The Only 3 Ways To Be More Productive
In an interview with fellow comedian Marc Maron, Louis CK recounted casting Horace and Pete, a show he put out in early 2016. At the time, Louis had already won over a dozen Emmy awards and been nominated for a few Golden Globe awards. You’d assume he would have his pick of whoever he wanted to work with. And indeed, his first cast member was Steve Buscemi who had his own case of awards including multiple Emmys and a Golden Globe.
What he did next thought was more impressive. He reached out to Joe Pesci. He got turned down. Then Jack Nicholson. Turned down. Then Christopher Walken. Turned down.
Listening to him tell the story, I couldn’t help but be struck by his audacity and courage. He was one of the most well-known comics and TV actors in the world, commanding a following capable of selling out a national tour in a matter of days. Yet he was not resting on his laurels, but reaching for some of the greatest living actors. And not for any show but for a show he was planning on distributing only through his website, where it was likely to get far fewer viewers than on television.
At the beginning of 2015, author Nassim Taleb tweeted “Use courage and wisdom, not labor, to make money.”
It encapsulated the only three ways to be more productive.
1. Labor – (AKA work harder)
2. Wisdom – (AKA work smarter)
When we think about being more productive, we almost always equate it with labor, working harder. We sometimes think about becoming wiser and working smarter, and we almost never think about how to be more courageous. Yet, which of these avenues is actually the one that yields the biggest gains?
The biggest productivity gains are actually gotten by addressing the question in the opposite order as Louis C.K. when casting Horace and Pete. He didn’t create any more hours in the day, he simply had the courage to reach out to some of the best actors in the world.
The path to productivity is organized in a hierarchy: courage is at the top, wisdom is just below it, and labor comes in last.
I doubt this was the first time Louis ever reached to levels that felt above his paygrade or attempted projects which, at first, seem overly bold, but that it’s the main cause of why he’s become successful.
Why is that and what can we learn from Louis’ example of acting courageously as a means to improve our own productivity?
The way we’ll approach it is the way that most people approach it is the way most people (including me) have approached it: by first trying to work harder, then smarter and finally with more courage.
Because you and I are both descended from monkeys, if I simply tell you “the answer is to be more courageous” you won’t believe me and it won’t make an impact on you and so we must disprove the other methods first.
Labor (AKA Work Harder)The reason most people trying to be more productive start at working harder is that it’s the most visible form of productivity.
It’s extremely difficult to correlate input with output. Were the three hours I spent writing that report this morning productive?
In most cases, it’s hard to know. If you work in a large organization, it’s effectively impossible to know who is generating the results and who isn’t. Even in small organizations or one-person shops, it’s difficult to know which activities lead to real results.
And so, we assume the solution is to simply put in more hours. And that’s true, up to a point.
The relationship between labor and productivity looks like this over the course an average week.
It takes a while to get into your peak productive state. This is a result of task switching costs. The switching cost remains even when you have plenty of warning of an upcoming switch.
It’s hard to sit down and immediately start doing something productive. If I can only work for thirty minutes, I usually won’t even bother and will read instead. By the time I pull up the files, remember what I was doing last time and where I left off, it’ll be time to stop.
While task switch costs can be minimized by strategies like batching (doing related tasks at the same time) and deep work (blocking out long period of time for important tasks requiring deep thinking), it can not be totally eliminated.
This is why it’s extremely difficult to achieve high levels of productivity when you are travelling all the time. You don’t have enough time to really ramp up to the peak.
Once you get past a certain number of hours per week though (10-20 hours per week or roughly 2-3 hours per day), you start to drop off. You use up your best cognitive energy and you can still do productive work, but not at the highest level you are capable of.
On a friday afternoon, you can still organize tasks or answer some emails, but you probably aren’t driving big projects forward right up to the buzzer.
This is supported by research popularized in Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.
If you study high performers across industries (music, painting, writing, entrepreneurship, math, engineering) and across time periods (1500 to present), no one I have studied has consistently (for months at a time) sustained in excess of twenty hours per week of high level output, most far less.
Charles Darwin engaged in “focused work with occasional trips to the snuff jar” for three hours each morning and Tchaikovsky did two hours of composition from 10am to noon with an occasional afternoon work session when he was feeling particular energized. They are two of the most influential people in the histories of their respective fields. Working an enormous number of hours obviously wasn’t their secret.
After two to four hours a day or 10 to 20 hours per week, you cross a threshold where you can’t do any more high-level creative work but still have the energy to do managerial and administrative tasks.
Darwin spent his afternoons reading, writing letters, and tieing up loose ends.
be more productive
At some point, you start to be negatively productive. I learned this writing my first book when I had the attitude that I would “push through.” I found that past a certain point, usually two hours of writing for the day, not only were the words I put down not good, they were actively hurting the writing. Putting in an extra hour was not just an extra hour of work that day, it created another hour of work the next day when I had to go in and edit and remove all the sections that I had ruined trying to do high level work in a suboptimal state.
I started to break my to-do lists into three sections and sort it by energy levels:
1. Maker – Highest level creative energy
2. Manager – meetings, email, outreach
3. Administrative – administrative tasks like paying bills, reviewing reports, and booking travel
I typically have 12-20 hours of high level work (maker work), another 12-20 of manager work, and another 10-15 of administrative work.
be more productive
At that point, you’re into negative productivity.
Based on the research I’ve done and corroborated by research from Stanford, the point where you pass into negative productivity is somewhere between 30-50 hours depending on your personal genetic makeup and external conditions (primarily: exercise, diet, and sleep).
Workers who worked sixty hour weeks were actually less productive than workers who worked forty hour weeks. Imagine someone giving you the choice between working forty hours a week for $1,000 ($25/hour) or sixty hours a week for $800 ($13/hour). Which would you choose?
So if we’re talking about maximizing productivity, working harder is a good strategy, up to a point. If you’re reading productivity essays on the internet, you are almost certainly people are almost certainly already at this point.
Wisdom (Work Smarter)
Once we top out on working harder, we move to working smarter.Working smarter can be divided into two categories: learning and productivity hacks.
Learning itself includes two things: consuming information to gain explicit knowledge and doing projects using that information to gain tacit knowledge.
Consuming information lets you learn from the mistakes of others more quickly and inexpensively than doing it yourself. It took over one hundred years for people to learn how to market products effectively but you can spend a month reading the five most important books in the field and learn 80% of the entire field. Indeed, I’ve met plenty of people who have “five years of marketing experience” that can’t market as well as someone who has worked in marketing for six months but read the fundamental books of the field.
However, it’s not enough just to read the books. Reading books gives you explicit knowledge, knowledge that can be readily articulated and verbalized. It does not give you tacit knowledge, the kind of knowledge that can’t be written down or verbalized.
While you can read books about playing the guitar to get explicit knowledge, you’ll never be a productive guitar player until you develop tacit knowledge through actually practicing guitar.
The same is true of every domain. Stephen King’s prescription for writers applies to every domain:
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
The other component of working smart is using so-called “productivity hacks.” That within the time you are doing projects to gain tacit knowledge, there are things you can do to increase your effectiveness.
Approximately 99% of everything written ever about productivity falls into this category because it is the most marketable. It usually requires very little time to implement and yields immediate rewards, just what consumers love to buy. This is not to say they aren’t useful, they are, but that if you start from the premise of “I want to be more productive,” productivity hacks are a relatively small piece of pie.
Having said that, here’s some of the ones I’ve found most useful:
Ceate a morning ritual to standardize the first thirty minutes to an hour of your day.
Meditate as a part of it.Use jumpcut to save a list of things you have copied.
Speed up your cursor speed in your settings.
Use a text expander to save commonly used phrases (like your address or commonly typed URLs).
the Pomodoro Technique to work in chunks. Use Freedom.to to block yourself from distracting websites during your maker time.
At the end of the day or week, make a list of your least valuable tasks and ask: “Is it profitable?” If not, stop doing it. If yes, can you delegate it?
Make a “Not To Do List” which lists all the things you frequently waste time on. (answering unknown numbers, responding to emails that should be archived, saying yes to meetings without a clearly defined purpose and agenda).
Use platforms like Upwork and Fancy Hands to outsource tasks which can be done for less than your hourly rate.
Use Calendly to schedule meetings.
Use Lastpass to store all your saved passwords.
Use The Email Game to process your email.
Plan your days and weeks around your natural rhythms. If you’re a morning person, don’t leave the most important work for the afternoon and if you’re a night owl, don’t feel guilty about sleeping mater.
Save articles to the Pocket and read them on your phone instead of leaving twenty tabs open.Use Clippings.io to sync your kindle highlights with Evernote so you can easily search through all your book notes.
Read and implement David Allen’s Getting Things Done system for task management.
Batch similar tasks into one chunk. E.g. Cook everything for the week on Sunday afternoon and save it for reheating or pay all your bills on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.
All these things help. I use all of them and am more productive as a result. However, they can also be a dangerous distraction by making you feel like you’re being more productive when you aren’t.
Imagine you want to become a professional hockey player. If you want to be good at hockey, you need to be able to do three things.
1. You need to know how to skate.
2. You need to know where to skate to (where is the puck going?)
3. You have to be willing to get hit.
Productivity hacks all about learning to skate better. Learning to skate better is important if you’re going to be a good hockey player, but only if you know where to skate and if you’re willing to get hit.
If you took an olympic gold medalist in figure skating and put them in a hockey rink, they would probably perform very badly.
Would the best solution to getting better be for them practice ice skating? Or is it for them to understand the strategy and tactics of hockey (via learning) and to develop the courage to get hit?
The answer is obvious and yet many times we react to our poor performance in the rink by trying to learn to skate better.
The popular perceptions is that people who are successful (whatever your definition of success) got there by the two methods discussed above. They no doubt did. But it still leaves a large gap. I know and have studied many people who work hard and work smart but seem to get much less done than they are capable of.
As I’ve continued to study successful people and meet some people that I would consider successful, the biggest factor in their success is courage.
Choosing to commit to a single project and running with it takes courage. Many people say they can’t pick a project because they “have lots of interests” or “too many ideas.” But what does this really have to do with being unwilling to focus? We all like lots of different foods, yet we always manage to pick something on the menu for dinner.
Why is it easy to focus on getting a single meal, but not choose a single project?
The perceived cost of failure of picking the wrong entree is incredibly low. No one is going to judge you for ordering chicken when the salmon turns out to be better, and, you can always get the salmon next time.
We don’t focus on projects because we perceive the cost of failure to be much higher. We say “it might not work” and that scares us. Instead, we split our attention between many things.
We do this for a well known evolutionary reason. Picking the wrong project, the one that might not work, really did used to be devastating.
Imagine you are part of a hunter gatherer tribe and you decide to try a new way of hunting will probably make it easier and faster to hunt large animals. Even though it’s a good bet (it’s likely to work), the downside is fatal. If it doesn’t work, you die.
And so, our ancestors are the ones who only did things which they knew were going to work. The people who tried projects that weren’t guaranteed to work died. Those are our ancestors.
Take a modern example of this evolutionarily conditioned response in action. Even if you are an aeronautical engineer who knows that never once in history has a plane crashed because of turbulence, when the plane starts to shake, you still grab the seat handles and pull up in an effort to lift the plane below you. These types of fear responses are hardwired by evolution into our brains’ reactions to certain stimuli.
The sense of fear that overcomes us when we feel a plane shake is the exact same one we feel when thinking about launching a project or committing to a single focus.
Tom Morkes, a friend and military veteran who served in Iraq, said he was more afraid the first time he published a blog post than when he went on patrol in an enemy controlled portion of a city at war.
We can objectively see that that is absurd. However, most of us fail to make the distinction between real and perceived risk.
Louis CK took very little real risk in attempting to cast Joe Pesci and Jack Nicholson, but he took a big perceived risk. Can you imagine calling Jack Nicholson and asking him to be in a project? It would feel terrifying.
It’s an ironic paradox because by choosing to focus on many things, we guarantee that none will work. In committing to many things, we commit to failure. Because we are unwilling to commit to a single thing, we don’t give anything the attention it deserves and all our projects fail.
And so, the choice is either commit to one thing and make success more likely, or commit to many things make success less likely. In our search for definiteness, for certainty, we sabotage our chances.
More than that, we often try to compensate for an unwillingness to commit with working harder. Instead of firing the team member who is dragging down the project, we work harder to make up for her. Firing her takes courage. It is emotional work.
In The 80/20 Principle, Richard Koch gives the example of a high school boy walking up to a high school girl and asking her on a date as an example of the 80/20 principle in action. Instead of going around and talking to all her friends and seeing what they think she’ll say, then composing a letter, then worrying about it, just walk up to her and ask her on the date. That’s courage, that’s the 80/20 in action.
be more productive
When we say something is “hard,” we typically think about the mechanics of something being hard.
It doesn’t translate well into the stories of people who were successful because they “worked hard.” Did they work plenty of hours? For sure. But the determining factor in their success is not hours. It’s courage.
If we’re seeking to be more productive the proper order in which to organize our resources is, first, courage, then wisdom, and, finally, labor. Committing to something and being willing to fail, to get hit, will pay off more than another twenty hours a week or another productivity hack.