Increased Productivity (According to Neuroscience)
Author: Al Pittampalli Source: The Mission Podcasts
I used to believe that being more productive meant getting more done. That my personal productivity was defined by the sheer volume of tasks that I managed to take down each day.
And then one day, tired, exhausted, in a fit of rage that included heavy cursing and the belligerent kicking of stuffed animals (I happened to be in my young niece’s bedroom at the time) I experienced somewhat of an epiphany.
I shouldn’t define productivity by the total volume of tasks I manage to accomplish. After all, do I really care, at the end of the day, how many activities I get to cross off my list of to-dos?
What I should care about, I reasoned to myself, is what those activities promise to earn me. The benefits. The payoffs. The things I really cared about: fulfillment, money, health, status, impact, deeper relationships, etc.
And so right then and there, I decided to begin measuring my productivity using another metric. A metric I call return on effort.
In other words, instead of blindly executing one task after another as it appeared in my inbox, I would regularly ask myself a crucial question: what are the total rewards I expect in return for the total time I’ll spend to get them?
When I came to measure productivity in this way, it became immediately apparent that not all activities were created equal.
Indeed, there were two kinds of activities which, when I considered return on effort, differed considerably: maintenance and growth.
Maintenance vs Growth
Maintenance activities are effectively short-term obligations.
They are the “musts” in our life: consultants must consult, surgeons must perform surgery, managers must manage as well as occasionally conduct performance reviews.
Each one these professionals, moreover, must pay their insurance bills, file their taxes, and respond to emergencies that threaten to burn the house down, either literally or metaphorically.
To be sure, maintenance activities are necessary to perform. We’ve got to do them. Ignore them and you’ll eventually end up unemployed. Homeless. In the clink with the mob still trying to get to you on the inside.
However, for those looking for more than just survival, or even mediocre success, maintenance activities are nowhere near sufficient. Because what most people fail to realize is that these short-term obligations deliver relatively meager return on effort.
Maintenance activities, just like they sound, don’t do much more than maintain the status quo, preventing us from losing what we already have.
But then there are growth activities.
Growth activities drive our most important long-term goals. They take us beyond the status quo. “Coulds” rather than “musts”, these activities, as a result, deliver comparatively high return on effort.
Often strikingly so.
A consultant could spend a couple of hours each day for six months writing and publishing a book — I know one who did and in just a few short years, began earning 7x his salary.
A surgeon could deliver eight speeches a year at high profile conferences and soon find herself a nationally recognized authority with regular appearances in national media.
A manager could carve out time every single morning to read books on behavioral economics, and cognitive psychology, and in eight months become the best damn decision maker in the building.
And so it’s no surprise then, that when you look at the schedules of the world’s most productive people — the Elon Musks, the Oprah Winfreys, the Kevin Harts — what you invariably find is this: a disproportionately high number of growth activities.
Indeed, exceptionally productive people understand a simple truth: being more productive doesn’t mean getting more done. It means getting more of the right things done.
Unfortunately, most professionals, even relatively effective ones, manage to execute a depressingly small number of growth activities.
Not by choice. They try to take on more. However, a pernicious tendency stands in the way: procrastination.
They tell themselves that tomorrow they’ll start their online project management course, meditation practice, investment portfolio.
But when tomorrow comes, they find themselves unwittingly putting it off until the next day, and the then the next day, and then the next day. Until eventually they abandon the growth activity altogether.
That is until months later when the cycle repeats.
In the face of this procrastination, professionals tend to blame themselves. They uncharitably berate themselves for lacking the drive, the resolve, the inner strength.
But they shouldn’t.
Recent discoveries in neuroscience have revealed the real reason we fail. The true, nefarious culprit. A primitive system in our brain that doesn’t quite share our priorities.
But in order to illustrate exactly what that system is and what we can do about it, I need to first tell you a story.