Work Accomplished = Time Spent x IntensityApril 8th, 2014 · 96 comments
The Straight-A Method
In the early 2000’s, I was obsessed with study habits. The obsession began with my interest in performing well at Dartmouth, then eventually evolved into a (surprisingly popular) book.
Something I uncovered during this period is that high performing undergraduates, as a general rule, seem to internalize the following formula:
Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity
This formula helps explain why some students can spend all night in the library and still struggle, while others never seem to crack a book but continually bust the curve. The time you spend “studying” is meaningless outside of the context of intensity. A small number of highly intense hours, for example, can potentially produce more results than a night of low-intensity highlighting.
(This is how I avoided all-nighters, for example, during my three year stretch of 4.0’s as an undergraduate.)
From Campus to Corporation
I’m mentioning this phenomenon because of the following observation:
The above formula applies to most cognitively demanding tasks.
In other words, intensity affects the productivity of a knowledge worker as much as it helps the GPA of a college student.
An idea that’s gripped my imagination recently is that we’ve significantly underestimated the magnitude of this reality in our professional lives (I absolutely include myself in this plural pronoun).
Optimizing your intensity, in other words, might be more than a minor enhancement to personal productivity; it might instead unlock absurd rates of production.
I’m still gathering my evidence for this conjecture, but what I’m finding so far intrigues me.
(Here’s a taste: I recently interviewed a writer who published 1.5 million words last year, all the while writing only around 3 hours a day, five days a week. His secret: he systematically increased his intensity levels during these sessions using fine-grained metrics, ascetic schedules/rules, and aggressive environment hacking. If you want to see him in action, check out his upcoming kickstarter project in which he plans to co-write a book publicly in 30 days.)
In the meantime, it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider your own level of workday intensity, and wonder what would be involved in taking 2 – 4 hours of your day, and engineering your life so as to optimize the intensity of your concentration during these periods. What changes would you have to make to how you manage your energy, environment, or processes? What results might it produce?
As I attempt to devise a more coherent understanding of intensity management, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts or experiences.