Daniel Gross on productivity

The longer you think about a task without doing it, the less novel it becomes to do. Writing things in your to-do list and coming back to them later helps you focus, but it comes at the cost: you’ve now converted an interesting idea into work. Since you’ve thought about it a little bit, it’s less interesting to work on.

It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum, immediately sticking it somewhere, then trying to convince yourself to rehydrate the dry, bland, task of chewed-up gum. Oh. That thing. Do you really want to go back to that? “We’ve already gone through all the interesting aspects of that problem, and established that there’s only work left”, the mind says.

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One day someone will make a to-do product that lets you serialize and deserialize flow, like protobuf. Until then, my solution is to (somewhat counter-intuitively) not think about the task until I am ready to fully execute it. I do not unwrap the piece of gum until I’m ready to enjoy it in its entirety. I need to save the fun of thinking to pull myself into flow.

  • I try and respond to emails the moment I open them. If it’s something that requires desktop work, I quickly close the email.
  • I don’t write down ideas for posts until I’m ready to write the entire post.
  • I write down a few bullets of what I need out of a meeting, and then refuse to think about it until the actual event.

There are many more points at the link.  My classic line is simply “I’m not going to focus on that right now.”


Sounds great if you don't have colleagues, working on a team or clients. Otherwise, you have to align a bit your schedule with the schedules of others.

Yes. It also overlooks all the meta-work stuff: thinking about the problem long enough to decide whether it’s actually something that needs to be done etc.

Or work that requires a certain sequence. Trying the "I'll think about it at when I get to it" approach to some things would end catastrophically.

It also ignores documentation requirements. I often set up my To Do lists/checklists such that they automatically function as my documentation that I've done the thing, saving a lot of time in the long run.

I have colleagues, a team, and clients, and I don't really get this objection.

Yes, where you interface with others, there are external requirements. But in most roles you still do a lot of self-management of your work. It seems like these ideas are mainly targeted toward that self-management portion of a job.

In a busy job with a lot going on, mental load becomes a real problem and drain on efficiency. I can spend a whole day just checking and responding to inconsequential emails if I'm not careful. At other times, I can find it hard to complete a task because I keep thinking of other important things I need to do. I don't know if he has the solution, but it's a serious attempt to solve a real problem.

Agreed that it's an attempt to solve a real problem. However, like all solutions to real problems it has its limits. For example, as I said in my previous post, sometimes work has a very specific sequence it needs to follow, and sometimes you're the one figuring out that sequence. I've spent a lot of time over the years putting together checklists to ensure that I've accomplished everything and in the right sequence--the consequences of not doing so include being fired, being fined, and going to jail. "I'll think about it when I get to it" simply doesn't work in these situations. For that matter, it's sometimes not legal to do so--sometimes checklists of some sort are legally required, de facto if not de jure.

This solution also depends on the type of person. I've worked with many people who spend the first part of their day carefully planning what they're going to do, because that gives them a sense of control and allows them to see how their work fits into the bigger picture. Instead of pre-chewing the gum, these To Do lists and planners act as appetizers, whetting their appetites for the work. Obviously this is going to depend on the person--and that's my point.

Cheklists and To Do lists are also very important when it comes to learning new skills. I'm doing more management, which means more delegation--which means I need to write down the steps of what I've always done via Gross' method, because I need to teach newbies. I'm also dealing with unfamiliar tasks and checklists and To Do lists help me remember parts that would otherwise slip my mind. This isn't pre-chewing the gum, it's writing and reading the recipe.

My point isn't that Gross' method can't work. It's just that it has major limitations that need to be acknowledged.

That..... makes a lot of sense, I think.
But it also goes directly against the GTD advice to always have a next action for every project.
But when I'm most productive and engaged is indeed when I do things that I didn't know I was going to do before I did them.

I don't believe it. Or not for me, or not for everything. In problems with some set of definite solutions, keeping a problem at the back of my mind often leads to an answer that "falls out" easily at time of execution.

See also James Krenov, The Impractical Cabinet Maker, for how one piece of a solution can lead to the next.

I take the opposite approach. I have multiple projects going in my head, and when thoughts of one intrude upon another, I capture that productivity and scribble those thoughts down in a running log of my thinking on the project.

Not thinking about interesting work projects is impossible for me, so best to record the thinking when it arrives. Does Mr. Gross have such mental command that he can will himself to not think about interesting things?

'My classic line is simply “I’m not going to focus on that right now.”'

My boss's classic line was "I'm putting this at the top of your priority list."

Confucius he say: Never take advice from man who chew gum.

Wise old bird, Confucius.

I thought Confusion say: "Many men smoke, but few man chew"?

As for the OP, it makes sense, analogous to the finding that 'warming up' actually hurts many athletes performance. Better to start cold.

My favorite part of the writing process is cleaning my kitchen.

I agree. I do make to do lists (so I don't forget) but I tackle a project full-bore, with total concentration on the task. But I like to sit on the finished product overnight if possible, as I almost always think of something I omitted or can improve. My job is writing contracts for complex transactions. Waiting overnight to distribute the contract works well for me, but that's it. The more I dwell on the project, the more likely I am to undo the work previously done, the first effort almost always the best effort. My approach is the building block approach to writing a contract, and if I start undoing parts, the pieces fall apart.

I remember when I was young and could reliably count on things coming back to memory if they weren't written down.

The problem is that it is hard for our to set up experiments on ourselves to see what is the most productive strategy. You may think that you can test a strategy over, say, the next few weeks and see how it works. But for folks who live busy complicated, professional lives, there are too many shocks to the system to rely on the results of the test, both during the period of the test itself and life as it proceeds after the test.

I suspect that many people have established a strategy without understanding that it is period dependent and not knowing what other states might offer.

The best productivity strategy is an adaptable one.

chronic insomnia is underrated for productive flow states!

But a good night's sleep is crucial for me.
Step 1: Study up and marinate in the assignment.
Step 2: Relax that evening, go to bed, let subconscious mind do all the work to come up with the "hook."
Step 3: Wake up at 5 AM knowing exactly what to do, run right to computer without waking up dog. Done by noon. Hit save, eat pizza.

This doesn't sound like a strategy for greater productivity. It sounds like a way to combat procrastination, or a way to avoid perfectionism for unimportant tasks.

Procrastinators are constantly thinking about things that need to be done, but never getting started. Simple tasks become overwhelming because you've done them over and over in your mind yet made no actual progress.

And perfectionists waste way too much time and effort sweating the small stuff. Much of what we do consists of busywork obligations imposed by others. In that case you should just do it in one shot with merely adequate effort and quality.

But some things do truly warrant your best effort. You should never do those in one shot. Better to get off to a good start and write detailed bullet points for the rest and then finish up the next day. Good ideas come to you while you're sleeping or doing other things. The ideas are still fresh the next day. But never let too much time elapse between brainstorming and the final execution, or it will indeed go stale.

It works best when you have the luxury of focusing on one thing at a time, and the luxury of working only on important things.

>It’s like chewing on a fresh piece of gum

No, thinking about a task is COMPLETELY UNLIKE chewing on gum.

You simply want to repeat your (made up) theory about procrastination via Bad Analogy, as if someone didn't understand it the first time... but now that you've mentioned gum, everyone will say Oh Yeah Now I Get It And This Is Brilliant.

Bad analogies are a hallmark of MR, and econ majors in general.

Look up what analogy means in a dictionary.

Tyler's world is one where there is high demand for novelty, and insufficient supply. It is the world of somebody who is easily bored, and needs the constant stimulus of new problems to solve. Tyler gets bored working on the same problem too long. He is a novelty junkie. I would not be surprised if he was a few steps further down the ADHD spectrum than most.

It's good that Tyler is a professor; this is the sort of mindset that managers don't want to see in their subordinates. Most work is not especially original. You solve most problems by making use of the method that worked on a similar (or identical) problem in the past. Fortunately, not everyone is a novelty junkie. Take Todd, the mechanical engineer. Todd needs only a little novelty to keep him engaged; he gains satisfaction from grinding through a large volume of work and doing it well; he is troubled if there is not enough work to keep him busy. New problems make him anxious. These are the employees that managers love to manage. Tyler, I'm sure, would love to have less work; that would give him more time to absorb information and find new problems to solve.

I'm more of a Tyler than a Todd, but there are a lot of Todds out there, and relatively few Tylers. Tyler is a polymath, interested in everything. Most people gain satisfaction from doing a job well, but new problems everyday would just give them heartburn.

Tyler also doesn't work in a highly-regulated field, where procedures are clearly laid out and must be followed lest you end up on an involuntary vacation in your state's finest incarceration facilities.

I recall a recent blog post about how dreams can improve memory, such as dreaming about what one has studied immediately before sleeping.

As for Cowen and Daniel Gross on productivity, one has to remember that Cowen knows a lot about many things, and that a new idea coming into his brain is an infrequent and fleeting experience, so when it does, he must act on it immediately before the idea is lost to another fleeting idea that enters and exits his brain.

"Writing things in your to-do list and coming back to them later helps you focus, but it comes at the cost: you’ve now converted an interesting idea into work."

My problem is that I have too many "interesting ideas" without enough concrete plans of what to actually work on. When I start working without solidifying the idea first, the work becomes vastly more stressful, because each thing I do forecloses possibilities I haven't fully considered yet. I'm usually much more productive if I can get the thinking out of the way first, then do the actual work mindlessly, the same way I would sweep a floor. That way when I'm working and a new problem comes up, I am able to give it my full mental attention.

That said, I am not the biggest productivity in the world, considering that I'm currently commenting on MR instead of working. Perhaps it would be better for everyone if I shut up for a while.

Dan Gross linked to Marc Anderseen's essay, who linked to Stanford philosopher John Perry's essay on the value of structured procrastination. Perry has co-hosted Philosophy Talk for over a decade, but I just read at that site that sadly, his co-host, Stanford philosopher Ken Taylor, died last month of a heart attack. He was a pioneer in excellent podcasting.

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