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The Science of Productivity December 21, 2014

Posted by OromianEconomist in 10 best Youtube videos, 25 killer Websites that make you cleverer, Economics, Opportunity Cost, The Mathematics of Cities, Theory of Development.
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How to get more done—and in less time


In today’s busy world, we’ve become a people obsessed with productivity and “work hacks.”

Getting more done in less time allows us to get ahead, and even gives us more availability to do the things we love outside of work.

The problem we run into is that it is easy to get motivated, but hard to stay disciplined.

Most of us look at productivity in the wrong way: task management tools are shiny at first and then go unused. Being chained to your desk is as unhealthy as it is unproductive.

Achievement isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing the right things–productivity means saying no.

Focus and consistency are the bread-and-butter of being truly productive. Right now, we’ll take a look at the science behind how the brain works in the synthesis state, and what changes you can make for the better.

 The first thing to acknowledge in the pursuit of getting more done is the mountain of evidence that suggests willpower alone will not be enough to stay productive.

According to research by Janet Polivy, our brain fears big projects and often fails to commit to long-term goals because we’re susceptible to “abandoning ship” at the first sign of distress.

Think of the last time you went on a failed diet.

You stocked your fridge with the healthiest foods and planned to exercise every day… until the first day you slipped up. After that, it was back to your old ways.

To make matters worse, research by Kenneth McGraw was able to show that the biggest “wall” to success was often just getting started. Additional research in this area suggests that we’re prone to procrastinating on large projects because we visualize the worst parts; the perfect way to delay getting started.

According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.

“Big project due tomorrow? Better reorganize my movie collection!”

Perhaps worst of all, numerous studies on the concept of “ego-depletion” have provided some evidence that suggests our willpower is a limited resource that can be used up in it’s entirety. The more you fight it, the more gas you burn. An empty tank leads to empty motivation.

With all of that stacked against us, what can we possibly do to be more productive?

In order to figure this out, one of our best bets is to observe the habits of consistently productive people.

The habits of productive people

If I were to ask to describe the practice regiments of world-class musicians, you’d probably envision a shut-in artist who plays all day long and then tucks in their instrument at night.

Amazingly though, research by Anders Ericsson that examined the practice sessions of elite violinists clearly showed that the best performers were not spending more time on the violin, but rather were being more productive during their practice sessions.

Better yet, the most elite players were getting more sleep on average than everyone else.

How is that possible?

Subsequent research by Anders reveals the answer: the best players were engaging in more “deliberate practice.” You’ve heard the term, but beyond the hype, what is it all about?

It’s nothing more than spending time on the hardest tasks, and being better at managing your energy levels.

Think of it this way: If you were trying to get better at basketball, you’d be much better off practicing specific drills for two hours rather than “shooting hoops” all day long.

Since deliberate practice requires you to spend more brainpower than busy work, how can you implement it without draining your willpower?

The first answer isn’t very sexy, but it’s necessary: the best way to overcome your fear of spending a lot of energy on a big project is to simply get started.

The Zeigarnik Effect (mentioned above) is a construct that psychologists have observed in numerous studies on “suspense.” One such study gave participants brain-buster puzzles to complete, but not enough time to complete them. The surprising thing was, even when participants were asked to stop, over 90% of them went on to complete the puzzles anyway.

According to the lead researcher:

“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

It’s the same thing that happens when we become engaged in a story in a book, movie or TV show: we want to see how it ends.

You can use this knowledge to your advantage by just getting started on that next big project; in the most basic sense, don’t focus your motivation on doing Activity X. Instead, focus on making Activity X easier to do.

Start the night before. Is your to-do list already written up? Is your place of work ready for you to get started? Break down barriers of friction before relying on willpower.

On working like an expert

A multitude of research has shown us that discipline is best maintained through habits, not through willpower.

According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling work and rest breaks throughout the day.

Since most of us are worried about willpower, we don’t push ourselves to maximum output: instead of “giving our all” for brief sessions, we distribute our effort throughout the day, leading us back to busywork to fill our time.

What should we do instead?

Schwartz often cites a research study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration that revealed how short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in a 16% improvement in awareness and focus.

Research from Peretz Lavie on ultradian rhythms matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day.

ultradian rhythm

Both of these studies on energy management match up with the practice schedules of the violinists: the most common regimen for the cream of the crop players was a 90-minute block of intense practice followed by a 15-minute break.

The moral of the story is that it’s hard to be productive while trying to maintain high energy levels through your entire day.

It’s much easier to work intensely when you know that a break is just around the corner, not at the end of the day. Instead of trying to conserve energy for hours, break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.

For projects done on your own time, try scheduling blocks of 90-minute work sessions with a planned cool down time of 15 minutes directly afterwards. When you know a break is on the horizon, you won’t try to “pace yourself” with your work, and will be more inclined to dive into the difficult stuff.

While great for tackling the toughest parts of large projects, this technique doesn’t really address many problems related to discipline, an important part of staying productive for more than just a day or two.

The art of staying disciplined

One segment of the population known for struggling with discipline are those who are addicted to hard drugs.

Given their disposition for being unable to commit to many things, you might be surprised to find that during an experiment testing the ability of drug addicts to write & submit a 5 paragraph essay on time, those who wrote down when and where they would complete the essay were far more likely to turn it in.

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in other people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet.

Last but not least, Dan Ariely and colleagues conducted a study involving college students and found that students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t.

These findings were especially interesting because Ariely noted that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who set zero deadlines: when you allot yourself too much time to complete a task, you can end up creating a “mountain out of a molehill.”

Since we now know that tracking our progress is a key component of productivity, how can we implement this practice into our daily routine?

One method is to use an accountability chart to track what work you’ve completed during your 90-minute productive sessions, similar to how the dieters tracked their food consumption.

To easily implement one, simply create two-columns on a piece of paper, Google Docs spreadsheet, or even a whiteboard.

  • Column 1 will list the time-span of one of your productivity sessions.
  • Column 2 will list what tasks you’ve accomplished in that limited time-span.

accountability chart

Don’t include any columns for your 15-minute breaks, as those times are for your own sake and means to replenish your willpower.

This works well for 2 specific reasons:

Dr. Kentaro Fujita argues that tracking your progress in this way is helpful because you’ll be exposed to the work you’ve actually accomplished, and not the (inaccurate) assumption of work you might construe in your head.

Forcing yourself to write down the fact that you spent 2 hours on YouTube isn’t about shaming, it’s about awareness; you’ll be less likely to do it again.

Progress tracking is also a known strategy for stopping yourself from engaging in robotic behavior (also known as busywork), a habit that researcher John Bargh describes as the #1 enemy of goal striving.

Productivity and multitasking

With a work schedule, an energy management strategy, and a task-tracking system in place, the last challenge we have to face is that of multitasking.

According to a 1999 study, we have a tendency to view multitasking as effective, even when it isn’t.

However, researcher Zhen Wang was able to show that on average, multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more “emotionally satisfied” with their work—creating an illusion of productivity.

Worse yet, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass examined the work patterns of multitaskers and analyzed their ability to:

  1. Filter information
  2. Switch between tasks
  3. Maintain a high working memory

He found that they were terrible at all three.

According to Nass:

“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

When working on the computer, the best thing you can do is turn on Airplane Mode; no need for temptation when you can’t even access the web. If you’re unable, help yourself with tools like StayFocusd to block distracting sites.

The next best strategy is to create an evening planning ritual where you select a few priority tasks to accomplish the next day.

The reason this method works far better than planning your daily tasks in the morning? Research from the Kellogg School has shown that we miscalculate the amount of focus we’ll be able to maintain in the future. We strongly believe that we’ll be able to quickly plan our day the next morning, but when tomorrow rolls we stumble off track.

You can create an evening planning ritual with a simple pen & paper or use an online tool like TeuxDeux each night. List only priority tasks (the “big 5”) for the day.


Instead of listing “Work on research project” as a daily goal, try something like “Finish introduction” or “Find additional sources” as a task you can actually complete.

The instant replay

Let’s play that all back real quick:

Willpower alone is not enough: Your productivity shouldn’t be reliant on your sheer force of will alone. Mental toughness will go a long way, but in order to stay disciplined you’re better off relying on systems.

Give yourself the ability to go “all-in”: Working harder on the stuff that matters is going to drain you mentally & physically. Don’t be afraid of giving yourself multiple breaks throughout the day. It’s better to “chunk” productivity sessions into 90 minute periods (in order to keep yourself sharp and to alleviate the stress of pacing your energy throughout the entire day.

If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing: Tracking has been proven to be the best way to stay diligent about your progress. Create an accountability chart to list what productive things you’ve gotten done throughout the day. You’ll see how much you’re really accomplishing.

Multitasking is your enemy: Treat it as such. Block out unwanted distractions and as Ron Swanson would say, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” Plan your day the night before so you won’t get consumed with the wonderful distractions of the internet when you start your day.

Read  from its source @ http://qz.com/315903/how-to-get-more-done-and-in-less-time/

A scaling law: Simple mathematical laws that govern the properties of cities, Physicist Geoffrey West at TEDTalks November 14, 2014

Posted by OromianEconomist in cross industry agglomeration (urbanization), The Mathematics of Cities.
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Our theory suggests we will face something mathematicians call a “finite time singularity.” Equations with superlinear behavior, rather than leveling out like the sublinear ones in biology, go to infinity in a finite time. But that’s impossible, because you’re going to run out of finite resources. The equations tell us that when you reach this point, the system stagnates and collapses.

Geoffrey West @ http://discovermagazine.com/2012/oct/21-geoffrey-west-finds-physical-laws-in-cities





http://www.ted.com Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities — that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city’s population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

“What we do is, as we grow and we approach the collapse, a major innovation takes place and we start over again, and we start over again as we approach the next one, and so on. So there’s this continuous cycle of innovation that is necessary in order to sustain growth and avoid collapse. The catch, however, to this is that you have to innovate faster and faster and faster. So the image is that we’re not only on a treadmill that’s going faster, but we have to change the treadmill faster and faster. We have to accelerate on a continuous basis. And the question is: Can we, as socio-economic beings, avoid a heart attack?”


A scaling law basically represents how various measurements in a system—say, the bodies of mammals—change proportionally as size changes. The first and most famous scaling law is something called Kleiber’s law, which describes how metabolic rate, the amount of energy you need per day to stay alive, is related to an organism’s size. It turns out that metabolic rate [r] is just the mass [M] of the organism raised to the three-quarters power [r ≈ M¾]. A whale, for instance, weighs about 100 million times more than a shrew. You might expect its metabolic rate to be 100 million times greater, too. But it’s only a million times bigger, because metabolic rate scales as mass to the three-quarters [100,000,000¾ is 1,000,000]. The pattern holds with very few exceptions across all organisms.

Cities are obvious metaphors for life. We call roads “arteries” and so forth. But more importantly, they are our unique creations. Santa Fe feels unique, New York City feels unique. They have their own culture, history, and geography. They have their own planners, politicians, and architects. Yet when my collaborators and I looked at tremendous amounts of data about cities, we found universal scaling laws again. Each city is not so unique after all. If you look at any infrastructural quantity—the number of gas stations, the surface area of the roads, the length of electric cables—it always scales as the population of the city raised to approximately the 0.85 power.
The bigger the city is, the less infrastructure you need per capita. That law seems to be the same in all of the data we can get at. It is a really interesting relationship, and it’s very reminiscent of scaling laws in biology. However, when we looked at socioeconomic quantities—quantities that have no analogue in biology, like wages, patents produced, crime, number of police, et cetera—we found that unlike everything we’d seen in biology, cities scale in a superlinear fashion: The exponent was bigger than 1, about 1.15. That means that when you double the size of the city, you get more than double the amount of both good and bad socioeconomic quantities—patents, aids cases, wages, crime, and so on.

I believe that part of what has made life on Earth so unbelievably resilient—able to evolve and survive across billions of years—is the fact that its growth is generally sublinear, with the exponents smaller than 1. Because of that, organisms evolve over generations rather than within their own lifetimes, and such gradual change is incredibly stable. But human population growth and our use of resources are both growing superlinearly, and that is potentially unstable.
Our theory suggests we will face something mathematicians call a “finite time singularity.” Equations with superlinear behavior, rather than leveling out like the sublinear ones in biology, go to infinity in a finite time. But that’s impossible, because you’re going to run out of finite resources. The equations tell us that when you reach this point, the system stagnates and collapses.

The growth equation was derived with certain conditions that are determined by the cultural innovation that dominates each historic period: iron, computers, whatever it is. An innovation that changes everything—like a new fuel—resets the clock, so you can avoid the singularity a bit longer. But the theory says that to avoid the singularity, these innovations have to keep coming faster and faster.
I think the biggest stresses are clearly going to be on energy, food, and clean water. A lot of people are going to be denied these basics across the globe. If there is a collapse—and I hope I’m wrong—it will almost certainly come from social unrest starting in the most deprived areas, which will spread to the developed world.
We need to seriously rethink our socioeconomic framework. It will be a huge social and political challenge, but we have to move to an economy based on no growth or limited growth. And we need to bring together economists, scientists, and politicians to devise a strategy for doing what has to be done. I think there is a way out of this, but I’m afraid we might not have time to find it.

Read more @ http://discovermagazine.com/2012/oct/21-geoffrey-west-finds-physical-laws-in-cities