“Shallow men believe in luck, believe in circumstances … Strong men believe in cause-and-effect.”Ralph Waldo Emerson
This one is long, but it’s also the last one on this topic—for now.
First, let’s recap.
I began this series on productivity by discussing the need for a reduced focus on speed of task completion, and an increased focus on selecting the right task, to begin with. The essence of this article is summarised in Peter Drucker’s quote: “Efficiency is about doing things right. Effectiveness is about doing the right things.” I then argued that knowing what to do is a product of critical thinking.
I followed this up by suggesting that doing something in the most efficient and effective way is predominantly a product of concentrating intensely for a significant period of time. This was the general basis of my argument that critical thinking and concentration are going to be prized skills in the future, particularly due to the rapid expansion of information availability, which is a cause of distraction, from both task and truth.
The second instalment was where I introduced Peter Thiel’s philosophy that “competition is for losers”. I applied Thiel’s logic more generally and argued that if an individual is undertaking tasks that have significant time pressure—in that, in order to be productive with those tasks, one must be extremely efficient—then this is inherently a competitive process. Which, as Thiel describes, is a net-negative outcome regardless of whether you come out on top, or not. This is because competition requires resource expenditure in order to “combat” opponents, and it also induces a form of mimicry that is in direct contrast to the freedom required to successfully innovate and focus on the most worthwhile tasks.
I closed this post by trying to dispel the myth that artistic and analytical traits are at odds with one another. Creativity is not orthogonal to concentration. Abstract insight is the result of prior focused effort, and entirely unrestrained (or unconcentrated) freedom of thought is not, in fact, productive.
In part three, I made use of some financial principles and suggested that the most productive behaviours are ones that continue to be productive in the future. I argued that if we expand our time horizons, and consider the future impacts of our behaviours in the equation, would that change what you determine to be the most productive use of your time today? The analogy I used here was business valuation. You should not value a business based on how productive it has been previously (how much money it has made), but instead, the value is based on how productive it will be (how much money it is calculated to generate in the future).
Applying this logic to our purposes, I suggest that you should not get stuck in a conception of productivity that aims to do things that were profitable in the past, only faster. Instead, you should be constantly examining what will best serve your needs in the future. This requires significant critical thinking in order to do successfully. Firstly, because it requires you having accurate models of the world around you in order to even attempt a useful extrapolation. Secondly, it means that you must be honest and critical with yourself, not an easy task when ego and emotions are at stake.
In the fourth instalment, I told a short story about a supervisor who had multiple construction projects that he was overseeing the completion of. The supervisor’s approach to ensuring the efficient completion of both these projects was to switch back and forth in a fairly frequent manner. This resulted in poor outcomes as the small cost of time and financial resources, expended each time the supervisor switched projects, ended up significantly hurting the project. From this we can draw a powerful insight: from little things, big things can suffer. In order to better navigate situations like this, I introduced the concept of ‘second-order thinking,’ which is in essence; how will making this decision, impact my ability to make decisions in the future? Both in regard to the ones I will have to make, as well as the ones I will not be able to, even if I want to.
Following on from this—it was a lengthy post—I applied these principles to the resources of the brain. I elaborated on the fact that hyper-liberal use of attentional resources—by switching back and forth between tasks—can back you into a cognitive corner. Doing so is a problem, as the expensive parts of your brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, are essential for focusing and doing the most efficient and effective work you can. However, if you deplete yourself of attentional resources by too much multitasking, you will have the inability to pay the “workers” you need the most when it comes down to it.
The previous and penultimate article in this series was elegantly titled “Chicken Sandwiches”. I formally introduced the switching-cost and elaborated further on the benefits of staying on task for longer periods. Not only does it reduce the expenses associated with switching, but it also because it allows you to move towards a state of “deep work” or “flow,” which are synonymous for our purposes here and ultimately describe the state of being that makes productive work seem (more) effortless.
I then told another—potentially even weirder—story, this time about chicken sandwiches. The essence of this tale, was to highlight that cramming more chicken into a single sandwich (akin to time between change of tasks), means you can have more chicken and less bread, for the same amount of calories (akin to more productive output for the same amount of time). Admittedly, this was an odd way to go about it, but hopefully the message was interpreted amongst all the oddness.
And with that, we come to the concluding instalment.
Today, I will add a final layer and some strategies to enhancing both the broad aspects of productivity that I have separated into the processes of critical thinking and concentrating.
Filling up on egg whites
As I mentioned in my previous article, the idea of multitasking is pretty much settled in academic circles, and because of this, I do believe a good portion of the general public is aware that it’s a trap to avoid—or at least those who take a leisurely interest in the psychology literature do.
Something that is not so clear—and is admittedly more practical than discussions around fuel availability in the brain—however, is avoiding anything that is only mildly or moderately productive. Even if being undertaken in a focused manner.
This seems counterintuitive—as essentially all good advice is (if it was intuitive, it wouldn’t need to be advice). However, I consider this advice to be overwhelmingly on the money, and I believe you will be benefitted by the idea.
The following comes from James Clear’s excellent website…
(Additionally, Warren Buffett is about to feature in, I believe, his fifth article of this series. This was completely unintentional; but when someone has been consistently on the money—both literally and figuratively—for so long, they have demonstrated they know what they are talking about.)
In his article, Clear writes:
Mike Flint was Buffett’s personal aeroplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.
Here’s how it works…
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
[Pay attention, the next bit is the important part]
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
Ok, back to me.
As I said, this might seem counterintuitive prima facie—and it is—but this is a profound insight. If you can internalise this principle, I believe your short and long-term productivity (and the outcomes you reap from it) will be significantly improved.
If you do this process in the way that it was described, then those top tasks are inherently the most important. If you do anything else, then you are not attending to what you determined was the most important things for you to do.
This process is useful, because it gives you objective feedback about whether or not you are undertaking “busy work”—you know, the stuff that looks and feels productive, but really isn’t.
Busy work is often used as a guise to seem like you are doing something in a professional sense when really you are just slacking off, but it is something that we also fool ourselves with and short-changes us on personal goals, too.
I consider this to be like filling up on egg whites.
Sorry. I know, another food reference.
When it comes to eggs, for the most part (and yes there are caveats to this, but I am speaking generally) the yolk of the egg is by far the most nutritious element of it.
The yolk contains an abundance of nutrients including protein as well as essential fatty acids, choline, folate, zinc and vitamins A, D, E & K (among many others).
Egg whites on the other hand contain protein and not much else. They contain something that is useful, but their effectiveness for enhancing nutrient status is relatively poor. Yolks, on the other hand, are potent in that regard.
The reason I draw this parallel, is because I want you to consider those 5 tasks (or however many you actually decide, the number isn’t important, only the principle) as the yolk of your “productivity egg.”
Do NOT spend all your time eating the egg whites. In fact, the less time you do that, up until all the yolk has been eaten, the better.
This is because you want to eat the most important things when you are hungry or do the most important things when you are motivated.
If you wait until you’re partially full to eat the yolks, or you’ve used up plenty of energy, time and motivation on busy-work, then you are much less likely to finish what you need to eat or do what you need to do.
Doing what you know is most important first, and nothing else, allows you to stack the odds of productivity in your favour. It helps you defend against reduced productivity, whether it be caused by your own lack of will or external interruptions.
“But…” Rationalising egg whites
Consider the statement: It needs to be done.
This sounds like a declaration of something completely objective, something definitive, but it isn’t. All facts—as we know them, at least—are contextual.
Take for example, the seemingly inarguable statement: 2 + 2 = 4
This too, is contextual—it depends on which level we are having the discussion. The above equation is only considered true based on how we currently conceive of, and communicate, with numbers.
Now, I’m not making the relativist claim that we can bend the laws of mathematics with the whim of our minds, and that “perception is reality.” The irrefutable laws of mathematics do not change. None of us, alone, can make 2 + 2 = 18, or any other number, from an objective standpoint.
However, what is possible, is representing different meanings with different symbols—which can alter the subjective interpretation.
There is nothing constraining us from saying: 3 + 3 = 4
This can be true, if the statement is embedded in a different context, one where 3 represents what we currently understand as 2. Or, 4 represents what we currently understand as 6.
Or, as an additional example, consider the childhood classic “opposite day.”
While I’m sure I don’t have to explain the concept, but basically on this day (which can be announced randomly, at any point a child desires), ‘no’ means ‘yes’ and ‘yes’ means ‘no.’
And this is because, these “facts” are encapsulated by the context of “opposite day,” which determines what symbols stand for what.
Here we see that in different contexts, how words are defined, and the meaning they convey, changes.
Let’s tie this back in with productivity…
“It needs to be done” is not always (or should not be) the convincing reason it pretends to be. Often this phrase is better translated to “it’s what I would prefer to do”—rather than re-engineer the situation, creating a more effective interaction between the problem and selected solution.
And by no means is that a major concern. It is often completely acceptable to do what we prefer.
The point I am making, though, is justifying something based on it “needing to be done” is typically more of a rationalisation, than a reason. Recognising that is important for our purposes here.
Bills need paying, the lawn needs mowing, your bum needs scratching and the problem of world-peace needs solving… However, based on the “needs doing” logic, you can justify doing any of these, selecting whichever task you please.
For this reason, changing our understanding of the context is key for comprehending more appropriate facts, and thus making more appropriate—and effective—decisions.
Do Better Than “Any”
In Deep Work, Cal Newport discusses what he calls the “any-benefit approach” that many take to their social media use.
Newport defines the any-benefit approach as: being justified in using a tool if you can identify ANY possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.
In my experience, this is not only an extremely common approach to justify (typically excessive) social media use, but also, it is a unidimensional approach to solving almost any multidimensional problem.
This is an example—among other things—of what is known as scope neglect.
Without getting into the weeds too much, scope neglect refers to basically only considering something as important based on the way it is categorised, not the size or magnitude of said thing.
For example, when people are asked questions like: How much money would you pay to save the lives of 10 little ducklings? They might say something like $100.
Then, if asked a follow-up question of: How much money would you pay to save the lives of 250 little ducklings? They will tend to respond with an answer that is not much more than the original $100.
I am simplifying here, but essentially the person is making the decision via thinking “I am willing to pay roughly $100, in order to make good things happen.”
With ‘good things’ being defined categorically, such as saving some ducklings.
We then make the same scope neglect mistake with how we go about our own personal or professional productivity—or social media use, as in the example above.
Once something crosses the threshold of “providing benefit,” “needs doing” or “is productive,” we use it or do it. Irrespective of whether we could be doing something 10-times more important or productive with the same portion of time.
Our minds are very black-and-white, we put complex phenomena such as tasks, tools and even people into simplified categories of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
This is how the simplistic, any-benefit approach comes about. However, we can do better.
Sit down, work out what you need to do.
Next, bring your awareness to every other seemingly-productive-but-ultimately-distracting-task.
Then, avoid them like the plague until you have done what you need to do.
I wish I had better advice to give you—or at least better sounding, I think this is still great advice in practice.
Unfortunately, the hard part lies ahead though. We all need to apply this logic to our own situations and work it out for ourselves. The best I can do is tell you what not to do, and give you a strategy to work towards what you should. You just need to decide what tasks and projects you value the most.
Remember: It’s no good eating egg whites until you can’t stomach any more food if you end up dying of a vitamin deficiency.
Any benefit is not enough when you’re looking for better results.
We will now turn our minds to the second of the two valuable and complementary skills that I implore you to consider developing; concentration.
When I suggest developing them, however, I feel that such a process is more readily applied to critical thinking—it more closely resembles a muscle that you can train, given time and effort.
Alternatively, for the most part, I do not believe you develop concentration. It is not something that you make stronger in order to overcome its opposing force. Instead, concentration is more about mitigating the environmental factors that have the potential to destroy it.
Considered like this, concentration is less of a skill that you develop, and more so one that you already have that, which you must allow or permit to occur.
An analogy could be that concentration is like a balloon you are playing with. Once it pops, you need to spend some time blowing up another one.
In order to be maximally productive, we are looking to maximise how much time we spend playing with the un-popped balloon.
To me, this is what improving concentration is about. In my observation, though, many people go about this incorrectly.
When looking to improve their concentration, many think much more about to how to make their “concentration balloon” more robust and impenetrable, rather than reducing the amount of “sharp objects” that are in the area.
Not to say that attempting to develop a “stronger concentration-muscle” is a futile task. What I am saying, however, is that you will likely be better served by first reducing the amount of weight it must lift.
In everyday terms: you don’t need Zen-like focus, you just need to minimise distractions.
However, most—believe it or not—are unwilling to undertake this small, yet significant step.
First you need to select an important task to work on (which is why the previous section is important), something that is clearly meaningful and serves a greater purpose. It’s practically impossible to concentrate on something that lacks meaning and is uninteresting to you.
Once you’ve selected your task, then all you really need to get the roadblocks and little red alerts out of the way and begin building momentum.
Again, I will draw a parallel between the psychological and physical here.
Working on a challenging task is like resistance-training at near maximal weights. If you continue to allow the early stages of the process to be interrupted—physically; as you warm up, or psychologically; begin progressing towards a state of flow—then you will never get to the heavy lifting or deep work, where the real challenge is met and progress made.
Part of productivity is doing the things that allow you to “unlock” the capacity to do the most important things. Don’t get stuck in an endless cycle of warming-up.
Strategies to childproof your concentration
We are now going to discuss childproofing your concentration, so that you can efficiently move through your warm-up sets, reaching the point of actual productive work, and staying there for as long as possible.
I call this “childproofing” for two reasons.
Firstly, because the removal of sharp objects that may pop your concentration balloon is akin to childproofing your house, such as when you ensure cupboards/drawers cannot be opened and the child can’t come into contact with dangerous items or sharp edges etc.
Secondly, because this activity must be undertaken by an adult.
I make this second point because the strategies are not what you typically want to do. However, this is in essence what being an adult is about; you do what is required, not what is wanted.
Irrespective of age, not that many actually do, however. That is what I find to be the interesting thing about the following strategies. Although they are simple and widely known, they are still significantly under-utilised.
I know a handful of individuals who use them, and a ton who talk about it but never actually do.
However, this is how some people get ahead. If you’re willing to do what others aren’t, you will go where others can’t.
So, while I don’t promise that any of these strategies will be overly novel, I do believe their implementation can border of revolutionary from a productivity standpoint.
Strategy Number 1: Silence & Separate
This one is going first because it is the lengthiest and most important.
This strategy is aimed at negating probably the single largest source of distraction in our lives for the last 10+ years; our phones.
I will write about social media and phone use more at length in the future, so I will cut a few corners here. But for the sake of someone who only reads this piece and never reads the next one, I will still attempt to convey the severity of the situation, only more sparsely.
Let’s jump in.
To start drastically; phones kill. They kill our ability to experience personal solitude while we are alone. They kill productivity at the office. And they literally kill people on our roads.
Yet we have grown so attached to them, and many get defensive anytime they are criticised.
This is understandable. A portion of “us” exists inside our phones.
Phones have become part of our identity, and what makes us who we are. The most obvious example of this is the use of social media, where people presents themselves in a manner that differs from the “real them,” in degrees varying from slightly to entirely.
However, there has always been a variety of you’s out there.
You aren’t the same person around your parents as you are around your friends, so social media isn’t entirely novel in that regard—it now just offers a more curatable, digital-version, which has led to people obsessively crafting their image to legitimately pathological degrees. But I digress.
With this said, it is not only those prone to social media use that now exist, in part, on the digital plane—a place that, somewhat eerily, can be distilled all the way down to 1s and 0s.
Even if you are strongly anti-social media, yet you use your phone to store photos and videos, then a portion of who you are and what makes you, you is on that slim little device.
Our memories contribute significantly to our sense of identity, and our phone “remembers” things way better than we do, whether it be so-and-so’s phone number, what we wore to that NYE party in 2016 or what our sibling looked like as a child.
For these reasons (and more), our phones alter how we perceive and interact with the world—making them fundamental to who we are.
Not all of who you are is good—and that is one of the issues with the “you’re perfect the way you are” movement.
We all have narcissistic tendencies or malevolent motivations, among other imperfections. No one is perfect the way they are.
Now, this doesn’t mean everyone is entirely un-acceptable either but promoting mediocrity of character seems morally questionable to me.
This same logic applies to our phones. Even if we accept them as part of who we are—as established— who we are is not always “good,” and portions of ourselves are not perfectly aligned, in interest, with the best interest of our self as a whole.
I say all this for two reasons:
1) Recognising that phones occupy a portion of identity, and thus we are prone to visceral, emotional, rather than calculated and logical reactions, when their use is condemned…
2) The interests of the phone and its software (designers), is most likely not perfectly aligned with our best interests as a human organism as a whole…
Are crucial for being able to hold the device at arm’s length, analysing it as objectively as possible, so that it can then be used as effectively as possible.
Now that those premises have been established, let’s circle back.
Our phones destroy productivity—at least when it comes to most forms of knowledge work (when your brain, rather than your body is how you produce value).
Undoubtedly, there are uses for your phone, but I’m not discussing corner-cases here (remember, we need to do better than an any-benefit mindset). I am speaking more generally.
By and large, the majority of people would get a greater amount of more important and useful things done, which would most likely enhance the meaning and value of their lives, if they were on their phone less.
I single out phones here because various streams of data indicate that phones are inherently more “addictive” than other forms of similar technology, such as our laptops or television.
If we can get our phone use right, it will likely have a greater impact on general productivity than an intervention focused on any other device.
An example of the power of the phone over the laptop would be that of Facebook’s advertising data.
To quote from Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport:
“Something big happened to Facebook starting around 2012. In March that year, they began, for the first time, to show ads on the mobile version of their service. By October, 14 percent of the company’s ad revenue came from mobile ads, making it into a small but nicely profitable piece of Mark Zuckerberg’s growing empire. Then it took off. By the spring of 2014, Facebook reported 62 percent of its revenue came from mobile … by 2017, mobile ad revenue rose to 88 percent of their earnings, and is still climbing.”
In April last year, this number had progressed further to 93 percent, with revenue sitting at a pretty $13.9 billion.
For sake of brevity, I won’t elaborate too much further. But I will give a quick summary of what that translates to.
First thing first; advertisers pay for where the eyeballs are.
Technology companies, such as Facebook try to make their software as sticky and seamless as possible, so that it infiltrates user’s lives to a significant extent, and they then spend progressively more time on it.
The company can then charge more and more for advertising space on its platform. This is what has become known as the “attention economy,” where tech companies sell your time and attention to marketers. Facebook, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook), Twitter, Snapchat etc. all function in this way.
But hey, you are choosing to use the software, aren’t you…?
This is why reducing the attentional-gravity of our phones—at least during certain times—is key for productivity purpose. If we aren’t careful, we can get sucked into the applications vortex.
Now, the strategy…
A common solution for dealing with your phones is putting it on “Aeroplane mode,” which helps to make it relatively dull for a period of time. This is due to the reduced functionality of the mode, which helps to prevent unexpected interruptions via text, phone call or any other notification your settings may allow for.
To add another layer of complexity though, it seems that preventing notifications and alerts doesn’t completely mitigate the problem.
A 2017 study showed that cognitive performance was reduced significantly (statistically speaking) in relation to the proximity of your phone—even when it was turned off!
The study titled “Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity” and had the following to say (with references omitted for the sake of readability)…
“Because the same finite pool of attentional resources supports both attentional control and other cognitive processes, resources recruited to inhibit automatic attention to one’s phone are made unavailable for other tasks, and performance on these tasks will suffer.”
What we see here is essentially the same as what was discussed in the article on the switching-cost. If you present options to stray from your task, then even if you manage to stay on task, it comes at a cost. Removal of the option is the best way forward for managing your attentional and other cognitive resources.
“[W]hen consumers are engaged in tasks for which their smartphones are task-irrelevant, the ability of these devices to automatically attract attention may undermine performance in two ways. First, smartphones may redirect the orientation of conscious attention away from the focal task and toward thoughts or behaviors associated with one’s phone. Prior research provides ample evidence that individuals spontaneously attend to their phones at inopportune times, and that this digital distraction adversely affects both performance and enjoyment. Second, smartphones may redistribute the allocation of attentional resources between engaging with the focal task and inhibiting attention to one’s phone. Because inhibiting automatic attention occupies attentional resources, performance on tasks that rely on these resources may suffer even when consumers do not consciously attend to their phones.”
Our phones are constantly vying for our attention, and they are most likely thought of as something that we “choose” to use, but instead, we may best consider them as something that we use when we can’t hold out against them any longer. Phones exert a consistent pull on our attention, and therefore we must match this force with one that is, at least, equal and in the opposite direction—just as Luke must against the dark side, or Frodo does with the call of the ring.
Additionally, the research indicates that not only does our performance on tasks go down when we attend to our phones, but also the enjoyment we get from the task does too. Not ideal.
The second point made above, though, is crucial. In essence, phones reduce cognitive performance even when they are not consciously attended to (we literally don’t know we are thinking about them)—which is the purpose of inhibitory mechanisms—however, operating these mechanisms comes at the cost of other cognitive processes that would have otherwise been used for more effective work on the task at hand.
“Similarly, research in the educational sphere demonstrates that using mobile devices and social media while learning new material reduces comprehension and impairs academic performance.”
Given that the future is bound to be new and more complex than the current moment, as well as everything preceding it, learning is one of—if not the—most important traits for future success (which both critical thinking and concentration support). Because of this, anything that inhibits learning must be used very cautiously, if one has ambitions of being productive and/or successful.
“However, mobile device use does not affect performance on self-paced tasks, which allow individuals to compensate for device-related distractions by picking up where they left off.”
Tasks where the pace isn’t set for you, but is instead set by you, do not appear to be detrimented by phone use.
However, this is not a “win” for phones. The task still takes longer, it’s just that the quality of the task isn’t impaired in the same way that other tasks are.
And this is the exact trap that most fall into. Most professional and personal projects have a self-paced component (if they aren’t entirely). Because of this, the time it takes to reach task completion is somewhat flexible, and thus is typically substantially inflated by phone use.
What this means is, in the best-case scenario, phone use doesn’t reduce the effectiveness of how a task is completed, but still reduces the efficiency at which it is. However, in the majority of cases, it reduces both.
Double-whammy for reverse-productivity.
Yep. Your phone reduces performance on measures of working memory capacity and fluid intelligence—and the closer it is to you, the worse the effect.
“We provide evidence that the mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversely affect two measures of cognitive capacity—available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence— without interrupting sustained attention or increasing the frequency of phone-related thoughts. Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds; however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand.”
Basically, if your phone is nearby and even if you don’t think it is distracting you, the research shows it is still reducing your cognitive power—even when you’re unaware of it.
Your phone literally makes you less intelligent and does it without you knowing.
“The specific cognitive capacity measures used in our experiments are associated with domain-general capabilities that support fundamental processes such as learning, logical reasoning, abstract thought, problem solving, and creativity”
You know, the kind of things that would make you valuable, skilled and good at your job.
And finally, adding to this, the researchers also looked at how phone-dependence impacted these results…
“Experiment 2 also provides evidence that these cognitive costs are moderated by individual differences in dependence on these devices. Ironically, the more consumers depend on their smartphones, the more they seem to suffer from their presence—or, more optimistically, the more they may stand to benefit from their absence.”
If you want to do quality work and produce it in a somewhat efficient manner, lend some thought so using the silence & separate strategy—particularly if you are someone who was feeling a little defensive of your phone while reading this.
Strategy Number 2: Other Notifications Off (email, Slack etc.)
Following on from the above, you will likely be better served by reducing the number of notifications your laptop or other work devices allow for too.
Relating to the switching-cost, one study titled “Reducing the effect of email interruption on employees” showed that the average worker checks their email once every 5 minutes and takes just over a minute to resume the task they were working on.
Doing so means you are burning 1 out of every 6 minutes!
At this rate, email alone reduces the 8-hour workday to 6 hours and 40 minutes. Throw in Slack, text messages, phone calls, social media and in-person interruptions, and it’s no surprise people get little done.
Turning off email & other laptop-based notifications is a step in the right direction.
At this point, you might then suggest that you can keep notifications, but just chose not to respond to the emails and notifications at that time.
Well, doing so is certainly not the most efficient use of your decision making resources. As we have previously explored.
Saying ‘no’ is a lot harder than saying ‘yes,’ so each time you see a notification and you need to will yourself to not respond and to stay on task, you are depleting your cognitive reserves more than is ideal—and you are going to be partially, if not completely distracted now anyway.
Even if you stay on task, a portion of your brain will be thinking about that email you ignored—just like in the phone example used above.
Strategy Number 3: Headphones & White Noise
Headphones are a gamechanger. However, I will specify that based on my understanding of the research, you are likely best served by listening to white noise, not music.
Sure, music may be more interesting, engaging and enjoyable, but that’s not the point. You want to listen to something, such as rain sounds to blur out the noise in the environment, without it grabbing your brain’s attention specifically.
So much of what allows our brain to function more effectively, is allowing it to focus on fewer things at once, by having more distinct boundaries. Engaging music disrupts this and blurs the boundary between the task you’re working on and what you are listening to.
Following on from this—and this is probably going to sound like your classic introvert opinion—but even if your working environment is quiet, you should often still wear headphones for no other reason than signalling that you do not wish to be engaged.
Now, of course, someone still may need your help, or you may even still be interrupted for a trivial reason, but it at least tends to make people consider interrupting you first.
This again highlights why sometimes you need to make decisions that are best for you, not what you want. If you’re a hardcore extrovert and love social interaction, then you may be quite averse to signalling you shouldn’t be interrupted. You may relish the social engagement provided by your work/study/whatever environment.
However, at this point, you now have a conflict of values. Do you wish to be engaged in social behaviour, or to approach maximal productivity? You can choose either, but not both.
Now I am not saying that you wear your headphones to strategy meetings or group-study sessions. Of course, I understand that there are various forms of highly productive behaviour that involves conversation and discussion. What I will say, however, is that there is very often a lot more talking than is required for maximal productivity.
At a certain point, you’re either talking about work or you’re doing the work.
Again, something I am not saying, is that you must prioritise productivity and work over everything else. If you mostly value the social aspect and comradery provided by the activities that you engage in, then that is 100% absolutely fine by me.
The point I am making is a general if-then statement, of which, you can only choose the if’s.
IF you wish to be maximally productive, THEN you must limit the degree of talking you do (irrespective of whether or not you enjoy conversing).
Hey, don’t get angry at me. I didn’t write the laws of the universe.
Strategy Number 4: Fullscreen your apps
This one seems almost trivial, but it works.
These strategies really are about small and incremental improvements than can have a profound effect, both when combined, and when allowed to impact outcomes over time.
The software that runs on our computers—for the most part—is designed to keep us there. A product that is being used is clearly more valuable than one that isn’t.
It is for reasons such as this, that software is made with the purpose of easy navigation.
Take your chosen internet browser for example. Chrome, Safari, whatever, they all make it extremely easy to click open another tab—because the more tabs they can get you to open, and the further you go down the rabbit-hole, the more time you spend using their product.
You might be reading an article and then you need to check what a word means, then you need to read about some background information to understand a section. Before you know it, you’ve got 6 additional tabs open and you started out with just one.
The same thing occurs with sites like YouTube or Reddit. There’s a buffet of options, and you end up piling more and more onto your attentional plate. You end up being too greedy for your own good and your focus is being pulled all over the place.
If you full screen your apps, you can help avoid this problem. Whether it be recreational purposes, such as watching YouTube with the video maximised, or a professional one, such as turning on “focus mode” in Microsoft Word.
I will leave it at that.
I have attempted to arrange these strategies in a descending order starting from general/more impactful to specific/less powerful.
“Number 1: Silence & Separate” really is the game-changer. However, I don’t write this to smear smartphones or software companies.
I share this information because I think it is not comprehended or appreciated to the degree that it should. In fact I would even go so far as to say that I think it has some moral implications.
From what the research shows, many cognitive abilities—such as, but not limited to I.Q.—do not appear to be very malleable. To an extent, you are stuck with what you’ve got, and there is an inherent unfairness to genetic determinism.
Therefore, when research comes along that highlights the effect of environmental influences on cognitive performance, I believe it is important to share this information.
This puts the power more so back in the hands of the individual. Irrespective of what cognitive abilities were bestowed (or forced) upon you via genetic means, you can do something to maximise them—or at least prevent their diminishment in comparison to others—by controlling various aspects of your behaviour and environment.
That just about wraps things up for this journey through productivity—as a product of concentration and critical thinking.
I consider productivity a highly important topic, as you can likely tell. If we lived in an infinite universe then this wouldn’t be an issue—but this is not the case.
In fact, we live in an all too evidently finite universe one. There is only so much time, food, employment, knowledge etc. and that is why we need to do what we can to make better use of our limited resources.
Therefore, when it comes to the strategic use of resources in a finite reality, you cannot only consider whether or not something can have ANY benefit, the issue is whether or not the time and energy spent on the task could be better spent elsewhere.
And once you have decided which important task you are going to work on, you should give it all your attention and available cognitive resources, so that whatever is produced is the most effective version, created in the most efficient amount of time.
This is why I think we need to be much more self-aware of when we are undertaking busy-work, which is like a productivity-parasite.
Something Amos Tversky said in relation to people continually doing the same, near pointless things for the sake of keeping busy, rather than finding superior alternatives was: You waste years by not being able to waste hours.
Now, let’s summarise.
Don’t be the person who makes productivity the end goal. Don’t waste hours pissing away time looking for the productivity hack.
Your job is to get better at sorting through your tasks and selecting the right one, not necessarily the easy one.
Then get better at starting, try to spend less time fluffing around—it’s work, ditch the foreplay.
Finally, get better at staying on track. Don’t give in to every single impulse.
If you can improve on these core skills you will finish more projects, and more importantly, they’ll be higher-value ones.
Remember: There’s no award for clearing your inbox.
I thank you for joining me on this journey through productivity. I understand it was long, however, I did attempt to keep the primary message as simple as possible by distilling productivity down to two key components. Everything beyond that was elaboration, explanation, and even some experimentation. My goal was to offer a multidimensional and comprehensive view that started from the basis of a relatively simple theory.
And I will leave you with this quote by James Clear…
“The more control you have over your attention, the more control you have over your future.”