High productivity, low productivity

Greg Wilson pointed out an article on productivity by Jason Cohen that makes a lot of sense. Here’s a story that Jason tells to set up his point.

You get in your car at home and head out towards your mother’s house 60 miles away. … You hit traffic during the first half of the trip, so after 30 miles you’ve averaged only 30 miles per hour. Now the traffic opens up and you can go as fast as you want. The question is: How fast do you have to go during the second half of the trip such that you’ve averaged 60 mph over the entire trip?

The key is that you cannot go fast enough to make up for lost time. Your average will be less than 60 mph no matter how fast you go for the second half of the trip. His conclusion: “It’s amazing how periods of low velocity wash away gains of high velocity.” The title of his post is about how to double your productivity, but about one third of the article is devoted to explaining why even larger gains are not possible, i.e. his observation that unproductive periods limit potential productivity gains. As he explains, “the thing to do is eliminate the low-velocity stuff.”

The best way to be more productive may be to concentrate on “what” more than “how.” Concentrate on what to do, and more importantly, what not to do. There may be more to gain by adding to the “not to do” list than by being better at what’s on the “to do” list.

3 thoughts on “High productivity, low productivity

  1. Daniel Lemire


    As a researcher, I may only produce 4 or 5 research papers a year, and one or two sets of lecture notes. Yet, I write almost every day.

    Whenever I try to convince a graduate students to do the same, they look at me blankly. Yet, it is quite simple. To produce just a very basic number of research papers, you must write almost all the time. Spending 6 months without writing cannot be made up by rushing for the rest of the year. You have to always be working on your next research paper.

    I am sure all writers, not just academic writers, have the same requirement.

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