People are always trying to figure out how to get more work done. People were once researching how to train people to be better at multitasking, how multitasking is a skill, and how multitasking is a skill to communicate in an interview. This seems perverse given the wealth of evidence that proves how bad multitasking is for recall, productivity, and IQ (lowering IQ by ~15 points, on average to the level of an 8 year old).
So multitasking went out the window, but our addiction to increasing output remained. People tout the benefits of a focus on deep work, of ways to organize your inbox, or of working at times that are optimal for your circadian rhythm.
More recently the conversation has turned towards the possible benefits of nootropics (or “study drugs”), which promise to enhance cognition. But nootropics, despite their supposed benefits, mostly don’t work. The only drug that reliably improves focus is caffeine, which most people already take in some form or another.
Our focus on productivity improvements makes sense in the context of a post-industrial workplace – capitalists were able to make more money by figuring out how to get the same number of people to make more widgets (generic name for thing). But when most people are knowledge workers, you can’t just increase throughput and make more money.
Instead of making widgets, knowledge workers make decisions. You can’t just increase throughput because your thinking rate is fixed. The number of high quality decisions that you can make each day before getting tired is limited, and piling more decisions on top of that just decreases the quality of the decisions. And a low quality decision isn’t like a badly made widget, something you can throw away and move on from. A badly mad decision takes away from the value of other well made decisions.
Tactics to improve decision quality don’t speed up our thinking. A lot of the time they actually slow us down. Explicitly using mental models for decision making takes longer than making the same decision based on instincts. But mental models and explicit thinking improves the quality of our decisions. I guess the conclusion here isn’t to focus on how to do more, but how to find out what the right thing to do is. The best way to get from A to B isn’t to drive faster, but to make sure you are following the shortest route.
One year since the first lockdown. I read through my journal entries from March last year, and they make for a very interesting read. It is very interesting thinking back to that time, thinking about how little we knew about the future and about how little we expected our lives to be completely turned upside down.
It is so hard to plan for the future, and even when we can plan, there is no certainty that the plan will come into fruition. We need to enjoy each day as it happens. So enjoy that coffee in the sun, and watch a movie wrapped in a blanket. In the most Buddhist way possible, now is all we have, and all we ever have.
Keep on rocking,
Learning in Public
I am a very big believer in Learning in Public. It’s why I write this newsletter, and why I have a website at all. I’m such a big believer in learning in public that I keep a link to Learning in Public in my navigation bar at the top of my website.
Learning in Public, at its core, is a way to continuously learn more. Compared with 20 years ago, we are much more likely to have to learn new skills to perform in the workplace. The idea is that whatever we learn, whatever the subject matter, publishing your learning will help you to learn better.
Writing the blog post about learning in public was my first attempt at learning in public. Since then I’ve written a lot more, and learnt a ton. In fact, I’d put my blog down as one of the reasons I got a job at Bain – writing about business has caused me to read more about business, which helped me perform in case interviews.
Additionally, I think that I have improved as a writer. Looking back at older articles is now cringe inducing, but I keep them on my website so that I have evidence of improving. Writing ~3k words each week can’t not improve my writing.
Finally, I have read many more articles than I would have otherwise, and I recall what I’ve read so much better. I track my reading in Notion, and I have read 900 articles since May 22nd 2020, averaging over three articles each day. I mainly track this reading so that when I write this article, I have all the links at hand, but it also serves as an external memory system.
In my first Learning in Public article, I espoused four possible benefits from learning in public – you pay more attention when you read something, you generate a greater understanding of the topic by writing about it, you get feedback on what you’ve learnt, and you get opportunities to learn from the best online. So far I have only benefited from the first two.
I hope to be able to continue to write about business while working at Bain, though I obviously won’t be able to write about the projects I work on. I’d like to be able to continue to write about the state of the markets, about crypto and business strategy, and about ESG.
To start to make use of the final factor that I mentioned in my first Learning in Public article, I’m going to have to start talking to experts in these fields, whether talking offline and writing about their opinions, or conversing with them on Clubhouse or Twitter.
US Bond Yield
A bond is a fixed income asset, which means that it pays out a pre-defined amount of money over a given period. A treasury bill is a bond where the US government pays out that money. Bonds are often thought to be a safe but low yielding asset to hold. Recently, US bond yields have risen, but what does this mean?
Because bonds have a fixed amount that they pay out, owning a bond is locking you into receiving a certain return on your investment. When the expected inflation rate increases, people leave low yielding bonds, selling the assets, because the real return (the return taking into account inflation) drops, or even becomes negative. This drives the price down, until the price of the income stream levels out to make the return on the asset interesting again. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve seen these movements in the market, and bond prices have dropped, increasing yields
These movements have had an effect on the stock market too. Tech stocks fell and cyclic stocks rose (companies directly related to the overall economy). I’m not completely sure why tech stocks fell, but it will be a combination of higher interest rates limiting profit and growth potential, and people selling to move into cyclic stocks. When companies sell bonds, they have to offer a slightly higher yield than the US govt. because of the risk of the company going under, a risk the US govt. doesn’t have.
This stock wobble might be a sign that the valuations of the big tech companies aren’t as stable as some think. Some analysts are predicting that the Nasdaq will drop 20% if bond yields reach 2%. But with the US rolling out cheques for $1,400, expect to see big tech stocks surge first.
Another important date will be the US tax payment day, on the 15th of April. On this day US citizens will need to pay capital gains tax on their positions, and some people will need to sell some of their positions to be able to afford the gains. I expect a Nasdaq drop in the week leading to that Thursday, but I might be wrong.
The One Minute Rule
I was going to write an article about the “Now Instinct”, a tactic that I’ve been using to overcome procrastination, but I also realised that the same tactic doesn’t work for everyone – not everyone has as much free time as I have at the moment. I did a little research on what productivity blogs had to say about the matter, and realised that the same flaw in my method also applied to the standard anti-procrastination method.
I’ve been using the now instinct as a tactic to be able to do more of what I want to do each day. At the moment, my days are pretty unstructured. I can realistically wake up when I want, watch TV all day and spend time in the sun – but I know that wouldn’t make me happy. Instead, like everyone else, I need to overcome an obstacle every day to feel like something has been achieved.
The now instinct is a quick thought loop that is triggered every time I find myself thinking “I should do X later”. The response to the now instinct is, as you can guess, to do X now. For example, if I find myself thinking, “I need to post this parcel later today at some point” my response is “Why not now?”
This instinct has worked well for me in my relatively unstructured day, because most of the time there isn’t a good reason why I shouldn’t post that parcel now, or go for a run immediately, or clear the dishes now. But equally this instinct, at the scale that I use it anyway, isn’t perfect for everyone.
A much smaller version of the now instinct is called the one minute rule, which says that if a task would take less than one minute, then you should do it now. This works well with replying to emails, making reservations, putting the laundry on, etc.
However, the one minute rule isn’t perfect either. If you are trying to focus on an important task, and a thought about a message you need to send pops into your mind, taking care of that thought and sending the message isn’t the most productive use of time. Every time you get distracted and switch task, it takes up to a couple minutes for you to get back into the flow of the previous task.
It seems that a balance needs to be struck between the concept of performing deep work and the one minute rule. What works well for me is batching – grouping together similar tasks, like calling people, finding information, and responding to emails. Tim Ferris is a big fan of batching, and encourages us to think about grouping similar tasks together on a daily, or even weekly basis – for example we can either say “mornings are for working on project, after lunch is for communicating with my team”, or we can say “Mondays are for creating, Tuesdays are for media and marketing, etc.”.
Batching also leaves room for deep work, scheduled into the dairy, where we can get our heads down and finally create that excel model or client project. The additional benefit is that we can get our heads down to work, knowing that we won’t miss an email because we have email-time scheduled into our day already.
It has been interesting thinking about productivity advice in the context of the earlier article, which claimed that we should try to make better decisions, not more decisions. But I think here there needs to be some balance between trying to make the best possible decisions, and managing demands of the real world. Ideally, we would have time and energy to think over every decision in detail, but unfortunately we often don’t have that time and energy to spare, and sometimes what matters is actually getting through every email in your inbox.
The first longread this week is an in depth article on the way that race and racism is taught in some of the US’ most elite high schools. I really recommend you read it, and pair it with What You Can’t Say. Second and third, on much lighter notes, are why Excel is here forever, and what made the Neopets stock market so fun?
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