Thrust, Drag and the 10x Effect

by Venkat on October 25, 2011

If you are only used to driving cars, it is hard to appreciate just how huge a force drag can be. The reason is that drag increases as the square of speed, so an object will experience 100 times the drag at 300 mph as it does at 30 mph. Not 10 times.

In  Physics Can Be Fun, Soviet popular science writer Ya Perelman provided a dramatic example of the consequences of drag. With drag, a typical long-range artillery shell travels 4 km. Without drag, the same shell would travel 40 km.

Or 10x further. Which brings me to the famous 10x effect in software engineering.

If you haven’t heard of it, the 10x effect is the anecdotal observation that great programmers aren’t just a little more productive than average ones (like 15-20%). They tend to be 10 times more productive. A similar effect can be found in other kinds of creative information work.

Can you transform yourself into a 10x person? If you meet certain qualifying conditions (by my estimate, maybe 1 in 4 people do), I think you can.

The 10x effect arises from the interaction of thrust and drag on the fundamental playing field of your life, your calendar.

If you understand how this works, and learn to manage the interaction, the benefits are enormous. Managing the interaction involves a rule that is about as close to magic as I’ve ever encountered: you just prioritize longer tasks in your scheduling.

The bad news is that while drag management can be learned, thrust generation, I have come to suspect, cannot.

This is more than an analogy. It can be mathematically modeled. I learned this many years ago when I was working on certain scheduling algorithms for telescopes. The problem was simple: you have observation windows of varying lengths, and big and little observation tasks to fit inside them. My scheduler algorithms could very efficiently pack the schedule, reaching nearly 100% utilization of observation time. The catch was that in trying to maximize utilization, the algorithms packed in all the little jobs first. This led to a growing backlog of longer jobs.  If a mix of jobs was streaming in continuously, the long jobs would never get done.

You don’t need math to understand why: little jobs can fit into big windows, but big jobs cannot fit into little ones. Here’s a picture.

I fixed the problem by keeping track of the ratio of long and short jobs, and inserting periods where I’d let long jobs jump the queue, sacrificing some utilization in order to drive down waiting times.

That’s one half of what’s going on: our natural tendency to fill up time leads to a backlog of longer tasks.

For the other half, consider the difference in content between long and short jobs in human work. It turns out that there is a very interesting correlation: longer tasks (4 hours or more) are more likely to be the productive, creative ones (like writing or coding sessions), while short tasks are more likely to be busywork. Call the former thrust tasks, and color-code them blue, and the latter drag tasks, and color-code them red.

This is the reason why Paul Graham’s anecdotal observations in Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule ring so true. Creative work requires longer uninterrupted work blocks. Most managerial work is short-duration busywork. The Maker/Manager distinction is too coarse for my tastes, which is why I use thrust/drag instead. Everybody has elements of both kinds of work and schedule in their lives.

If you do creative information work, I will bet you that your current to-do list will yield a distribution that looks something like this: lots of little drag tasks, and a few big thrust tasks.

How do you tell thrust and drag apart? (merely classifying longer tasks as thrust tasks would be both wrong and beg the question).

Thrust Work

Turns out there is more than correlation between the length and creative production of a task.

Thrust items create high value. They are autotelic: they involve a mindful state of flow as discovered by Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, which emerges when you are just beyond the edge of your current skill level, and have internalized the performance standards of the creative field, so that you are able to continuously monitor the quality of your own output via internal feedback.

When you start a session of thrust work, situation awareness takes longer to develop. Once you get going, momentum keeps building, and you only slow down and stop when you run out of energy. Momentum within a work session does not increase linearly, it increases quadratically or faster. So the peak momentum you can develop in a two-hour session will be at least four times the peak momentum you can develop in a one-hour session (note that you need a minimum window length: super-linear curves overtake linear ones only after an initial period where they lag; by my estimate, the crossover happens around the half-hour mark). This means you can do qualitatively different types of things over one two-hour session than you can over two one-hour sessions.

Some day I will try to mathematically model this effect and compute actual exponents, but for now you can just remember it via the analogy to physics: it’s like a snowball accelerating downhill: if you let two snowballs roll downhill for a minute, they will collect less mass together than if you let a single snowball roll downhill for two minutes.  In terms of damage the snowballs can do, the one big snowball will pack a bigger punch after two minutes than the two smaller ones together will, after one minute.

And most importantly, thrust items are deliberate practice items. The more you do them, the better you do them. Your effectiveness increases at a compounded rate. Every coding or writing session is a compound-interest improvement over previous ones. The compounding goes on even when you are not actively working on the skill, as your brain processes and integrates your session-level learning.

This last point is why you can get to 10x type returns: such exponential gains always involve positive feedback loops, and thrust tasks contain two of them: the autotelic loop within a session, and the longer-term deliberate practice benefits that carry over between sessions.  These two positive-feedback loops together basically create an addiction.

I’ve written two detailed posts (Daemons and the Mindful Learning Curve and The Calculus of Grit) on the phenomenology of thrust, so I won’t elaborate more here. But the net effect of the characteristics of thrust work is that the higher-value ones take longer. The longer a thrust-work session, the more valuable the output, with biological limits being the ultimate constraint.

Drag Work

Drag items create low amounts of value. And I mean here intrinsic value; not value in the sense of money. There are many drag items like hunting for coupons/deals that can have a lot of dollar value in terms of resources conserved or transferred in zero-sum ways, but don’t create any value.

Drag items are not autotelic because performance standards cannot be internalized (an example is bureaucratic paperwork: they often make little sense, so you cannot internalize quality standards and fill out forms “better” over time). Situation awareness develops quickly once you learn the specific arbitrary details of a drag task. Once you’ve figured out how to navigate post offices in a new country, switching into “post office” mode doesn’t take long, but for something like coding or writing, deep familiarity doesn’t really reduce the time it takes to develop situation awareness.

Switching costs for drag work tend to be high. Whereas writing or coding just requires booting up your laptop wherever you are, going to the post office or to a consulate to get a visa can involve high switching costs.

Drag items are also event-driven. Instead of internal momentum determining starts and stops, external events do. If you wait for an hour in line in some government department, only to find when you get to the window that the service provider is breaking for lunch, there is basically nothing you can do about it.

So you can put it all together yourself now: 10x performance involves two things: generating thrust and minimizing drag. Let’s consider each in turn.

Thrust Engines

Generating thrust means you have to be capable of some sort of mindful-learning deliberate-practice behavior.

In other words, you need a thrust engine.

If you suddenly have four uninterrupted hours to spare, and a great energy/alertness level, but are at a loss about what to do with yourself, it means you do not have a thrust engine in your life.

Can you discover your engines? This is an open question that I am currently thinking about. My tentative conclusion is that a thrust engine has two parts: a natural talent, and a capacity for meta-cognition with respect to that talent.  A thrust engine is a developed strength (though not all strengths are thrust engines). Strengths psychologists seem to think that anyone with a talent can develop it into a strength simply by investing time.

I don’t think that is true. I think a separate capacity for meta-cognition is a necessary ingredient that many hard-working and talented people  lack. So they make no progress despite putting in the time.  Without the meta-cognition, you don’t get either the autotelic positive feedback loop within work session, or the deliberate-practice improvements between sessions.

Maybe I’ll change my mind as I think more about this, but right now I am pessimistic. I’d say maybe 20-25% of people are mentally capable of creating thrust engines in their lives. About half of them probably never discover their talents at the right times and/or cannot find the opportunity to develop it. So sadly, only about 1 in 10 people luck out and develop a thrust engine.

Drag Reduction

The good news is that if you have a thrust engine, drag reduction is as simple as a scheduling prioritization rule:

Clear your calendar as much as possible (empty out the “hard landscape” to use GTD terminology), create as many longer windows as possible, and start filling them with thrust work.

This is one of the few very simple rules in life that isn’t simplistic. It is also intuitive, which is why people seem to keep rediscovering it.  Besides Paul Graham, Wayne Dyer has also made a similar point (using an evocative demonstration involving big balls, little balls and a large container).

The great thing about this rule is that it is self-reinforcing. The more you fill your calendar with thrust work, the easier it gets, because you are creating value that can potentially bring in resources for drag reduction. You will also find yourself energetically investing in drag-reduction infrastructure (creating this infrastructure is thrust-work, but using it is still drag work, which is why so many people who are great at inventing systems and processes are terrible at actually using them).

That bad news is that if you don’t have a thrust engine in your life, drag reduction will also become nearly impossible, because there is no source of energy. Everything from getting organized to losing weight becomes easier if you have a thrust engine humming. Not only do you have a reason to reduce drag (free up more resources for thrust), you have the means to do so.

Dealing with Drag Backlog

Prioritizing longer thrust work sessions will inevitably create a backlog of drag tasks. How you deal with them depends on whether you are cash-rich/time-poor, time-rich/cash-poor, or cash-poor/time-poor.

  • Cash-Rich/Time-Poor: If you are cash-rich/time-poor, outsource everything you can. Hire people or services for every kind of drag work. Managing drag work is also drag work, so hire personal assistants to do it.  Yes, it seems rather selfish to fill up others’ lives with drag work, but you can console yourself with two thoughts. First, there really are cases of “drag for me is thrust for you” types of work (though there is unfortunately a large “drag for everybody” category). Second, for many people the choice isn’t between thrust and drag. It is between destitution and drag. It can be a win-win at least in the short term. If somebody doing drag work for you discovers a thrust engine in their lives, be generous. Help them move to the 10x side.
  • Time-Rich/Cash-Poor: If you are time-rich/cash-poor, your options are more limited. Procrastinate, let the drag work pile up, and then batch process them whenever you find the energy. At least you’ll save on switching costs. You could also give up some luxuries in order to be able to afford to outsource some sorts of drag work.
  • Time-Poor/Cash-Poor: Our lives are structured so that we tend to progress from time-rich to cash-rich, via a horrible transition phase (usually mid thirties to mid forties) when you are time-poor and cash-poor.  This is even worse if you have kids. There is really no good solution in this regime. I am in this situation now, and I chose to give up significant cash for significant time.
  • Time-Rich/Cash-Rich: If you are both time-rich and cash-rich, surprisingly, things may not all rosy.  From meeting a few people who are “lucky” enough to be in this state, I’ve noticed that this state attracts significant anomie.  If you suffer from the anomie of time+cash richness, I’ll think your situation through for you if you pay me.

Getting to 10x and Staying There

Being without a thrust-engine is horrible. The periods of my life when I lacked one are the worst ones I remember. Unfortunately, thrust engines have a lifespan (generally between 7-10 years). You have to get through an initial starter-motor phase, hit an ignition point, and then keep the engine running until it wears out. You’d better have another engine starting up by that point, or you’ll be in trouble.

In high school, my thrust engines were swimming, ping-pong and math. In college, I had swimming, theater and reading. Then I went through a bad phase when I had nothing. Then I got to ignition with Matlab programming. When that engine began to die, my writing practice hit ignition. I am now 4 years into a phase with writing as my main thrust engine. I think the engine will burn out in about 3-4 more years, at which point I’ll need to either find something new, or fundamentally reboot my writing.

Getting to 10x when you have an engine humming takes another level of effort, much of it devoted to drag reduction. I’ll be 37 next month. I’d estimate that I’ve spent maybe 8-12 months overall in 10x mode. I am trying to systematically raise the “10x uptime” in my life, but it isn’t easy.

If you want to dig deeper into some of the ideas in this post, there is related material throughout Tempo. Chapters 2 and 3 should be of particular interest.

 

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Gregory Rader | OnTheSpiral.com October 25, 2011 at 4:10 pm

First of all, thank you for writing this. I am working my way out of one of those troughs in the mindful learning curve and simply recognizing it as such makes it easier to dig out.

A few observations:
A lot more could be said with regard to your statement:

“Everything from getting organized to losing weight becomes easier if you have a thrust engine humming. Not only do you have a reason to reduce drag (free up more resources for thrust), you have the means to do so.”

This effect is true in reverse as well. Generating thrust becomes exponentially easier if you are organized, eating a consistent diet (even if not an ideal diet), in a consistent relationship (even if not perfect), have a reliable social life, supportive family, etc. On the surface this is a bit confounding. These facets of one’s life are not particularly related aside from general implications for mood and such. You wouldn’t intuitively expect that a small improvement in diet would have a 2x impact on productivity, though that it is often what people find.

That kind of impact makes more sense if we think of each of those facets of one’s life as its own potential thrust engine or source of drag. When your diet out of control you are likely beating yourself up when you eat particularly indulgent meals, you are spending more time debating whether you should eat this or that, you are wasting time researching random diets, supplements, or exercise programs, etc.

Whether we consider these true thrust engines will depend on where we set the baseline, but clearly many domains of ones life can improve by multiples. For example, diet may at best have a 5x internal potential (compounding improvement in diet itself) and a 3x external potential (spillover to other domains). Regardless of the specific potentials, thinking of diet in terms of thrust/drag seems much more promising than accepting the usual statements promising ‘more energy’ or similarly vague notions.

Second thought:
One complication is the temptation to assign the ‘thrust’ label to specific activities (as a shorthand or otherwise) rather than to (using your terminology) a qualitative mindful learning curve. Right at this moment it would be easy to say that I am dicking around on the internet rather than doing thrust work. Yet, at the same time I have been sitting here scribbling notes, and more importantly, making connections well outside the scope of this post that might lead somewhere entirely different.

Does that count as deliberate practice? I don’t know. At the least it should count as warm-up…though I might have found this post completely uninspiring and ended up wasting a thrust block. Summing up: passive behaviors can be activated under the right conditions, and likewise active behaviors can become rote and passive if interpreted too narrowly.

Venkat October 26, 2011 at 4:33 pm

We tend to compartmentalize life activities because things seem too complex otherwise. But of course you are right. In reality there is just one connected life. The cost of the simplicity is that you end up ignoring some compartments, your life falls out of balance, and drag appears.

From past comments discussions, I think you are headed towards the idea of a sort of “unified, boundaryless life” theory, where everything influences everything else, and there are no real beginnings or endings. So there are no “boxes” in time, behavior, function or structure.

I think this is a valuable asymptotic view that is worth aspiring to, but I think it is dangerous to adopt it as a prescription in most situations. Compartmentalization and local optimization is sometimes the only thing you can do. Often the reasons are beyond your control (for example, workers in the Organization Man era lived very compartmentalized lives, and the environment made it very hard to integrate and life-optimize).

I think, pragmatically, you have to make up some workable compartments, selectively focus/optimize, try to notice when things go out of whack and rebalance. The alternative requires retreat to a monastery where integrative and holistic “life optimization” may be possible.

Terry Elliott (@tellio) November 4, 2011 at 5:26 am

A very powerful story by David Sedaris argues for ‘stove burners’ as a metaphor for what you speak of in the last paragraph: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/08/24/090824fa_fact_sedaris

Also, criticism of others on your metaphors is to be expected. An effective metaphor has as much ‘feel’ to it as logic. In other words while the metaphor may not extend far enough to suit our logic and our left brain focus (see Iain McGilchrist’s Master and his Emissary); nonetheless, it feels right. That is, a truth may not map out in a deep way, yet we ‘know’ in other, non-verbal ways that it is right for us. So…keep on with your analogies. I admire the jumps from physics to programming to personal workflow. And I am grateful that you think enough of the rest of us that you are willing to take the risk of sharing.

Tom Bushell October 26, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Venkat,

I’m fascinated by your concept of a “Thrust Engine”, but even after re-reading that section twice, I realize I still don’t have a clear concept of what you mean. Can you elaborate?

Some questions occur to me:

1. Other than not knowing what to do with a large block of time, what might be some other symptoms of NOT having a Thrust Engine in your life?

2. How do you know when you do have a Thrust Engine, especially in the early phases of starting one up?

Any light you can shed on this would be greatly appreciated!

Venkat October 26, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Tom:

I think when you DO have an engine going, it is unmistakeable. So in a way, if you have to ask, you don’t have one.

A great description of a guy with a nearly out-of-control engine roaring away is Sean Parker Just reading that feature about him exhausted me.

There are many such stories. The common marker is that the description of the person’s life seems to display enormous amounts of unbridled energy, but not dumb energy. The energy would be smart energy. Like a mathematician who proves 10 theorems per month, any one of which would defeat a lesser mathematician after a year of effort.

Another symptom of course, is the presence of 10x performance with respect to your environment. It’s not about being the “best” in a peer group. In fact, a 10x person may not be the “best” on objective measures. It is a reputation for being in an entirely different class, and able to take on challenges that mere mortals cannot comprehend. In pure report-card mode, a 10x person will likely have very serious blind spots, foibles and idiosyncracies.

Meg Levesque December 11, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Venkat, this is a fantastic post and follow-up! You may be at the boundaries of existing fields of scientific study in this field. Your insights may even be carving out a new field of science.

Ric Phillips October 26, 2011 at 7:22 pm

While the metaphor that initiated this thinking – the thrust-drag coefficient in physics – has generated an insight into time management that I think is very valid. I think the metaphor could be quite productively dropped almost as soon as it’s done it’s work. (And once again I notice how metaphors a compelling cognitive “viruses”. Already you are getting posts that have uncritically adopted the signifiers of your metaphor and are trying to figure out the ‘equations’ as if you have given an objective description of a physical system).

Human motivation, engagement, and attention is not a mechanical system that is in any way determined by the same relationship of physical forces as a self-propelled vehicle moving through air.

There is interesting queueing theory in your thesis and some good practical advice.

But why talk about ‘thrust engines’? That image is very far from the actual experience of mindful and self-forgetful engagement in a task. If fact most people, myself included, would hardly characterise the deep attention state of sustained creative work as a whirring, fast machine propelling us forward and crashing through a big pile of email, dishes and stationary drawer sorting onto the open freeway of our destiny. Quiet the reverse. It tends to be subjective state of stillness, quiet, and the suspension of time.

I really do love the way you use metaphors to break out of received wisdom and challenge assumptions. But as I have said many times, metaphors, while terrific servants are terrible masters.

I think you insight is sound. There is a relationship between short tasks and long tasks that effects the aggregate levels of engagement and productivity we achieve in our working (and personal) lives. This relationship arises as an effect of the linear inflexible characteristic of our subjectivity in time. And while it does look somewhat like the non-linear relationship between thrust and drag it hardly reduces to the same equations. The last thing people need to do is start doing a self audit of their ‘thrust engines’.

Venkat October 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm

Fair enough :)

Surgeon General’s warning: overuse of metaphor may lead to crash-and-burn.

Tom Bushell November 2, 2011 at 10:12 am

@ric

Good comments on the limitations of the thrust/drag metaphor. Maybe it just appeals to me because of my aviation background.

Subjectively, I find the “drag” analogy works very well. When attempting tasks requiring grit, it feels like everything is conspiring to slow me down – like walking into a strong headwind, or wading through mud.

But “thrust” is more problematic. As you say, flow is smooth, effortless, timeless – not rocket propelled.

I fly hang gliders, which of course have no engines to generate thrust. It’s only gravity and rising air currents that keep you aloft.

Soaring in my HG is and working in deep flow feel very similar to me.

So the metaphor may be flawed, but refining it, or coming up with a better one seems well worth pursuing.

Sam December 6, 2011 at 7:32 am

For me the thrust/drag metaphor needs to be used in conjunction with the original model, that of a projectile or missile which travels 10x further when there is no drag.
Why go back to this? When travelling through the air the missile will be generating a lot of noise from turbulance and the noise generated by the engines. Remove the drag i.e. the atmosphere and you remove the noise; suddenly everything is a picture of silent efficiency.

So a thrust engine is only noisy when there is drag, remove the drag and the engine can do what its supposed to do.

Tom Bushell December 6, 2011 at 8:48 am

Very good point!

And your reference to missiles and projectiles brings up another point – thrust does not need to be continuous (I had been unconsciously assuming that it did).

With enough thrust in the beginning, you can coast on momentum (projectile) or glide (aircraft) for a while, until drag brings you back to earth.

To keep flying, more thrust must be applied. A multiple stage rocket can light it’s second stage. A motor glider can restart it’s engine. A pure glider can find another thermal.

To tie this back to Tempo and the double Freytag staircase – the thrust of the Cheap Trick provides the energy for the first triangle, and the thrust of the Heavy Lift takes care of the second triangle.

(Sorry if someone’s already pointed this out – to me it’s a bit of an Aha! moment).

Lots of room to expand the metaphor…

In a business context, what’s rocket fuel – outside capital?

What’s the equivalent of finding another thermal – running into you next great employee by chance in a bookstore?

Very different forms of thrust, and only helpful in the right context.

Josh W October 31, 2011 at 8:23 am

Reminds me of the phenomena of “depth” in games design.
Shallow games take very little modelling; they are less likely to take over your brain, and success is just a matter of performing the correct steps accurately.
Deep games are like going down the rabbit hole, in that layers of improved understanding produce additional benefit, and also because of the subjective feeling when you start seeing their potential open out, but they usually require you to shift mental gears to get enjoyment out of them. (This leads to people tending to play them in contiguous hardcore bursts, or else playing them in smaller chunks and having them move around their head for weeks!)

There have been suggestions from various game designers that successful deep games are related to computationally difficult problems, proper feedback, and an ability to start with something simple and slowly unveil the true nature of the system. But creating depth is still far more of an intuitive art than a coherently theorised procedure so far.

sleeprunning November 2, 2011 at 8:42 am

This is filled with platitudes. Why would you look for research and evidence to falsify your ideas?

Terry Elliott (@tellio) November 4, 2011 at 5:13 am

Read Karl Popper. He explains ‘falsifiability’ as the rock solid core of scientific method.

sleeprunning November 2, 2011 at 10:18 am

The metaphor is not the problem, the promotion of ideas that feel good to you, at the moment, and lack of independent evidence or any empirical, peer-reviewed support makes this piece basically a similar kind of argument as for ethic food preferences — “It tastes/feels good to me so everyone will like it.” Likely not.

Josh W November 4, 2011 at 1:16 pm

What would happen if you applied your same method of judgement to your own writing?

Josh W November 4, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Hmm, that was phrased uncharitably.

I mean that even if ideas are based on empirical evidence, practical experimentation and expert critique, that isn’t neccesarily at all obvious in formats designed for readability. In fact there is frequently a compromise in expressing either.

With that in mind, to assume a-priori that something doesn’t have work behind it from style alone seems unwise.

That’s not to say that I wouldn’t like to see further development of these ideas into a slightly more in depth style!

brady November 4, 2011 at 12:04 am

if you had added 5 cents to the cost of your book it would qualify for Free Shipping on Amazon thereby saving me $3.50 or so in shipping charges.

Venkat November 4, 2011 at 12:11 am

Damn, it honestly didn’t occur to me at the time. I’ll see if I can do a cover price change, though if they discount it, I can’t really control that. You can get free shipping at the book depository though.

sleeprunning November 4, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Perhaps the most “charitable” attitude of a writer, and courtsey to readers, is to study and seek independent, peer-reviewed evidence of ideas that can predictably work.

Rhetoric is one thing, useful ideas entirely different, unfortunately.

Gregory Rader | OnTheSpiral.com November 4, 2011 at 6:01 pm

“a similar kind of argument as for ethic food preferences — ‘It tastes/feels good to me so everyone will like it.’ Likely not.”

From what do you infer the attitude – “so everyone will like it”?

I read this piece as very much like a preference for certain foods, and it is full of “useful ideas” for people that share the same preference and perspective.

Would publishing a Mexican recipe imply that everyone does or should like Mexican food?

Both your comments seem to assume that a certain contract *should* exist between the writer and the reader…that readers consume passively and therefore should be provided with only that information which can be demonstrably validated.

But that is clearly not the bargain being offered, and the bargain that is being offered is no less legitimate. Rhetoric is not the equivalent of dogma. The suggestion that empirical evidence is the only “useful” form of content is itself a variety of dogma.

sleeprunning November 5, 2011 at 11:37 am

No, dogma, by definition, cannot be disproven.

The problem with the ethnic food arguement is when ones personal preferences and intuitions are promoted as generalizable and having any predictive value outside of the individual’s experience of the moment.

The trick in making these claims is to appeal to the readers emotions, forge a bond with emotional hooks, and then sneak in assumed validity for an idea or claim that should have proof, not emotional appeal.

The author in this piece does that with a real hodge podge of ideas, none of which he offers data to support and building a castle in the sky with them.

He even has a 2 x 2 matrix. Who doesn’t believe a 2×2 matrix?

Engineering types make these mistakes all the time. If I can screw this nut onto this bolt — it proves a law of nature. Maybe but they are two different kinds of proof.

Meg Levesque December 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Wow, you missed his point completely.

Daniel Lemire November 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Here’s a reference which describes packing algorithms where you have to put the “tallest” objects first. I believe they can be seen as a formalization of your “just prioritize longer tasks in your scheduling” heuristic:

E. G. Coffman, Jr., M. R. Garey, D. S. Johnson, and R. E. Tarjan. Performance bounds for level-oriented two-dimensional packing algorithms. SIAM J. Comput., 9(4):808–826, 1980.

The Little Engine That Could December 6, 2011 at 8:29 pm

tl;dr

good thing there were pictures!

Laurent Bossavit December 15, 2011 at 12:47 pm

The “10x phenomenon” isn’t even anecdotal really, it’s better described (at least in the field of software development where it was coined) as an urban myth.

There are Pareto-type distributions in the measured outputs of many professions, but they are quite plausibly a result of “winner take all” phenomena and similar; jumping to the conclusion that there is a valid, real but unobserved variable called “productivity” is a flawed inference, one that I think stands in the way of much progress (at least in the field of software development).

Mind you, that doesn’t detract from your other observations – in fact they are a decent argument why “productivity” is a silly word to use in professions where what you call “thrust” tasks matter most.

Brett December 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Very interesting article. I’ve noticed that I can separate drag and thrust activities based on whether or not I can listen to a podcast while doing it. If it’s a thrust activity, I want silence and focus. If it’s drag, I want to take my mind off of it as much as I can.

It’s interesting to hear someone else talk about this sort of thing. I’m in the time-poor/cash-poor category as well, but I’ve been thinking about buying something like a roomba. My thinking has been along the lines of the amount of time it will give me back, because I don’t have much time, and as you point out, I’m willing to trade some money to get some time.

Anthony Garratt April 13, 2012 at 3:15 am

You really *should* get a Roomba!

sfree December 19, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Great article with insights I haven’t seen elsewhere. I also really liked the two detailed posts you reference (Daemons and the Mindful Learning Curve and The Calculus of Grit). One question, though, is how to ensure that Thrusts are in the desired *direction.* I find it fairly easy to find thrust engines, but almost inevitably it’s doing something other than the work I have set out for me.

Josh W January 5, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I believe that tends to be called the problem of monetising!

Or to put it another way, these things tend to have their own inherent vector, tied to your own curiosity and ability to discern improvement, presumably as well as the structure of the problem space you are working in. Sometimes there is really nothing for it but to make it a hobby.

Other times, if you can fastforward to the edge of a field, internalising other people’s experience, you can produce some general piece of progress or invention in that area, or otherwise find some set of problems to solve/specialised activities that people will pay you for. A lot of mathematicians very happily take this approach, as do many sportsmen.

All the usual problems of entrepreneurship are associated with this, or those of fitting your focus into an existing organisation if one happens to be compatible.

The other riskier thing to do is to search for a thrust engine adjacent to the work you’ve been asked to do. The risk there is that this might not be a job that contains any depths, any thrust potential for you, in which case they could become work-related work-time hobbies, and you’ll have to fight against defocusing from the basics of what your boss/customer actually needs from you.
Blurring your job description in this way can also make it more difficult for you to get the credit (and commensurate payment) for what you are actually doing. On the other hand it may be possible to use it to shift your job description, particularly if you move companies and pick your references right.

Maintaining willpower when faced with a pile of pure drag tasks is a whole other topic!

sleeprunning December 19, 2011 at 4:41 pm

here is a dilemma u left brainy engineering types mite like — it appears our brains trigger behavior 7-8secs b4 we are consciously aware of any of this…..

Yash Raj Lamsal January 8, 2013 at 12:40 am

I would like to thank and appreciate the writer for this article while I am trying to take it intuitively . It is generalized view for our experiences. I find myself practicing Procrastination and drag work pile up as mentioned.

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