Productivity Part 2
Posted on May 19, 2018

How can you be lazy but still have a strong work ethic?

That’s the answer we are going to delve into with this blog post.

Last time in Part 1 we learned how to work smarter by eliminating extraneous work while also eliminating the extraneous time necessary to do such work. This time, we are going to learn the skills necessary to perform at your personal best. We are going to learn simple tricks from psychology to allow us to focus deeper and achieve more.

And it’s all thanks to a simple concept called deep work.

Shallow Work vs. Deep Work

Most of us spend time doing shallow work. Shallow work and deep work have nothing to do with the type of work you are doing, but rather your work ethic. Here are some signs you’ve been doing shallow work:

Now there is a time and a place for shallow work. But if you are only doing shallow work, you are never reaching your full productivity potential. So let’s figure out how to do deep work.

Deep Work
Focusing on a cognitively demanding task for a long time1

Deep work requires focus and challenge. That’s it. It’s the type of work where you are so focused that work just happens. It’s the kind of work that you can look at the time for the first time and several hours have passed since you last checked. It’s the type of work that brings enjoyment and fulfilment to your life. It’s the type of work where you deeply feel like you’ve accomplished something when you snap out of it. Some call it flow, but it’s effects are useful for everyone.

And while it may seem easy to drift into deep work, it takes practice and discipline. And unfortunately, many of the work ethics and practices you’ve developed are simply not conducive to deep work. So let’s dig into a few concepts about what separates deep work from shallow work and allow you to perform at your fullest potential.

Attention Residue

You’ve probably heard this many times, but you can’t multitask. And while a very small minority of people can actually multitask, you are probably not one of them. Just face it, you can’t multitask.

“But wait!” you say. “I don’t ‘multitask’. Instead, I just switch back and forth between tasks really fast.

I’m here to tell you that multitasking doesn’t work. Why? Because of attention residue.

Attention Residue
The cost involved in switching tasks due to unfinished tasks using up brainpower

To achieve deep work, you need to have all your attention focused on the task at hand. However, when switching between multiple tasks, there will always be some mental energy diverted to the unfinished tasks.

Think about it this way. Think of a cognitively demanding task that you have to do on a regular basis. This can be as simple as writing an essay or reading some articles or a book. In the middle of this task, you decide to check Facebook or your texts in case there are any new messages you need to respond to. Or maybe you need to check email. Maybe it’s because you are in a lull in this task so you figured you can check up on other things while you aren’t going to get anything done.

Okay. You’ve responded to every message and now you turn back to your essay or other task. You start to focus. Yet it takes several minutes to truly become focused on the essay. Why?

Because your brain is still partially focused on your messages. Attention residue.

Sophie Leroy was the first researcher to coin the term back in 2009. She sums up the issue quite nicely:

“people need to stop thinking about one task in order to fully transition their attention and perform well on another”.2

This involves three things:

Novel Way to Limit Distractions

Because today we live in a distracted world surrounded by distracted people with a plethora of tools designed to distract us, we need a game plan for staying focused.

There are several methods out there that you can try (e.g. pomodoro technique), and many involve limiting your amount of distracted time. For instance, you can try setting a timer to limit the amount of time you spend on YouTube.

However, there is an inherent problem with this idea: the internet (such as YouTube and Facebook) are designed to keep you on the site as long as possible. They only make money when you use their service. So by trying to keep you on their site as long as possible, they make more money.

So if you set a timer to limit your YouTube use, what do you think is going to happen when the timer goes off? Who will win: your willpower or a carefully designed and tested-by-billions-of-people algorithm that is optimized for you to click on just one more video? My money is on YouTube.

Now if this works for you, great! But there is another way.

So instead of limiting distractions or wasted time, try optimizing for deep work instead. Don’t set a timer for limiting your distracted time. Set a timer for your working time. Set a timer for 15 minutes. In those 15 minutes, all you can do is work. No Facebook. No texts. No YouTube. No socializing. Only work. Only distraction free work.

After that, be distracted as much as you want until you settle in for another 15 minutes. Repeat.

And as you get more used to working without distractions, gradually bring that time up to 20 minutes, 25, an hour, two hours, etc. Eventually, you will discover true deep work free from distractions.

Pervasiveness of distractions

These distractions, though, are tricky. They don’t just want us to be occupied with them all the time. They want us to think about them all the time.

And that can be bad for productivity. Not even “airplane mode” is sufficient.

In 2017, a group of researchers decided to test the cognitive demands that cell phones place when people try to be productive. At the University of Texas, the researchers gave 520 of the traditional human guinea pig (college students) two sets of cognitively demanding puzzles. The first set was to set the baseline and consisted of maths problems while simultaneously remembering random letters. The second set gave the students a series of puzzles where they had to finish pattern.

But where do the phones come in? Well, these 520 college students were split up into three groups. The first group (the control) kept their phone where they would normally have it (e.g. in their pocket). The second group put their phone face down on the table with all alerts/sounds/buzzes/distractions turned off. Essentially, their phone was merely present. The third group was asked to leave their phones in the waiting area.

So how did they all do?

Well, as you might expect, the group that kept their phones in the waiting area performed the best, followed by the control and then those with their phones on their desk. Essentially, this study shows that the mere presence of your phone is enough to lower your cognitive capabilities.3

So how do you fix it? Simply put, when you are working to focus, keep your phone far away from you.

The Zeigarnik Effect

There’s a quote by Roald Dahl that sums this one up nicely:

I never come back to a blank page; I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, a great American writer, taught me the finest trick when you are doing a long book, which is, he simply said in his own words, “When you are going good, stop writing.

And that means that if everything’s going well and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, well, where am I going to go next? And you get up and you walk away and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you want to go.

But if you stop when you are going good, as Hemingway said…then you know what you are going to say next. You make yourself stop, put your pencil down and everything, and you walk away. And you can’t wait to get back because you know what you want to say next and that’s lovely and you have to try and do that. Every time, every day all the way through the year. If you stop when you are stuck, then you are in trouble!4

Never complete a task.

Ever.

This is because of the Zeigarnik Effect, named after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik who first studied this effect back in 1927.

Zeigarnik Effect
The phenomenon where you remember incomplete tasks better than complete tasks and have an urge to complete incomplete tasks

If you complete tasks when you finish working on something, you won’t want to get back to work. But if you leave a task unfinished, you’ll want to get back to work.

“But how will I finish anything?” you may ask. The answer is simple, as soon as you finish something, start another thing. Never finish working with the work all finished. For instance, when I finish a book, I will immediately start a new one even if I only have time to get a few pages in. Whenever I write a piece of music, I always start working on the next section and leave that new section unfinished.

Paradoxically, leaving work undone is the fastest way to get work done.

Myths About Willpower

The final thing to know about working hard is to dispel a myth about breaks. Many people talk about willpower, and in the psychology world, this concept is known as ego depletion.

Ego Depletion

In 1998, the psychologist Roy Baumeister and other researchers created the idea that self-control acted like a muscle; self-control could be worn out by hard work but could be strengthened over time through repeated use. Essentially, you could literally exercise self-control to get more of it. And once you used up all your self-control for the day, you had to rest to get it back.5

Their initial studies involved testing people’s self-control over several tasks. For instance, in probably the most famous study, participants had to resist eating chocolate before attempting a puzzle. Those participants performed significantly worse than their control counterparts. Likewise, another study showed that asking participants to give speeches contrary to their beliefs lowered their performance on puzzles.6

This was the first evidence of ego depletion.

Ego Depletion
Willpower/Self-Control is a finite resource. In the short-term, it acts like a battery; once you deplete it, it requires time to recharge.

And thus these 1998 studies instigated a ton of research on the concept of ego depletion.

Further Studies

Up into the early 2000s, there were more and more papers that backed up the concept of ego depletion.

As the theory started to become fleshed out, the leading hypothesis was that ego depletion is a result of dropping glucose levels. Because glucose is the fuel that powers your body, acts of willpower require glucose. And until the glucose levels are restored to normal levels, further acts of willpower become harder.7 8

Now this is looking good for ego depletion. Not only are further studies enforcing that the concept is true, but there is also now proven physiological causes for ego depletion.

Yet this will change.

As time went on, more and more studies started to challenge this concept. Some studies stared replicating and debunking the original studies.9 And furthermore, many studies found that ego depletion only exists in individuals who believe that willpower is finite. Those who thought that willpower was infinite did not experience ego depletion.10

And what about the glucose theory? Well, while older studies found that drinking sugary lemonade would restore willpower, newer studies showed that simply tasting sugar was sufficient to restore it.11

That’s right, simply tasting sugar (without swallowing or ingesting it) was enough to restore willpower.

That means that glucose deficiency cannot cause ego depletion.

Think Unlimited Willpower

So how does knowing this help? Once you realize that simply believing that willpower is unlimited, you will start having unlimited willpower.

Willpower is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So instead of thinking that you need a break because you’ve worked a lot, think again.

Your New Work Ethic

As a quick recap, here are all the ideas discussed between Part 1 and Part 2:

So the question is, now that you have learned all these different aspects of productivity, how do you implement them?

Here’s a step-by-step guide:

  1. Decide your goal: Figure out what you want to achieve. As Stephen Covey says in his book The 7 Habit’s of Highly Effective People, “begin with the end in mind.”12 You have to know where you want to go before you start taking your first steps.
  2. Eliminate Useless (Fake) Work: Figure out if the work that you want to do will help you achieve your goal. If not, get rid of it.
  3. Think 80/20: Of the remaining work, find the smallest and easiest tasks that have the most impact. Find the 20% of the work that will achieve 80% of the results. Eliminate the rest of the work.
  4. Constrain Your Time: Figure out how much time it should take you to complete the work. Then make that time smaller. Take into account Parkinson’s Law. If you have trouble meeting your new ridiculous deadlines, plan to procrastinate. And if that doesn’t work, just plan to achieve more. You only have 24 hours in a day, so if you plan to only write a 2 page paper that day, then it will take all day. Instead, plan to write 10 pages.
  5. Focus Deeply: Learn to do deep work. The more focused you can be at the task at hand, the better. Limit the amount of switches you do between tasks. This includes checking email or social media. If you check them regularly, you’ll suffer from attention residue. Instead, set a timer for 15 minutes to start out with. During that time, all you are allowed to do is work. No distractions. Even better, move the distractions into another room. The harder it is for you to distract yourself, the easier it will be to focus.
  6. Stop Halfway: Never end a work session at the end of a task. Instead, stop halfway. Don’t read to the end of a chapter. Stop reading mid-sentence. If you finish a task, start a new one immediately and get an appreciable amount of work in to take advantage of the Zeigarnik effect.
  7. Remember that Breaks Aren’t Necessary: It has often been said that you need breaks to recover. While that can be true for creative work (more on that in a later post), for the majority of work you’ll ever do, breaks are unnecessary. Don’t worry about ego depletion. If you truly believe that you have unlimited willpower, then you will perform as if you do.

Now I have a question for you, how do you think I wrote this post? I used the methods above. I did this before homework because it’s important to me and then I have less time to do homework (hence it will go faster). I didn’t write about many other things because those didn’t meet my goals. Oh, and I wrote a large part of this without having distractions at all.

Oh, and you may think that I moved onto something else when finishing this. If so, you’d be wrong. Right after finishing this, I started on the next post which is all about why you should not ever make compromises. You read that right, it’s about not making compromises.


Citations

  1. Newport, C. (2016) Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing. 

  2. Leroy, S. (2009). Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 109(2), 168-181. 

  3. Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140-154. 

  4. https://medium.freecodecamp.org/can-the-zeigarnik-effect-help-you-learn-to-code-c64282ed0f7b 

  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ego_depletion 

  6. Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1252. 

  7. Baumeister, R. F., & Vohs, K. D. (2007). Self‐Regulation, ego depletion, and motivation. Social and personality psychology compass, 1(1), 115-128. 

  8. Gailliot, M. T., Baumeister, R. F., DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Plant, E. A., Tice, D. M., … & Schmeichel, B. J. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of personality and social psychology, 92(2), 325. 

  9. Lange, F. (2015). If ego depletion cannot be studied using identical tasks, it is not ego depletion. Appetite, 84(C), 325-327. 

  10. Job, V., Dweck, C., & Walton, G. (2010). Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head? Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation. Psychological Science, 21(11), 1686-1693. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41062434 

  11. Hagger, M. S., & Chatzisarantis, N. L. (2013). The sweet taste of success: The presence of glucose in the oral cavity moderates the depletion of self-control resources. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(1), 28-42. 

  12. Covey, S. R. (2004). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Free Press.