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Productivity versus Busyness

The skeletons in my cupboard:

During my engineering, my thesis compared the tensile strength of chicken feathers to steel, and recommended that steel helmets are better than helmets made from glued chicken feathers (obviously). You may think I am joking. I am not. I worked on this project for 9-12 months. Here's proof:

Looking back, I wonder how I agreed to that ridiculous research project. Sure, I got a degree. I was very busy collecting chicken feathers from the poultry (I ended up collecting 4 kilograms of feathers, and it used to smell awful). But the research was garbage, and pointless. I knew what the result would be from day 1.

Alas! I was busy, but I wasn’t productive.

What research tells us

There have been many researchers like me, publishing a great deal of papers, that added no value to the scientific community. This caused the scientific community to create the H index. This H index is a ratio of how many papers the scientist has published vs how many times their papers were cited by other scientists (because of their usefulness).

Using the H index, scientists want to an important question “What separates busy scientists from productive scientists?”

Quality, Quantity and Productivity

This research is not recent. Since the late 1920s, the science of Performance Psychology has been trying to systematically, mathematically and statistically attack the problem of productivity.

Over the last 100 years, we figured that the answer was not smart work, motivation, work-life balance, amazing managers or a great education

Instead, the single most important factor contributing to the ultra-productiveness is “exceptional focus”. Studies show that this exceptional focus is not accidental, but is a deliberate effort to improve performance in a specific domain

Exceptional focus allows ultra-productive people to complete complicated tasks fast, without any loss of quality. This includes learning a difficult new skill.

Here's what's even more interesting: Ultra-productive people have a different brain structure. Interestingly, the difference in brain structure has nothing to do with genetics. Instead, it is created over time by... Focus.


The Biology behind Brilliance

The human brain is basically an assimilation of trillions of neurons in a mass of gooey substance. This is what a neuron looks like:

The structure of a neuron

Information is received from nearby neurons through dendrites. The dendrites pass the information through the axon to the axon-terminals as an electric charge. Notice that the axon is covered by a myelin-sheath.

We all know that electrical energy, as any other form of energy cannot be perfectly transmitted without any loss. So, when information is relayed between one neuron to another, there is a reduction in speed and strength (since the information is passed as electric charges).

This is where our friend, the humble myelin sheath, comes to play. It preserves the speed and strength of the signal. Scientists have found out that as the thickness of the myelin sheath increases, the speed and strength of the electric charge are retained for longer.

A study among piano learners has shown that the same neurons in the brain fire every-time they practice. When the brain realizes that a task is being practiced repeatedly, it deposits a layer of fat (myelin) on the neurons that support the activity. As a result, it takes less time for the neurons to transmit the information. This reduces the time taken and increases the quality of the action being performed. At this point, the productive piano learner starts mastering his skill, and becomes ultra-productive.

However, if you introduce a distraction- say a cellphone, or chatter in the background, a muted TV screen etc, the budding pianist spreads his attention to multiple objects of interest. This causes multiple haphazard firing of neurons. Myelin is not deposited on the neurons in this scenario.

This is why focus is so important.

The lack of focus has biological, physiological and psychological implications. Focus is what distinguishes a productive man from a busy man.


What can we do to become ultra-productive?

As a proposal writer, I understood, especially last year- that being focused is extremely important. Yet, I understand that being focused in a hyper-distracted world is difficult. The average human has an “attention span” of about 3-4 minutes. Before technology became such an integral part of human life, attention spans were upwards of 10 minutes. It is hard to say if we are evolving as a species, or devolving.

Technology was envisioned to be a pre-condition and enabler to success. Sadly, it is quickly becoming an obstacle to it. Consider this: There is an endless barrage of notifications from our beloved cell-phones. We also receive a tremendous load of emails everyday (a manager at the organization where I am currently working claimed that he would receive 450 emails per day, and it would require at-least 4 hours of time for him to respond to all of them).

Organizations are promoting an “open work zone”, ensuring there is no wall blocking you from whoever is next to you. If your neighbor cannot stop talking, you will be super-distracted.

There is no one-size-fits-all mantra to overcome all these problems. You just need to make a deliberate choice to stop getting distracted. Let’s face it. We cannot be 100% insulated from distraction.

However, research proves that these practically implementable steps can help you improve focus. You can click on the below items for more information.

Sounds extreme? Sounds boring? Sounds radical?

Well, there is research that proves that focused and productive people score higher on the happiness index and sleep more than busy people.

Get productive, and don’t let this article distract you! 😊

P.S: My next article will be on the science behind habit formation, creation and retention, which will be an extension of this article. You can read it on my blog by the 14th of February


Here are my research sources, if you would like to read more:

More research on the importance of focus

How Productive people are happier

What is the H index

What the brain of expert pianists can teach us

Research on myelin I

Research on myelin II

Thanks dad, for validating the graphical representation on quality vs quantity. Thanks mom, for your biology expertise in validating the content about neurons.

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