The Mechanics of Productivity

November 11, 2011

If there’s one thing that I was used to at university, as a diligent physics student, it was long study-sessions. No matter how early I tried to start, there was never quite enough time before exams to learn everything as well as I had been used to. I have a perfectionist streak, so this left a feeling of having left things unfinished with me. And I spent some effort in trying to think of how I can avoid this. After having tried out a number of different productivity systems, not entirely successfully, I decided that I needed to learn much more about the underlying psychology behind concentration and studying. And, it turns out that there are a number of fairly simple psychological principles that can help you in forming effective working habits.

Willpower is a limited resource

There is a psychological phenomenon called ‘ego depletion’, in which subjects who had needed to exert willpower in a task performed more poorly in a subsequent cognitively demanding test [1]. Since maintaining concentration on a task usually takes some willpower[2], this suggests that maximising the amount of time you spend in work is not always the best way to get the most done. Interestingly, exerting willpower or engaging in heavy cognition lowers blood glucose level, and it has been found that ingestion of glucose helps to counteract the effect of ego depletion.That is, a low level of glucose is to be avoided. It is for this reason that I always used to take energy drinks with me to a study session, and, when I was looking at other students around the library, I saw that I was not the only one to have picked up this habit. So, how does knowing about ego depletion change your approach to working? Well, firstly, these findings validate the notion of ‘taking a break’. Specifically, rest and doing things that make you feel good can replenish your reserves of willpower. This could be talking to other people, or watching funny videos, or many other things. You would intuitively expect this to refresh you, and you would be right. However, it was also found that by doing specific activities to regularly ‘exercise’ their self-control, people were able to decrease the rate of ego depletion; they were able to exercise more self-control[3]. This suggests that you should not just take a break when you are struggling, you should instead “time-box”. In other words, you should pre-commit to working for set periods of time, and allow yourself to take short breaks in between. This will allow you to increase your self-control over time. My approach, which I have recently taken up is based on the “Pomodoro technique”. For 25 minutes, I focus my attention on a single task, after which I may take a break of 5 minutes. Then repeat this until I have spent the desired amount of time on the task.

The other factor to optimize is your environment. Many people struggle with food - if tempting food is left in front of someone, they may find it difficult to resist it. But, the tempation is the same if the desired object is less tangible, for instance, it could be an enjoyable activity that was made easily accessible to you. Most commonly Facebook, Messaging, Twitter, Reddit, Youtube, Email. These would all fall into this category. The ‘nearer’ the temptation, the harder it is to resist. So, when you have something to focus on, turn off and/or hide your laptop and smartphone. They do instant gratification too well. I feel the urge to reach for my phone even as I am writing now, and I don’t think this urge is one that will go away easily. So, the best solution is to put the temptation further away.

Since, like many people, I do a lot of my work on the computer, I augment this with some more nuanced solutions to this problem. For instance, for writing I am using a full-screen program called OmmWriter so I can’t physically see anything else available on my PC. To go even further, there are a number of programs available that will block a set of websites so that they don’t distract you.

People have a very limited working memory

You can only manipulate between 4-8 concepts at any one time[4]. So, if you are tackling complicated problems, you need some way to capture everything external to the task you are working on right now, so that you can fully utilize your working memory. For me, the most important issue when you are trying to focus is being able to quickly record tangential ideas that come into my mind. For, if you pursue them, then you will lose your original train of thought, but if you do not you may well forget them due to your state of narrowly focused attention. I use Evernote as a tool for storing unsorted ideas, and Workflowy as a tool for organising my projects, so I tend to record my thoughts in one of the two places. Both are excellent, highly flexible and intuitive pieces of software.

Another consequence of having a small working memory is that we need to define tasks very narrowly in order to be most effective. David Allen in GTD particularly emhasizes this idea, exhorting the reader to slice up tasks into a series of directly actionable ‘next steps’[5]. For, imposing this structure on the task makes the actual execution of each step much easier. Programmers also talk about these ideas, albeit in different terms. Well-structured code decouples the separate functions that constitute a program from each other, which means that the programmer only has to focus on one function at a time. Of course, he has to put in some extra effort to think up this structure, but this will pay for itself over time. If they are highly structured, programs will contain a lot of information about what the next steps to take should be.

'Priming' is extremely powerful, and it effects almost everything that you do

Priming is the exposition of an idea to a person. So if you ask someone to solve an anagram, and the words they have to construct were: ‘elderly’, ‘retired’, and ‘bygone’ then you find that they act differently following the exercise, due to the activation of the concept of ‘oldness’ in their mind. A study was done priming people in this way, and it was found that these subjects walked more slowly on their way out of the experiment than on the way in. Because old people walk slowly. The point is, we are sensitive to the influences of our environment, and just by perceiving it, we are subconciously induced to act differently.

The question is, what parts of our environment do we pay attention to, and which parts can we actually control? Experiments have shown that objects in a room can influence how people act, but in general it seems unreasonably difficult to exert this level of control. Perhaps better to focus on two things: the environment that you work in and the people you associate with. These are clearly linked: as a student I almost always worked at the library, which in itself is strongly associated with studiousness, and the people I met there were also working hard (the majority of them), which reinforced the association. I think you can also get benefits from associating with a community that is only virtual. It sets you expectation of what is normal - for example, from reading Hacker News you might start to think that its normal to start your own business, and believe that its quite possible to program the MVP by yourself.

People are naturally lazy

Especialy when it comes to thinking. Its very rare that we have to do something very demanding[6]. When we spend time doing an activity, our brains naturally find more efficient ways to do them, which gradually get hardwired into the brain. For example, after a while of using a concept, you may become able to visualise it and see how it is linked to other ideas that you know about. Your brain is able to morph this new idea into a form you find easier processing, such as visual-spatial information. The problems that are really hard to tackle are those that are novel, and require concious deliberation by the reasoning portion of the brain. The interesting thing is that even when we have to tackle novel problems, we are not aware of the way in which we naturally try to tackle them in order to use as little effort as possible.

This ties in with the idea of time-boxing - periods of work need to be balanced with periods of rest. It has been my observation that the more difficult the work is, the longer the periods of rest need to be. Also, it is nice to be reassured that you don’t have to be doing hard things all the time. There’s plenty of room, even to be great, just by doing hard things some of the time.

There is a 'flow' state you can access by working on engaging tasks

If you are working on a challenge which is well-suited to your skills, then it can absorb you completely. All your efforts become devoted to the task; you are no longer exerting willpower to keep yourself focussed. This is a very enjoyable state to be in, and the most productive state to be in. Hence, you should devote some of your energies to trying to increase how often you are in ‘flow’. Whilst I can’t yet figure out how to tie them together, I do have some basic strategies to achieving this. A simple pointer would be to keep your breaks relatively short, so you don’t lose focus.

You should tackle problems in the appropriate order, by the level of difficulty. For example, quite recently I was trying to learn how to build websites that serve dynamic content. I didn’t jump straight into building the idea that I had had, instead I followed some basic tutorials and worked out the basic structure that I’d have to follow in building such a website. From there, I was able to start building my (fairly simple) idea. Now, and in future, I will be able to take on more complicated projects in this domain. More importantly, I was able to become absorbed in what I was doing at each stage of the process. If I had jumped straight into building my own projects, then I would have made little progress and would have quickly grown frustrated.

How should you best curtail a working session when you are in flow, so you can easily pick up where you left off? The most important thing is to stop when there is still a clear next step you could take. And you need to write it down, so you can use it to jog your memory when you come back to the task.To be in flow, its also important to be in a good state of mind. So, you should be awake, and alert [7] and receptive to the ideas that you are dealing with. If you have a distain for the problem you’re working on then, naturally, it will be harder to be absorbed in it.

In Conclusion

Together, these points constitute the most important principles about productivity I have learnt so far. These principles are fairly universal, but since every person’s mind is diffierent, how exactly to apply these principles must vary from person to person. And, advice about productivity must inevitably lead to another question, which is: How do you decide what sort of work you should be doing? As the management scholar Peter Drucker said, “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.” But perhaps that is a topic for another time.


[1] Fom the book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, written by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. As you might expect, this book paints a very insightful picture of the mind, from a scientific perspective.

[2] I refer to this excellently written review in writing this section. It is old, but seems to adequately, if not decisively, address more recent developments, including criticisms of the model.

[3] Thinking Fast and Slow, Location 701 (Kindle)

[4] The wikipedia article on this topic is quite good:

[5] My other favorite tip from GTD is this: if a task will take less than 2 minutes do it immediately, otherwise add it to your to-do list. I have found this simple maxim to be tremendously useful.

[6] Demanding tasks used in psychological experiments are often deceptively simple. Take the Add1 task. Take 4 random numbers, then every three seconds add one and say the new number. without writing it down. If you are like me then you will find that this is very challenging

[7] Some people seem to say that some drugs, Modafinil in particular, can make it easier to be engaged by tasks - due to the increased alertness it induces in the user. Regardless of the risk/rewards of this particular drug, the implications of this sort of self-augmentation are very interesting.