Recent Brilliant Insights

I’ve learned two things recently which I found valuable and I wanted to share with you.

The Reason I Get Nothing Done When I Have A Lot On My Plate

This is something I got from my friend Ethan, explaining his new personal productivity system. He explained the difference between throughput and capacity. 

Capacity is how much something can hold. Throughput is how much stuff will flow. These terms are not synonymous– in fact, the more you have of one, the less you can have of the other.

A classic example is a freeway. When traffic is light, it moves very fast. But when traffic is heavy, the highway is practically gridlocked.  The more you fill your capacity, the further you lower your throughput. 

This has very important implications for how you structure your work, and has a lot to do with my recent resolution to design my work like manual labor. Basically, the more you can clear off your plate, the faster your throughput will be. Allow too much stuff to be going on at once, and you’ll be deadlocked.

So on the basis of this observation, I’ve been completely dropping off my list anything that has a dependency on any other action and I’ve started asking myself this very simple question: what needs to be done first? And then doing it, and only it, until it’s complete and I can go onto the next thing.

And the throughput has been amazing! Previously I’ve gotten gridlocked by thinking about all the other stuff I needed to do, wanted to do, or just wasn’t getting done, and the thing that I was doing took FOREVER. Now, I’m flabbergasted at how quickly things are going. (Of course the last few weeks have been rather light and have been very helpful for working through the back log of FIRST tasks, most of which were Creating Systems.)

The Reason Setting Strict Targets Doesn’t Work For Me

I watched the recent interview Leo Babauta did with Tim Ferriss, and something Ferriss said struck me very hard. He told Babauta a tip he got from a ghost writer who had like, 40 books to his name. “Just write two pages. If you do that, the day is a win.”

Ferriss went on to say that, psychologically, we make a target for ourselves and we don’t reach it, we are very disappointed in ourselves, and then we get even more discouraged because we think, “Tomorrow, I have 2x to do just to get caught up.” When tomorrow comes, we procrastinate getting started because we’re already overwhelmed.

This matched so precisely with how I often feel that I immediately took the advice to heart. It’s kind of like what I was talking about with goals. It’s not enough to just set a target- you have to set things up so you win. Maybe we shouldn’t take these little failures to heart, but the fact is we do, and that discouragement is far too damaging to be permitted.

He went on to say that the ‘easy win’, far from encouraging him to rest on his laurels, actual made him feel far more empowered and accomplished, encouraging him to do more. 

That’s what happens to me too, but in the past, I’ve always used a really productive session as benchmark, against which all subsequent performance should now be measured, and that’s exactly the wrong approach– by doing this, you essentially punish yourself for your best efforts.

So. “Just two pages. If you do that, the day is a win.”

What valuable tidbits have you learned recently? Share in the comments!


18 thoughts on “Recent Brilliant Insights”

  1. I’ve found that even if I write one paragraph, it’s a win, lol. I don’t usually do that little, but seriously.. just the habit of a daily accomplishment of some kind does feel satisfying to me even if it’s small. I definitely was (still am sometimes) one of those people who make big goals for each day and get overwhelmed. But now, I’ve embraced the  “slow is better than stagnant” attitude… so far, I like it.

      1. @Shanna Mann  @deniseurena My ‘slow progress’, some days consists of just noticing a change (improvement?) in my outlook at something, even. I may still not have the solution, but it’s not so scary or intimidating, today. Feels good!

  2. This sounds right in line with the tiny habits approach I’ve been playing with. (The celebration part, where you pat yourself liberally on the back for having done the little thing you said you’d do, is vital, by the way!) I think it works for me because the bar for achievement is so low. As you mentioned, that doesn’t make you lazy or complacent. Instead, I find I’m excited (yay! I did the thing I said I’d do!) and motivated (if I do a little more than the thing I said I’d do, then that’s like extra credit!). And my overall state of mind is one of making slightly more progress than planned instead of constantly trying to climb a big scary mountain of tasks.
    Something I’m still working on is breaking tasks down into smaller tasks. Since I’ve started using kanban, I’m finding there’s an ideal chunk length: long enough that it’s worth pulling from “Today” to “Doing” but not so long that I can’t accomplish a logically discrete piece of work in a couple of hours, max. I don’t like having a big project hanging out in my “Doing” column just because it will take me several weeks to go from start to finish. Hmm.

    1. @remadebyhand See, I’m not built like this Erin (at least not yet…TBD if I try to rewire my brain). Achieving small “wins” – regardless of what kind of task or project it’s in – doesn’t do anything for me. This is probably a defect in my brain and something I can correct for, but I’m not sure I want to. Will I be happier and more efficient if I keep the bar relatively high to feel like I’ve accomplished something? I don’t know. But I guess if I don’t have a problem with it (which I really don’t), it’s not something I should be concerned with. I do love how you’ve taken the tiny habits approach and turned it into something almost magical for you though.
      @Shanna Mann, I’ve recently re-learned that you don’t know how good your work can be until you surround yourself with people who are smarter, more experienced, and more ambitious than you are. Being at New Media Expo really reinforced that and showed me in very concrete ways how I was holding myself back. Not intentionally of course. But once I see how something could be, my mind’s not so OK with NOT bridging the gap between what is and what could be. I feel like I’m channeling Nancy Duarte’s book Resonate right now.

      1. @joeyjoejoe  It’s fascinating how we seem to function in opposite ways 🙂 I think my problem was that I always felt like I should be getting a sense of accomplishment the way you do, setting the bar high and executing big plans, when in fact it works better for me to approach it from the complete opposite side. One more argument against the whole one-size-fits-all perspective!

  3. I’m trying to move more in this direction myself now that I’m somewhat “grounded” at least in terms of location and living space. I am thinking about how I can create a sort of daily checklist of sort of the minimum things that I’d like to incorporate into my day… maybe that will help create some rituals without feeling too inflexible, and if I make them simple enough, they will help me feel like I got something accomplished. I’m totally in the paralyzed state right now, so this really resonated.

  4. Power of small wins has been repeatedly studied and demonstrated.
    Excellent habits beat huge effort all day every day, and twice on Sunday.

  5. michaelwroberts

    I’ve been fighting to keep my personal to-do list as small as possible so that I can stay flexible enough to keep up with all of the rest of the responsibilities that pile up through the day. As long as I can see that I’m making consistent progress towards something, I can have a lot more patience with the interruptions.
    Love the throughput / capacity comparison Shanna and Ethan! That’s a great concept.

  6. I am in the small gains department right now.  Two pages would actually be lovely at this point, but I have eased up on being so rigid about what I “must” produce.  I am working on the last (not chronologically) chapter of our book.  It’s painfully slow, and my attempts today looked more like a Seven Sentences post. I figure I can beat myself up or be happy with a few paragraphs.  Today I chose the latter.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
    What is, for the most part, working to keep me focused is asking myself:   A) does it earn me money – tutoring, assessing kids?or B) does it have to do with the book or blog?  Other than exercise, I am letting most other things fall away.  So please call before you come by!
    Thank you and Ethan for discussing and sharing throughput and flow.  Much to think about.

    1. @tammyrenzi Tammy, I shared a video at the Writers in the Storm blog a few days ago:
      It’s about building the habit of writing, without focusing on how much. Thought you might find it helpful.

  7. I was looking at a wicked list today, but I said eff it and went for figuring out how the hell to get my new video off the damn camera and on to YouTube which sounds like child’s play, but there were myriad obstacles, such as me. The other items on my list had little to do with guitar or the Hoombah, so I aced ’em.  Maybe I’ll get to them tomorrow. Dunno. Ya know what? If I hadn’t cleared my plate that video would never have been posted to YouTube. I cannot tell you the satisfaction of blowing off those other items to get that one thing done. That one thing that meant something to me, that gives me joy.

  8. Thanks for the shout out- I have you to thank for leading me to the personal kanban thing. I’m glad you got some insight from my adoption of it.  Another thing that’s interesting about throughput vs. capacity is that your throughput/capacity changes based on the current conditions. I’m super energized in the morning and so I can usually take on more things and stay productive than in the afternoon, when I need to really scale back how many things are being worked on.

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