Category Productivity

End Game Analysis: The Performance Spectrum

This article, and the articles that follow analyze my thoughts on what I am calling my “end game.” You can read more about this concept here.

In my recent description of the end game I referred to a (“deep work”) performance spectrum. While my ability to concentrate for longer periods of time is increasing, I’m left to wonder where I fall within this performance spectrum. What equates to maximal deep workability?

The quality of one’s life, if measured along this dimension, relies heavily upon this understanding.

As a starting point, one can argue that corporate life, due primarily to excessive meetings and the prevalence of open office environments, falls just outside this spectrum. To further this point, some of the practices shared below would be considered idealistic, foreign, and at their worst, wrong. For these reasons, let’s classify this as “Level 0” (status quo).

Given this starting point, what do the remaining levels look like?

Levels 1-4: Foundation Building

The challenge at this level is balancing one’s ability to produce efficiently and effectively while remaining reasonably connected with others. The remaining levels omit this internal struggle, at least for now. I will return to this point later on.

Level 1: Utilization of time management tools (e.g., RescueTime) to establish performance baseline; initial email and meeting reduction; greater focus on meaningful work (initial implementation of 80/20 rule).

Level 2: Performance baseline obtained; high-density communications; fixed work hours; further email and meeting reduction (near elimination); hourly time tracking; narrower focus; meditation practice begins.

Level 3: Dedicated workspace and purposeful breaks; work hours aligned with maximum concentration ability; prioritization of projects based on complexity and available energy; explicit stopping points; 80/20 rule fully realized.

Level 4: Utilization of tracking document to monitor training, diet, and work schedule; weekly schedule planned in 30-minute intervals; accelerated ability to produce.

Levels 5-6: Refinement

At this level, what would normally be considered maximal performance is only the starting point for one’s true potential. As of March 2018, I consider myself operating between Levels 5 and 6.

Level 5: Time spent in deep work becomes further concentrated (what would have otherwise been “idle” time is now purposefully omitted to make room for more challenging opportunities); meditation practice increases in frequency and ability; increased journaling.

Level 6: A greater percentage of time is spent on “moderately challenging” or “challenging” subject-matter; weekly schedule takes on increased precision; daily journaling; reading requires greater concentration.

The End Game

The following is an email I wrote to a friend speaking in some depth about what I describe as “the end game.” I will expand upon several aspects of this communication in future posts, but I think sharing the original message here is valuable in itself.

The question you posed – “what is the end-game?” – is one that I have considered for many years. Ironically, you are the second to ask this within a 2-month timeframe (a friend of mine, whose personality is somewhat similar) asked me the very same thing.

I think what I enjoy most in life is the ability to think critically.

The inner struggle that I have been in for as long as I can remember is to “get closer to” sources of complex subject-matter. I think that will pursuit will always be a source of discontent in my life, with varying degrees. At some level, I have learned that this underlying discomfort is normal.

To elaborate, I find myself concerned when things get too “easy” from an intellectual or creative standpoint. In the past, this would equate with abandoning the topic for another. Now, I’ve adjusted my approach in that I will try to stay engaged but do so in a different way. That could be something as simple as getting the work done more efficiently or approaching the topic in a completely different manner. But, at some level, and for certain topics, I feel I am simply pushing the same pieces around on the same board. My goal is to find “boards” that allow for expansion; I have found “design” to be one.

This belief was further reinforced by a quote from Garry Kasparov in his book “Deep Thinking:”

“It’s also a better of opportunity cost. If the focus is too heavily on optimizing, nothing new is created and stagnation can result. It can be too easy to concentrate only on making something better when we might be better served by making something new, something different.”

Two years ago, I went to the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose to explore topics that are beyond my (current?) reach. I went to a talk where the speaker was giving a talk about personal performance. The question I raised in the session was essentially:

“How are some people able to rise to such a level where they are giving talks about complex topics, as discussed in this conference, while others are merely spectators?”

Needless to say, not everyone can be a visionary, but it was a question that I have been thinking about for a very long time. The answer he offered was one in a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.

At the heart of deep work is an intense ability to focus, particularly on challenging subject matter. The book goes into a fair amount of detail in terms of overall strategy and the underlying benefits of “deep work.” Over the past several years (even prior to this talk) I have been steadily working to improve my ability to concentrate and deliver work of increasing quality and depth.

To this point, I recently formulated a deep work “spectrum” to help me understand where I fit within this journey. I have included some early notes about this below.

[Author Note: The details of this spectrum will be discussed in a separate post.]

To bring this email to a close, I fundamentally believe that everyone has untapped potential. As an example, if I look back at my personal training (read: exercise) journey over the past decade, I have made material progress. Surprisingly, I am at a point where I am comfortable with where I am in this space. I could go further on this journey (and likely will), but I have reached a point where I feel I don’t have to.

The difference for me in the intellectual/creative space is that I have not reached a similar juncture. In fact, I feel like I am still far away. Fortunately, I fundamentally believe that the principle of “deep work” is a clear path towards reducing this gap. And while I have made material strides over the past several years, I am really only at the starting line in terms of how deep my concentration ability can go. The benefit of this ability is a greater likelihood of producing new and innovative “work” which is very important to me.

(To be sure, there are other many other (psychological) barriers to realizing “greatness” but I am trying to address those separately, although they play a critical role nevertheless.)

Attention III – Tactics to Strategy

While the previously shared tactics helped improve my raw productivity score, the approach wasn’t airtight.

For example, the use of Evernote helped me distinguish writing from communicating, but was I using Evernote too heavily now? Was the reduction in email traffic somehow giving the perception that I was disengaged? Am I focusing too much on productivity?

As with any shift in approach, there are pros and cons. Focusing too heavily on productivity did pose the potential that I would become further disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the agency. And perhaps I was spending too much time writing, and not spending enough time in other essential creative and technical pursuits.

These were indeed liabilities, but they didn’t reflect my primary concerns. The shift from communicating to writing (read: transactional emails to critical thinking) was a primary tactic. Tactics typically build from a core strategy, and I was absent one.

What does a productivity strategy really mean? Am I interested in further improving my productivity, or is there something else?

One answer came in the form of a best-selling book entitled Rapt – Attention and the Focused Life by Winfred Gallagher.

The book addresses the topic of attention, and how “your life – who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.

My focus on productivity is to do more with less. Given the diverse subjects that interest me, and the work required to learn and “realize” the material, transforming what would otherwise be “routine” work into a continuous stream of “high density” engagements is a critical and necessary shift.

If I can refine my focus even further, both in terms of subject-matter and the actual practice, I believe I can accomplish far more than what I’ve accomplished to date and in areas that would have otherwise been left unturned.

Attention II – Realization

While I have always been focused in pushing myself along professional, personal, and physical dimensions, it’s only been recently where I’ve identified the fact that one’s ability to focus is what ultimately matters when it comes to taking on harder challenges.

When I was in high-school, I had a desk that had four small storage areas located towards the rear of the primary work surface. These areas were originally designed to hold small items such as envelopes, tape, and writing instruments, but they frequently attracted many other items that I simply didn’t know what to do with.

While my workspace was fairly well-kept, I found myself distracted by these random items that would find their way within or adjacent to the work area. To alleviate this, I built a wooden structure that encapsulated the work area and allow my mind to focus on the work instead of these random belongings. I also went as far to purchase ear protection headphones (!) in an attempt to eliminate, or at least further reduce, all distraction.

This “physical barrier” strategy had a positive effect on my ability to produce, although I recall struggling internally whether all of this was really necessary. After all, my friends seemed to focus reasonably well void of such scaffolding.

Over the next two decades, I continued to refine my ability to focus and made steady improvements across fairly diverse contexts. However, I always felt that more could be done.

Several years ago, after realizing that the vast majority of my time appeared to be spent compiling and responding to emails, I decided to try a new approach; I signed up with an online service called RescueTime.

The premise behind RescueTime is that it assumes that you spend most of your time on the computer, yet you aren’t really sure how much time you are spending on activities that add real value.

RescueTime monitors the applications that you are using and the time spent on each. It identifies, with your help, those applications that are considered “productive” (e.g., Adobe InDesign) and those that are “distracting” (e.g., YouTube). Further classification ability is also provided for those who wish to dive deeper into the underlying data.

The first year’s score came as somewhat of a surprise: 52% productive

RescueTime confirmed my suspicion, and I felt good knowing that improvements were not only desired but necessary. I decided to take action through two simple tactics:

  • Tactic #1: Send less email. The less email I send, the less I’ll receive. Volume problem solved.
  • Tactic #2: Stay out of email completely, and turn off all notifications. Distraction problem solved.

This didn’t mean that I stopped sending email, but I found that what I was really interested in doing was thinking critically, and I accomplished this through writing. The solution? I replaced Outlook with Evernote.

Now I had a tool for writing versus a tool for communication. Both are necessary, but recognizing this difference is what really matters.

Using these two simple tactics, my productivity score improved nearly 30% over the next 4 years, and I am just getting started.