Let’s talk about the Productivity Stack.
People are interested in productivity because they want to know how to do more with less.
The easiest way to improve your productivity, is to know which areas to focus on, and which you don’t need to worry about.
Defining Productivity and Personal Effectiveness
Everyone wants to be more “productive”. Or more “personally effective.”
But few people actually stop to think – what exactly is productivity?
Let’s start with the textbook definition:
The ability to produce a certain amount of results, with fewer resources than others.
Or in economics-speak:
Productivity is the ratio between output and input volumes.
i.e., you put in the same amount of raw materials, but end up with more widgets.
Most productivity writing on the interwebs focuses on time management. This makes sense, as time is something we obviously have finite amounts of.
Focusing solely on time however, misses out on the bigger picture.
If productivity is about using fewer resources to deliver more results… what about the other resources?
And what about the processes (leverage) we use to get more out of each resource?
Expanding the Definition of Productivity
Let’s expand the general definition of productivity a bit.
Time is one resource. But we also have:
- And more.
And beyond just our resources, are how we actually use them – this is what I call leverage.
Most people forget about leverage, or bundle it in with other resources. Things like money to spend, time assets to automate things or social connections.
There is also the removal of obstacles, which will let us use our resources more efficiently. Generally speaking, fewer obstacles means fewer resources expended.
If we put this all together:
productivity = resources * leverage - obstacles
The Productivity Stack
Let’s jump right into the Productivity Stack.
It looks like this:
This stack represents the main things you need to look out for in terms of your productivity.
Optimising each part of the stack could be its own article, but at the very least we can look at:
- What is the resource, leverage or obstacle we need to be aware of?
- What things can we generally do to improve the resource or leverage, or to clear the obstacle?
Consider this a high-level overview of your productivity.
Productivity Stack: Internal Resources
Let’s start with the four internal resources that you have – your “inherent abilities” so to speak.
They are the resources of:
The Time Management Stack is the classic way to improve your productivity.
It is a combination of systems, techniques and tools that help you optimise the use of your time.
It also guest-stars bits and pieces of other resources like energy and attention.
Energy can be thought of the resource that is determined by your physical body.
Your physical body the machinery you use to do everything else. If that machine does not work, then you cannot work.
Additionally, your mental and emotional processing is heavily dependent on your physical ability as well.
There are a couple of areas that are important for maximising your energy usage.
The first is optimising your sleep.
You want to get enough sleep so that it doesn’t affect your emotions or cognition. But you also don’t want to oversleep as that wastes time.
The second is exercise.
Human bodies did not evolve to sit in front of computers or crane over mobile phones.
We are built for physical work and if we do not get it through what we do for work, we have to find other ways to get it.
- Building strength through resistance training and lifting weights.
- Conditioning ourselves through cardiovascular exercise.
- Improving our flexibility through stretching, range of motion exercises and fascia training.1Basically, anything in Kelly Starrett’s excellent book Becoming a Supple Leopard.
The third is diet or what food you eat.
Food is fuel for your body, and the better the fuel, the better your energy levels will be.
The fourth are rituals.
Rituals are chains of habits that help you get important things done, and that put you in emotional or mental states where you have more even and productive energy.
Barring some afterlife of which we are unaware, if you live longer, you will have more time to do things and thus have more energy as well.
I would consider longevity to cover anything that:
- Minimises the probability of an early death.
- Avoids the major causes of death.
- Slows down the ageing process.
The very distant sixth part of optimising your energy usage is coordination, or your ability to do things fluidly.
Attention is an interesting resource.
It is hard to increase our attention capacity directly, but there are many things that we can do to better utilise what attention we do have.
The first is our mindset or inner game.
How much attention something requires is determined by our split-second subconscious processing and decision making.
If we have the right beliefs, right values, right capabilities and right behaviours in place… then that processing and decision making happens very fast.
If not, then we burn through more attention (and other resources) to process and decide.
An easy way to think about this is arrows:
You want to work towards having all the arrows in your life point in the same direction.
The second way to better utilise attention is through our knowledge, skills and intelligence.
If our mindset determines our subconscious processing, then our intelligence determines our conscious processing.
This can be thought of as formal or contextual education, as well as our ability to learn new things.
The third thing that better helps us utilise our attention is emotional mastery.
The more in-control of our emotions we are, the easier it is to put our attention on where it should be.
There are many models for emotional mastery, but I like the philosophical approach. My personal go-tos would be Stoicism and Buddhism.
Maximise your virtues and minimise your vices, and your emotions will have a much easier time.
The last inbuilt resource we have is willpower.
This is the ability to act with volition, or on-demand.
Your willpower can be increased by training yourself in the virtue of self-discipline.
There are also external systems you can use to help reduce the willpower needed to do everyday things.
- Personal systems like journals and task lists.
- Habits, rituals and routines.3These help both your energy and your willpower.
Productivity Stack: Leverage
The second part of the Productivity Stack is using leverage to maximise the output of your inputted resources.
Some forms of leverage also double as resources.
Leverage: Systems and Technology
Systems and Technology is a broad label that covers anything that helps us do more with less.
The first area that you can optimise here is your digital cybernetics.
This includes your apps and software and knowing what to use and what not to use. You want to control them, rather than letting them control you.
It also includes your AI tools and assistants. You probably use these every day without even knowing it.4Simple things like photo retouching or inbox prioritisation are essentially governed by AI nowadays.
The second area includes your time assets.5Again, credit to Patrick McKenzie (Kalzumeus) at: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/03/20/running-a-software-business-on-5-hours-a-week/
These can be simple appliances that let us do more with fewer personal resources, like our microwaves or refrigerators.6As opposed to lighting a fire or bucketing lots of ice daily.
They can also be more sophisticated time assets like software.7We take it for granted, but software is one of the greatest forms of leverage ever created.
Your network is an interesting form of leverage because it is also a depletable resource.
Your network is basically the people that you know, and the amount of social capital8The sum of your relationship value. you have with them.
It is both a form of leverage and a resource because it can help you better utilise other resources, but also needs to be renewed and managed.
Some of the skills involved in managing your network include:
- Leadership capability. The ability to keep people aligned to a single vision.
- Management capability. The ability to recognise differences in people and find the best woman/man for the job.
- Effective delegation. The ability to walk the fine line between autonomy and control.
- Social skills. The ability to interact with people and navigate social situations.
Much like your network, your wealth is both a form of leverage and a resource.
You can use it as leverage through things like outsourcing or geo-arbitrage.
And you can manage it as a resource by better understanding skillsets like economics, negotiation and business.
Productivity Stack: Removing Obstacles
The last part of the Productivity Stack is about removing rather than adding.
There are two main forms of obstacles that make you less productive:
- Inner game (mindset) obstacles.
- Social and cultural obstacles.
Inner game obstacles are the mental blocks you have in place that stop you from doing things.
Most of these stem from early childhood and are completely arbitrary – something random a parent (or even random person) said or did during one of your formative years is usually the origin.
Untangling them is about working on your mindset and doing the best that you can with what you currently believe.
Social and cultural obstacles can be real or imagined.
Real obstacles are based in objective or intersubjective reality. For example, laws or bureaucratic red tape.
Other people enforce these, and removing them requires deftly navigating them, or changing the conditions under which they occur (e.g., moving jurisdiction or changing the rules).
Imagined obstacles are unspoken social or cultural rules that people tend to follow, but where there are no real consequences for breaking or removing them.
What To Do Next
You now know about all the different areas that you can work on to improve your own productivity.
If you would like to hear more about the different parts of the Productivity Stack, sign up for updates below!
- Basically, anything in Kelly Starrett’s excellent book Becoming a Supple Leopard.
- i.e., not morbid.
- These help both your energy and your willpower.
- Simple things like photo retouching or inbox prioritisation are essentially governed by AI nowadays.
- Again, credit to Patrick McKenzie (Kalzumeus) at: https://www.kalzumeus.com/2010/03/20/running-a-software-business-on-5-hours-a-week/
- As opposed to lighting a fire or bucketing lots of ice daily.
- We take it for granted, but software is one of the greatest forms of leverage ever created.
- The sum of your relationship value.