Category: Productivity

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.

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“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 Juliet “meanders 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 an 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

We each have 96 energy blocks each day to spend however we’d like. Using this energy blocking system will ensure you’re spending each block wisely to make the most progress on your most important goals.

Warren Buffett “ruled out paying attention to almost anything but business—art, literature, science, travel, architecture—so that he could focus on his passion,” wrote Alice Schroder in her book The Snowball. This isn’t unique to Warren Buffett. Almost all of the successful people I know follow a similar approach to focusing their efforts.

The key to better outcomes is not working harder. Most of us already work long hours. We take work home, we’re always on, we tackle anything we’re asked to do, and we do it to the best of our ability. It doesn’t seem to matter how many things we check off our to-do lists or how many hours we work, though; our performance doesn’t seem to improve. Better outcomes come from applying your energy in a particular direction.

While we like to think of exceptionally successful people as being more talented than we are, the more I looked around, the more I discovered that was rarely the case. One of the reasons we think that talent is the explanation is that it gives us a pass. We’re not as talented as those super-successful people are, so of course we don’t have the same results they have. The problem with this explanation is that it’s wrong. Talent matters, of course, but not as much as you think.

The most successful people I know have one thing in common: they 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.” This principle, it turns out, is the key to success.

Incredibly successful people focus their time on just a few priorities and obsess over doing things right. This is simple but not easy.

Here’s one method to help you choose what to focus on and how to use your time (it’s a mix of time blocking and a variation of Warren Buffet’s two-list system):

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 direct productivity blocks — they can’t be unless we’re androids. Given that we’re human, we need to allocate some blocks to activities that humans require for good health, like sleeping. Sleeping for eight hours uses 32 blocks of your 96-block day. Let’s say that another 32 blocks go toward family, friends, commuting, and general life stuff. That leaves 32 blocks for you to apply your energy toward keeping your job and doing something amazing.

Think you can get more done by sleeping less? Think again. Sleep has a way of affecting your other blocks. If you get enough sleep, the other 64 blocks are amplified. If you don’t get enough, their efficacy is reduced. Almost every successful person I know makes sleep a priority. Some go as far as getting ChiliPads to regulate their bed’s temperature and going to bed at exactly the same time every night; others use the same wind-down routine every night. Almost all of them go to bed early (or least before 12), and wake up early to get a start on the day.

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.

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.

FS Members can discuss this article on the Learning Community Forum.

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. Some people want to make a million dollars by the time they turn 30. Some people want to lose 20 pounds before summer. Some people want to write a book in the next six months. When we begin to chase an intangible or 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:

  • We want to learn a new language. We could decide we want to be fluent in six months (goal), or we could commit to 30 minutes of practice each day (habit).
  • We want to read more books. We could set the goal to read 50 books by the end of the year, or we could decide to always carry a book with us (habit).
  • We want to spend more time with our families. We could plan to spend seven hours a week with them (goal), or we could choose to eat dinner with them each night (habit).

The Problems With Goals

When we want to change an aspect of our lives, setting a goal is often the logical first step. Despite being touted by many a self-help guru, this approach has some problematic facets.

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 afterward. 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.

Goals rely on factors which 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. A family tragedy might impede a creative-output goal. When we set a goal, we are attempting to transform what is usually a heuristic process into an algorithmic one.

Goals rely on willpower and self-discipline. As Charles Duhigg wrote in The Power of Habit:

Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.

Keeping a goal in mind and using it to direct our actions requires constant willpower. During times when other parts of our lives deplete our supply of willpower, it can be easy to forget our goals. 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 little effort. Habits, not goals, make otherwise difficult things easy.

Goals can make us complacent or reckless. Studies have shown that people’s brains can confuse goal setting with achievement. This effect is more pronounced when people inform others of their goals. Furthermore, unrealistic goals can lead to dangerous or unethical behavior.

“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.

The purpose of a well-crafted set of habits is to ensure that we reach our goals with incremental steps. The benefits of a systematic approach to achievement include the following:

Habits can mean we overshoot our goals. Let’s say a person’s goal is to write a novel. They decide to write 200 words a day, so it should take 250 days. Writing 200 words takes little effort, and even on the busiest, most stressful days, the person gets it done. However, on some days, that small step leads to their writing 1000 or more words. As a result, they finish the book in much less time. Yet setting “write a book in four months” as a goal would have been intimidating.

Habits are easy to complete. As Duhigg wrote,

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, enacting a habit becomes easier than not doing so.

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 (unless broken for some reason).

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. Likewise, those who quit a bad habit may end up replacing it with a positive alternative. (Naval and I talked about 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. Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg recommends “tiny habits,” such as flossing one tooth. Once these become ingrained, the degree of complexity can be increased. 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.

“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. This is evident from the documented habits of many successful people.

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

Stephen King writes 1000 words a day, 365 days a year (a habit he describes as “a sort of creative sleep”). 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 these non-negotiable actions compound and lead to extraordinary achievements.

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

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

For further reading on this topic, look at Drive: The Surprising Secret of What Motivates Us, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, and The Power of Habit.

Focusing is an Art, Not a Science

Productivity is all the rage. People want to get more done in less time. Productivity systems abound: Getting Things Done, Pomodoro, the Seinfeld thing, etc. There’s certainly something to be said for each of them.

But have you thought about something a little simpler and more basic: How to focus? Like, really how to focus your mind on one hard, long project until it’s done?

Productivity systems are great in that they keep you accountable for getting lots of task-oriented work completed. But they don’t answer the larger question, which is: What do you do that creates value in your career? And more than that, what are you doing that’s going to have a cumulative effect, that’s really going to matter years down the road?

I see these two concepts as intertwined and incredibly important and ignored by overly task-oriented productivity methods.

The first is figuring out where you’re going to create a massive amount of value in your career, The second is figuring out how you’re going to carve out the time and energy to focus deeply on the first.

The thing is, that type of work — whether it’s building a new product, writing a book, learning a hard subject, building a keynote speech, writing a complicated piece of software, whatever — doesn’t happen by saying “I’ll get to it”, and then allocating 15 minutes here or there in between checking your email and going to meetings.

It happens by stringing together sessions of deep, focused effort. Hours at a time, over and over. The intense kind where you sort of lose yourself and wake up later with a lot of awesome work done.

Learning how to do that kind of work, I think, is something of an art.

I say “art” for a reason. I see a lot of people out there promoting their “science-based” system for getting a lot done. Let me tell you something: The word science is being used to fool you and trick you. To make you salivate, Pavlov-style. “Science” is not some monolith that tells you how to create really meaningful work. There’s no “science” of success. There’s no “science” of productivity. That’s pure charlatanism.

Doing great work is an art. A group of researchers can’t answer the complex question of how to live and work correctly; the real world is too varied. We don’t live in a controlled experiment and we’re not lab rats, or worse, college students in psych labs.

Some scientific research papers can certainly give you hints on how the mind works, sure. They might even tell you a few things about information retention and task-based memory. I can see how that might be useful.

But that’s a long way away from creating a career you care about, where you regularly do focused, meaningful work that feels satisfying. Your life is not the one measured in the labs: You’re not trying to memorize flashcards or strings of numbers; what I’m talking about cannot be boiled down to rigorous science. (And anyone who reads Farnam Street knows the deep respect I have for real science.)

No — it’s art! Or more properly, artisanship. And the essence of being an artisan is that it’s deeply personal: It has to speak to you. You must be willing to put your soul into the game. This means everyone will go about the Art of Focus in their own way. It takes experimentation, dedication, and an understanding that no one can do it for you.

This is the ART of Focus. I don’t claim to have all the answers, or to “scientifically” solve your problems or fix your brain, like you’re a mouse in a lab. I just wanted to give people all of the tips and tricks I knew about doing focused, meaningful work so they could build a system themselves.

Because the truth of the matter is that, however you go about it, you do need to build your capacity for hard, focused work. That is vital in an age of complexity, where we need to carve out a niche. Most of us aren’t making widgets anymore, and much of that work is being replaced by machines anyways.

And if you’ll let me be controversial for a second, I think that’s a good thing for humanity. Humans aren’t meant to live on a factory assembly line (or the white-collar equivalent – spreadsheets and Powerpoint). We’re meant to lose ourselves in valuable and satisfying work that smacks of originality and humanity.

I know a lot of finance people who want to switch into some related craftsmanship, or writing, or software-building, but not the other way around. Do you know any woodworkers who want to switch into finance? Do you know any writers who want to switch into corporate accounting? Me neither.

But in order to build an awesome career doing hard but satisfying long-term work, you need to build your ability to focus for hours at a time. You need to learn hard skills. You need to let go of multitasking, distraction, and the temptation to be “busy.”

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have

one-leg-man

Echoing the comments of William Deresiewicz, Charlie Munger offers some sage advice on multi-tasking:

I will say this, I know no wise person who doesn’t read a lot. I suspect that you can read on the computer now and get a lot of benefit out of it, but I doubt it will work as well as reading print worked for me.

I think people that multitask pay a huge price. They think they’re being extra productive, and I think they’re (out of their mind). I use the metaphor of the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest.

I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.

Concentrating hard on something that is important is … I can’t succeed at all without doing it. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.

It sounds counter-intuitive but if you want to increase discretionary time and reduce stress you need to schedule time to think. The tiny fragments of time many of us find ourselves with have a negative effect on our ability to think deeply about a problem. Furthermore they impede our ability to learn — we stay at a surface level and never move into a deep understanding.

Deresiewicz warns: “You simply cannot (think) in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”

The opposite approach is to focus on a problem or subject and try to achieve a deep fluency. How many of us, however, have time? We don’t do the work required to have an opinion. Instead we operate with surface knowledge. We tackle problems with the first thought that comes to mind. Because we make a poor initial decision, we spend countless hours attempting to correct it. No wonder we have no time to think. We’re not heeding the advice of Joseph Tussman and letting the world do the work for us.

We sound good and yet and we fail to learn — in part because everyone else is doing the same thing. Well, when you do what everyone else does, don’t be surprised when you get the same results everyone else gets.

If you want to get off the same track that everyone else is on, start scheduling time to think. That’s what Munger did when he sold himself the best hour of his day. Structure your environment in a way that promotes thinking and reduces interruption. And match your energy to your task.