I’m a huge fan of the work Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness are doing over at The Growth Equation. They promote a nuanced approach to performance grounded on first principles and backed by research. It’s a breath of fresh air in a space saturated with people promoting shallow “frameworks” and hacks.
The duo’s trademark approach is applying lessons from exercise science to how to perform in knowledge work. That resonates: Knowledge workers are athletes of the mind. Productivity is a mind game.
Performance in knowledge work might not raise your heartbeat or make you sweaty, but it still requires intense focus, deliberate practice, and alternating periods of intense work with periods of rest. Brad and Steve’s recent podcast episode Consistency Over Intensity does a great job at illustrating that last principle.
As a running coach, Steve noticed the strongest predictor of performance was how consistently people showed up to practice. But notice that consistently showing up doesn’t working as hard as you can every time.
If you have ever trained for something in a structured way, which usually involves working with a coach, you’ll know that not every workout requires 10/10 intensity. Very few sessions require you to go 10/10 because that’s how hard you should push at a race. Besides, maximum effort results in high muscle stress, and you need time to recover from it. Most workouts will be in the 6/10 to 8/10 range. You’ll also have days where you train at a leisurely 4/10 level of intensity, active recovery days.
When performing a physical activity, your body gives you plenty of signals to understand how hard you’re pushing and whether you can keep it up or not. In knowledge work, the feedback mechanism to know when you’re pushing too hard is not as evident as with physical activity, but that doesn’t mean the effects of overdoing yourself are less dangerous.
Pushing too hard for too long can lead to burnout and irreparable damage to your relationships. Imagine being a parent and working hard because you think this will help your family, only to learn from your grownup kids that they saw you as a distant figure, too busy with your work to play with them.
Pushing too hard is dangerous, but we don’t have an efficient physical feedback loop to protect against it before it’s too late. We need other tactics to pace ourselves, such as defining a schedule for the part of our day dedicated to working—and stopping when done. Work will swallow to occupy as much time as you give it. Without a hard stop in your day, you risk consistently overworking, degrading your long-term performance.
Productivity is not a measure of how many items you checked out in your todo list today but of the impact your work has over a long time horizon. Prioritizing consistency is crucial to staying productive.
I only scratched the surface of what Brad and Steve discussed in the podcast. Other areas they touched upon include how to decide when it makes sense to prioritize intensity and how to monitor how hard you are pushing in intellectual pursuits. I recommend listening to the podcast episode for more details.
Cover image by Mael BALLAND on Unsplash.