The Algebra Behind Maximum Effort

Another full day and it feels as if you really didn't get anything done. Which turns into a week that flies by and yet the inbox is bigger and the desk messier. You resent thinking that, to really get anything done, you would have to come in earlier and stay up nights.


Well, don't.

Some of the most productive people do not work any longer than the rest of us, they just know the algebraic formula that produces maximum effort. You may even know someone who consistently cranks out work, whistling some annoying tune from an ABBA musical in the elevator as they leave with everyone else.

In a previous blog I mentioned the idea of attention residue, which describes what happens when you get distracted. The problem is that when you switch from one task to another, some part of your attention, a residue, is still stuck on the task you just left. For example, you just got out of a meeting and now are sitting at your desk staring at a spreadsheet. But part of you is still dwelling on that meeting, with the attention residue especially thick if there was a decision left unfinished. Ten minutes later you take a glance at two emails that popped up in your inbox; twenty minutes after that you decide to get a cup of coffee; and so on.

Cal Newport sums it up this way - unless your talents dwarf your coworkers, those that can find a way to do deep work will produce more and better quality than others.

Here's a good reason to like algebra for you math-haters (besides the fact that it explains the question of life, the universe, and everything) – it can give you the secret to what's really behind door number 1. I give you – THE LAW OF PRODUCTIVITY:

High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus)

Maybe you're a little underwhelmed after seeing it for the first time in its brilliant simplicity, but this is really important. It will be our little secret, like finding the formula to KFC or learning how to do a staff appraisal that everyone loves. It really can be that big of a deal.

The more time spent with increasing amounts of focus determines the quality of your work. Let's break it down.

As we mentioned earlier, the modern workplace makes it difficult to have a high level of focus on our work because of the many distractions ready to take you away from really accomplishing anything. One of the ways to increase your focus is to complete the work you have in front of you before moving on to the next thing. This will decrease the amount of attention residue that sticks around for the next task.

Imagine how much better you could focus on the spreadsheet if you get that decision made first rather than letting it linger once the meeting is over. Chase people down in the hallways if you have to. Follow them to the kitchen and get that result finalized while they are stuck waiting for their coffee in the Keurig. You can then go work on that next task with a clean mind.

Sometimes getting to done is out of your hands. If so, then get your part completed and stuff the rest in a cabinet, out of sight and out of mind, until it needs to be addressed again.

The second multiplier of great output is the amount of time spent with concentrated effort. One hour is better than eleven minutes, partly because it takes ten minutes to get to concentrated effort. One of the best ways to do this is to chunk blocks of time specifically for focused work.

Cal Newport uses the case study of Adam Grant, the youngest professor to be awarded tenure at the Wharton School of Business and author of best-selling books. Adam blocks off seasons of time to get work done, even going so far as to set email auto-responders saying that he is out of office, even though his colleagues see him at work. All in order to do "the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches."

You can do this. Block off mornings in your calendar for three days of the week, or let your coworkers know that on Wednesdays and Fridays you are not available. Then comes the hard part – pull out that work that needs to get done and turn off email. Make sure you cleaned off your desk the day before. You don't have to be stuck in a chair, but you don't pick up your smartphone when you get up to stretch. Lock it in a drawer, or even better, give it to a colleague and tell them under no condition to give it back to you until noon.

At this point, you are now better prepared than most people in a similar position to produce high quality deliverables at a rate that will astonish the people around you.

Let's get to work.