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The Path of Maximum Productivity: Seven tensions, and how to resolve them

In What Are The Laws Of Work? I made a humble stab at defining the first principles that might inform designing a productivity method from scratch. The discussion was stimulating and led to more thinking, in particuarl how might we structure our environments for success, hopefully tying in Fritz's work in Path of Least Resistance.

One big idea (lots of wows in the book) is tension/resolution systems, which got me thinking about the connection between the productivity "laws" and the tensions we face doing our work. Paraphrasing Fritz,
Tensions seeks resolution is a basic principle found throughout nature, and also applies to human events. For example, during a conversation the question, "Did Martha go with you to the dinner?" creates a tension (waiting for a response), and the resolution is the answer "Yes."
This made me think of the tension of everyday actions [1]. For example, when I know I need to do something, I feel an internal mental tension that can literally feel physical.

So: What are the tensions of productivity? Is there a finite set? How do we get resolution? And what can we generalize from this? Today I'll just list the ones I came up with, and ask what you think.

A tension sampler

Here are a few work-related tension sources I came up with. Care to generalize or add your own?

  • Things undone (unfinished work). (Some tension parameters that raise/lower it: complexity, interest, ...)
  • Things not found
  • Needing to be somewhere
  • Waiting for a response
  • Unknowns
  • Things undecided
  • Untrused delegations (including promises made by ourselves or others)

How do we resolve them?

Given that we have these tensions in our lives, and that they cause some level of mental stress, how do we resolve them? There are two possibilities: Eliminate the source, or structure them so as to feel as if they're eliminated. Examples:Careful with the last; it only works if you really can stop thinking about it.

What's particularly interesting is the "feel as if" case. For productivity, this means rigorously tracking these somewhere, that is, "To Do" lists [4]. I got this insight ("good lists relieve mental burdens") from the folks over at Mission Control, though it's not uncommon among the different approaches.

Is all this sounding familiar? It should; we've just teased out Delete, Delegate, Do, and Defer. Hey - we also got Deter! A satisfying convergence [5].


Interestingly, Fritz describes sample tension/resolution systems, and says the path of least resistance oscillates in some structures and resolves in others. If it is an oscillating structure, you will experience a recurring pattern. This leads me to ask whether there's a non-oscillating way to be productive... Thoughts?


Reader Comments (9)

Hi Matt,

I always loved your old blog because of its great content and your desire to help other people grasp it. I felt because of the quality of what you offer, your old design was letting it down somewhat.

The new design is easy to read, attractive, and fantastic to navigate. Congratulations on it (old news for you, I'm sure!) and keep it up.

P.S. I love your practice of putting your references at the bottom of your post. It adds credibility as well as being instantly helpful.

July 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterChristoph Dollis

Hey, Christoph - your comment really gave me a lift! Thanks very much. I'll pass along your compliments to my designer.

And congratulations on your new job at http://eruptik.com/ . I snooped around and found a link to [ Freebase: an open, shared database of the world knowledge | http://www.freebase.com/ ]. This looks cool. I'll need to spend some time getting my head around it, its query abilities, and how it's different from Wikipedia and http://www.opencyc.org/.

Finally, I appreciate your feedback re: the patented IdeaMatt reference style. I read a blog how-to that said it's a bad idea. They liked mouse overs instead, but I can't stand them for many reasons.


July 3, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Michael has a nice addition on [ Daily Report (July 4, 2008) | http://www.michaelsampson.net/2008/07/working-with--2.html ]:

Another spin on this is to purposefully create tensions that require us to do something. So be careful out there ... eliminate the tensions you don't want, and create the ones you do.

July 4, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I recommend the book "Brain Rules" in the context of productivity. It talks about the fundamental principles of how our brain works and suggests mean via which we can be more productive at work. Some of the ideas:

Let morning people work in the morning and evening people work at night
Muli-tasking is a myth - get off the grid, switch off your technology and go for a walk
Have a powernap every day
Don't have important meetings at 3pm!

Really good stuff which challenges the same old same old!

Great blog!

July 19, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott McArthur

hello Matt: I was really impressed that our previous discussion about the Unified GTD Theory has spawned another post from you.

I feel remiss in not following your blog lately but have been busy the last couple of months. My life had taken a downward spiral the last few years and have only recently been getting it together. I am lucky to be working full time now and my wife/daughter were/are the great support system in my life. REALLY LUCKY...

Anyhow, I dont have much to add to the unified theory but I was thinking about how our brain works and how it gets distracted. I've been thinking of making a comment on that for quite some time in lieu of adding to the unified theory. And I see now that others are posting on the same subject.

There is the sort of mindless repetitive actions, that we do that dont require much thinking. Call them alpha thinking (these categories sort of relate to the brain waves that are observered in our brains). Activities such as driving, or typing or anything. The thing is, a lot of times, Big Ideas, or LIght Bulb type of ideas come out at this time, even though you are dong something else. It helps to have some sort of capture tool right at that moment, because, sometimes those ideas just come and come.

Then there is sort of deeper thinking, call it beta where we draw deeper connections. Sometimes we call upon our memories to recall stuff and some of it is more like pattern recognition where we take those memories and make a connection with some sort of pattern that we now come to recognize. And so perhas we create a new way to file things. or whatever.

Then there is even more creative thinking where we just come with some crazy idea that maybe has little connection to the past memories and maybe nothing to do with patterns...

Organizing our office and/or our lives is perhaps another type of thining. Often it involves a lot of grunt work/alpha type stuff and yet it also calls upon pattern recognition in order to come wiht a more efficient way to file, or a better place to put our coffee mugs. It's the sort of ability that calls upon different ablities and so maybe some of us are better at it than others.

Then there is Planning, another activity that is usually done when we are done with our day. Planning often calls upon creative abilities because certain solutions might save us a lot of time tomorrow even though they might not be obvious until we think about it.

THen there is the Reflecting stage where we reflect upon our day our failures and successes and how we can make things better. I guess this requires some memory elements, but there also has to be some sort of honesty component where you have to take a hard look at what happened. Sometimes it is hard to face up to reality, it is painful so we shy away. Honesty and courage have a physical component to them, I think. So again another stage of thinking that requires different abilities.

ANyhow, I hadnt been back for so long I'd thought I'd post what I was thinking. I was delighted that you found the original post so interesting, so I wanted to carry the ball a little further and keep it going. Not sure if this brain stuff is appropo but that's all I got in the hopper right now...

I'll try to get back with you on that Unified Theory but this will take time. Greetings to all the fine posters here.

August 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjpinmaryland

This is another idea that I came across a couple months ago. Just happened to recall it when I read the above stuff on brain function.

This person on a forum was asking about Synethesia (sp?), I think, where colors, smells, etc. can sometimes trigger one or the other. He asked if anybody else had experienced this. In his case, he tended to remember letters as colors. Like a "j" might cause him to see the color blue. No kidding, it is a real phenomenon. They asked him if it was just a letter per se, or a word and he said it might be a word that starts with "j" or something like that and so he might remember what a jodaphur is by seeing a blue one.

Then someone asked how they/he "saw" the months in the year, or the days in the week in his mind. How do you visualize them? Some said they dont see them at all, other see them on an oval. I tend to see the days as on an oval but the weekend makes up one entire side. ANohter guy said he sees the year as an circle, but New Years Day makes up one half of the circle!

ANyhow, cue to a few days later when I am reading an article in Time magazine, I guess about how we remember things and they said that we remember things best when we have integrated a whole bunch of sensory inputs into that event. Like you might imagine the smells and the sounds and your emotions, the day you went to the circus. So that event is reinforced in your mind but all those sensory inputs that converge on that one event. So the event is reinforced.

Okay so far these ideas seem only tangentially related. I was talking to one of my clients and she has an eidentic memory, she recalls exact conversations, word for word. For her, this sort of thing makes no sense, she recalls actual sentences, she has no concept of where she was or what she was doing when she heard it. Like she recalls some conversatoin I had with her months ago but she doesnt really recall the context, where we were standing, etc.

But I do. And then it hit me: Those memories that are most vivid in my mind are those where I am quite aware of my physical orientation. LIke where I was positioned in a room, looking up etc. And thinking about how I visualize the calender or the days of the week, you know, all my life Ive had a strong sense of where I was on the calendar or in the week, if it was Monday I am looking down, or friday I am turning the corner etc.

As I thought about it, you know, nearly every dream I've ever had I had a strong sense of where I was. Like I am on the second floor, hallway of my old elementary school. SOme people relate stories that have no sense of orientation, and yet I always have a strong sense of that.

Or like a few months ago my dad, who's real old, was telling me about this time we visited a vineyard at first I had no clue. And I sort of recalled the event, but then I remember standing on his shoulders, and looking up! Once I recalled my orientation in space (I was like 3 yrs old on his shoulders) then the whole scene hit me. The grapes, the pie I ate, walking up the driveway etc.

It occurred to me that we can trigger faded memories by focusing on whatever sort of thing that each of us recalls best...Like for that guy with synethesia, he might be able to better recall stuff if he can focus on whatever color it was.

Or like me, or that guy w/ New Years as one side of his calender, we might be bettter if we can remember how we are oriented in space and then use that to trigger these parts of our brains where this stuff is stored.

There was a whole article on memory a couple months ago and it really got me to thinking.Anyhow...

August 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjpinmaryland

Hi JP,

Whew - another patened JP deep thought! Let's give it a go...

> I was really impressed that our previous discussion about the Unified GTD Theory has spawned another post from you.

More than you think. I have a file full of tensions I've been collecting.

> My life had taken a downward spiral the last few years ... REALLY LUCKY

Sorry to hear it, and I'm glad things are improved. You're welcome to give me a call if you need some moral support.

> mindless repetitive actions ... dont require much thinking ... Big Ideas ... capture tool right at that moment

Check! In computer-ese I call them "compiled" activities. They've been converted from requiring step-by-step thinking to habit. [To my brain research readers: What's a good term and reference for this?]

> deeper thinking ... creative thinking

I'm not sure I see them as different...

> Organizing our office/lives ... combines grunt work, pattern recognition

That's a good point, and it's why clearing the inbox (or esp. making the first big push into a system) is so much work. Decision-making is hard!

> Planning ... creative abilities

Yes! I love the brainstorming part of it. It also requires concrete analytical skills - How far out is it? How much time will it take? Who needs to be involved? What resources do I need? etc.

> Reflecting stage ... memory ... honesty. hard to face up to reality, painful

OK, this is taking what's been learned and re- what, attaching/integrating? - into existing memory structures, i.e., "learning."

> so I wanted to carry the ball a little further and keep it going. Not sure if this brain stuff is appropo but that's all I got in the hopper right now...

I'm very glad you shared, JP. I like your teasing apart the types of thinking from the productivity perspective. There's something there, I think. Much appreciated!

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

[jp in md] Hey Matt I dont want to let your reply go w/o a reponse since I really value this site and feel a bit guilty when I dont post for a while. Anyhow for your information I would make a very SICK astronaut, while I loved following the space race in the 60s and 70s I cannot stomach roller coasters and the like...

Anyhow, Matt, Speaking of astronauts, did you ever read that book, I think it was called the Making of an Astronaut, by this guy Brian...something? It was very humourous, sort of like Ball Four as it was set in an iconoclastic vein. THe guy was in that third wave of physicist/astonauts circa 1965, when they thought they would need scientific types to man these things. I dont think anyone in his class even got into space. He was a professor I think from Berkeley and he quit the program after a few years. Did you ever cross paths with that guy or read his book?

October 12, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterjp in maryland

Hey, JP. Good to hear from you. Thanks for the pointer to [ The making of an ex-astronaut | http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0006C0CT6?ie=UTF8&tag=masidbl-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B0006C0CT6 ] - by [ Brian O`Leary | http://www.brianoleary.info/ ]. I haven't read it, but it looks good. Thanks again.

October 13, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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