Experimenting with Einstein’s Theory of Productivity!
Manifesing your inner genius by sticking to a problem long enough
In a column in Boston Globe 1980, Woody Allen said,
“Eighty percent of life is showing up,”
I think Woody Allen is wrong (or at least partly wrong) when he says success is matter of showing up. It is not simply showing up, but also sticking with it.
In article writing about being a bad correspondent, novelist, Neal Stephenson, [author of Seveneves, Zodiac, among others] has this to say,
“ Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four.”
Neal confers that he needs this elongated amount of time to dedicate himself to the process of writing — his primary vocation.
In an era of clickbaits and multiple distraction — an entire population suffering from ‘shiny objects’ syndrome, it is quite odd to find such a conformist view of time that of Neal. However, my experiemental self, suggested that there could some sense in it and in fact, this could be an easier way to success, if we ‘stick to the problem’ long enough, instead of merely showing up. With that premise, I started an experiment.
Einstein’s Theory of Productivity
Showing up is only one part of the game. In fact that is the easiest part, I would argue. With so many options and choices available to today’s entrepreneur and executive, we are often pulled and in fact coerced into a multitude of ideas and options to work on.
For one, I have been one of those entrepreneurs who always found myself jumping from one ‘great’ idea to another. And in a microcosm of the day’s work, I also seem to jump form one task to another.
Cal Newport suggests doing fewer things, better. So, I did this experiment, based on Einstein’s idea of sticking to a problem long enough.
“It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” ~ Albert Einstein
The key work being ‘longer’. And I also learnt that the opposite of it is ‘multitasking’. Multitasking doesn’t mean you are doing multiple things simultaneously — you can’t. It is us being human. Multitasking would accurately mean jumping from one task to another quickly, rather than staying on it long enough.
This ability to focus on a single task for an extended period of time is what Tim Ferriss call’s it as superpower.
So in a way this experiment is about singletasking, as much as it about staying long on a task.
Premise of my ‘Genius’ Experiment
I called this ‘the Genius Experiment’, to stay with a task long enough. So I was trying to find,
- If I can actually work on longer extended hours of time — and arrive at ‘flow’, if that is even real.
- If that would help me concentrate and focus on the work like never before.
- Importantly, if this would help me ‘multiply’, not simply incrementally enhance my productivity.
With these expectations, I set aside a week to conduct this experiment — 5 days without any travel and strictly trying to follow the simple ground rules that I set myself to adher to.
Few ground rules
There are few ground rules I followed:
- I am not allowed to work on a ‘task’ and quit on it before 30 minutes — how much ever I may hate it. I didn’t have an upper limit. Interestingly, this opened up a lot of surprise for me at the end of this experiment.
- I also learnt that the detailed planning simply gives a false sense of control. So I did no detailed planning or allowed the work time to be invested (or wasted!) in planning. The planning stopped once I decided on the ‘project’ I want to work on. I didn’t do a detailed list of tasks that this project would involve.
- Though ideal, I tried to minimize the distraction as much as I can — particularly to the fact that I work from home and there are all types of distractions that I can succumb to. I also choose the week where I didn’t have a meeting to attend to or travel away from my home office.
- Finally, I allowed myself to have a ‘comfort’ break — to visit the loo or simply stand up and stretch, during the work hours. I have been following Pomodoro-style timeblocking for quite sometimes. I have a chrome extension that for every 25 minutes it blings. I am allowed to take a break if I want to, but if I want to (or when I am in flow) I can always feel free to ignore it and simply continue.
So, those where the simple rules that I followed.
Shocking and Unbearable
That is how I would describe the first half of week, during this experiment.
My first, but important, lesson I learnt was that — just because I decided to work on a single task and decided to concentrate doesn’t mean that I could summon it (‘focus’) automatically. The mindset or context setting didn’t help and I didn’t arrive at a singular sense of concentration immediately. This was a shocker initially. Because I told myself that I am giving myself, my mind — the ‘luxury’ to focus. But unfortunately my mind refused. As I learnt eventually, focus is not something that you conjure up, but it is state that you arrive at.
The process brought me focus only when I actually work on it long enough (and hence the premise of this article). It is only after some 15–30 minutes of continuous battering and soul-sucking boredom that I ‘arrived’.
I was able to access the deeper levels of thoughts and creativity — only after this initial struggle. There is no shortcut to it, I learnt painfully.
While the enthusiasm of the experiment helped me live through it in the first 2 days, it became unbearable on 3rd & 4th day. I almost decided to quit. I thought this isn’t for me. Or more importantly thought that the experiment is futile and it is a failure. I assumed that the novelty of a different and curiosity of the human mind cannot be won over.
But I waited for another day.
On the other hand, I also faced the realtime practical issue of attending to administrative tasks of running my business and collaborating with my team. The reason was that, by design, this experiment rendered me the gift of working on only 2–3 projects per day. Yes that is all I could mutter up doing, given the elangoted and extended hours that I forced myself to work on a project.
For example, consider this article. I usually incubate writing and publishing an article over days or even months. I continuously revise and edit as and when I get another idea and keep on refinining it — a 5 minutes here, a 10 minutes there. But taking this approach, I completed this article in only 2 blocks of time, spread over 2 days — one on Monday and another on Wednesday (that is today — 4th Dec, 2019).
Results — Surprising Yet Annoying
Yes, the results of the experiment were profoundly positive and helped me particularly overcome the above 2 issues. I not only was able achieve ‘flow’ during most part of my work week using this approach, but I also got projects to completion (like publishing this article).
But why annoying?
Because it was self-evident. That putting your mind to a problem long enough that you can always win it. That jumping from one task to another will only lead to failure, particularly after the initial excitement over the novelty wears off. These were painful truths that I have come to accept.
While the pain of sitting on a task — the moment when you are writing and your hands wouldn’t simply lose itself in making many typos — the fruit of completing a task was worth it. I must say, I ‘completed’ or ‘finished’ more projects during the experiment than otherwise.
Though I felt that I was able to engage on only few projects, I am realizing that I would have to do some deep digging in weeding out few of my projects that may not yield results in the long run. I need to decide between projects for novelty versus projects for impact and greater good. I will be doing it soon.
Now over to you
It is your turn now. I assume my experiment and the reflection on it had helped to appreciate a better way of working on big and important projects, rather than juggling with multiple tiny, low value tasks. More importantly, I hope you got to learn the value of sticking to a problem, a project long enough and not to be swayed away by shiny objects that might come by your way.
It is, I think, an insight both for productivity and career decision. So now ask yourself…
- What are the big projects that you would work — in the next week, next month or year?
- What are the ‘distraction’ projects that you would weed out?
- To start with, what is the next big project that you would stick long enough? And bring it to completion?
Wishing you all the best to it!
I would be glad to hear your stories and similar experiments on working on this ‘Long enough’ mode. Let us start this conversation and help more people to complete their big projects.