Intensity over length

The most common response to added scope or work I’ve heard from myself or others is – “I’ll need to stay up late to get this done.” Optimizing length, it turns, out is just one way to solve the problem and is the most limited tool we have at our disposal.

It is limited because we are capped – both in the short term and the long term. Even in the short term, there’s only 24 hours in a day, we need to get stuff done outside of work and we generally aren’t productive when we’re tired. In the long term, optimizing for length doesn’t work.

Intensity, or how much we get done in a certain period of time, on the other hand, is harder to optimize for. To understand why, let’s examine a couple of truths about intensity.

We work most intensely when we have clarity on why we we’re doing what we’re doing and what we’re looking to achieve. (focus) 
For maximum intensity work, we need to focus on one thing at a time. 
Our ability to sustain intensity is inversely proportional to length.

There are times in our lives when we may sustain long periods of high intensity work because we’re consumed by a mission. But, more often than not, the biggest challenge with intensity is that it is inversely proportional to length. We focus better when we’ve gotten sleep and time away from the problems we’re trying to solve.

The beauty about intensity is that it is a much larger multiplier on productivity than time. You can double your intensity with a bit of work – but, doubling your work day is generally not possible.

When in doubt, optimize for intensity over length.

PS: As a bonus, high levels of intensity flow from focus. Learning to work on the right things is the best productivity multiplier we have in our hands. But, solving for focus when you are still optimizing for length is a daunting jump. So, the first step is to switch tactics to focusing on intensity. Over time, we’ll inevitably move further upstream.

Guiding your consumption

We learn more and better when we combine less consumption with more reflection and synthesis. But, that seems like a tall order when we’re surrounded by content and media companies or personalities wherever we go. One approach I’ve found helpful is to guide your consumption by making a commitment to creation.

Imagine you are interested in healthcare technology and aren’t finding the time or bandwidth to read and synthesize what is happening in healthcare tech. My suggestion would be to consider committing to sharing one blog post or social media share every week on a healthcare related topic.

To make that share happen, you will have to read more healthcare related content, reflect and synthesize. And, in a few weeks, you’ll begin doing this at a rate you’d never have thought possible.

There are three reasons why this will happen. First, you’ll begin forming a habit around reading and thinking about healthcare. Second, you’ll begin to distinguish between things you absolutely need to read and things you don’t. And, finally, as you learn and synthesize more, you’ll find yourself understanding more thanks to the mental models you develop. When we sense progress and insight, learning becomes fun.

The idea that you need to “stay on top of everything that going on” is a ridiculous idea made possible by the marketing efforts of media companies. You don’t. You need to stay on top of what you want or need to stay on top of. And, you can do that by committing to creating content on topics that matter.

Mindfulness and productivity

As I sought more mindfulness in my life, I asked myself – how do I stay present and aware through the day? After a year or so of struggling with this question on a daily basis, I’ve concluded that mindfulness flows from productivity.

I define productivity = focus x intensity x time where –

  • Focus is the continuous, iterative process of prioritization – or keeping the main thing the main thing.
  • Intensity is the deep focus in the task at hand (similar to mindfulness)

The question I effectively asked myself in my quest for more mindfulness is – how do I maintain a high level of intensity through the day? 

And, as time passed, I came to realize that it was the wrong question. You cannot be present in the moment if you are aware you are solving for the wrong thing. And, you certainly cannot be present if you aren’t even clear what you are optimizing for.

The ability to stay mindful in the present moment flows from knowing that you are solving for what matters at that given moment.

Mindfulness follows productivity.

One way to make failure acceptable

It has become commonly accepted that it is impossible to innovate and “think about the box” without experimentation. But, the trouble with experiments is that they don’t work if you aren’t willing to fail.

So, in a bid to unconsciously avoid failure and play safe, we talk about innovation without committing to experimentation.

And, the long-term result, funnily enough, is failure.

One approach to making failures acceptable, then, is to talk about it. Instead of focusing publicly on “wins,” talk about failures and lessons learnt. Instead of asking – “Did we win,” ask “What did we fail at lately and what did we learn?”

The more we talk about failure, the more acceptable it will become.

And, ironically, the easier it will become to avoid failure in the long run.

Greener grass

As human beings, we are wired to viewing others’ lives, jobs, education and possessions with rose tinted glasses. The proverbial grass always seems greener on the other side. And, we generally assume it is something about the other side that makes the grass grow better.

While that is true sometimes, there are often two other reasons. For example, things often look great from a distance. It is only when we get close do we notice the less flattering details.

Or, more likely, the grass might be greener because it is mowed, watered and fertilized better. Most things worth their while take work.

Imitation to Innovation

Wired had an article recently about how China became a tech superpower by moving from imitation to innovation. Many of the observations in the article – especially that about the West being stuck in a perception that all China does is copy Western ideas – ring true.

But, this isn’t an article about technology.

Instead, it is to say that the process of moving from imitation to innovation is a principle that is widely applicable. Jack Welch used to say that copying their competitor’s best ideas was a key part of GE’s ability to innovate. GE’s innovation approach frequently involved copying the best ideas and tweaking them to suit their own style.

It works wonderfully well in personal development as well. Admire how someone stays organized, makes presentations or organizes a team? Copy them. Over time, you’ll figure out your own style.

Innovation is rarely a big leap we need to make. Instead, it is often a series of little steps we take that cause a cumulative step change in results – the first of which is generally imitation.

Kurt Vonnegut and Drama

I am reminded of a classic Derek Siver’s post on Drama where he shared a lesson from a talk by Kurt Vonnegut. I think of this post when I find myself over reacting to a piece of news or data.

Kurt Vonnegut contrasts the arc of the stories with that of our life. For example, here are two common popular story arcs – the Cinderella story and the common disaster story.

Kurt Vonnegut contrasts this to our life’s story arc.

You can see the problem.

As Vonnegut explains – “People have been hearing fantastic stories since time began. The problem is that they think life is supposed to be like the stories. So people pretend there is drama where there is none.”

This is partly why we invent conflict, fights, attempt to save the day, and over react to what happens to us. We create drama where this is none.

Or, as Derek observes, we try to make our life into a fairy tale.

Willingness to fall

If you’ve ever attempted ice skating, roller blading or skiing, you learn quickly that it is impossible to get good if you aren’t willing to fall.

In fact, learning to fall safely and get up quickly is a key part of any first lesson. Since you are expected to fall, you might as well learn to do it well. And, if you want to learn quickly, you better be willing to experiment and fall often.

As part of this process, you learn that willingness to fall is very different from willingness to fail. Failure, it turns out, is not the falling down. It is the staying down.

There’s a life analogy here somewhere…

No outbound marketing, promotion or hype

On his new podcast, Seth shared a story from a conference 20 years ago. They were going around a circle and introducing themselves. One of them was the co-founder of a then lesser known search engine.

He said – “My name is Sergey and I have this little search engine called Google. We don’t do any outbound marketing, promotion or hype. We figure that, one day, everyone will use Google. We also know that Google gets better every day. And, since it gets better every day, we are in no hurry for people to try us the first time.”

It is a profound way to think about your product.

However, I think it has just as much applicability in our lives. We can sometimes find ourselves in a hurry to meet that next important person (“network”) to get access to new opportunities.

But, if we acted on getting better every day, maybe there’d be no reason to hurry at all?