that is when you need your star players more than ever.
This is why having a buffer is necessary. Whether it be of time, money or any other resource, a buffer allows you to execute things in the most effective and efficient manner—again, in the long run. If you allow yourself to be constantly motivated by short-term greed or ease, then you will only be shooting yourself in the foot as you limp along and fall behind in the marathon of life.
Far too often people try to be too efficient, cheap or do it the easy way from the start, and it just ends up making them exceptionally inefficient, expensive and difficult in the long run.
Understand this, internalise this, and start creating buffers for yourself. Future-you will thank you.
A Summary of the Problems so far
Ok, so we have established that the switching back and forth strategy has some (many) undesirable implications.
Most directly—or from a first-order perspective—it depletes time and money.
From a second-order perspective, if left unchecked this can create the need to sit down and budget, which is an acutely costly exercise in itself.
Then once money is depleted, and you find yourself in a corner, often the intuitive solution is only going to exacerbate your problem.
Finally, when money is tight, you lose the ability to pay your most valuable workers, which are the ones you need the most. All of this significantly diminishes the rate at which the project can progress and reach competition.
The total opposite of what was intended by the supervisor’s initial strategy. And believe it or not, we aren’t finished with the problems yet.
While switching back and forth seemed like a viable way to stay up to date—at least prima facie—it actually requires spending more time overall getting up to date.
What I mean by this is, each time the supervisor left a project to go check on the other one, once he returned to the original, he would then have to ask: so what did I miss?
Again, this is another massive productivity-leak. No wonder this whole ordeal turned to shambles.
To demonstrate, let’s examine the steps the supervisor needs to go through in order to complete a full circuit of his duties—from working on a project, visiting the other, and then once more returning to the original project.
1. Making progress on Project 1
2. Travel to Project 2
3. Update on what has occurred at Project 2 since departure
4. Making progress on Project 2
5. Travel back to Project 1
6. Update on what has occurred at Project 1 since departure
7. Making progress on Project 1 again
Of the 5 steps that occur between making progress on Project 1, Step 4 is the only one actually causing actual overall progress. However, it is sandwiched between relatively unproductive tasks—things that need to be done in order to allow other more productive things to be done.
Where’s Wally & the Purpose of the Supervisor story
The little story of the supervisor was my poor attempt at a cognitive psychology parable.
The supervisor is supposed to represent us. The projects he was supervising are akin to tasks we need to do.
Additionally, the bridge toll, the travel time, the need to “get back up to speed” with each project when he returned to it as well as the inability to pay your most valuable workers when the budget is tight also are all analogous to things that occur either in our brains or in the external world when we are working on multiple projects at once.
I shall explain.
Let’s start with the financial elements.
The money in the story was representative of energy. Crossing the bridge costs money, just as switching from one task to another uses a burst of energetic resources in our brains. Just like in the story, this is not a major issue in any one instance, except that it all adds up and eventually the budget gets tight.
When this occurs, paying those financially expensive employees, or those energetically costly parts of our brains becomes extremely tricky. And again, just like with the employees, the expensive parts of the brain are the most valuable—evolution was not a fan of anything that was relatively costly, so if something is expensive, it had to have a rather sufficient pay-off.
Our brain itself is actually one of the premier examples of this principle.
Of our total mass, our brains make up only about 2%, but in regard to resting energy expenditure, they account for about 20%. This makes them an extremely expensive organ from an energetic standpoint—with energy being the currency of life and survival—so they had to have substantial benefits to justify their cost. And they do, if we don’t waste that energy on a whole bunch of frivolous tasks. It requires sufficient amounts of energy if it is desired to function anywhere near optimally.
The following is taken from a 2018 review article by Ampel, Muraven & McNay titled Mental Work Requires Physical Energy: Self-Control Is Neither Exception nor Exceptional.
“There is a large body of evidence to support the claim that brain glucose supply can be diminished, and, in the process, can limit neural activity (resulting in decreases in cognitive ability).
The human brain is a physical system; like all physical systems, it requires energy to perform work. Furthermore, the human brain is much more energetically demanding than other organs. On a second by second basis, the human brain uses more energy at rest than a human thigh during a marathon.”
The above excerpt highlights the energetic expensiveness of the brain. However, as I mentioned prior to that, this principle of high expense requires an even higher pay-off applies not only to the brain as a whole, but also applies to components of the brain.
The frontal cortex is the premier example in this regard.
For many different reasons, the frontal cortex is fascinating. To quote Robert Sapolsky’s book Behave, an absolute tome on the topic of human nature: “From the standpoint of evolution, size, complexity, development, genetics, and neuron type, the frontal cortex is distinctive, with the human version the most unique”. (He purposefully mentions the human version as other primates, elephants, whales and dolphins have extremely advanced frontal cortices also.)
For our purposes here, however, we only really need to concern ourselves with the functions it performs, and how they assist in making us more or less productive. A quick glance at the list of what the frontal cortex does makes it pretty clear it is a productivity machine in and of itself—when it is utilised effectively.
Functions of the frontal cortex:
· Working memory
· Organisation of knowledge
· Strategic implementation of decisions
· Gratification postponement
· Long-term planning
· Emotional regulation
· Impulse inhibition
That’s a bit of an all-star team when it comes to cognitive functions.
As we can see, the frontal cortex is really something we want up and running if we are going to be as productive as possible. To summarise though—as Sapolsky does in his book—we can consider the function of the frontal cortex as: Doing the right thing, even if it is the harder thing to do.
This mission statement is applicable from a situation of minor significance—such as getting to work after procrastinating for a while—all the way up to major moral decisions. When it comes to doing what you should do, whatever that is, you want your frontal cortex along for the ride if you hope to have any chance of actually doing it.
To begin linking this back to what we have been exploring today, the frontal cortex—in particular the prefrontal cortex—directs where attention is being aimed, gives “orders” to other parts of the brain regarding the task at hand and inhibits other sources of less relevant information, so that we can more effectively stay on task.
A practical example of this might be looking for your friend amongst a crowd. If your friend is tall, has brown hair and told you they are wearing their red jacket, then your frontal cortex is keeping you highly attuned to things that are red, as well as tall and/or brown-haired individuals. All other sources of information become “dulled” until you locate your friend.
This is a highly desirable function and makes locating someone amongst a crowd so much easier.
Now let’s imagine that you weren’t looking for a friend, you were simply playing a game of real-life Where’s Wally. You had someone standing beside you and they were simply giving you descriptions of different people to spot in the crowd. Still seems manageable.
But now let’s say that they were trying to make the game rather difficult and were changing the description of who you were looking for every few minutes. Each time a new description was given, your frontal cortex had to begin obeying a different rule, and work to suppress different sources of information—some of which was potentially relevant a few short minutes ago.
Can you see where this is going?
Forget about the crowd and looking for specific people. You are simply sitting at your desk with a few different tasks to work.
In essence, all you are doing is looking for a few answers amongst the sea of underwhelming or irrelevant thoughts that are swirling through your mind. It might be how to best respond to an email, the significance of Boo Radley’s character in To Kill A Mockingbird, what to include in a presentation you must prepare or discovering the key points in an educational video you are watching about a topic you don’t fully understand.
Considering the above example, don’t you think it would be a lot easier to locate those answers if you were given longer to look for them before the description of the problem changed?
Bouncing back and forth between tasks—regardless of how easy it feels to do with the simple click of a different browser tab—continuously confuses the “orders” being sent back to the other parts of your brain from the frontal cortex.
When I think about this, I think of the scene in Troy where Hector learns that Helen of Sparta has been stowed away onboard under the lovestruck actions of his brother Paris.
Immediately upon finding out what Paris and Helen have done, he demands the pilot of the ship “Turn us around. Back to Sparta”.
The pilot then gives the order to the small army of men who were just amidst the task of rowing the boat away from Sparta. The men then get to work on slowing their momentum and turning the large vessel around.
After a few minutes of trying to persuade his brother not to return Helen to Sparta, Paris finally succeeds…
PARIS: “I won’t ask you to fight my war.”
Hector shakes his head, still staring into the waves.
HECTOR: “You already have.”
For a long time, Hector is silent. Finally, he turns to the pilot, who awaits the prince’s command.
HECTOR: “To Troy.”
The pilot once more gives the order to the oarsmen, this time to go back in the initial direction they were heading. The men then must once more reduce the boat’s momentum, turn it around and once more begin rowing in the opposite direction.
In regard to getting to either destination, what did this achieve?
In fact, it did less than that. It used up time and the shift in directions required unnecessary expenditure of energy by the oarsmen, generating more fatigue and less ability to row powerfully long periods of time.
This is how, I think, you should consider how your brain operates.
When you begin working on a task, you begin generating momentum in that direction. If you then decide to switch to another task, you need to first give the “order” from the prefrontal cortex that you are changing paths, and then the parts of the brain that were doing the brunt of the work then need to slowly forget the problem they were working on and begin to generate momentum towards the new destination.
If you then decide to switch-back once more, you have a period of time where the “captain” of your brains ship has decided to work towards a different location, but until the order is completely transmitted to those doing the work, you have different components of the ship focusing on different goals, and overall you are actually travelling further away from your captain’s desired location and building momentum that just needs to be slowed down again.
From Little Things, Big Things Suffer
I probably rehashed the same point a few times today, but in some rather cryptic manners.
What I need you to understand, is that the idea of multitasking is pretty much considered dead in cognitive science, yet so many people continue to believe—or at least act like—they are the exception.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still do two things at once, but you can’t concentrate on two things at once. Valuable work requires concentration, and as valuable work is really the only work worth producing, appropriate distribution and control of your attention is paramount for productivity purposes.
You think it doesn’t matter if you switch back and forth a bit here and there, check Instagram or read a Reddit thread for a bit in between work, but it does.
This is the sort of attitude that the supervisor had, and that is how you back yourself into a corner. He burned through his time and money with the small incremental decay of his original bountiful resources.
If you take the same approach and multitask—or just fail to concentrate for long periods of time—you end up rowing your mental boat back and forth in the same spot, which tires out your mental-oarsmen. And who are the ones that tire first? The ones that were doing the brunt of the work.
The result is you end up burning time and energy and lose the ability to use the part of your brain that actually keeps you on task—the expensive, yet essential prefrontal cortex.
Thus beginning a rather unproductive spiral.
Once you’ve wasted time, you need to get to work more than ever, but because you’ve wasted so much mental energy on bouncing back and forth, you can’t afford the price of doing the right thing, even if it is the harder thing to do.
Now you’re stuck doing the easy thing, even if it is the wrong thing to do. This is why avoiding being trapped in corners is key. As Warren Buffet says, “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure”.
If you want to be maximally productive, or at least do a few worthwhile things with your life, I think you need to seriously consider these points.
If you want to do really good work, that requires mental momentum. You can’t solve complex problems or produce captivating and intriguing pieces of work by only wading in knee-deep.
For this reason, if there was a single productivity tip that I could give you, it would be: focus on less things, for longer. That is what allows you to do them better, in ways you would never have even known was possible.
If you have too much to focus on if you will be cognitively crowded, trapped by too many tasks, continuously bouncing back and forth and ultimately you’ll just keep splashing around in the shallow-end.
Focusing on less is the only way to fast-track your way to doing valuable work. You’ve been warned, breadth destroys depth. As Tim Ferris says: What you don’t do determines what you can do.
I’ll reiterate one more: Do less, so that what you actually do is of higher quality—because that’s what we are chasing. Quality is art. Quantity, on the other hand, is just another drop in the commercial ocean—in which very few can swim effectively.
Quantity kills quality.
Today we discussed a lot, and I purposefully wanted to make it a challenge.
We looked at second order thinking and some of the rather detrimental cognitive costs of multi-tasking or switching back and forth between multiple projects. Doing so is not only a way to let time leak away, but it churns through the energy that you need to “pay” your brain to keep doing its job. Unfortunately, when you’re running low on funds, the most expensive, and useful parts of your brain—such as the one that keeps you on task, the prefrontal cortex—are the first ones you cannot afford to pay. And they are the ones you need the most at that time.
Avoiding this situation by developing a habit of concentration and deeper work is key. It will allow you to begin making true progress on problems you have or skills you wish to develop, which will help you produce much more valuable work over time.
Next time we will discuss some strategies that I have found useful in supplementing this process.
And finally: how long did it take?