One extremely unusual productivity tip recommended by Marc Andreessen (The Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity) and Arnold Schwarzenegger is unscheduling-that is, not keeping a schedule in any way, shape, or form and just doing whatever seems most important or most interesting at any given moment. This seemed like a lot of fun, so I’ve been trying it for the last two weeks with great results. Other than a few social events, I have basically left my days unplanned, or planned things at the last minute possible-for example, I went to New York in order to go apartment hunting last Wednesday and planned my entire trip the day before. I’d planned to stay for 4 days, but found an apartment and rather than stick around, I just booked a ticket back the same day.
The results have been great.
Things that seem like they should be disadvantages, but haven’t been:
The improvement in productivity has been staggering. Normally after a big life change I am emotionally exhausted and have a hard time accomplishing any work, but this time I’ve actually been substantially more productive than my baseline.
Normal full-time jobs tend to force pretty rigid schedules, but I’ll be working at a startup so it might be possible for me to incorporate some elements of unscheduling into my work life.
The most important components seem to be large chunks of unscheduled time, and taking naps. Time when I can spend a few hours on whatever seems most important, work with others as problems come up, etc. is much more effective than time when I know I’ll have a meeting in an hour. Luckily this seems to be almost automatic at small companies, e.g. it’s practically never necessarily to plan meetings ahead of time.
What about taking naps? I don’t know. I’ve always been most productive at companies where I was able to take naps, but it generally has a career capital cost-taking naps makes you look lazy or unmotivated if people don’t already believe you’re a hard worker. So perhaps I should wait until I’ve established credibility to start doing this one. Another alternative would be to try to time my schedule so that I take naps at ~6 PM, which I’ve done before, although it wasn’t quite as effective.
“Right now, today, we can’t see the thing, at all, that’s going to be the most important 100 years from now.” – Carver Mead
A few days ago I found out most people see images in their dreams. I never have.
This isn’t particularly surprising, because mental imagery has never been part of my life experience. I don’t visualize. I failed Geometry. I can barely read maps. In fact, my visual abilities were tested below the 1st percentile-low enough to be considered mentally handicapped, if it weren’t for my other mental abilities.
In short, there is a huge range of thoughts I simply cannot think.
Yet oddly enough, very few people have described me as mentally handicapped, though perhaps they’re just being polite.
I’ve survived life just fine. Thanks to GPS, I don’t constantly get lost. Thanks to mathematics, I don’t need to visualize a bouncing ball to calculate how fast it falls. And by associating people with their voice, my inability to recognize faces becomes almost irrelevant.
Through abstractions and technology, I manage to survive-even thrive.
Yet…what are the odds that visualizations are the only thoughts I cannot think?
What are the thoughts that humans, today, simply cannot think?
…obviously I can’t answer this question. But I can tackle a related one: how do we learn to think thoughts that are unthinkable today? Or alternatively, to compensate for being unable to think those thoughts?
Abstractions provide one method. Without modern notation, describing something as simple as the equation took 5 sentences-more than 75 words! Quadratic equations went from being a major challenge for the best Mathematicians to a concept taught in Middle School math courses. Can you imagine how difficult it would have been to develop the quadratic formula in these conditions? And how much harder it was to evaluate cubic and quartic problems?
Finding patterns in the data we want to understand, and developing abstractions and jargon in order to chunk these concepts into smaller bits is invaluable. Even if jargon increases the cost of communication, it may well be worth it to come up with terms or notation for every common concept, in order to expand the reach of available thought.
Good abstractions need to do more than just condense a certain class of data-they need to reveal its structure in useful ways. It’s damn near impossible to do long division using Roman Numerals!
Using others’ abstractions-“standing on the shoulders of giants”-is incredibly valuable, though relying on the abstractions without the underlying detail can leave you trapped and unable to adapt. By all means steal ideas-but be prepared to throw them away when something better comes along.
Piecemeal perception provided by tools is another. I can’t understand directions by reading a map, but I can get from point A to point B using a turn-by-turn GPS. And once I’ve traveled the route a few times, the directions make sense and I no longer need to rely on the GPS.
Similarly, I can’t rotate a Rubik’s cube in my head, but I can certainly rotate it and see what happens in real life.
Increasing the speed of feedback is another way to use perception to think better thoughts. Spend 10 minutes practicing giving speeches in front of a mirror, and watch how your body language improves dramatically.
Decreasing reliance on short-term memory is another general principle that lets us think more thoughts. One impact of writing is that it lets us wrangle through complex issues that far exceed what we can hold in our heads at any given time.
So this suggests a list of actions for anyone looking to improve their ability to think new thoughts: