Productivity is an M-shaped curve
A Monday seems as good a time as any to ask – how do you make yourself feel motivated and productive? In ‘Darwin was a slacker and you should be too‘, author Alex Soojung-Kim Pang questions the wisdom of the 80-hour work week by examining the working habits and schedules of prolific scientists like Charles Darwin and authors like Charles Dickens. Why scientists in particular? Pang explains, “Scientists’ accomplishments – the number of articles and books they write, the awards they win, the rate at which their works are cited – are well-documented and easy to measure and compare. As a result, their legacies are often easier to determine than those of business leaders or famous figures.”
After starting with Darwin, he moves onto authors like Dickens and Anthony Trollope, but also considers the results of a study that examined the working habits of violin students at a music academy in Berlin in the 1980s.
The take-away is relatively simple – everyone Pang includes in this piece quantifies a good day of work at four to five hours daily, which means that a regular work week with weekends off would amount to 20-25 hours. That’s all.
Pang cites several studies that have tried to reify the relationship between work hours and productivity. This example of productivity as an M-shaped graph stuck with me. Two psychology professors at the Illinois Institute of Technology charted the relationship between their colleagues’ work habits and schedules on one axis and the number of articles they produced on the other. The results were not linear. More hours spent only resulted in greater productivity between 10-20 hours a week. Pang writes, “The curve then turned downward. Scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues.”
There is a catch, obviously. These four to five hours must be the most focused and intense of the work day, which is an important fact that Pang says Malcolm Gladwell glossed over in his book Outliers when he laid out the 10,000 hours rule – to become an expert at anything, you must have practiced it for 10,000 hours. But Pang brings readers’ attention to the part of the same study that says those hours cannot be made up of half-hearted or inattentive practicing.
Most of the individuals that Pang cites in this article got through these hours of intense work in the morning itself, leaving the rest of the day for naps, walks, reading, correspondence (which could now stand for social media time instead of good old letters), and in the students’ cases, classes and other homework, but not focused practice.
Productivity wasn’t just a result of deliberate practice, but also deliberate rest and sleep that allowed individuals to recuperate and come to their work focused and sharp each day. In fact, Pang concludes his piece by summing this up, “This is how we’ve come to believe that world-class performance comes after 10,000 hours of practice. But that’s wrong. It comes after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, 12,500 hours of deliberate rest and 30,000 hours of sleep.”
Most of us don’t have the luxury of a large backyard attached to our English country home that would readily allow us the pleasure of a mid-day walk; in fact most of us work out of cubicles that don’t even allow us the pleasure of looking out a window. And since the work week isn’t about to shrink anytime soon, what do people do to feel more productive and focused?
Breakfasting on acid
Silicon Valley professionals are increasingly turning to micro-doses of acid or LSD. Steve Jobs, Apple’s founder, made no secret of his drug use and described taking acid as a transformative experience. Others in the industry have been more reticent to public admissions of drug use, if there has been any at all. In ‘Turn On, Tune In, Drop by the Office’, Emma Hogan explores Silicon Valley’s expanding culture of micro-dosing – professionals and entrepreneurs take doses as small as 15 micrograms (nothing compared to the 100 micrograms required to get high) every few days to increase their creativity, confidence and so, productivity.
Hogan describes one of her interviewees, “Alex (also not his real name), a 27-year-old data scientist who takes acid four or five times a year, feels psychedelics give him a “wider perspective” on his life. Drugs are a way to take a break, he says, particularly in a culture where people are “super hyper focused” on their work.”
Here’s Hogan’s explanation of how the drug affects your brain. “LSD works by interacting with serotonin, the chemical in the brain that modulates mood, dreaming and consciousness.” Brain scans of people on LSD show that people who are tripping don’t just process visuals in the assigned cortex of the brain but other parts light up too, indicating that it’s more like seeing things with your eyes closed. Additionally, as scientist Robin Carhart-Harris explained to Hogan, LSD dissolves the taker’s sense of self, resulting in them feeling more connected to nature and surroundings. It’s one way to take a walk, experience a change of pace, feel like you’re connected to something larger than yourself.
Consider this example cited by Hogan, “Erica Avey, who works for Clue, a Berlin-based app which tracks women’s menstrual cycles, started microdosing in April with 1P-LSD, a related drug, which is still legal in Germany. Although she took it to balance her moods, she quickly found that it also helped her with her work. It made her “sharper, more aware of what my body needs and what I need,” she says. She now gets to work earlier in the morning, at 8 am, when she is most productive, and leaves in the afternoon when she has a slump in energy. “At work, I am more socially present. You are not really caught up in the past and the future. For meetings, it’s great,” she enthuses.”
Avey has essentially structured her work day around her most focused hours, creating an environment that allows her to do deliberate work and then clock out deliberately as well.
In the US’s tech culture, Hogan notes, “The quest for spiritual enlightenment – as with much else in San Francisco – is fuelled by the desire to increase productivity.” Her observation reminded me of another article on an entirely different hallucinogenic, ayahuasca, that’s also become increasingly popular in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn. Ayahuasca is a brew made out of certain plants and originally from Peru. In this piece, the author Ariel Levy describes a slightly horrifyingly experience with the drug (most people vomit after taking it and it is common to hallucinate your own death while on the drug), yet manages to end on a positive note. For her, this suffering to get to enlightenment is just another symptom of the age of well-obsession that we live in.
But as Levy notes, if cocaine was the drug of choice for the excessiveness of the eighties (think Wolf of Wall Street), then that mindless pursuit of self-satisfaction and energy for the sake of having energy has been replaced by ayahuasca for those searching for soulfulness. Others are turning to LSD, that too in micro-doses, to look for unobtrusive ways to maintain their emotional well-being in the face of jobs that not only demand productivity (automation has raised the bar on that one) but also creativity.
Creativity or emotional depth is not just something we demand from artists or writers anymore, it’s become an essential part of how we differentiate ourselves from the digital and other industrialised tools we have created to replace our own physical labour. But leisure in our economy doesn’t exactly look like what John Maynard Keynes predicted, we still want to be working and producing without taking time off, so we’re turning to more time-efficient ways of producing the same effect as deliberate rest would have. But will that be enough? Or will Silicon Valley’s enthusiastic micro-dosers eventually advocate for shorter work weeks so they can take longer trips – of the drug-induced and regular kind – and come back to work more focused and productive?
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Note: This article has been edited as it erroneously referred to microdoses in mg (milligrams). They are in fact measured in micrograms.