On Physics of Productivity

Isaac Newton

James Clear, an expert on habits formation, wrote an excellent essay titled The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done. In that article, he explained Newton’s three laws of motion from his book The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687) and how they can be applied to increase your productivity.



I found his laws of productivity quite interesting. At the same time, I developed a feeling of missing elements in the second and third laws. Below is my viewpoint for relating the second and third laws to getting important stuff done.

Newton’s First Law


"A body at rest will remain at rest, and a body in motion will remain in motion unless it is acted upon by an external force."

As described in his article, procrastinators who are at rest tend to stay at rest due to inertia. On the other hand, once you start moving, a momentum is built and you continue to work. Therefore, the most important task is to get started as the first step is always the hardest.

First step is always the hardest

Image credit: @successpictures

For this purpose, he suggests finding a way to start your task in less than two minutes. Once that first step is taken, you will probably stay in motion.

Newton’s Second Law


"The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by the acceleration vector of the object."

It is written mathematically as
\begin{equation*}
\sum \overrightarrow{F} = m\cdot \overrightarrow{a}
\end{equation*}

James emphasizes on the direction part in this law owing to the fact that force F is a vector. If you want to be productive, it involves both magnitude (how hard you work) as well as the direction (where that work is applied).

In my opinion, there are three different interpretations that can be derived from the second law depending on your level of productivity.

Low Productivity


From this individual perspective, the equation of second law can be written as
\begin{equation*}
\overrightarrow{a} = \frac{\sum \overrightarrow{F}}{m}
\end{equation*}
With a constant mass m, it is straightforward to see that a random sum of forces pulling in all directions yields a very small net value, see the figure below. On the other hand, acceleration of an object can be increased when the sum of forces acting on it are aligned in a particular direction.

Vector sum of forces on an object

In a similar manner, our minds are pulled in all directions during the course of a day. Unproductive forces such as social media and TV tend to randomize our thought processes and we move very little in the desired direction, see the figure below. This is the biggest obstacle to productivity in today’s connected world (such behaviour arises less due to attraction for the Internet and more due to an urge to escape from the present moment).

Vector sum of forces on our mind

Having only one thing on your mind produces great results by aligning all the brain resources towards the intended direction. Deep thinking requires long durations of singular focus. Studies have shown that once a person is distracted, it takes them 20 to 25 minutes to get back to the same level of immersion and flow. Consequently, one random phone check can really ruin the quality one could have produced that day.

Average Productivity


Once you are past the trap of distractions and working towards a particular goal with a decent pace, the same law applies to you in a different context. People on this level are working on multiple responsibilities at the same time (shown as different dimensions in the left half of the figure below). They face a challenge to simplify their priorities but the actual problem is having priorities in the first place.

Having multiple goals is not necessarily good

Why? Because you only have limited time and energy. Resources need to be wisely allocated. It is best to have a single goal or project at a time and leave everything else. As they say,

"If you chase two rabbits, you will not catch either one".

As an example, look at the right half of the figure above and assume that you have one unit of energy available (shown as 1 for hypotenuse). Even under ideal conditions, dividing that energy in two important undertakings reduces the amount of energy given to each of them to 70% because according to Pythagorean theorem,
\begin{equation*}
0.7^2 + 0.7^2 \approx 1
\end{equation*}
That energy devoted to one thing only would have resulted in 100% effort in that direction. Add more dimensions and this is exactly what the expression ‘spreading yourself too thin’ means. My biggest failure comes from here, as I have not been able to kill two out of my three big projects.

Two words of caution:

  • This is valid for one major area of life (e.g., career). One necessarily has to divide their attention and focus for other orthogonal dimensions such as health and family.
  • Sometimes expertise in two domains gives one a significant advantage in today’s economy (but that is different than taking two or more major responsibilities).

High Productivity


So you are a highly productive person. You don’t waste time on distractions and have a laser focus set on one thing only. This implies that you are steadily spending a significant amount of time on producing quality results every day. This is a stage where there is little acceleration and you have hit the ceiling of individual productivity.

There are 24 hours available to every person, out of which only 9-10 hours can be given to your goal (without facing a possible burnout). The only way to get past this barrier is to utilize the equation of second law in the original form (the equation works both ways).
\begin{equation*}
\overrightarrow{\sum F} = m\cdot \overrightarrow{a}
\end{equation*}
This is the force you are applying in your little corner of the universe. Here, this force can only be increased by increasing the mass, i.e., seeking help from outside.

  • The first step is to delegate the routine tasks. Highly productive people find it difficult to delegate precisely because they do everything well and want to continue to do so. However, a simple calculation of Return on Investment (ROI) with respect to time can reveal the benefits of hiring an associate.
  • Some take this concept to the extreme and pursue putting a dent in the universe like Steve Jobs. They need to transform from an organism to an organization which increases the mass in the above equation to amplify the force required for their purpose. Social workers, entrepreneurs, investors and venture capitalists utilize this route and leverage the best minds available in a team formation. Teams have often pulled off feats that individuals can only dream of.

Having multiple goals is not necessarily good

Newton’s Third Law


"For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction."

In his article, James mentions both productive forces (such as focus and motivation) and unproductive forces (such as stress and lack of sleep) and recommends cutting back on the unproductive forces to move forward smoothly (the other option is to add more productive force by powering through everything). Looking from a motivational viewpoint, the concept is quite useful. Looking from an scientist’s viewpoint, the mentioned unproductive forces are not the opposite reactions to the productive forces.

In my opinion, science is blind to our intentions and only puts forward the truth. While the first two laws can be seen as techniques for increasing the productivity, the third law tells us about some of its side effects.

Creativity


There are two routes to creativity.

  • Produce lots of work on a schedule. The main idea is that if you produce the output in large quantities (e.g., by blocking a few hours every day), naturally some will be of low quality, some average quality and the remaining will be high quality stuff. If you are careful in selecting the best, you will get the recognition as a creative person. This is how most gurus on productivity espouse the concept of creativity.
  • Indulge in different activities until a moment of inspiration randomly arrives. This route is independent of goals and deadlines and relies mostly on chance. This is how many giants of the ancient world including artists, poets, scholars and musicians — sponsored by kings and nobles under a patronage system — handed over their gifts to us.

A poem

It is not clear which technique is superior in terms of the output quality. Probably a work schedule suits those requiring a years-long effort such as novels and philosophy. On the other hand, a poem written by simply churning out thousands of verses is no match for the brilliance inspired by a creative impulse. Since productivity culture puts sole emphasis on the former, on the opposite side, you will miss out on the kind of ingenuity ignited by the latter technique.

The Pendulum


Consider the movement of a pendulum. Given a fixed string length, if you push it high in one direction, it will swing back high in the other direction too. Productive people tend to practice routines that give them more control over their lives and increase their sense of well-being. For example, practices like meditation and anger management limit their negative emotions and impart a stillness in their minds in the face of extreme adversities and unpleasant social situations.

As an opposite reaction to limiting this pendulum on the negative side, its swing on the positive side is restricted as well. While I do not know about a scientific study, I suspect that being productive might reduce the magnitude of your ability to enjoy, see the figure below.

A pendulum

If you have a mind like water which does not shake from a burst of negative emotion, it will probably not shake with a burst of joy as well.

You will find very few (if any) monks jumping with joy in the air! And most will not tell you this while advocating the benefits of meditation.


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2 Comments

  1. Shrish

    Very informative and need of the hour article.
    Thank you Dr. Qasim

    Reply
  2. Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed

    A good interpretation of Newton’s laws and linking them to self-development and employee development

    Reply

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