Any Given Heartbeat

There are so many books and websites dealing with ‘personal productivity‘ that I couldn’t even begin to do them justice.

Merlin Mann’s is devoted to “finding the time and attention to do your best creative work”. I just finished ‘Rework‘ by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, large portions of which are rehashes of posts from their ‘Signal vs. Noise‘ blog about groups being more productive at the office and I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done, though I can honestly say that I don’t remember two words of it. There’s Lifehacker, which is a fun diversion. If you don’t want to read any of these, just read The Cult of Done Manifesto. It’s quicker than the others.

All of these ‘productivity gurus’ all seem to offer the same basic advice: Avoid procrastination. Banish business meetings. Avoid interruptions. Get a good night’s sleep. Relax. Play. Get inspired. Daydream.

There’s only one glaring flaw in their logic: Nobody in the world has a personal productivity problem.

In any given heartbeat, every person does exactly one heartbeat of activity. That activity might be one heartbeat of typing a message or computer code. It might be one heartbeat of sleeping. It might be one heartbeat of talking or one of just sitting. But every heartbeat you do exactly one heartbeat of activity.

Recognize this: You can only do one thing at a time. Numerous studies have shown that ‘multi-tasking’ is fictitious. People can shift attention between several tasks occurring simultaneously, but at any given instant, attention is only on one.

So, you cannot choose how much to do in any given heartbeat (you can only get one heartbeat’s worth done) and you cannot choose how many things to focus on (there can be only one), your only choice is which thing to do.

That is, nobody has a productivity problem. Instead, we all face a prioritization problem. Living a day is simply answering the question: “What will I do next second?” 86,400 times in a row.

A teenage boy who spends hours on end in his bedroom playing video games is not unproductive, nor unmotivated nor uninspired. On the contrary: He’s very motivated. Very inspired. He’s just very motivated to be entertained and stimulated. Inspired to solve a puzzle or get an adrenaline rush. And every heartbeat spent playing a video game is another heartbeat’s worth of productive effort in salving those needs.

Perhaps as a parent or teacher or friend you’d like to see him spend that time solving other puzzles (like the quadratic equation) or feeling the adrenaline rush of some good old-fashioned outdoor exercise. Perhaps you’re trying to get yourself ‘motivated’ to work on a ‘more productive’ task. If so, I can see two ways to better prioritize your activities:

1. Make your desired task more attractive (or more feasible).

2. Make your undesired task less attractive (or less feasible).

Can’t get started on that spreadsheet you’ve been meaning to put together? Then promise to reward yourself with a walk around the block with ice cream if you get it done today.

Find yourself checking e-mail out of habit every 5 minutes? Remove the icon from your desktop and hide it in your applications folder. Then, checking e-mail will be more difficult and you’ll do it less often.

Put your razor in your sock drawer instead of the bathroom. You’ll shave only when you really need or want to, not every day.

(In rare cases when two activities might be roughly equal in attractiveness, then I guess my only advice is to simply shift focus from one to the other.)

Just accept the fact that you can’t get done any more than you are currently getting done in a day. You don’t need to “find time” to do your best creative work. You just need to choose which activities are less important than spending an extra heartbeat doing creative work. Then get a good night’s sleep. Relax. Play. Get inspired. And daydream.


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