A New Approach to Productivity: Planning for Imperfection


Illustration by Christoph Niemann.

We live in a world full of distractions, urgent requests, and emergencies — and pretending otherwise is unproductive. In fact, it’s counter-productive. I think my biggest takeaway from the past year of work is the importance of planning for imperfection.

A few of the core concepts behind an imperfect approach to productivity:

1. Deep Attention vs Hyper Attention

I integrated the concept of Deep Attention vs Hyper Attention fully into my daily workflow after I discovered an academic paper that outlined the powerful distinction between these two different cognitive modes:

Deep attention … is characterized by concentrating on a single object for long periods (say, a novel by Dickens), ignoring outside stimuli while so engaged, preferring a single information stream, and having a high tolerance for long focus times. Hyper attention is characterized by switching focus rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.

Deep attention is superb for solving complex problems represented in a single medium, but it comes at the price of environmental alertness and flexibility of response. Hyper attention excels at negotiating rapidly changing environments in which multiple foci compete for attention; its disadvantage is impatience with focusing for long periods on a noninteractive object such as a Victorian novel or complicated math problem.

In an evolutionary context, hyper attention no doubt developed first; deep attention is a relative luxury, requiring group cooperation to create a secure environment in which one does not have to be constantly alert to danger. Developed societies, of course, have long been able to create the kind of environments conducive to deep attention.

I like this non-judgmental approach to analyzing different types of attention. Particularly the notion that deep attention is a relatively modern luxury. And, by extension, the idea that the low-level, constant, flickering attention encouraged by the mobile, social web is returning us to some sort of almost primal state. But I digress…

Leveraging this concept, I now segment each day into working on a single project that demands Deep Attention—during my prime productivity hours in the morning—and a variety of other projects that require Hyper Attention—which can be done when I have less energy in the afternoon. It’s been constructive to clarify which tasks demand 100% focus (Deep Attention) and which I can still do well with frequent interruptions or breaks in focus (Hyper Attention).

Interruption is inevitable these days, so it’s useful to proactively plan for distractions as you sketch out your workflow rather than pretending they’re not going happen.

2. Structured Procrastination and Cascading Projects

I wrote a piece last year about the writer Geoff Dyer and how fucking off can actually be quite productive. The idea, in brief, is that some people—including me—are highly motivated by the notion of “playing hooky” from their creative projects. It works like this: If you only have one big project that you have to get done, you’re very likely to procrastinate. But if you have (at least) two big projects that have to get done, you can procrastinate from one project by working on the other. So it feels like you’re getting away with something but really you’re just getting stuff done.

Here’s filmmaker/novelist/performance artist Miranda July explaining her procrastination-driven process in Believer magazine:

The whole thing of working in all these different mediums, it’s just so that I can always be playing hooky from one of them. I can always be rebelling against my boss. Like, I’m supposed to be writing this book, but—heh heh heh—I’m writing a movie, secretly. I’m procrastinating, and in my off-hours I’m working on this movie that I’m not allowed to do, because I’m supposed to be writing this book! And then the book’s done and I’ve got this movie started, and I’m secretly working on a performance. That’s the kind of crucible I’m always in. I mean, a more normal, mature way to think about it would be, Oh, I work on multiple projects at once and they overlap, but the actual psychology of it is a lot more self-abusing.

I’ve been experimenting with having a series of “cascading projects” so that I always have something to play hooky from, while at the same time continuing to be productive. It’s also useful if these projects demand different levels of attention (aka Deep vs Hyper). Then, even if you’re not at your best—because you have a bad cold, overindulged the night before, or couldn’t get enough sleep for instance—there’s still a low-energy project at hand that you can move forward on while you’re procrastinating.

3. The first draft is always perfect.

This really simple blog post by Casey Fowler was one of my favorite things I read all year:

I was talking to a work colleague about documentation, and he apologized about how his notes were a “bad first draft” of a proposal. Without even thinking, I blurted out “the first draft is always perfect, because all it needs to do is exist”.

That’s right. The first draft is always perfect. Perfect. It’s only job is to exist. Like minerals. Like dirt. Like air. It just needs to be. All a first draft need be is an idea borne into reality. A first draft is something made tangible from nothing – its only purpose is to pierce the space between your thoughts and the reality we all share.

I picked up this wisdom from my thesis advisor. After a semester and a summer of research, I was struggling with getting the thoughts out onto paper. I was starting to fall behind schedule. After listening to me whining about how I just couldn’t express what I had to say, my advisor challenged me. He said:

Casey. You’re overthinking it. Just sit down and write. The first draft is always perfect. All it’s got to do is exist. So just sit down and write.

The more time I spend writing, the more true it seems that one’s thinking evolves through the process of writing, rather than before you put pen to paper. Much of my work this year has been about learning to suppress my Inner Critic during the draft phase, knowing that I will unleash that critical faculty later in the process, after I’ve gotten something down on paper. For better or worse, you can’t correct the imperfections until you can see them right in front of you.

4. The Magic of Slack

Not the app Slack, the productivity concept of “slack.” I became obsessed with the book Scarcity, which offers an excellent explanation of why so many of us can’t stop being busy. It articulates how the key concept everyone overlooks is the necessity of “slack”—unscheduled time that offers a cushion for when emergencies come up. Here’s a powerful example of the impact of slack from the book:

St. John’s Regional Health Center, an acute care hospital in Missouri, had a problem with its operating rooms. Some thirty thousand surgical procedures were performed annually in thirty-two operating rooms, and scheduling the rooms was proving difficult; they were always fully booked. So when emergency cases arose—and they were often 20 percent of the full load—the hospital was forced to bump long-scheduled surgeries. “As a result, hospital staff sometimes performed surgery at 2am, physicians often waited several hours to perform two-hour procedures, and staff members regularly worked unplanned overtime.”

This was a classic case of scarcity: more surgeries than operating rooms. St John’s was stuck in a scarcity trap. The hospital was constantly behind, and because it was behind, it had to reshuffle surgeries, struggled with sleep and work regulations, and became even less efficient. Rearranging in circumstances like this can be costly. And, at least in the short run, these efforts can exacerbate scarcity because a portion of the already insufficient budget is “wasted” on the rearranging. The hospital was like the overcommitted person who finds that tasks take too long, in part because the person is overcommitted and cannot imagine taking on the additional—and time-consuming—task of stepping back and reorganizing.

So the hospital commissioned someone to analyze the situation and propose a fix:

He came up with a rather surprising solution: Leave one room unused. Dr. Kenneth Larson, a general and trauma surgeon at St. John’s, responded as you might expect: “We are already too busy, and they want to take something away from us. This is crazy.”

And yet:

There was a profound logic to this recommendation, a logic that is instructive for the management of scarcity. On the surface, what St. John’s was lacking was operating rooms. No amount of reshuffling could solve that problem. But if you looked deeper, the lack was of a slightly different sort. Surgeries come in two varieties: planned and unplanned. Right now, the planned surgeries took up all the rooms. Unplanned surgeries, when they showed up (and they did!), required rearranging the schedule. Having to move a planned surgery to accommodate an emergency came at a cost. Some of it was financial—overtime—and some may have been medical—more errors. But part of it was a cost in efficiency. Having people work unexpectedly late is less efficient. They are less proficient at their tasks, and each surgery takes longer.

It turned out that “the scarcity in rooms was not really a lack of surgery space; it was an inability to accommodate emergencies.” Once the hospital dedicated an operating room exclusively to accommodating emergencies, it actually became more efficient:

The hospital was able to accommodate 5.1 percent more surgical cases. The number of surgeries performed after 3pm fell by 45 percent, and revenue increased…In the two years that followed, the hospital experienced a 7 to 11 percent increase in surgical volume each year.

In other words, by making room for slack—creating unplanned, unscheduled time and space—the hospital was actually able to accomplish more.

It’s not difficult to see parallels to how we book our daily calendars. If your day is tightly packed with back-to-back meetings and obligations, there is no room for the emergencies and unplanned interruptions that will necessarily arise. Then when those unplanned events happen, your whole schedule implodes, and you find yourself working extra late or awkwardly rescheduling a meeting for the third time.

Yet if you deliberately build slack time into your schedule—if you plan for unplanned events—you can actually accomplish more. Surprisingly, planning to fail might be the best way to succeed.

Get more tips on how to activate your creativity and do the work that matters:

Hi, I'm Jocelyn. I help people find more creativity and meaning in their daily work.

I created the online course RESET, a cosmic tune-up for your workday, and I host Hurry Slowly, a podcast about how you can be more productive, creative, and resilient by slowing down. Occasionally, I write books and give talks too.
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