Last year I read „The Power of Full Engagement“ by Jim Loehr for the first time. And it started to slowly open my eyes that I have been focusing on the wrong thing for a long time: Managing and maximizing time use. Everybody tells us to manage our time better, but this is not the most important key to improving our productivity.
Why we value volume over intensity
Just this week, as I am taking part in the VIP group at Coach.me, I was reminded to value the intensity of effort (energy) higher than the volume of effort (time). Naturally, the question comes up, why we are so focused on the volume of effort and try to squeeze in more working hours into our full-packed days. I suppose it all comes back to our mental model of productivity. And that has been shaped a lot by the industrial age. The invention of machines has skyrocketed our world’s productivity. And because of the huge benefits it brought, we oriented everything to the thing that brought the improvement. Machines could work all the time, so humans should also if they want to be able to compete.
At the same time, we overlooked a huge difference in humans and machines. Machines get a constant supply of energy and can thus work on a predefined task almost endlessly.
This is in the most basic sense how a machine works, you put in energy and it produces on a constant level:
This means the longer the machine works, the more output it produces. So it makes a lot of sense to focus on managing production time here.
Why the industrial production model does not make sense for human productivity
If we try to enforce this model on a human, we will soon encounter difficulties. Trying to force that machine-like discipline will not bring constant high-level output. Humans are more like this:
The level of energy and focus we can bring to something fluctuates. It should become clear, that we need a different model here that takes advantage of the human ability. Our advantage lies not in executing a specific pre-defined task. Machines are a lot better at this, this is why we have invented them and why we use them extensively. It does make sense to give this tasks to machines.
What we humans are good at is creative problem-solving. And this works quite differently. The main asset for this kind of work is focus. And to experience focus, we need to manage our energy wisely. The good thing is that we can do something about it. We cannot control time, but we can influence our energy levels.
The human productivity equation
Cal Newport writes in his book “Deep Work”:
High quality work produced = (time spent) x (intensity of focus)
Missing from this equation is skills or talent. But it is not really missing because in order to build skills you need intense focus and time.
Our focus is limited by a lot of things. The most pressing issue these days is distraction. There are so many things fighting for our attention that we need to be very intentional about what we want our minds to focus on.
Our attention is really the most precious thing that we have. It is even more precious than time. You can give somebody only five minutes of your time. But if he catches your attention, then that creates an influence that can go much much longer than that five minutes. So we need to be very careful of what to let into our minds.
And we need to manage our energy to create the best possible preconditions for focus. That means all the bodily things like eating well, sleeping and resting adequately and moving the body. And the mental things necessary, social life, having a big why we are doing the things we are doing. These things are not a nice thing to have, they are the preconditions of delivering high-performance.
I want to show one way how we often try to approach complex tasks. Let‘s look at something that needs high intrinsic motivation like writing a book or a thesis for example. We think we just need a big block of time to write something. Like this:
Now what happens if or when that big block of time arrives is usually very predictable. Nothing or very little. We expected that we would just turn the machine on and it will produce until we turn it off, i.e. our block of time is over. As we begin to realize that we cannot live up to the ideal of the machine we become very frustrated and look for all kinds of ways to become more like a machine. It doesn‘t work.
Humans are not machines. Humans need sophisticated energy management and a purpose in the things we are doing.
For the example of the book, there is another effective way to go about it, it is called contingency management. It looks like this:
You have regular bits of smaller time. Like one or two hours each morning. Or four hours each Saturday. I first read about this in Paul Silvia’s book “How to write a lot”, that people who practice contingency management get much better writing results than those who block a whole week or those who wait for inspiration to come to them.
Blocking a few hours regularly has quite a few advantages:
- Writing is thinking on paper and clear thinking needs extreme focus, which needs breaks to refresh.
- You stay close to your subject over some time and your subconscious can work on it.
- You see a little success each time which keeps you motivated.
- Starting a difficult task is easier when you know it is going to be over soon.
- Also, when you do things for extended periods of time you energy goes down, so there is a natural need for rest breaks in between.
- Further, contingency management is a way to limit overwhelm. As we break down a complex project into shorter units, it becomes more manageable. By breaking it into daily bits, the project does not seem as big a monster as before.
So contingency management is great for bigger projects. As to how to start each work session smoothly, there is one great tip by the very productive writer Ernest Hemmingway: He recommended stopping at a point when you are very clear what comes next. This way it is easier to start again the next day, because you know exactly what to do and you can pick up momentum faster.
Not everything is a big project, much of the things we do today are fractured, like e-mail and organizational tasks. Here the focus should be to get through a single task in one go. The reason is that you want to keep your mental space free.
This is why:
– Completing things gives you energy and a sense of accomplishment which can create momentum.
– If you have to take the task up again, that requires energy and not just time.
– If the task is not completed, it might still hold your attention while you are doing other things.
Next Play Speed
Another important thing concept I learned through Coach.me about focus is Next Play Speed. It basically means how fast you can switch from one completed task to the next. Now for that, we need to know that our attention often stays with the things we had it on last. The sooner we can completely engage our attention on the next task, the sooner we can produce results.
I think there is another benefit, that I yet need to test. I guess it creates more momentum. Right after completing a task, we usually have a feeling of accomplishment that raises our feeling that we can really produce stuff. After completing bigger tasks or projects, it might be important to take a little time to rest and celebrate to really enjoy that feeling and take energy from it. But it is always a good idea to start with the next project soon.
So to explain it visually, if we wait too long, keep our thoughts engaged in the last thing, our energy will go down. And starting will take a lot more energy again:
However, if you manage to start quickly with the next task or project, you can start the next thing at a higher energy level than starting from nothing:
What helps with this is to define the next task very, very small, easy and trivial. Like „open document X“, if you want to write something. If the next action is really easy and trivial to do, there is little fear involved, and thus we are more likely to tackle them directly.
How could you break down your big project into manageable regular units of 2hrs or less?
How quickly can you move from one task to the next?
What is the first tiny step of the next task you want to accomplish?