"The Alchemist" by William Fettes Do...

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Productivity is a big thing in my part of the universe. Everyone thinks they’ve cracked the secret for turning time into gold. Modern day alchemists, the lot of us.

This gives us a pervasive culture of 20-somethings busting their backs to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of their day. Sleep, sex, health and culture be damned! If you condense your whole working life into five years of a startup you’ll be rich didn’t you know? Then everything will be alright!

I have this deeply seated hunch that it won’t be alright. You’ll never be a 20-something again. Ever seen a top athlete when they hit 35? They can barely walk, if they’re lucky they get to train a bunch of 20-somethings, but more often than not they just sort of wither away and nobody hears of them again.

You’re doing that to your brain.

But with mental tasks productivity doesn’t increase linearly with time worked. Every hour spent working hard is a tax on the next hour you want to spend working hard. And so on until you can spend hours, even days, working without achieving.

Remember the quote “You speak a lot, but you don’t say much”? Same goes for working a lot.

A couple weeks ago an article titled If you’re busy, you’re doing something wrong floated around the internets. It was about a study comparing the crème de la crème of violinists at an elite school in Germany with those that are just the crème.

Think of it like comparing Senna and Schumacher. Newton and Feyman. Even Turing and Torvalds.

Nederlands: Leistenen beeld van Allan Turing, ...

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The study found that despite putting in the same amount of measurable work (hours spent) those at the very top report being significantly less busy than those who are merely near the top. They also report having heaps of free time and generally having a rather easygoing lifestyle.

And yet, they significantly outperform those who are constantly busy and under pressure.

With this in mind I started looking for ways of fighting being busy. The first thing I noticed was that under crunch time Itend to do a little bit of everything every day. Two hours on this project, three hours of school and so on.

Makes me feel super productive! Moving forward on every project every day. How much better than that can you get?

But the reality is that context switching presented significant overhead and while I felt productive, I was actually just wearing myself out and producing ever worse amounts of crap.

So for the past few weeks I’ve only been working on a single project every day. Some days are reserved for school, some are reserved for freelancing and so on. This way I can go about my weeks in a pretty relaxed manner, even managing to have a decent social life, while still getting everything done!

It’s amazing. I heartily suggest you try it.

But this is all just talk. I don’t have anything other than anecdotal evidence to support my findings, so next week I am starting a four week one-man study trying to find the link between mental agility and being busy. I want cold hard numbers supporting this hypothesis.

If you want to help with the study to get a better sample, I’m all ears for volunteers ;)

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  • Anonymous

    Great post,  but I have a fear that cause and effect may be confused when it comes to the creme de la creme. Could it be that they are not so great because they don’t expend so much effort, but rather they don’t need to expend so much effort because they are so great? 

  • http://twitter.com/tangentcity Marc Lemay

    The elite work as hard or harder than the non-elite; see the article by Cal Newport that Swizec refers to: http://bit.ly/rrQQZS. As Stephen King said somewhere, we’ve all got to sharpen our stick (through hard work), but some of us have bigger sticks than others. The final effect is a function of effort and talent, but since the latter is unknown and only can be roughly evaluated retrospectively, the only thing that counts now is effort; and not just any effort, but the right kind of effort. You can almost say that the non-elite keep switching sticks, losing a lot of heat through context-switching. This totally reminds me of Paul Graham’s post on “fake work.” http://bit.ly/s0MQhd 

  • Anonymous

    I did read the Newport article subsequent to my comment and I agree, it drives the point home about focus vs. sheer effort. 

  • http://www.kvmswitchdvi.org phpguy

    Yeah switching back and forth between tasks/projects is less productive, but necessary sometimes especially in business.  You cant tell a customer your sorry i’m working on XYZ today.

  • http://twitter.com/zachinglis Zach Inglis

    Maybe it’s just me. But I’d rather work damned hard, over what I should for as long as I can until it becomes a problem… than take it easy. If/when it becomes a problem, I will asses it. Most importantly I can say “No regrets.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/DanSimerman Dan Simerman

    As a 20 something, I can relate to this.  Just waiting for the day I can be plugged into the internet and save time via upload.

    Anyhow, I like your blunt approach.  For that, I’ve shared your article with my startup newsletter  http://eepurl.com/hBZdA (Posthuman).  Keep up the great insights.

    Dan

  • No

    Newton and Feynman were both famous for working insane hours.  When you base your premise on that they didn’t have to work long hours, you make clear that you have no idea what you’re talking about.

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  • http://amr.clavid.com/ Amr Ali

    I think you have some faulty assumptions, first not everybody finds context-switching as difficult, for me, as an example, this is actually trivial, in fact I’m way more productive when I’m context-switching considerably between many *small* tasks.

    When it comes to tasks that require a lot of mental-crunching, I find it more productive to context-switch only on 1 hour basis to help with maintaining the focus span required for the task at hand without the side-effect of boredom.

    I juggle 5 full time jobs (yes I’m not human, but who is?) and have a perfectly healthy and satisfying social life!

  • Anonymous

    You seem to confuse productivity with the insane working conditions that so many (particularly young) knowledge workers acquiesce to.  

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_VAXUPLWSPNK55YLKNWXTOQHOPY q

    It’s not about what it works best for everyone, it’s about what works best for you. And even there, you can work out and improve that “context switching”, you know? Pretty much like everything else. You can get better. And having an old age, the same improvement effort is valid for maintenance - those athletes actually do work for maintaining themselves until they retire.

  • http://twitter.com/mizlandry mizlandry

    I enjoyed reading about this theory and hope to visit your blog to see where you go with this topic. I think, as in everything, moderation is key. As a mom with my own business, focusing on one thing at a time is just not possible, so I try and make lists and schedule what I’m going to be working on when. You might want to search to find a study from a few years about how women are better at multi-tasking than men. I think there is something to that. My husband cannot multi task for anything. When he’s at home working, he is easily frazzled when he has to shift gears. He can’t even help two kids with homework at the same time. I have learned in my middle age, to take breaks, recharge my batteries and set limits. I try not to do any business on the computer after 7pm. I don’t have any electronics upstairs (no cell phone, tv, computer…nothing). And, every day, I look at my schedule and block off at least 10 minutes of time where I do nothing (tho 20 minutes is better).

  • SocialCyn

    Awesome! Didn’t know how to get this out of my head and on paper, but you did! Thank you! Am going to implement this NOW! count me in as a volunteer, but don’t shoot me if I don’t accomplish it overnight; those with whom I work are yet subscribed to this bit of wisdom.

  • SamSam

    1) When you’re comparing Newton and Feyman, who was the crème de la crème and who was merely the the crème? Either answer will probably draw objections.
    2) Both Newton and Feyman worked very hard and very long hours
    3) You don’t address the obvious question: you seem to be implying that working less will make you more brilliant. It’s more intuitively obvious, though, that brilliant people may have to work less at it. You’re mixing up cause and effect.

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  • Maestrophil

    perhaps the creme de la creme are simply often naturally gifted and do not need to put in effort to excel…  Life IS easy for them.  I feel that is likely often the case – while those of us with simply adequate aptitudes have to work our A$$es off just to be “near the top” .  Stupid survival of the fittest!!!! 

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1276910101 Christopher M. Combes

    Focusing on one project each day is great for productivity.  However, I think there are exceptions to this.  If you are trying to learn a skill that requires daily practice (the “project” in this case), such as learning a new language, or a musical instrument, then it must be practiced every day.

    You can’t learn how to play the guitar by practicing only one or two days per week, for many reasons.  Your brain needs to be trained for music, but also your hands and fingers need daily exercising to build them up well enough to make continued progress.

  • http://swizec.com Swizec

    I think maybe it applies more to doing projects in the same or similar mind space.

    So while it is perfectly fine to do two hours of guitar and four hours of coding, it would be difficult to code for two hours on one project and then four hours on a different project.

    Sent from touch keyboard, excuse my spelling

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