Category: Productivity

The Method of Loci: Build Your Memory Palace

“When information goes ‘in one ear and out the other,’ it’s often because it doesn’t have anything to stick to.” —Joshua Foer

According to legend, the renowned Greek lyric poet Simonides of Ceos was dining at the home of a wealthy nobleman one night when he received word that two young men were waiting outside with a message for him. Simonides stepped outside—mere moments before the roof of the banquet hall caved in, killing everyone inside. The extent of the destruction was so great that the family and friends of the deceased guests despaired of being able to identify their bodies.

But Simonides found that if he pictured the spatial layout of the hall, he could mentally walk around it and recall the names of the guests seated in each place. In this way, he helped identify the unfortunate diners. From this experience, Simonides deduced that remembering factual information is easiest if we tie it to a physical location we are familiar with. As the great orator Cicero explained:

“He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it.

. . . It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflection can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.”

Today we know this technique as the “method of loci” or “memory palace.” Here’s how constructing a memory palace can help you memorize information and recall it with ease.

Spatial memory

From the time we learn to walk, we start building up spatial memories—recollections of the layouts of physical spaces and their relationships to the objects in them. These memories tend to form fast and stick around for a long time.

The method of loci hijacks our innate aptitude for remembering physical spaces, using it to help us remember other kinds of information with greater ease.

Although it may seem as if people who manage unusual feats of memory have unusual innate capabilities, much of the available evidence suggests that isn’t the case. Instead, they tend to simply use innate capabilities in unusual, creative ways. In Moonwalking with Einstein, journalist Joshua Foer discovers this for himself while investigating memory championships. After contestants tell him anyone could do what they do with the right training, Foer sets his sights on the USA Memory Championship—and goes on to win.

Foer’s journey started by researching memory and its physical effects on the brain. Scientists had recently discovered that your brain is much like a muscle and that making it work could make it grow by creating new pathways at a cellular level.

Does that mean the brain of a “mental athlete” is different from that of a normal person? Not necessarily. Foer found research indicating memory specialists simply used different parts of their brains for recalling information. They converted it into a visual form and positioned it in a spatial location.

A memory palace is an ancient mnemonic device that leverages the way we find it easiest to recall information: spatially and visually.

You might have experienced the power of spatial memory if you’ve ever revisited a place where you experienced something unpleasant or sad. Minor details might have been enough to make you vividly remember the experience.

How to build a memory palace

Let’s look at an example to illustrate the concept.

Say your memory palace is your childhood home. Take a moment to conjure images and memories of that place. We are going to stick to the outside of the house. Mentally walk from the road to your front door, trying to remember as many details as possible.

Let’s imagine you want to remember to buy some steaks on the way home. Now put the steaks, exactly how they look in the grocery store, on your front porch.

Got it?

Okay, now let’s try to make the steaks into something more memorable. How about a cow sitting on your front porch—not like a cow would, but like a person would. Let’s make them exaggeratedly chewing, but we’ll make it bubblegum instead of grass. Now the cow is periodically blowing gigantic bubbles, so big that you’re worried they might pop. Maybe think about the strange smell of bubblegum and cow mixed together. What would the cow’s skin feel like? What would it feel like to have to pick bubblegum off of the cow’s face?

Four hours from now when you leave work to head home, you’ll remember you had to pick something up from the grocery store. When you take a trip to your memory palace, walk up the drive and gaze at your front step. What do you think you are more likely to remember? The packaged steaks that you see all the time? Or the gum-chewing cow we created?

Now, imagine you also need to remember to buy carrots and olive oil, so you place those in your memory palace too. As you step onto the front step, past the bubblegum blowing cow, you see the row of muddy shoes you recall usually being next to the front door. You picture each shoe being filled with soil, the leaves and orange tops of carrots growing in them just visible. Before you can press the doorbell, the door is opened by the cartoon character Olive Oyl, wearing a crown of olive branches. And so on.

If you’re trying to learn something more complex and important than a shopping list, it’s possible to keep repeating this process until you’ve constructed an incredibly detailed memory palace with hundreds of items. Or you might use multiple different locations for various purposes. You could also use a journey, such as your walk to work.

No matter what, you want to make your mental image engage with the location as much as possible and ideally involve multiple senses. Avoid placing multiple different items in parts of your memory palace that look too similar, such as identical dining room chairs.

The beauty of the memory palace technique is that it’s highly adaptable for remembering all kinds of information in whatever way feels easiest to you.

Remembering numbers

The memory palace is a great way to recall a variety of things, but you will still hit a hard ceiling, and that ceiling conflicts with the Herculean amount of numbers some memory competitors can remember. What’s the trick? It turns out that there is a whole different tool just for recalling numbers.

PAO: Person – Action – Object
In this system, every two-digit number from 00 to 99 is processed into a single image of a person performing an action on an object. Joshua Foer writes:

“The number 34 might be Frank Sinatra (a person) crooning (an action) into a microphone (an object). Likewise, 13 might be David Beckham kicking a soccer ball. The number 79 could be Superman flying with a cape. Any six-digit number, like say 34-13-79, can then be turned into a single image by combining the person from the first number with the action from the second and the object for the third – in this case, it would be Frank Sinatra kicking a cape.”

As you can see, this is still about storing very vivid and memorable images. We don’t know about you, but Frank Sinatra kicking a cape hasn’t come to our minds before. It becomes a very powerful tool when you realize that you can use your “stock images” as a sort of algorithm to generate a unique image for every number between 0 and 999,999.

How a memory palace works

When we’re learning something new, it requires less effort if we connect it to something we already know, such as a physical place. This is known as elaborative encoding. Once we need to remember the information, we can “walk” around the palace and “see” the various pieces.

The idea is to give your memories something to hang on to. We are pretty terrible at remembering things, especially when these memories float freely in our heads. But our spatial memory is actually pretty decent, and when we give our memories some needed structure, we provide that missing order and context.

For example, if you struggle to remember names, it can be helpful to link people you meet to names you already know. If you meet someone called Fred and your grandmother had a cat called Fred, you could connect the two. Creating a multisensory experience in your head is the other part of the trick. In this case, you could imagine the sound of Fred meowing loudly.

To further aid in recall, the method of loci is most effective if we take advantage of the fact that it’s easiest to remember memorable things. Memory specialists typically recommend mentally placing information within a physical space in ways that are weird and unusual. The stranger the image, the better.

Returning to the name example, it will probably stick better if you imagine Fred the person being chased by a giant version of Fred the cat, compared to just imagining them next to each other.

Cicero further explains:

“But these forms and bodies, unlike all the things that come under our view, require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable. Consequently (in order that I may not be tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and images that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.”

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian also recommended the memory palace technique:

“Some have thought memory to be a mere gift of nature, and to nature, doubtless, it is chiefly owing. But it is strengthened, like all our other faculties, by exercise, and all the study of the orator of which we have been speaking is ineffectual unless the other departments of it be held together by memory as by an animating principle. All knowledge depends on memory, and we shall be taught to no purpose if whatever we hear escapes from us.

. . . when we return to places, after an absence of some time, we not only recognize them, but recollect also what we did in them. Persons whom we saw there, and sometimes even thoughts that passed within our minds, recur to our memory. Hence, in this case, as in many others, art has had its origin in experiment. People fix in their minds places of the greatest possible extent, diversified by considerable variety, such as a large house, for example, divided into many apartments. Whatever is remarkable in it is carefully impressed on the mind, so that the thought may run over every part of it without hesitation or delay. Indeed, it is of the first importance to be at no loss in recurring to any part, for ideas which are meant to excite other ideas ought to be in the highest degree certain.

They then distinguish what they have written, or treasured in their mind, by some symbol by which they may be reminded of it, a symbol which may either have reference to the subject in general, as navigation or warfare, or to some particular word, for if they forget, they may, by a hint from a single word, find their recollection revived . . . they place, as it were, their first thought under its symbol, in the vestibule, and the second in the hall, and then proceed round the courts, locating thoughts in due order, not only in chambers and porticoes, but on statues and other like objects. This being done, when the memory is to be tried, they begin to pass in review all these places from the commencement, demanding from each what they have confided to it, according as they are reminded by the symbol. Thus, however numerous are the particulars which they have to remember, they can, as they are connected each to each like a company of dancers hand to hand, make no mistake in joining the following to the preceding, if they only take due trouble to fix the whole in their minds.

What I have specified as being done with regard to a dwelling house may also be done with regard to public buildings, or a long road, or the walls of a city, or pictures, or we may even conceive imaginary places for ourselves.”

An important caveat is that the method of loci only helps you recall the specific information you’ve used it to encode. While you might find it easier to use the technique the more times you repeat it, you’re unlikely to see an overall improvement in your general memory.

Despite its limitations, constructing a memory palace is a fun and creative way to learn things you don’t want to write down (such as passwords or security question answers) or want to be able to call to mind on the fly (such as decision-making checklists). And if you’re someone who enjoys a challenge, it can be satisfying to see just how far you can extend your innate abilities.

***

The memory palace reminds us of the importance of being mindful and paying attention to life. Foer takes it further, arguing that when we look at it critically, memory is a huge component of almost every aspect of our lives:

“How we perceive the world and how we act in it are products of how and what we remember. We’re all just a bundle of habits shaped by our memories. And to the extent that we control our lives, we do so by gradually altering those habits, which is to say the networks of our memory. . . . Our ability to find humor in the world, to make connections between previously unconnected notions, to create new ideas, to share in a common culture: all these essentially human acts depend on memory. Now more than ever, as the role of memory in our culture erodes at a faster pace than ever before, we need to cultivate our ability to remember. Our memories make us who we are.”

We are a culmination of our experiences. How we process this information and encode it into something meaningful is intrinsically tied to our memory. Understanding how it works and how to use tools or tricks to make it better is a worthy endeavor.

Efficiency is the Enemy

There’s a good chance most of the problems in your life and work come down to insufficient slack. Here’s how slack works and why you need more of it.

Imagine if you, as a budding productivity enthusiast, one day gained access to a time machine and decided to take a trip back several decades to the office of one of your old-timey business heroes. Let’s call him Tony.

You disguise yourself as a janitor and figure a few days of observation should be enough to reveal the secret of that CEO’s incredible productivity and shrewd decision-making. You want to learn the habits and methods that enabled him to transform an entire industry for good.

Arriving at the (no doubt smoke-filled) office, you’re a little surprised to find it’s far from a hive of activity. In fact, the people you can see around seem to be doing next to nothing. Outside your hero’s office, his secretary lounges at her desk (and let’s face it, the genders wouldn’t have been the other way around.) Let’s call her Gloria. She doesn’t appear busy at all. You observe for half an hour as she reads, tidies her desk, and chats with other secretaries who pass by. They don’t seem busy either. Confused as to why Tony would squander money on idle staff, you stick around for a few more hours.

With a bit more observation, you realize your initial impression was entirely wrong. Gloria does indeed do nothing much of the time. But every so often, a request, instruction, or alert comes from Tony and she leaps into action. Within minutes, she answers the call, sends the letter, reschedules the appointment, or finds the right document. Any time he has a problem, she solves it right away. There’s no to-do list, no submitting a ticket, no waiting for a reply to an email for either Tony or Gloria.

As a result, Tony’s day goes smoothly and efficiently. Every minute of his time goes on the most important part of his work—making decisions—and not on dealing with trivial inconveniences like waiting in line at the post office.

All that time Gloria spends doing nothing isn’t wasted time. It’s slack: excess capacity allowing for responsiveness and flexibility. The slack time is important because it means she never has a backlog of tasks to complete. She can always deal with anything new straight away. Gloria’s job is to ensure Tony is as busy as he needs to be. It’s not to be as busy as possible.

If you ever find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, sinking into stasis despite wanting to change, or frustrated when you can’t respond to new opportunities, you need more slack in your life.

In Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Tom DeMarco explains that most people and organizations fail to recognize the value of slack. Although the book is now around twenty years old, its primary message is timeless and worth revisiting.

***

The enemy of efficiency

“You’re efficient when you do something with minimum waste. And you’re effective when you’re doing the right something.”

Many organizations are obsessed with efficiency. They want to be sure every resource is utilized to its fullest capacity and everyone is sprinting around every minute of the day doing something. They hire expert consultants to sniff out the faintest whiff of waste.

As individuals, many of us are also obsessed with the mirage of total efficiency. We schedule every minute of our day, pride ourselves on forgoing breaks, and berate ourselves for the slightest moment of distraction. We view sleep, sickness, and burnout as unwelcome weaknesses and idolize those who never seem to succumb to them. This view, however, fails to recognize that efficiency and effectiveness are not the same thing.

Total efficiency is a myth. Let’s return to Gloria and Tony. Imagine if Tony decided to assign her more work to ensure she spends a full eight hours a day busy. Would that be more efficient? Not really. Slack time enables her to respond to his requests right away, thus being effective at her job. If Gloria is already occupied, Tony will have to wait and whatever he’s doing will get held up. Both of them would be less effective as a result.

Any time we eliminate slack, we create a build-up of work. DeMarco writes, “As a practical matter, it is impossible to keep everyone in the organization 100 percent busy unless we allow for some buffering at each employee’s desk. That means there is an inbox where work stacks up.

Many of us have come to expect work to involve no slack time because of the negative way we perceive it. In a world of manic efficiency, slack often comes across as laziness or a lack of initiative. Without slack time, however, we know we won’t be able to get through new tasks straight away, and if someone insists we should, we have to drop whatever we were previously doing. One way or another, something gets delayed. The increase in busyness may well be futile:

“It’s possible to make an organization more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack. It’s also possible to make an organization a little less efficient and improve it enormously. In order to do that, you need to reintroduce enough slack to allow the organization to breathe, reinvent itself, and make necessary change.”

***

Defining slack

DeMarco defines slack as “the degree of freedom required to effect change. Slack is the natural enemy of efficiency and efficiency is the natural enemy of slack.” Elsewhere, he writes: “Slack represents operational capacity sacrificed in the interests of long-term health.”

To illustrate the concept, DeMarco asks the reader to imagine one of those puzzle games consisting of eight numbered tiles in a box, with one empty space so you can slide them around one at a time. The objective is to shuffle the tiles into numerical order. That empty space is the equivalent of slack. If you remove it, the game is technically more efficient, but “something else is lost. Without the open space, there is no further possibility of moving tiles at all. The layout is optimal as it is, but if time proves otherwise, there is no way to change it.

Having a little bit of wiggle room allows us to respond to changing circumstances, to experiment, and to do things that might not work.

Slack consists of excess resources. It might be time, money, people on a job, or even expectations. Slack is vital because it prevents us from getting locked into our current state, unable to respond or adapt because we just don’t have the capacity.

Not having slack is taxing. Scarcity weighs on our minds and uses up energy that could go toward doing the task at hand better. It amplifies the impact of failures and unintended consequences.

Too much slack is bad because resources get wasted and people get bored. But, on the whole, an absence of slack is a problem far more often than an excess of it. If you give yourself too much slack time when scheduling a project that goes smoother than expected, you probably won’t spend the spare time sitting like a lemon. Maybe you’ll recuperate from an earlier project that took more effort than anticipated. Maybe you’ll tinker with some on-hold projects. Maybe you’ll be able to review why this one went well and derive lessons for the future. And maybe slack time is just your reward for doing a good job already! You deserve breathing room.

Slack also allows us to handle the inevitable shocks and surprises of life. If every hour in our schedules is accounted for, we can’t slow down to recover from a minor cold, shift a bit of focus to learning a new skill for a while, or absorb a couple of hours of technical difficulties.

In general, you need more slack than you expect. Unless you have a lot of practice, your estimations of how long things will take or how difficult they are will almost always be on the low end. Most of us treat best-case scenarios as if they are the most likely scenarios and will inevitably come to pass, but they rarely do.

You also need to keep a vigilant eye on how fast you use up your slack so you can replenish it in time. For example, you might want to review your calendar once per week to check it still has white space each day and you haven’t allowed meetings to fill up your slack time. Think of the forms of slack that are more important to you, then check up on them regularly. If you find you’re running out of slack, take action.

Once in a while, you might need to forgo slack to reap the benefits of constraints. Lacking slack in the short term or in a particular area can force you to be more inventive. If you find yourself struggling to come up with a creative solution, try consciously reducing your slack. For example, give yourself five-minutes to brainstorm ideas or ask yourself what you might do if your budget were slashed by 90%.

Most of the time, though, it’s critical to guard your slack with care. It’s best to assume you’ll always tend toward using it up—or other people will try to steal it from you. Set clear boundaries in your work and keep an eye on tasks that might inflate.

***

Slack and change

In the past, people and organizations could sometimes get by without much slack—at least for a while. Now, even as slack keeps becoming more and more vital for survival, we’re keener than ever to eliminate it in the name of efficiency. Survival requires constant change and reinvention, which “require a commodity that is absent in our time as it has never been before. That commodity—the catalytic ingredient of change—is slack.” DeMarco goes on to write:

“Slack is the time when reinvention happens. It is time when you are not 100 percent busy doing the operational business of your firm. Slack is the time when you are 0 percent busy. Slack at all levels is necessary to make the organization work effectively and to grow. It is the lubricant of change. Good companies excel in creative use of slack. And bad ones only obsess about removing it.”

Only when we are 0 percent busy can we step back and look at the bigger picture of what we’re doing. Slack allows us to think ahead. To consider whether we’re on the right trajectory. To contemplate unseen problems. To mull over information. To decide if we’re making the right trade-offs. To do things that aren’t scalable or that might not have a chance to prove profitable for a while. To walk away from bad deals.

***

Slack and productivity

The irony is that we achieve far more in the long run when we have slack. We are more productive when we don’t try to be productive all the time.

DeMarco explains that the amount of work each person in an organization has is never static: “Things change on a day-to-day basis. This results in new unevenness of the tasks, with some people incurring additional work (their buffers build up), while others become less loaded, since someone ahead of them in the work chain is slower to generate their particular kind of work to pass along.” An absence of slack is unsustainable. Inevitably, we end up needing additional resources, which have to come from somewhere.

Being comfortable with sometimes being 0 percent busy means we think about whether we’re doing the right thing. This is in contrast to grabbing the first task we see so no one thinks we’re lazy. The expectation of “constant busyness means efficiency” creates pressure to always look occupied and keep a buffer of work on hand. If we see our buffer shrinking and we want to keep busy, the only possible solution is to work slower.

Trying to eliminate slack causes work to expand. There’s never any free time because we always fill it.

Amos Tversky said the secret to doing good research is to always be a little underemployed; you waste years by not being able to waste hours. Those wasted hours are necessary to figure out if you’re headed in the right direction.

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

Innovation doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Doers and thinkers from Shakespeare to Jobs, liberally “stole” inspiration from the doers and thinkers who came before. Here’s how to do it right.

***

If I have seen further,” Isaac Newton wrote in a 1675 letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work came solely out of their minds, that they spun it from their own thoughts—that they were true originals. But that is rarely the case.

Innovative ideas have to come from somewhere. No matter how unique or unprecedented a work seems, dig a little deeper and you will always find that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders. They mastered the best of what other people had already figured out, then made that expertise their own. With each iteration, they could see a little further, and they were content in the knowledge that future generations would, in turn, stand on their shoulders.

Standing on the shoulders of giants is a necessary part of creativity, innovation, and development. It doesn’t make what you do less valuable. Embrace it.

Everyone gets a lift up

Ironically, Newton’s turn of phrase wasn’t even entirely his own. The phrase can be traced back to the twelfth century, when the author John of Salisbury wrote that philosopher Bernard of Chartres compared people to dwarves perched on the shoulders of giants and said that “we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.

There are giants in every field. Don’t be intimidated by them. They offer an exciting perspective. As the film director Jim Jarmusch advised, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light, and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery—celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from—it’s where you take them to.’”

That might sound demoralizing. Some might think, “My song, my book, my blog post, my startup, my app, my creation—surely they are original? Surely no one has done this before!” But that’s likely not the case. It’s also not a bad thing. Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson states in his TED Talk: “Admitting this to ourselves is not an embrace of mediocrity and derivativeness—it’s a liberation from our misconceptions, and it’s an incentive to not expect so much from ourselves and to simply begin.

There lies the important fact. Standing on the shoulders of giants enables us to see further, not merely as far as before. When we build upon prior work, we often improve upon it and take humanity in new directions. However original your work seems to be, the influences are there—they might just be uncredited or not obvious. As we know from social proof, copying is a natural human tendency. It’s how we learn and figure out how to behave.

In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Taleb describes the type of antifragile inventions and ideas that have lasted throughout history. He describes himself heading to a restaurant (the likes of which have been around for at least 2,500 years), in shoes similar to those worn at least 5,300 years ago, to use silverware designed by the Mesopotamians. During the evening, he drinks wine based on a 6,000-year-old recipe, from glasses invented 2,900 years ago, followed by cheese unchanged through the centuries. The dinner is prepared with one of our oldest tools, fire, and using utensils much like those the Romans developed.

Much about our societies and cultures has undeniably changed and continues to change at an ever-faster rate. But we continue to stand on the shoulders of those who came before in our everyday life, using their inventions and ideas, and sometimes building upon them.

Not invented here syndrome

When we discredit what came before or try to reinvent the wheel or refuse to learn from history, we hold ourselves back. After all, many of the best ideas are the oldest. “Not Invented Here Syndrome” is a term for situations when we avoid using ideas, products, or data created by someone else, preferring instead to develop our own (even if it is more expensive, time-consuming, and of lower quality.)

The syndrome can also manifest as reluctance to outsource or delegate work. People might think their output is intrinsically better if they do it themselves, becoming overconfident in their own abilities. After all, who likes getting told what to do, even by someone who knows better? Who wouldn’t want to be known as the genius who (re)invented the wheel?

Developing a new solution for a problem is more exciting than using someone else’s ideas. But new solutions, in turn, create new problems. Some people joke that, for example, the largest Silicon Valley companies are in fact just impromptu incubators for people who will eventually set up their own business, firm in the belief that what they create themselves will be better.

The syndrome is also a case of the sunk cost fallacy. If a company has spent a lot of time and money getting a square wheel to work, they may be resistant to buying the round ones that someone else comes out with. The opportunity costs can be tremendous. Not Invented Here Syndrome detracts from an organization or individual’s core competency, and results in wasting time and talent on what are ultimately distractions. Better to use someone else’s idea and be a giant for someone else.

Why Steve Jobs stole his ideas

“Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it. They just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while; that’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” 

— Steve Jobs

In The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World, Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman trace the path that led to the creation of the iPhone and track down the giants upon whose shoulders Steve Jobs perched. We often hail Jobs as a revolutionary figure who changed how we use technology. Few who were around in 2007 could have failed to notice the buzz created by the release of the iPhone. It seemed so new, a total departure from anything that had come before. The truth is a little messier.

The first touchscreen came about almost half a century before the iPhone, developed by E.A. Johnson for air traffic control. Other engineers built upon his work and developed usable models, filing a patent in 1975. Around the same time, the University of Illinois was developing touchscreen terminals for students. Prior to touchscreens, light pens used similar technology. The first commercial touchscreen computer came out in 1983, soon followed by graphics boards, tablets, watches, and video game consoles. Casio released a touchscreen pocket computer in 1987 (remember, this is still a full twenty years before the iPhone.)

However, early touchscreen devices were frustrating to use, with very limited functionality, often short battery lives, and minimal use cases for the average person. As touchscreen devices developed in complexity and usability, they laid down the groundwork for the iPhone.

Likewise, the iPod built upon the work of Kane Kramer, who took inspiration from the Sony Walkman. Kramer designed a small portable music player in the 1970s. The IXI, as he called it, looked similar to the iPod but arrived too early for a market to exist, and Kramer lacked the marketing skills to create one. When pitching to investors, Kramer described the potential for immediate delivery, digital inventory, taped live performances, back catalog availability, and the promotion of new artists and microtransactions. Sound familiar?

Steve Jobs stood on the shoulders of the many unseen engineers, students, and scientists who worked for decades to build the technology he drew upon. Although Apple has a long history of merciless lawsuits against those they consider to have stolen their ideas, many were not truly their own in the first place. Brandt and Eagleman conclude that “human creativity does not emerge from a vacuum. We draw on our experience and the raw materials around us to refashion the world. Knowing where we’ve been, and where we are, points the way to the next big industries.”

How Shakespeare got his ideas

Nothing will come of nothing.”  

— William Shakespeare, King Lear

Most, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays draw heavily upon prior works—so much so that some question whether he would have survived today’s copyright laws.

Hamlet took inspiration from Gesta Danorum, a twelfth-century work on Danish history by Saxo Grammaticus, consisting of sixteen Latin books. Although it is doubtful whether Shakespeare had access to the original text, scholars find the parallels undeniable and believe he may have read another play based on it, from which he drew inspiration. In particular, the accounts of the plight of Prince Amleth (which has the same letters as Hamlet) involves similar events.

Holinshed’s Chronicles, a co-authored account of British history from the late sixteenth century, tells stories that mimic the plot of Macbeth, including the three witches. Holinshed’s Chronicles itself was a mélange of earlier texts, which transferred their biases and fabrications to Shakespeare. It also likely inspired King Lear.

Parts of Antony and Cleopatra are copied verbatim from Plutarch’s Life of Mark Anthony. Arthur Brooke’s 1562 poem The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet was an undisguised template for Romeo and Juliet. Once again, there are more giants behind the scenes—Brooke copied a 1559 poem by Pierre Boaistuau, who in turn drew from a 1554 story by Matteo Bandello, who in turn drew inspiration from a 1530 work by Luigi da Porto. The list continues, with Plutarch, Chaucer, and the Bible acting as inspirations for many major literary, theatrical, and cultural works.

Yet what Shakespeare did with the works he sometimes copied, sometimes learned from, is remarkable. Take a look at any of the original texts and, despite the mimicry, you will find that they cannot compare to his plays. Many of the originals were dry, unengaging, and lacking any sort of poetic language. J.J. Munro wrote in 1908 that The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Julietmeanders on like a listless stream in a strange and impossible land; Shakespeare’s sweeps on like a broad and rushing river, singing and foaming, flashing in sunlight and darkening in cloud, carrying all things irresistibly to where it plunges over the precipice into a waste of waters below.

Despite bordering on plagiarism at times, he overhauled the stories with exceptional use of the English language, bringing drama and emotion to dreary chronicles or poems. He had a keen sense for the changes required to restructure plots, creating suspense and intensity in their stories. Shakespeare saw far further than those who wrote before him, and with their help, he ushered in a new era of the English language.

Of course, it’s not just Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare who found a (sometimes willing, sometimes not) shoulder to stand upon. Facebook is presumed to have built upon Friendster. Cormac McCarthy’s books often replicate older history texts, with one character coming straight from Samuel Chamberlain’s My Confessions. John Lennon borrowed from diverse musicians, once writing in a letter to the New York Times that though the Beatles copied black musicians, “it wasn’t a rip off. It was a love in.

In The Ecstasy of Influence, Jonathan Lethem points to many other instances of influences in classic works. In 1916, journalist Heinz von Lichberg published a story of a man who falls in love with his landlady’s daughter and begins a love affair, culminating in her death and his lasting loneliness. The title? Lolita. It’s hard to question that Nabokov must have read it, but aside from the plot and name, the style of language in his version is absent from the original.

The list continues. The point is not to be flippant about plagiarism but to cultivate sensitivity to the elements of value in a previous work, as well as the ability to build upon those elements. If we restrict the flow of ideas, everyone loses out.

The adjacent possible

What’s this about? Why can’t people come up with their own ideas? Why do so many people come up with a brilliant idea but never profit from it? The answer lies in what scientist Stuart Kauffman calls “the adjacent possible.” Quite simply, each new innovation or idea opens up the possibility of additional innovations and ideas. At any time, there are limits to what is possible, yet those limits are constantly expanding.

In Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson compares this process to being in a house where opening a door creates new rooms. Each time we open the door to a new room, new doors appear and the house grows. Johnson compares it to the formation of life, beginning with basic fatty acids. The first fatty acids to form were not capable of turning into living creatures. When they self-organized into spheres, the groundwork formed for cell membranes, and a new door opened to genetic codes, chloroplasts, and mitochondria. When dinosaurs evolved a new bone that meant they had more manual dexterity, they opened a new door to flight. When our distant ancestors evolved opposable thumbs, dozens of new doors opened to the use of tools, writing, and warfare. According to Johnson, the history of innovation has been about exploring new wings of the adjacent possible and expanding what we are capable of.

A new idea—like those of Newton, Jobs, and Shakespeare—is only possible because a previous giant opened a new door and made their work possible. They in turn opened new doors and expanded the realm of possibility. Technology, art, and other advances are only possible if someone else has laid the groundwork; nothing comes from nothing. Shakespeare could write his plays because other people had developed the structures and language that formed his tools. Newton could advance science because of the preliminary discoveries that others had made. Jobs built Apple out of the debris of many prior devices and technological advances.

The questions we all have to ask ourselves are these: What new doors can I open, based on the work of the giants that came before me? What opportunities can I spot that they couldn’t? Where can I take the adjacent possible? If you think all the good ideas have already been found, you are very wrong. Other people’s good ideas open new possibilities, rather than restricting them.

As time passes, the giants just keep getting taller and more willing to let us hop onto their shoulders. Their expertise is out there in books and blog posts, open-source software and TED talks, podcast interviews, and academic papers. Whatever we are trying to do, we have the option to find a suitable giant and see what can be learned from them. In the process, knowledge compounds, and everyone gets to see further as we open new doors to the adjacent possible.

Smarter, Not Harder: How to Succeed at Work

The key to better results isn’t working harder. Most of us already work long hours. The problem is we don’t always work smart.

We all have the same amount of time each day to invest. What differentiates us is how we invest that time toward our goals. The best results come when we concentrate our effort in one direction.

The Talent Gap

It’s natural to think that people who get better results than us are simply more talented. The problem is that it’s not true.

What seems like a difference in talent often comes down to a difference in focus. Results come when you focus on one thing for an uncommonly long period of time. Focus is what turns good performers into great performers.

That’s not to say talent doesn’t matter. It does.

There are two types of talent: natural and chosen. Natural talent needs no explanation. Some people are just better than others are certain things. Ignoring physical talent, naturally talented people in the workplace can write a great essay, sell, or smooth talk.

A lot of people rest on natural talent. Since it comes easy they don’t develop the work habits necessary to get keep getting better. As a result, naturally talented people are often passed by people who choose talent.

How can you choose talent?

Results follow obsession. When you commit all of your energy in one direction for an uncommonly long period of time, you develop talent. The more you apply that talent, the better your results.

If that’s all it takes, why aren’t more people talented?

The choices required to develop talent are simple but not easy. In order to apply most of your energy in one direction, you have to say no to things that a lot of other people say yes to.

Most successful people are masters at eliminating the unnecessary from their lives.

The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry hit on the same idea, writing in his memoir, “Perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away.”

So many of us are focused on adding when we should be focused on eliminating.

Choosing What to Focus On

Here’s one method to help you choose what to focus on and how to use your time.

Step 1: Change how you think about your day.

Think of your day as having 96 blocks of energy, with each block being a 15-minute chunk of time (four blocks per hour × 24 hours = 96). A week has 672 blocks, and a year has 34,944.

Not all of those blocks are productivity blocks. In fact if you try to make too many of the productive, it becomes counter-productive.

Sleeping for eight hours uses 32 blocks of your 96-block day.

Let’s say that another 32 blocks go toward family, friends, community, spirtuatliy, and general life stuff.

That leaves 32 blocks for you to use at work.

Common wisdom suggests that you need to work longer to get better results. The problem is longer hours zap you of your time and energy. Which makes you less productive not more.

Can’t I just sleep less and get more done? No. Sleep has a way of affecting your other blocks. When you get enough sleep you get a tailwind you can use on the other 64 blocks. When you don’t get enough sleep, you face a headwind for the other 64 blocks.

Almost all consistently successful people make sleep a priority. In fact most are obsessed with sleep.

Step 2: Write a list of all the goals you have.

When I did this, I stopped at 100 and I could have kept going. I would venture to guess that if you sat alone for half an hour, you’d come up with just as many. Writing them down not only frees up your mind from keeping track of them but also gives you a visual representation of just how many things you want to do.

Step 3: Circle your top three goals.

Take your time; there’s no need to rush. It’s hard to narrow them down, which is why so few of us think about these things consciously.

Step 4: Eliminate everything else.

This is where things get interesting. When it comes to the 32 blocks of work time you have to allocate, everything that’s not on your top-three list should be dropped. You can pick up the “everything-else” list after you’ve achieved a goal, but until then it’s what Warren Buffet calls your “avoid-at-all-costs” list.

The Power of Focus

Let’s look at an example. Say we’re working on 10 projects. We have priorities that we try to focus on, but we also give the other projects a decent effort. Let’s say we allocate our 32 blocks of energy to our 10 projects as follows:

1. 10
2. 5
3. 5
4. 3
5. 2
6. 2
7. 2
8. 1
9. 1
10. 1

Not bad, eh? But if we do the above exercise, it will look more like this:

1. 16
2. 8
3. 8

Focus directs your energy toward your goals. The more focused you are, the more energy goes toward what you’re working on. The more energy that goes toward your goals, the better your results.

Eliminating things that you care about is hard. You have to make tradeoffs. If you can’t make those tradeoffs, you’re not going to get far. The cost of not being focused is high.

The direction you’re going in is important to the extent that you’re applying energy to it. If you’re focusing your energy on 10 goals, you’re not focused, and instead of having a few completed projects, you have numerous unfinished projects. Like Sisyphus, you’re constantly getting halfway up the mountain but never reaching the top. I can’t think of a bigger waste of time.

It’s not about working harder to get better results. You have only so much energy to apply. Pick what matters. Eliminate the rest.

Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You

Consider the daily schedule of famed novelist Haruki Murakami. When he’s working on a novel, he starts his days at 4 am and writes for five or six continuous hours. Once the writing is done, he spends his afternoons running or swimming, and his evenings, reading or listening to music before a 9 pm bedtime. Murakami is known for his strict adherence to this schedule.

In contrast, consider the schedule of an entrepreneur, speaker, and writer Gary Vaynerchuk. He describes his day (which begins at 6 am) as being broken into tiny slots, mostly comprising meetings, which can be as short as three minutes. He makes calls in between meetings. During the moments between meetings and calls, he posts on just about every social network in existence and records short segments of video or speech. In short, his day, for the most part, involves managing, organizing, and instructing other people, making decisions, planning, and advising.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

The numerous articles we have all read about the schedules and routines of successful people like these often miss the point. Getting up at 4 am does not make someone an acclaimed novelist, any more than splitting the day into 15-minute segments makes someone an influential entrepreneur.

What we can learn from reading about the schedules of people we admire is not what time to set our alarms or how many cups of coffee to drink, but that different types of work require different types of schedules. The two wildly different workdays of Murakami and Vaynerchuk illustrate the concept of maker and manager schedules.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator first described this concept in a 2009 essay. From Graham’s distinction between makers and managers, we can learn that doing creative work or overseeing other people does not necessitate certain habits or routines. It requires consideration of the way we structure our time.

What’s the Difference?

A manager’s day is, as a rule, sliced up into tiny slots, each with a specific purpose decided in advance. Many of those slots are used for meetings, calls, or emails. The manager’s schedule may be planned for them by a secretary or assistant.

Managers spend a lot of time, “putting out fires” and doing reactive work. An important call or email comes in, so it gets answered. An employee makes a mistake or needs advice, so the manager races to sort it out. To focus on one task for a substantial block of time, managers need to make an effort to prevent other people from distracting them.

Managers don’t necessarily need the capacity for deep focus — they primarily need the ability to make fast, smart decisions. In a three-minute meeting, they have the potential to generate (or destroy) enormous value through their decisions and expertise.

A maker’s schedule is different. It is made up of long blocks of time reserved for focusing on particular tasks, or the entire day might be devoted to one activity. Breaking their day up into slots of a few minutes each would be the equivalent of doing nothing.

A maker could be the stereotypical reclusive novelist, locked away in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, no internet, and a bottle of whiskey to hand. Or they could be a Red Bull–drinking Silicon Valley software developer working in an open-plan office with their headphones on. Although interdisciplinary knowledge is valuable, makers do not always need a wide circle of competence. They need to do one thing well and can leave the rest to the managers.

Meetings are pricey for makers, restricting the time available for their real work, so they avoid them, batch them together, or schedule them at times of day when their energy levels are low. As Paul Graham writes:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

It makes sense. The two work styles could not be more different.

A manager’s job is to, well, manage other people and systems. The point is that their job revolves around organizing other people and making decisions. As Andrew Grove writes in High Output Management:

…a big part of a middle manager’s work is to supply information and know-how, and to impart a sense of the preferred method of handling things to the groups under his control and influence. A manager also makes and helps to make decisions. Both kinds of basic managerial tasks can only occur during face-to-face encounters, and therefore only during meetings. Thus, I will assert again that a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed. That means we should not be fighting their very existence, but rather using the time spent in them as efficiently as possible.

A maker’s job is to create some form of tangible value. Makers work alone or under a manager, although they might have people working with them. “Maker” is a very broad category. A maker could be a writer, artist, software developer, carpenter, chef, biohacker, web designer, or anyone else who designs, creates, serves, and thinks.

Making anything significant requires time — lots of it — and having the right kind of schedule can help. Take a look at the quintessential maker schedule of the prolific (to say the least) writer Isaac Asimov, as described in his memoir:

I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don’t take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I’m on vacation. (And even when I’m in the hospital.)

In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store [where he worked as a child]. Of course, I’m not waiting on customers; I’m not taking money and making change; I’m not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

The Intersection Between Makers and Managers

It is far from unusual for a person’s job to involve both maker and manager duties. Elon Musk is one example. His oft-analyzed schedule involves a great deal of managing as the head of multiple major companies, but he also spends an estimated 80% of his time on designing and engineering. How does he achieve this? Judging from interviews, Musk is adept at switching between the two schedules, planning his day in five-minute slots during the managerial times and avoiding calls or emails during the maker times.

The important point to note is that people who successfully combine both schedules do so by making a clear distinction, setting boundaries for those around them, and adjusting their environment in accordance. They don’t design for an hour, have meetings for an hour, then return to designing, and so on. In his role as an investor and adviser to startups, Paul Graham sets boundaries between his two types of work:

How do we manage to advise so many startups on the maker’s schedule? By using the classic device for simulating the manager’s schedule within the maker’s: office hours. Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time to meet founders we’ve funded. These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures [that] all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end. Because they come at the end of my day these meetings are never an interruption. (Unless their working day ends at the same time as mine, the meeting presumably interrupts theirs, but since they made the appointment it must be worth it to them.) During busy periods, office hours sometimes get long enough that they compress the day, but they never interrupt it.

Likewise, during his time working on his own startup, Graham figured out how to partition his day and get both categories of work done without sacrificing his sanity:

When we were working on our own startup, back in the ’90s, I evolved another trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then, I’d sleep till about 11am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called “business stuff.” I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager’s schedule and one on the maker’s.

Murakami also combined making and managing during his early days as a novelist. As with many other makers, his creative work began as a side project while he held another job. Murakami ran a jazz club. In a 2008 New Yorker profile, Murakami described having a schedule similar to Graham’s in his days running a startup. He spent his days overseeing the jazz club — doing paperwork, organizing staff, keeping track of the inventory, and so on. When the club closed after midnight, Murakami started writing and continued until he was exhausted. After reaching a tipping point with his success as a writer, Murakami made the switch from combining maker and manager schedules to focusing on the former.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes the schedule of another person who combines both roles, Wharton professor (and our podcast guest) Adam Grant.

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching well and being available to his students. (This method seems to work, as Grant is currently the highest-rated teacher at Wharton and the winner of multiple teaching awards.)

During the fall semester, Grant is in manager mode and has meetings with students. For someone in a teaching role, a maker schedule would be impossible. Teachers need to be able to help and advise their students. In the spring and summer, Grant switches to a maker schedule to focus on his research. He avoids distractions by being — at least, in his mind — out of his office.

Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods where his door is open …, and periods where he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (He typically divides the writing of a scholarly paper into three discrete tasks: analyzing the data, writing a full draft, and editing the draft into something publishable.) During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response. “It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” he told me. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!’” But to Grant, it’s important to enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand.

“A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.”

— Seth Godin, The Dip

The Value of Defining Your Schedule

We all know the benefits of a solid routine — it helps us to work smarter, look after our health, plan the trajectory of our days, achieve goals, and so on. That has all been discussed a million times and doubtless will be discussed a million more. But how often do we think about how our days are actually broken up, about how we choose (or are forced) to segment them? If you consider yourself a maker, do you succeed in structuring your day around long blocks of focused work, or does it get chopped up into little slices that other people can grab? If you regard yourself as a manager, are you available for the people who need your time? Are those meetings serving a purpose and getting high-leverage work done, or are you just trying to fill up an appointment book? If you do both types of work, how do you draw a line between them and communicate that boundary to others?

Cal Newport writes:

We spend much of our days on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we are doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, “What makes the most sense right now?”

There are two key reasons that the distinction between maker and manager schedules matters for each of us and the people we work with.

First, defining the type of schedule we need is more important than worrying about task management systems or daily habits. If we try to do maker work on a manager schedule or managerial work on a maker schedule, we will run into problems.

Second, we need to be aware of which schedule the people around us are on so we can be considerate and let them get their best work done.

We shouldn’t think of either type of work as superior, as the two are interdependent. Managers would be useless without makers and vice versa. It’s the clash that can be problematic. Paul Graham notes that some managers damage their employees’ productivity when they fail to recognize the distinction between the types of schedules. Managers who do recognize the distinction will be ahead of the game. As Graham writes:

Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager’s schedule, they’re in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

Makers generally avoid meetings and similar time-based commitments that don’t have a direct impact on their immediate work. A 30-minute meeting does not just take up half an hour of an afternoon. It bisects the day, creating serious problems. Let’s say that a computer programmer has a meeting planned at 2 pm. When they start working in the morning, they know they have to stop later and are prevented from achieving full immersion in the current project. As 2 pm rolls around, they have to pause whatever they are doing — even if they are at a crucial stage — and head to the meeting. Once it finishes and they escape back to their real work, they experience attention residue and the switching costs of moving between tasks. It takes them a while — say, 15 to 20 minutes — to reach their prior state of focus. Taking that into account, the meeting has just devoured at least an hour of their time. If it runs over or if people want to chat afterward, the effect is even greater. And what if they have another meeting planned at 4 pm? That leaves them with perhaps an hour to work, during which they keep an eye on the clock to avoid being late.

Software entrepreneur Ray Ozzie has a specific technique for handling potential interruptions — the four-hour rule. When he’s working on a product, he never starts unless he has at least four uninterrupted hours to focus on it. Fractured blocks of time, he discovered, result in more bugs, which later require fixing.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain describes an experiment to figure out the characteristics of superior programmers:

…more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10:1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter—such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work—had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below—even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

A common argument makers hear from people on a different schedule is that they should “just take a break for this!” — “this” being a meeting, call, coffee break, and so on. But a distinction exists between time spent not doing their immediate work and time spent taking a break.

Pausing to drink some water, stretch, or get fresh air is the type of break that recharges makers and helps them focus better when they get back to work. Pausing to hear about a coworker’s marital problems or the company’s predictions for the next quarter has the opposite effect. A break and time spent not working are very different. One fosters focus, the other snaps it.

Remember Arnold Bennett’s words: “You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use … is a matter of the highest urgency.”

Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life

Nothing will change your future trajectory like your habits.

We all have goals, big or small, things we want to achieve within a certain time frame. Maybe you want to make a million dollars by the time you turn 30. Or to lose 20 pounds before summer. Or to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase a vague concept (success, wealth, health, happiness), making a tangible goal is often the first step.

Habits are algorithms operating in the background that power our lives. Good habits help us reach our goals more effectively and efficiently. Bad ones makes things harder or prevent success entirely. Habits powerfully influence our automatic behavior.

“First forget inspiration.
Habit is more dependable.
Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not.
Habit is persistence in practice.”

— Octavia Butler

The difference between habits and goals is not semantic. Each requires different forms of action. For example:

Let’s say you want to read more books. You could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or you could create a habit and decide to always carry a book with you.

***

The problems with goals

Let’s go over the problems with only having goals.

First off, goals have an endpoint. This is why many people revert to their previous state after achieving a certain goal. People run marathons, then stop exercising altogether. Or they make a certain amount of money, then fall into debt soon after. Others reach a goal weight, only to spoil their progress by overeating to celebrate.

Habits avoid these pitfalls because they continue indefinitely.

Second, goals rely on factors that we do not always have control over.

It’s an unavoidable fact that reaching a goal is not always possible, regardless of effort. An injury might derail a fitness goal. An unexpected expense might sabotage a financial goal. And family issues might impede a creative-output goal.

When we set a goal, we’re attempting to transform what is usually a heuristic process into an algorithmic one. Habits are better algorithms, and therefore more reliable in terms of getting us to where we want to go.

The third problem with goals is keeping a goal in mind and using it to direct our actions requires a lot of thinking and effort to evaluate different options.

Presented with a new situation, we have to figure out the course of action best suited to achieving a goal. With habits, we already know what to do by default.

During times when other parts of our lives require additional attention, it can be easy to push off attaining our goals to another day. For example, the goal of saving money requires self-discipline each time we make a purchase. Meanwhile, the habit of putting $50 in a savings account every week requires less effort as a practical action.

Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

Finally, goals can make us complacent or reckless.

Sometimes our brains can confuse goal setting with achievement because setting the goal feels like an end in itself. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior because we make compromises to meet our stated objective.

“Habit is the intersection of knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do), and desire (want to do).”

— Stephen Covey

***

The benefits of habits

Once formed, habits operate automatically. Habits take otherwise difficult tasks—like saving money—and make them easy in practice.

The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure that we reach our goals with incremental steps.

As the saying goes, the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. The benefits of a systematic approach to life include:

Habits can mean we overshoot our goals.

Consider a person who has the goal to write a novel. They decide to write 500 words a day, so it should take 200 days. Writing 500 words generally doesn’t require an enormous amount of effort assuming interest in and knowledge of the topic, and even on the busiest, most stressful days, the person gets it done. However, on some days, that smaller step leads to their writing 1000 or more words. As a result, they finish the book in much less time.

On the contrary, setting “write a book in four months” as a goal would have been intimidating on final word count alone.

Habits are easy to complete.

As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit,

Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts. They shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”

Once we develop a habit, our brains actually change to make the behavior easier to complete. After about 30 days of practice for a simple action like drinking water first thing in the morning, enacting a habit becomes easier than not doing so. More complex habits take longer to form, but they can still become automatic.

Habits are for life.

Our lives are structured around habits, many of them barely noticeable. According to Duhigg’s research, habits make up 40% of our waking hours. These often minuscule actions add up to make us who we are.

William James (a man who knew the problems caused by bad habits) summarized their importance as such:

All our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits — practical, emotional, and intellectual — systematically organized for our weal or woe, and bearing us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.

Once a habit becomes ingrained, it can last for life and takes a lot of work to break.

Habits can compound. Stephen Covey paraphrased Gandhi when he explained:

Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.

In other words, building a single habit can have a wider impact on our lives.

Duhigg calls these keystone habits. These are behaviors that cause people to change related areas of their lives. For example, people who start exercising daily may end up eating better and drinking less alcohol. Basically, those who quit a bad habit may end up replacing it with a positive alternative. (Listen to Naval Ravikant riff on habit replacement a lot on this podcast episode.)

Habits can be as small as necessary.

A common piece of advice for those seeking to build a habit is to start small.  If you want to read more, you can start with 25 pages a day. After this becomes part of your routine, you can increase the page count to reach your goal. Once your small habits become ingrained, the degree of complexity can be increased.

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”

— Charles C. Nobel

***

Why a systematic approach works

By switching our focus from achieving specific goals to creating positive long-term habits, we can make continuous improvement a way of life. Even if we backtrack sometimes, we’re pointed in the right direction.

Warren Buffett reads all day to build the knowledge necessary for his investment decisions.

Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as “a sort of creative sleep”). Olympic athlete Eliud Kipchoge makes notes after each training session to establish areas which can be improved.

These habits, repeated hundreds of times over years, are not incidental. With consistency, the benefits of non-negotiable actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements.

While goals rely on extrinsic motivation, habits, once formed, are automatic. They literally rewire our brains.

When seeking to attain success in our lives, rather than concentrating on a specific goal, we would do well to invest our time in forming positive habits.