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The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less

October 10th, 2007 · 51 comments

EinsteinEinstein’s Push

Between the years 1912 to 1915, Albert Einstein was a focused man. His previous work on the special theory of relativity and the quantization of light, among other topics, was starting to gain notice. Einstein left the Swiss patent office, and, after hopping from professorships in Germany and Prauge, ended up, in 1912, at Switzerland’s ETH Institute.

Once there, he met mathematician Marcel Grossman and became convinced that if he applied the new non-euclidean math studied by Grossman to his own work on relativity, he could generalize the theory to account for gravity. This advance would be huge. Nothing short of overturning the single most famous law in the history of science.

Einstein set to work.

Between 1912 to 1915, he became increasingly obsessed in his push to formalize general relativity. As revealed by several sources, including his recently released letters, he worked so hard that his marriage became strained and his hair turned white from the stress

But he got it done. In 1915 he published his full theory. It stands as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments — if not the single greatest — of the 20th century.

The Einstein Principle

Einstein’s push for general relativity highlights an important reality about accomplishment. We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects on which we can devote a large amount of attention. Achievements worth achieving require hard work. There is no shortcut here. Be it starting up a new college club or starting a new business, eventually, effort, sustained over a long amount of time, is required.

In a perfect world, we would all be Einsteins. We would each have only one, or at most two, projects in the three major spheres of our lives: professional, extracurricular, and personal. And we would be allowed to focus on this specialized set, in exclusion, as we push the projects to impressive conclusions.

But this doesn’t happen…

In Search of Your Own Theory of Relativity

Our problem is that we don’t know in advance which project might turn out to be our theory of relativity and which are duds. Because of this, most ambitious people I know, myself included, follow a different strategy. We sow lots of project seeds. We e-mail a lot of people, join a lot of clubs, commit to a lot of minor projects, set up lots of meetings, constantly send out feelers to friends and connections regarding our latest brainstorm. We don’t know which seed will ultimately take root and grow, so, by planting many, we expose ourselves to enough randomness, over time, to maximize our chance of a big deal, interesting, life-changing success eventually happening.

These numerous seeds, however, have a tendency to transform into weeds. While some of them clearly grow into pursuits worth continuing, and others die off quickly, many, instead, exist in a shadowy in-between state where they demand our time but offer little promise of reward in the end.

These weed projects violate the Einstein principle.

We can no longer focus on a small number of important project, but find ourselves, instead, rushing between an increasingly overwhelming slate full of a variety of obligations. This time fracture can prevent real accomplishment. Imagine if Einstein maintained a blog, wrote a book, joined a bunch of clubs at ETH, and tried to master rowing at the same time he was working on General Relativity? We’d still be living in the age of Newton.

The Productivity Purge

Most of us will never fully satisfy the Einstein Principle. It’s too risky. If you invest fully in one thing, and then it fails, you’re left empty. More importantly, it can be boring. Life requires zigs and zags.

There is, however, a simple strategy for coming as close as possible to satisfying the principle without giving up a quest for the unexpected next big thing. It’s called the productivity purge. And it works as follows:

  1. When it feels like your schedule is becoming too overwhelmed, take out a sheet of paper and label it with three columns: professional, extracurricular, and personal. Under “professional” list all the major projects you are currently working on in your professional life (if you’re a student, then this means classes and research, if you have a job, then this means your job, etc). Under “extracurricular” do the same for your side projects (your band, your blog, your plan to write a book). And under “personal” do the same for personal self-improvement projects (from fitness to reading more books).
  2. Under each list try to select one or two projects which, at this point in your life, are the most important and seem like they would yield the greatest returns. Put a star by these projects.
  3. Next, identify the projects that you could stop working on right away with no serious consequences. Cross these out.
  4. Finally, for the projects that are left unmarked, come up with a 1-3 week plan for finalizing and dispatching them. Many of these will be projects for which you owe someone something before you can stop working on them. Come up with a crunch plan for the near future for shutting these down as quickly as possible.
  5. Once you completed your crunch plan you’ll be left with only a small number of important projects. In essence, you have purged your schedule of all but a few contenders to be your next Theory of Relativity. Here’s the important part: Try to go at least one month without starting any new projects. Resist, at all costs, committing to anything during this month. Instead, just focus, with an Einsteinian intensity, on your select list.

The productivity purge is a necessary piece of project gardening. By doing these regularly, you keep yourself focused on whats important. You get at least one month after every purge in which serious work gets done on a small number of projects. It’s during these focused months, when the Einstein Principle comes into play, that you’ll end up making the progress on those activities that might end up becoming life changing.

Case Study: My Most Recent Purge

As I write this, I’m in the second week of a two week purge. After a busy summer of traveling and wildly sowing project seeds, I’ve been looking forward, for a long time, for a focused month — spanning mid-October to Thanksgiving — during which the Einstein Principle can be in full effect.

Here’s how the purge is taking shape:

In my professional life I’m clearing some lingering research projects off my plate. This includes, among other things, finishing some revision on papers under submission and finalizing some proofs for some close to being finished new work. My crunch plan has me pushing to finish this lingerers with a rabid intensity.

My focus, for this upcoming period, is on two research projects that I think hold great promise. I look forward to spending 90% of my academic time wracking my brain on these pursuits, which, I think, will shape the direction of my first year or two after graduation. Bring it on!

In my extracurricular life, I’m finishing up the final articles in a long series of those I owe various editors through various pitches conducted over the summer. With this slate cleared, I can spend my focus period on exactly two things. The first: producing quality, user-tested content for this blog. The second: finally completing the preliminary research for my second book idea. I need to either officially abandon it, or get my agents blessing and start work on the proposal.

In my personal life, I’m turning my focus back to some lifestyle improvement issues that have fallen fallow recently (it’s time to throw out clothing I bought before college…). I am also planning to push into overdrive the variety of interesting things I do each week. I have a long list of other projects I would love to tackle, but they can wait.

In Conclusion

If the Einstein Principle holds, come Thanksgiving, I should have: a fully developed new book idea, a much expanded readership of this blog, interesting new academic research results, and a mind overstuffed with new experiences and ideas. I’m looking forward to it!

How would your life change if you were to plan a productivity purge today?

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51 thoughts on “The Einstein Principle: Accomplish More By Doing Less

  1. nice post ! very interesting, i will try to practice the Einstein Principle in life.

    Thank you for your post.

  2. In purging projects, I’d also see where two projects could perhaps be merged or the work effort on them strategically combined.

    For example, I’m trying to get a project started at my workplace that could serve as the seed of my master’s project. Or, when I do research for a paper, I try to locate a topic that will be useful for my master’s project or for a later project in the class. Another classic example would be to learn a piece of new software by using it on a specific project. The work may go a bit longer and be a bit tangled (am I stuck because the software is crappy or because I don’t know what task I’m supposed to achieve), but it can work out.

    I recently dropped some extracurriculars (writer’s group and music lessons) because I simply don’t have the time. So when I’m presented with a choice, I ask myself “Will this help me with my job? Will this help me with school?” That usually helps me weed out new commitments while I’m pruning the old.

  3. Study Hacks says:

    Michael,

    Great point. My advisor at MIT is a big believer in that strategy. She likes, for example, classes with projects that connect to research, etc.

    - Cal

  4. Dog training says:

    Very interesting… as always! Cheers from Switzerland.

  5. Osama Abu Obeid says:

    Interesting article.. I like this Einstein Principle:

    Accomplish More by Doing Less

    .. Focusing on major goals in life instead of being distracted in many tasks and projects would certainly get us more productive.

  6. fjordz says:

    nice one! I like this entry. It makes me think of my current lifestyle. Nice! Nice!

  7. paurullan says:

    How do you manage to have six different classes during the same semester? Is there any way to combine this hard-focusing idea with a «normal» course?

  8. Very nice thoughts ! i will apply on myself before reading i dont now how many projects i am working when i list out they were more than 25 but when i cross them it left three only. so it will diffinately help me and all who apply!

  9. Pingback: When less is more
  10. Tessa says:

    This is seriously hard. I must have 30 + personal/extracurricular goals. I’m only 18. No wonder I’m such a livewire. ;)

    So many lead/connect with one another. Of course I know that if I can get down to 4, life will be much easier.

    Therefore, I’m keeping a master projects.txt to ease the leaving of the projects. It won’t feel so permanent and like I’m giving up. It’s just that I’ll do them LATER. ;)

  11. Larry Waight says:

    I love the Einstein Principle! I will adapt it in my life and will let you know how it goes.

    Cheers,
    Larry

  12. Vijay says:

    this one is the best advice I ever read on productivity. Even though I was thinking to focus one one think I didn’t know how to do that by closing other small projects. i got the idea and the definite plan. And thank you for this.

  13. This was an excellent suggestion, particularly how to narrow your focus and truly pick priorities in each area of your life, rather than focusing on too many random “seeds” that we hope will benefit us on the future.

  14. Dennis says:

    Ok, this is really something I’ve been needing to read for a long time now.

    Especially when you put someone as famous as Einstein behind it, the association with success is inevitable.

    I’m so grateful for following Coppyblogger’s link to this post.

  15. Sue says:

    Oh my goodness, this is what I need!

    We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects on which we can devote a large amount of attention.

    I’m so distracted by all those lovely opportunities out there, but this year I’m focusing ;)

  16. Phil O'Brien says:

    That’s a great article on focus – but remember that to get out of that Patent Office he had do diversify and take some risk away from the focussed career path his father had encouraged him into. Take a look at this little video biog of his life story… http://vimeo.com/52181963

  17. This is absolutely true. You’ve got to focus, focus, focus! Not only do you have to focus on key projects, it’s also best to create time habits for when you’ll work on them. You need to program yourself so you’re almost on auto-pilot — hitting your major project every day until it is complete. The more daily decisions you take out of the mix (i.e. “What should I work on today?” or “When should I work on this?”) the better!

  18. Raj says:

    This is exactly what I realized lately. The most effective people are focused. They focus completely on one task at a time. Sometimes they are so focused, that they are also the kind of people that can seem selfish.

    Great article….in summary, it is about focus…so much that you tune out the noise of other tasks.

  19. This is so good. Sometimes we try to accomplish so many good things that we do not take the time to accomplish a few great things. I think it is partially do to our fear of failure that we always have a backup plan. “In case my #1 doesnt work I still have 2 and 3 and 4 and 5…”

  20. nora says:

    Nice post ! I wish I could start my productivity purge ASAP, professional projects are overwhelming and leaving nearly no time for extracuticular or personal projects

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