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Woody Allen and the Art of Value Productivity

August 4th, 2013 · 34 comments

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A Tale of Two Productivities

As a graduate student I was known for being organized. I was reminded of this a couple weeks ago when I attended a computer science conference along with many of my old lab mates.

What I also remember is that I always felt indifferent about this reputation. To be organized is a nice thing. But it didn’t take me long at MIT before I realized it’s also unrelated to what matters most: the consistent production of high value results.

We don’t often talk about this division but I think it’s crucial. There’s a lot written about task productivity (the ability to organize and execute non-skilled obligations), but much less written about value productivity (the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output).

As I’ve settled more into life as a professor, I’ve been increasingly fascinated with value productivity. It’s not that task productivity lacks importance — it has saved me much stress — but I think the value variety is what will rule in an increasingly competitive knowledge economy.

It is with this fascination in mind that I spent some time recently re-watching Robert Weide’s deep diving documentary on the life and habits of Woody Allen. When it comes to value productivity, Allen is an unquestionably good place to start. He’s written and directed 44 movies in 44 years, earning 23 Academy Award nominations along the way.

By watching the documentary with an ear for work habits, I picked up the following three ideas that help explain Allen’s astonishingly high level of value productivity…

Idea #1: Don’t Break the Chain

One of Allen’s best known habits is that he writes every day for a fixed amount of time. As he explained: “If you work only three to five hours a day you become very productive. It’s the steadiness of it that counts. Getting to the typewriter every day is what makes productivity.”

The flip side of this commitment is that he feels no guilt relaxing once he hits his daily quota.

Seinfeld calls this the “don’t break the chain” strategy — and it has a large following. In the past, I’ve been skeptical of such rigidity. Allen, however, might be converting me to this point of view; at least, for certain types of work, namely non-urgent, high value projects.

Here’s why: It’s easy to convince yourself that these projects have a high priority in your life while at the same time you commit a shockingly small amount of time toward their completion. This is a recipe for self-delusion or self-despisal (when you realize how little is getting done).

Allen’s approach solves both problems.

Idea #2: Be Bold in Conception, But Pragmatic in Execution

Allen is often bold in conceiving a project. Once he starts executing, however, his focus turns to doing whatever it takes to ship a finished product on budget and on time.

“You always set out trying to make Citizen Kane,” he famously quipped. “By the time you get to the editing room, you try just not to be humiliated.”

(This reminds me a lot of the publishing process. My books are always ground breaking. Then I have to write them.)

Allen’s balance is critical because it’s easy to fall too far to one side or the other. If you just ship for the sake of shipping, for example, you’re likely to end up producing an ever-growing mountain of mediocrity. You must, in other words, push yourself to do something better. At the same time, if you become too entangled in your own hype, you’re likely to fall into perfectionism — letting years worth of opportunities pass as you ponder your masterpiece.

Idea #3: Focus on High Return Activities, Not Twitter

Early in his career, Allen identified what activities generated the highest returns, and then focused relentlessly on these behaviors to the exclusion of most other distractions.

He writes scripts, for example, freehand in a home office on yellow notepads. Once the idea begins to gel he types a polished version on an Olympia SM-3 manual typewriter — the same machine he bought as a teenager when he first began writing gag lines for newspaper columnists.

By stripping down his work hours to the core elements, and removing from his life the often insidious question of “what should I do next?”, he’s able to extract a huge amount of value from the limited hours he spends each day writing.

But what about social media you ask? Certainly an entertainment personality needs a following online! Allen (and his 23 Academy Award nominations) disagrees. Forget Twitter, he has never owned a computer.

34 thoughts on “Woody Allen and the Art of Value Productivity

  1. Vincent says:

    I’ll vouch for Seinfeld’s chain technique toward productivity. It’s been keeping me on a consistent grind where I write at least once a day. At the moment I have the chain technique focusing me on contributing 500 words to my eBook each day.

    Allen’s spot on with all of his points. I cut out all the activities that merely felt productive in terms of return and maximized how much time I spend on the things that really do provide value. It’s simply working smarter and not harder.

  2. As with everything, there are always exceptions. For me, engaging with people through my academic twitter account has actually been a very high return activity. I’ve recruited more people for my studies in 2 days than I normally would in 2 months, found resources for my PhD for updating my lit review that would likely have fallen through the cracks and connected with people I may end up working with some day whom it would have been unlikely for me to have met otherwise. It all depends on how you use and manage your Twitter time.

  3. Dave Small says:

    Cal, thanks for the great blog and the time you spend on it.

    I find the productivity chain highly effective, especially when beginning a project or activity. I would suggest at least 90 days before breaking the chain and then pre-planned breaks if/when needed.

    Additional note: I have been in leadership positions for several decades and your concepts work in any field. Particularly insightful is the passion approach verses the craftsman approach. I now have the benefit of hindsight: I’ve watched people looking for their passion for decades and they’re still trying to figure out what they want to do. It’s kind of sad watching potential slip away.

  4. Adam says:

    Thanks for posting this. I just queued up this documentary on netflix. Could you say a little more about how he “identified what activities generated the highest returns, and then focused relentlessly on these behaviors to the exclusion of most other distractions.” Ever since I read your “pyramid method” post I’ve been thinking about how to do this for my own career. Would be interested to hear your take specifically on (1) how Allen determined the high value activities, and (2) what exactly those were.

    Also, since this is my first actual comment on your blog I’d like also to thank you for all that you contribute both here and through your books.

  5. Azzam says:

    ……Forget Twitter, he’s never owned a computer.’

    Genius.

  6. Elana says:

    My favorite line:

    “My books are always ground breaking. Then I have to write them.”

    Thank you for another great post!

  7. Divesh says:

    Stephen King uses the same technique. He writes everyday and has a target number of pages. It’s what makes him and Allen so prolific. Consistent small steps every day. Sounds so simple when you see it laid out like that :-)

  8. ChikdOfChaos says:

    It seems to me the more time you spend figuring out a system and trying to tweak it, the more distracted you are from what you really should be doing. Everything is simple, then you do the work.

    You should be spending as much time on what matters and as little as possible on everything else.

    The question is how do you do that and how do you identify high value?

    I am curious do you still follow the method outlined in the art of the finish article?

  9. Bill Gardner says:

    I agree with much of what you write, Cal, but let me push back on Allen. Watch To Rome with Love. It’s weak and shallow. Moreover, it is immediately clear that Allen’s intellectual references are extremely dated. Not just a decade old, but five or six. He’s arguing with the books of his adolescence, and doesn’t seem to have thought deeply about them. He’s not engaged in an ongoing intellectual conversation. Cutting himself off (no computer, no Twitter) may have helped him in some ways, but not in others.

  10. sawfoot says:

    Some other productivity pointers I picked up watching this great docummentary:

    4. Have an unstoppable drive and need to create. In Allen’s case, this appears due to never ending deeply felt existential anxiety, itself which is the key theme running through nearly all his films.
    5. Write about what you know. Make your projects relate to your life “passion”. See above.
    6. Don’t be a perfectionist. While a lot of directors’ might insist on dozens of takes, striving for the perfect take, one or two takes are typically good enough for Allen. See below.
    7. Be impatient. See above. I think this partly due to a desire to keep constantly moving forward. And partly so he can finish whatever he is doing that day and go watch that Nick’s game.
    8. Compartmentalise. Whatever personal life issue that comes up (and Allen has had his share), he doesn’t let them get in the way of working.
    9. When finished, move on. As soon as he finishes one project, he immediately starts working on the next.
    10. Be your own worst critic. Allen doesn’t read reviews, but he is highly critical of his own work.
    11. Always been thinking of the next project. Allen has a draw full of what must be hundreds of slips of paper all with ideas for future projects. He reports often taking out these ideas, spreading them out on a bed, and going through them one by one.

    I like the fact that Allen, who must be a millionaire, writes with a biro. He doesn’t mess around trying to find the perfect pen.

    Adam Says: how Allen determined the high value activities?

    I would say high value activities are only those activities which lead to the successful completion of a project. Of course, writing is important. But for another example, spending 30 seconds meeting an actor for a potential role in a film, compared to spending the 30 minutes that other directors might spend. For Allen, those 30 minutes are a waste of time. Either the actor is right for the part or they are not, a decision that Allen can normally make within a few seconds of meeting them. He doesn’t agonise over the decision. He moves on, so he can get that film made.

  11. Study Hacks says:
    Stephen King uses the same technique. He writes everyday and has a target number of pages.

    If you read the profile of the King family in last week’s New York Times Magazine, you’ll see that he instilled that discipline in his children as well. They tell stories of stopping in the middle of a game to go get their “two hours” for the day done.

    Watch To Rome with Love. It’s weak and shallow.

    This is part of Allen’s strategy, movies are like hitting a baseball. There’s a certain batting average you can’t beat, so if you want to increase your number of hits, you have to take more swings, not obsess about avoiding strikes.

    Some other productivity pointers I picked up watching this great docummentary:

    Nice addendum…

  12. Alex says:

    Question for you guys and Cal:

    Does editing count towards the 2-3 hours of high value productivity? For example does S.King edits his work as part of his everyday writing?

    In the Woody Allen documentary, does he continue writing everyday even when he begins filming?

    Where do you draw the line between writing/editing or filming/editing as part of your daily non-breaking chain?

    Would love to know any of your guy’s experience how you deal with this.

  13. shani says:

    Thanks for the post, it was helpful and inspiring.

  14. Thibault says:

    Your posts always amaze me in their quality and consistency.

    What strikes me the most about value productivity is how underused it is. We live in a culture that celebrates workaholism, work for work’s sake; a society in which more is always better. When we get too caught up in these mentalities, we forget that more isn’t necessarily better and that value isn’t created just by working more hours.

    Something I want to add to the post above is the importance of renewal. In order for the human body and mind to be productive, we must value rest, the foods we eat, and even the people we associate with. The human body isn’t meant to run on coffee for hours and hours. The simple fact is that separating ourselves from our work for periods of time is probably the best way to become productive. The time we spend working should be focused, as you mentioned, the highest value activities. Most low-value tasks can be outsourced for quite cheap nowadays, so why wouldn’t we focus on high value activities?

    As a high school student, I find it amusing that we all value grades and standardized testing so much, when holistic learning and growth of the students is really what matters the most. Instead of teaching students in a way that promotes balance and sustainability, we are put in stressful, in which more activities and hard classes are the standard by which students are measured. (Also, thank you for How To Be a High School Superstar)

  15. Avrum says:

    Cal –
    Without Woody’s pseudo-madness (and work habits) were inherited from his family. Without this, many of these tips are (mostly) for naught. Many productivity authors miss this point, or purposely ignore it, in favour of hacks and tricks. More from Woody (and his mother’s influence on his productivity):

    http://www.esquire.com/features/what-ive-learned/woody-allen-0913

  16. Kim says:

    Dear Cal Newport,

    I’m a big believer that creating the career that you want is based on deep interests, obsession, deliberate practice, and experimentation. Your book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, has extraordinary advice on this very topic.

    Today, I’d like to share with you this episode of Adventure time because it’s a good analogy of how experimentation and deliberate practice goes hand-in-hand. It’s especially applicable to practice-based fields like music and art where having your own style is very important. This is personally my favorite episode because it mirrors some of the stages I’m going through to accrue career capital as an art student.

    This episode is also a good example of why just having passion and courage to do something is simply not enough (as you can see with Finn and Jake’s first attempt).

    I hope that this episode gets passed along as a Study Hack example:

    Sincerely,
    Kim

  17. Kim says:

    Oops. Sorry, I don’t know why the link wasn’t shown properly.

    Adventure Time – James Baxter the Horse

  18. Great post, he definitely has the right idea, and I’m sure if I did not have a computer I would be a lot more productive.

  19. Ash says:

    Was reading an interview with film director John Waters today and he is unwavering in his schedule: Monday – Friday he labors like a monk spending every morning writing beginning at 8 AM sharp and spends the afternoons marketing himself over the phone. He gets drunk every Friday evening without fail and takes a complete rest on Sunday.

  20. Prida says:

    Your post reminded me of this, which communicates your point #3 a little differently:

  21. Prida says:

    The link didn’t work so I’ll try it again:

  22. mayeesha says:

    My books are always ground breaking. Then I have to write them.:)(Seriously that one is good)
    Do you seriously work on research paper stuff really?Because you were talking about going all seasonal/natural and working in the best time of the year in some posts too.

  23. Sounds a lot like the 80/20 principle in action. Amazing how productive you can become when you ditch all the crap that doesn’t make much impact.

  24. I just discovered your blog and I like this post a lot, and the link to Seinfeld. I can apply this to my work in many ways. I work as a freelance journalist and I am always working on how to best use my energy, time, and attention.

    The don’t break the chain idea works well for fitness. I do something every day: go to the gym or the pool or ride my bike, seven days a week, and I have learned how to make that entirely non-negotiable with myself. As soon as it becomes negotiable, I break the chain. Now I find it works exactly as Seinfeld says: it develops a habit.

    And this is tough because it is not “productive work” although of course indirectly it is. Especially for a 67-year-old who is still working full time.

  25. Andrea says:

    What a great way of working – just identifying what you are really good at and working around it. Of course, the irony is if what you love doing is not what you are actually good at (me and my failed attempt at playing the piano…)! This article has given me food for thought – how do I change from task productivity to value productivity? Nicely written and good luck with your next unwritten masterpiece!

    http://product.twoodo.com/549/how-i-am-no-longer-overwhelmed-with-tasks-in-one-step/

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