Productivity and Time management

I had what I think was a pretty profound revelation the other day pertaining to “productivity” and “time management”, and in particular how we set ourselves up for success when there are multiple things we care about that require some degree of dedication/time investment. Thread:

OK, so let me contextualize the point I want to make with a premise that in-and-of-itself is under-appreciated (and this, alone, may be something that you need to hear): You can’t brute-force productivity.

That is to say, in my experience, people who get lots of shit done don’t actually have more willpower than other people. They’ve just built better habits.

I’ve even observed this with myself. In my early 20s, I was a morning person. When I was interning in Japan, I woke up at 7 AM every day, and without hitting snooze I’d snap awake and shower. I struggle to do this now.

It isn’t that I have “less willpower” than I did back then; I didn’t become lazier overall. I just don’t have that habit ingrained in me anymore. In my experience, in the battle between raw effort and habits, habits win every time.

Ok, so that’s the premise. Here’s the takeaway I want to get across:

Maybe this is you too, but I’m interested in many different pursuits, and I want to invest time into each of these pursuits. I want to go to the gym regularly, I’m trying to study Chinese, I’m practicing both Melee and Ultimate, I code, etc. And I find that it’s hard.

The thing is: the reason it’s hard to focus on multiple things at once isn’t because of

1) a lack of time, or
2) because the sum of the effort required to do those things is higher than the amount of effort I can output

At least, those reasons don’t tell the whole story.

And this is what you’d normally think, right? When you’re busy, you usually say “I don’t have enough time in the day” to do more things.

You might even acknowledge that you have the time to do it, but it’s more effort than you’re willing to put in given what’s on your plate.

But they’re only a small part of the whole story. I think what’s often actually going on is that: if you’re putting effort into lots of various things, it is (logistically, and naturally,) difficult to build habits around all of those things.

I’ll map this out with a simple point system. Ok, say you have a total of 10 “effort points” you can spend on things in 1 day, and there are 5 pursuits you care about. Could be anything, practicing a fighting game or a language or a musical instrument, going to the gym, etc.

These “effort points” represent units of effort/time you can allot to a particular thing. And you say to yourself “I’m gonna spend 1 effort point on each pursuit per day!” That’s actually completely doable. You’d have 5 effort points leftover, in fact.


You can only actually “spend 1 effort point” doing something if you’ve already built a habit around that pursuit! Consider going to the gym: maybe you’ve experienced this; it’s easy to go to the gym IF you’re already in the habit of going to the gym.

If you AREN’T in the habit, it isn’t 1 effort point. It’s like 3 effort points (and that’s being generous; anecdotally, the inertia of doing something productive I’m not in the habit of feels like way more than 3x, but whatever).

And it’s the same for all the other shit you might want to do. So now the total cost of all the stuff on your plate isn’t 5 effort points, it’s 15! That’s way more than you can spend.

If I’m right, and my experience seems to indicate this, then the REAL SECRET imo is: The people who are able to do this sort of thing — tackle a bunch of pursuits at once — are only able to do so because they have constructed routines that make it EASY to do all those things.

The “effort point” analogy, by the way, has implications for how you build these routines in the first place too. If you try to work 5 new pursuits into your routine, you’re spending 15 effort points a day — that’s unsustainable.

But what if you’re already in the habit for SOME things?

Say you’re already in the habit of going to the gym and studying a language every day, but now you want to work meditation in. Then instead of spending 3 points daily on each of those things (for a total of 3+3+3 = 9), it’s 3+1+1 = 5! Way more manageable.

In other words, you can realistically probably build 1 or 2 good habits at a time. You can’t revamp your whole life overnight.

Which is why people fail to restructure their lives with New Years’ resolutions, etc.

They try to change their whole lives at once. Not gonna happen.

Anyway, that’s the thread. Again, the numerical system is a gross oversimplification and the effort overhead involved is probably not 3x, nor am I saying that you literally need to invest time in a pursuit every single day to see value. But I hope this framework helps.

(s/o to @bobbyscar who listened to me explain this whole theory to him; if he hadn’t given me positive feedback I probably wouldn’t have posted this thread lmao

also sorry if this spammed y’all’s TLs idk how good Twitter’s timeline product is with threads these days)


Updated: December 18, 2019 — 6:10 pm
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this thread is awesome, this makes a lot of sense and is a good way to think about productivity. have you heard of the book ‘Atomic Habits’ by James Clear? it explores a lot of similar concepts, you would totally love it!


seeing someone that successfully completed university who also has a steady career express their struggles with this makes me feel a lot better lol

great tips, thanks for taking the time to write it out


Lately I’ve been thinking reasoning and optimizing through stuff is super costly for effort points. If no routine is in place, just making any decision faster is usually better to save the points.


Hey Toph, thank you so much for this thread. Put something into words I’ve been thinking a long time about. Real talk, how do I explain this concept to my boss who is a guy who has been stuck in his ways as a result of doing a similar job for so long before joining us?


Wow this is super insightful. I’ve been trying to better myself, but I felt like I don’t have the time. This makes a lot of sense, and I’m going to try to implement it into my daily life


Ever read “Thinking fast and thinking slow”? The idea goes that there are two systems of brain activity. System 1 and system 2. Improving requires a higher level of focus (system 2), it doesn’t happen by chance. Takes time and focus.