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The Personal Productivity Encyclopedia of Superhero Powers

"A superhero is a hero with superpowers."

(Captin Obvious on the difference between heroes & superheroes - from the Uncyclopedia, the content-free encyclopedia.)

Just for fun I'd like to riff off of the Wikipedia list of comic book superpowers. My goal is to get you thinking about how much we as individuals are able to accomplish, and how we make that happen.

(Side note: For an in-depth analysis of the origins of the superhero idea, check out Classical Heroes in Modern Movies: Mythological Patterns of the Superhero, including the section on Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey [1]. Another article I enjoyed was Why Write About Superheroes? And if you're really feeling ambitious, try taking the Superhero Quiz.)

I'd love to hear your interpretations of these - this is just my first pass. Cheers!

Questions for you

  • What superpowers to you possess?
  • What are some negative powers? For example, Power negation (Ability to cancel the superpowers of others.)
  • Which are the most important?
  • What powers aren't listed here?

The Productivity Super Powers

  • Object-based powers: Your power objects? Your self-management system's tools, of course! (You can find a nice list here.) These tools enable your productivity powers, including capture, calendar, lists, and filing. Unlike superheros, they're not enough by themselves. (No, that's a trap set by our arch-nemesis - GadgetBrain!)
  • Mutation: Here it's the ability to evolve your methods, tools, and perspective as needed. This is important because everything's in flux - your mind, your work, and the business and physical worlds. People from the Lean world talk about continuous improvement, AKA kaizen (ask my buddy Dan about it).
  • Energy sourcing (Ability to draw power from large or small but abundant sources of energy): First, think about your prime time [2], those parts of your day when your brain is really humming. The power is in using current energy level effectively. If it's high (mine is apparently in the morning these days), do the heavy intellectual work. If it's low, choose a dead simple one.
  • Magical powers: To me, one of the most magical, the most miraculous things in the world is the mind. It's the source of our thinking and creativity, and if bringing something into reality from nothing isn't magic, well then you can come over here and try to take my wand from me ;-) Beware, though - Feeling out of control sparks magical thinking. Wikipedia defines magical thinking as "nonscientific causal reasoning," something we personal scientists need to manage (including using it intentionally).
  • Technopathy (Ability to manipulate technology): Like object-based powers, you must be the master of your tech. BlackBerry, Outlook, iPhone - like anything powerful, these things are dangerously distracting, and don't necessarily lead to being more productive [3].
  • Telekinesis (Ability to manipulate and control objects with the mind, often in ways not visible to the naked eye): Attention.
  • Power bestowal (Ability to bestow powers or jump-start latent powers): Delegation, discipline, and mastering "Too smart to start."
  • Power mimicry or absorption (Ability to copy or absorb another's powers or skills): "Learning" (I think of minds as "learning machines" [4] - we're built to learn and explore.)
  • Accelerated healing (Ability to heal rapidly from any injury; the rate of recovery varies from character to character. Can sometimes result in the slowing of aging) Speaks to keeping a healthy immune system, via enough sleep, enough exercise, good (i.e., not too much) diet, and your friends (and their friends - see Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says.
  • Acid generation (Ability to generate acid, can be manifested through touch or as a spray): "Sensitivity training is this Friday, Bob" Related: BileBreath.
  • Biological manipulation (Ability to control all aspects of a living creature's biological make-up): Taking breaks (including microbreaks).
  • Duplication (Ability to create physical duplicates of oneself): Accomplished via noticing and implementing automation (I gave some examples in Custom Workflows For Knowledge Workers), and delegation and personal outsourcing, including virtual/personal assistants Personal assistants get a high-tech makeover. See The 4-Hour Workweek for some good examples.
  • Temporal duplication (Ability to bring past and future versions of oneself back to the present): From the past, tap your lessons Learned file to inform your present self. For the future, use intuition-based capture ("I don't know how I'm going to use this, but something tells me to stag it"), and apply your experience via planning (see A Daily Planning Experiment and Simple Project Planning For Individuals).
  • Invisibility (Ability to render the user unseen to the naked eye): Combine Time Blocking ("appointments with yourself") with ensconcing yourself in a local cafe or unused conference room (AKA "getting away"). Hey - nothing beats "seat time" when it comes to being productive!
  • Matter ingestion (Ability to consume any sort of matter without any ill effects on the user.). Think functional collection buckets, and the habits that go with them (check out What Are The Essential Habits Of GTD?).
  • Reactive adaptation/evolution (Ability to develop a resistance or immunity to whatever they were injured by or exposed to): Protecting yourself from interruptions (e.g., turning off the New Mail alert), and being proactive, rather than continually in crisis mode. However, this is augmented by the important need to stay agile. Being able to switch projects and focus when appropriate is a success factor.
  • Superhuman reflexes (Ability to react faster than a normal human): Comes from keeping a clear mind (sharper!), being agile (see above), and having solid "bookmarking" skills when you decide to switch tasks. (Put your working papers back into their folder, toss it in your inbox - perhaps with a sticky noting where you were - then ... SWITCH!) Again, must be used with care - beware multitasking (see Multi-Task for Bottlenecked Brain).
  • Telescopic or microscopic vision (Ability to magnify vision to various levels): Think shifting your perspective up and down in time (review your work daily, weekly, monthly, ...) and for specific projects (planning).
  • Wallcrawling - "Time for a break"
  • Innate capability (Ability to naturally have skills and/or knowledge typically earned through learning): Freeing up your natural talents ... well isn't what this is all about?
  • Omniscience (Ability to know anything and everything.) - the "IdeaMatt" goal ;-)
  • Superhuman intelligence (Ability to have intelligence far above that of a genius level): My IdeaMatt readers.
  • Empathy (Ability to read or sense the emotions and/or control the emotions or feelings of others): Just plain good.
  • Mediumship (Ability to see and communicate with the dead (ghosts)): Reading, including history.
  • Precognition (Ability to perceive the future. It may also be used as a form of "Danger sense" to show the user that they are being threatened and from what direction it is coming from): Planning your projects (and life) out enough in advance, anticipating problems/challenges/obstacles, and creating contingency plans. Don't overdo it, though. As the Extreme Programming people know, too much "up front" planning tends to be a waste, unless you can exactly predict the future. Things change, so why not do a little (minimum?) planning, jump in, and adjust as you learn. There's a balance between Ready, Aim, Fire (careful, front-loaded) and Ready, Fire, Aim (shooting from the hip).
  • Psychometry (Ability to relate details about the past or future condition of an object, person or location): This can really feel like a superpower to you and others: being able to quickly put your hands on project notes, meeting notes, a history of conversations and decisions, and files (see Five Secret Filing Hacks From The Masters). Note: It's not a good idea to keep this stuff in your calendar. Some productivity methods have you spread project events and information throughout time, making it hard to pull the story together when needed.
  • Memory manipulation (Ability to erase or enhance the memories of another): See Psychometry.
  • Animation (Ability to bring inanimate objects to life or to free a person from petrification): Think bringing stalled projects to life: Break them down into small actions. It's also anti-procrastination: "Too smart to start?" Dive in with something really small. A mind hack from Do It Tomorrow: Can't get started writing (for example)? Tell yourself you're just going to pick up the pencil. Nothing more. And hey, sometimes it works! Another approach is to simply pick any little task, not necessarily the natural first one. Alan Lakein, in How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, calls this the "Swiss cheese" method: poke some holes in it (see the fourth entry in IdeaLab 0505: Put Pockets, Trash Bags, Swiss Cheese, And Faith).
  • Elemental transmutation (The ability to alter chemical elements, changing them from one substance to another by rearranging the atomic structure. May be limited to self-transmutation): This is the extremely powerful method of turning incoming work items into executable tasks. As I wrote in What Are The Laws Of Work?, work arrives disorganized.
  • Immortality: This is about creating useful artifacts that live beyond us. Building a house, writing, painting, research, programming - the things we're uniquely built to do.
  • Magnetism manipulation (Ability to control and/or generate magnetic fields): Learn how to establish rapport. The classic is How to Win Friends & Influence People (summary here), and I like How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less too.
  • Probability manipulation (Ability to alter probability, causing unlikely things to happen or likely things to not happen): Think luck, but not in the common passive sense of the word. There are some good quotes on it, mostly like "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity" (attributed to Seneca a Stoic), but for a profound treatment check out How to Attract Good Luck. It's not as hokey as it sounds.
  • Reality warping (Ability to change or manipulate reality itself): Isn't this another "That's the whole point" one?
  • Time manipulation (Ability to affect the flow of time by slowing, accelerating, reversing, or stopping it): You tell me.
  • Energy blasts (Ability to expel various forms of energy from the body): Dashes?
  • Summoning (Ability to summon objects or beings for assistance): Being able to draw on your creativity. (Anyone have a great book on it to recommend?)
  • Superhuman speed (Ability to move at speeds much faster than a normal human): Beyond agility (see above) we can think about what speed means, and how to use it rationally. In The Age of Speed: Learning to Thrive in a More-Faster-Now World, Poscente suggests we should not reject speed out of hand. He says fast is accomplishing more in a smaller amount of time, and that fast != irresponsible (for your coders out there).
  • Teleportation (Ability to move from one place to another without occupying the space in between): Think getting efficiently to meetings (Are your calendar chops up to speed? Do you allocate enough time to get there on time? Do you leave enough healthy between time?). An anti-example: Multitasking. (You might enjoy Crenshaw's The Myth of Multitasking. It's not my preferred style of writing, but he deconstructs it well.)
  • Time travel (Ability to travel back and forth through time): ?


  • [1] Campbell's explanation of the term Monomyth - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
    "The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation - initiation - return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth."

  • [2] In looking for a good reference, I came across this PDF: The Successful Person's Guide to Time Management. Their section Find Your Prime Time provides an exercise to discover yours, along with a simple measurement chart:

    1. Choose a typical day to graph your energy level. Be prepared to spend a few minutes each hour evaluating your energy level and recording it on the chart.
    2. Above each hour of your day, place a dot in the box that best represents your level of energy for that hour.
    3. At the end of the day, draw a line to connect the dots.
    4. Examine your peaks and valleys of energy as represented on the graph. Note your high-energy periods.

  • [3] From Technology & Productivity--Why We Get One Without The Other: "Research indicates that productivity in non-white collar jobs has increased with the advent of improved technology. Research has also found that white-collar productivity HAS NOT increased in a similar way."
  • [4] Interestingly, I couldn't find many hits searching for the phrase. The best was a press release: New $35.5 million Center for Mind, Brain and Learning created at UW: "Human brains are wonderful learning machines. They are wired to learn in interaction with the world and reprogram themselves over time."

Reader Comments (11)

This is great!

December 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Steig

I've tapped into the magical power of our brain as I've learn to unleash more of the power of the most amazing gifts humans have!

December 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterR

Thanks for your comment.

December 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Much obliged, Joseph.

December 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great to see a concentration on strengths. Most fall into the trap of focusing on weaknesses. Imaginative article Matt.

December 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCorey

Thanks, Corey. I hadn't thought of the optimistic spin. :-)

December 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell


This is a long one buddy! I'm still digesting and it could be awhile. I think I'll take 10 and listen to the podcast above. Later!


December 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDavey Moyers

Happy holidays, Davey

December 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

What a neat and interesting take on this subject!
Nice job!
Thanks for referencing my list!

December 20, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterKris

Much appreciated, Kris.

December 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

FYI Check out Davey's comment on this at [ Happy Holidays 2008 | http://matthewcornell.org/2008/12/happy-holidays-2008.html#comment-2067 ]

December 24, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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