Entropy is the enemy.
By Moreno Zugaro
Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash
Productivity issues are like burning your dinner.
There can be a ton of reasons why your zucchini turned into a lump of coal. You might have set the oven too high, forgotten about the time, read the recipe wrong, or got distracted by a phone call. But no matter the details, in the end, it always comes down to the same thing: Too much heat.
Just like that, Googling “productivity advice” blasts you with 332 million results, yet most of your struggles come down to three main issues. You either procrastinate, spend time on the wrong issues, or — the worst — work super hard but don’t see results.
Despite the simple causes, your problems can be complex. You don’t always know why you’re not getting results. You just know you’d like to get more done.
The struggles don’t stop at work itself. Low productivity often means less free time. You get annoyed and stress out — which makes it even harder to be productive, but easier to lose your peace of mind. No bueno.
Imagine if you’d get your work done in half the time. How much more relaxed and happier would you be — and how much would your results improve?
I’ve been building my own business for over a year and in the beginning, I even studied in a Master’s program on the side. I have tons of things to do and tried pretty much every productivity hack in the book, including a two-month high-performance coaching regimen. In the end, most advice comes down to the same three laws.
Apply these consistently and your productivity will skyrocket.
What a Genius Physicist Can Teach You About Procrastination and Distractions
I like physics for one simple reason. It works.
Every single being on this earth, from the tiniest bacteria to the largest mammal, has to abide by its laws.
One of the pioneers of early physics was Isaac Newton, the guy who revolutionized science by watching an apple fall from a tree. He’s most famous for his three laws of motion — and the first doesn’t only hold in physics, but productivity as well.
“An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion, unless they’re influenced by an external force.”
Most of your productivity issues stem from either procrastinating or getting distracted.
In other words, you either struggle with getting from rest into motion or staying in motion once you’re at it. Your work can be seen as a long, heavy train — hard to get going, but once it’s rolling, just make sure there’s nothing in the way.
Here are two principles that make this possible.
Reduce friction to get moving.
Your behavior is always the result of a battle between motivation and friction.
You’re motivated to do your taxes because it means you get your money back. But when you’re on the couch enjoying a nice cup of tea and watching your favorite show, friction to get up and mull over spreadsheets is too high. You put it off until the motivation from an imminent deadline is bigger than the friction.
If you want to overcome procrastination, you either have to increase motivation, which is often hard, or reduce friction, which is often easier. A great tool is the 5-minute rule.
Big tasks often seem overwhelming, which makes it hard to start. The thought of spending four hours doing something you don’t like produces so much friction you don’t get going at all. Reduce the commitment and you reduce the friction.
Commit to putting in five minutes only. First, doing something is better than nothing and second, once you get the train going, it’s easy to keep rolling. In physics, the friction for getting an object moving is always bigger than keeping it in motion. Good old lady science.
Stay in motion.
According to a University of California study, it takes you roughly 23 minutes to fully regain focus after an interruption.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you’re in the zone, you easily plow through task after task like a bullet train. But if you get distracted, your train can never pick up speed.
Here are some simple steps I took to eliminate distractions and keep rolling.
Put your phone in airplane mode and out of sight and reach. Your phone is the biggest source of distractions — and as the saying goes, out of sight, out of mind.
Establish deep work blocks. Take a few hours a day for uninterrupted work and schedule your meetings accordingly. Communicate your no-interruption policy to coworkers, friends, and family.
Use noise-canceling headphones with binaural beats, brain.fm, or other focus-enhancing music. I’m super sensitive to audible distractions. The slightest noise can pull me out of the zone, which is why I have to block sound altogether.
Turn off notifications for emails and messages and answer them all in one go once or twice a day. If it’s important, the person will call. If it isn’t, it can wait. I answer all my messages once a day in one big batch, which saves me the constant back-and-forth.
Lessons from Newton’s first law: Reduce friction to get started easily and eliminate distractions so you can keep rolling. The faster your train picks up speed and the less it has to stop, the more ground you cover.
Ready to roll? | Photo by StockSnap on pixabay
The Crucial Difference Between Effectiveness and Efficiency
There’s a subtle, but important difference between efficiency and effectiveness.
Effectiveness maximizes output. Efficiency maximizes output while minimizing input.
Since your resources are limited, productivity is much more about efficiency than effectiveness.
In 1896, economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered that roughly 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the people. This Pareto Principle applies not only to economics but also to computing, sports, healthcare, wars, and everything else you can imagine — including Medium articles.
Most of my income on Medium comes from a few selected pieces, while the rest is lost somewhere in the ether.
The majority of your output comes from the minority of your input. All you have to do is find out which 20% create your 80%, then double down on it.
When I started building my business, I engaged in a ton of terribly inefficient tasks. I spent hours mulling over a single paragraph in an article, exchanging claps in Medium marketing groups (yes, I was dumb), and trying to perfectly edit a YouTube video. None of these moved the needle much.
Identify your high-value tasks and double down on them.
If you want to become more productive, get clear on what your main output is. As a writer, it’s great articles. As a coach, it’s happy clients. As an office worker, it’s whatever your boss wants from you — they’ll probably demand a ton of things, but you have to find out what matters most.
Then, figure out the relevant inputs. These are your high-value tasks. Double down on them and cut the rest.
It can be psychologically challenging to drop a task because you feel less productive at first, but remember the difference between efficiency and effectiveness and the 80/20 principle.
Spend time on what moves the needle, not on what you think is important.
Lessons from Pareto’s law: Identify your main outputs and high-value tasks. Double down on them and cut the rest. Value efficiency above effectiveness.
Why More Time Often Doesn’t Mean Getting More Done
How long does it take you to do something? As long as you have.
If I give myself two hours for a certain task, I’ll do it in two — almost to the minute. Yet, if I give myself three hours for the same task a week later, it takes three damn hours, even though I clearly could’ve done it in two. Some days, it feels like voodoo magic — but I’m not the only one who experiences it.
In 1958, economist Cyril Parkinson discovered a seemingly impossible conundrum. After he transferred to the British colony of Malaysia, he noted the number of people employed in the colony’s administration rose by 5–7% per year, “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work to be done.” In other words: Even though more people were employed, the output didn’t increase. Looking at how administrative offices in Germany work, I’m pretty sure they get done less year after year, but that’s another story.
When you have more time available, subconsciously you plan to use it all.
The important takeaway, named Parkinson’s Law, is this:
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
Knowing this, you can flip the script — and improve your productivity by a ton.
Set strict deadlines for yourself.
Most of what you do takes more time than it should. But if you set a strict deadline for yourself, you can eliminate the waste.
When I face a task, I estimate how long it will take me and then cut that time in half. This sounds drastic, but more often than not, it works like a charm.
You don’t have to make all your work a race against the clock. But if you want to become more productive, strict deadlines are your friend.
A more creative way to use Parkinson’s law to your advantage is to do most of your work standing, especially calls and meetings. You’ll waste much less time than when you’re in a comfortable chair.
Lessons from Parkinson’s law: The more time you give yourself to complete a task, the longer it will take. Set deadlines and cut the waste.
The Exception to the Rule
Here’s what we’ve learned about the three laws of productivity so far:
Newton’s 1st law of motion: Start small to overcome procrastination and eliminate distractions so you can keep your work train rolling with high speed.
The Pareto Principle: The minority of your inputs creates the majority of your outputs. Identify your high-value tasks, double down on them, and cut the rest.
Parkinson’s Law: Your work takes as much time as you give it. Set strict deadlines and cut the waste.
As the saying goes, there’s no rule without an exception. But this time, it comes in disguise.
Entropy is the enemy.
All things tend to get more chaotic over time.
In physics, this is known as entropy — an ever-increasing state of state of disorder, randomness, or uncertainty. Cream spreads through coffee. Cigarette smoke mixes with air. You clean up your apartment but a few days later stuff is lying everywhere.
The same will happen to your productivity if you don’t pay attention — you’ll fall back into old patterns, becoming less productive.
To keep the entropy at bay, I conduct a weekly review, answering a few specific questions to reflect on the past seven days and get the most out of the next:
What were some of last week’s wins?
What lessons did I learn?
What can I do differently from last week to raise my average performance?
What responsibilities, meetings, and deadlines do I have next week?
What are my three highest value tasks that move the needle most, and how will I work on them?
What key habit do I commit to next week?
Productivity isn’t rocket science. As so often in life, you don’t need a fancy solution. Apply the simple things that work consistently.
Minimum effort, maximum result — that’s what productivity is all about.