Working smarter, not harder, to get more done.


Unless you nerd out on the history of electricity, you probably haven't heard of Humphry Davy, the inventor of the lightbulb.

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison didn't invent it, though he does deserve credit for creating the first one that was practical to mass produce.

In the early 19th century, Davy created a battery and connected rods of charcoal to it with a couple wires. And thus, the arc lamp was born. But it burned too brightly and didn't last long.

In the decades after Davy's discovery, other inventors experimented with a range of materials and vacuum chambers to create the conditions for long-lasting electric light.

Thanks to Davy, the core structure of a light bulb was clear: Connect two wires to a battery, and attach those to a filament. If that filament has a high enough resistance, it will heat up and emit light.

But until Edison figured out how to make a long-lasting filament out of carbon in 1878, electric light was mostly a novelty.

Viewed from far away, Edison's accomplishment appears to be an incredible leap forward, taking the world from gas lighting and thrusting it into the modern era of illumination.

But the reality is a little more humble: By the time Edison decided to tackle the problem, an affordable and long-lasting electric light was clearly within the realm of the adjacent possible. It was mostly just a matter of finding the right material to run a current through.

We don't know exactly how many materials Edison and his team experimented with, but they likely numbered in the thousands. Their achievement stemmed from a willingness to fail over and over again before finding the right material.

When a reporter asked Edison how it felt to fail so many times, it elicited Edison's famous response: "I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work."

This persistence is at the core of so much success. As Twitter user @TheStoicEmperor puts it, "Many seemingly complex achievements are simply the result of people getting the basics right with relentless consistency."

It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that an amazing accomplishment is the result of something extraordinary far out of reach of the rest of us.

But often, the extraordinary thing is simply heading in the right direction with relentless persistence.

You Are Not a Computer

Throughout history, people have used mechanical devices as a metaphor for the human body.

The lungs evoke mechanical pumps, which the Greek physician Galen picked up on when he suggested that they take in pneuma, the vital life force, and distribute it throughout the body.

Your "biological clock" suggests something unwavering, ticking away inside of you. But a single bright light can throw off your circadian rhythm. And if you fly to a different time zone, your body can take days to catch up, unlike a regular clock, which can simply be reset.

More recently, computers have served as a metaphor for the brain. Computers cannot create consciousness, though. They never get tired and aren't capable of empathy.

These models serve as a way of simplifying the biological processes happening inside us. But if you're doing a job that a computer or robot cannot, then you are more than the sum of your mechanical parts.

We do our best work when we approach it with this holistic appreciation for ourselves. Some days are more or less productive than others, because you are an organic being. Full of life and emotion and intelligence and compassion.

How glorious is that?

Lacking in Substance

I'll never forget the feedback I received on a paper from one of my professors:

"Beautifully written as always, John, but lacking in substance."

She was correct, of course – I hadn't started reading the source material for my essay until the night before the paper itself was due.

With so little time to reflect on the material, I didn't have much to say. Sometimes last minute panic can spur you to heroic action in a short amount of time. But there's no shortcut to letting your ideas marinate.

When you give yourself time to set your work aside and return to it later, you can examine it with a fresh mind.

Only then can you craft something of true substance.

Fast Food

Henry Ford had the famous insight that if you assign each factory worker one task, you can dramatically increase production capacity.

Today, in most industrial systems across every market, this is the norm.

Richard and Maurice McDonald brought this idea to the food industry in 1940, and pretty soon, every major city in America had a McDonalds serving perfectly identical hamburgers and fries.

Fast forward over half a century, and we've now seen that an incredibly efficient system like this has some drawbacks. For one, when meals are created on an assembly line, they start to lose the personal touch that makes food so socially important.

Sweetgreen, a fast casual chain which serves salads and other bowls of fresh food, offers a partial antitode to this: In contrast to Chipotle, for example, only one employee assembles the entirety of each customer's meal in front of them.

It's a subtle change. But it adds just a little bit of humanity back to the industrialized process when someone can say, "Here, I made this for you."

Hat tip to Emily Heyward for the Sweetgreen example, from her book Obsessed: Building a Brand People Love from Day One.

Working Harder vs. Smarter

Ditch digging is pretty repetitive. It's the kind of work that requires you to just put in the time. Maybe you can dig a little faster, but there aren't really any hacks around pushing your shovel into the dirt and moving another scoop.

Knowledge work is different, but on the surface, it looks similar: You can only answer those customer service emails so quickly.

This is where hustle culture comes from. Work harder, put in more hours, and the rewards will soon pile up.

But what happens if you can solve the issue that led to all those customer service emails in the first place? Or create a portal that lets customers address common issues on their own?

Suddenly, you've got the same results in a fraction of the time.

If you spend your entire day digging ditches as fast as possible, you'll never have time to invent the backhoe.


Bureaucracy evolves as a defensive mechanism. As an organization acquires greater assets and reputation, it makes sense to implement procedures to protect them.

If you work in a hospital, there is a long list of things that need to be checked off before the scalpel comes out. When the stakes are high and making a mistake is easy, it's worth sacrificing efficiency.

If you're operating on a patient's right leg, how do you know if it's your right or your patient's right? If two Jane Smith's are scheduled on the same day, which one needs the lung transplant and which one is getting her gall bladder removed? And what happens when the assistant gets distracted by an emergency and forgets to swap out the surgery plan from the previous operation?

For those who work in this kind of environment, drawing an 'X' on the limb that needs amputating, handing out wristbands, and asking the patient for their date of birth a third time are essential practices.

There's a cost, however, to adding this kind of bureaucracy when it's not necessary.

Bureaucracy feels safe, because it is.

But if the resulting inefficiency steals precious time from the things that matter most, suppresses staff morale, and makes you less nimble in a constantly changing world, it might be time to reconsider your process.

Create the Conditions for Success

You can’t make yourself fall asleep by trying harder to doze off. In fact, the opposite is more likely to happen.

You’ll have greater success getting your room as dark as possible, investing in a comfortable mattress, and establishing a wind down ritual to prepare yourself mentally for sleep.

This approach to creating the conditions for your desired outcome is universally applicable.

If you’re hosting a party, for example, and want your guests to have the time of their lives, you can’t simply instruct them to have fun.

But you can ensure that anticipation is high and then exceed expectations with delicious food and drink, a great playlist, and maybe some additional surprises thrown in.

By changing our environment to nudge us in the right direction, success becomes much more likely.

Your Process is the Product

Elon Musk once summarized Tesla's approach in just five words:

"The factory is the product."

Tesla doesn't make cars, it makes factories – the cars are just the byproduct. And the bigger and better its factories get, the more cars it can produce at a higher quality.

You don't have to be in the auto industry to use this framing to transform your entire approach to your job.

If you're the operations manager at a logistics company, your product isn't the deliveries, it's the network of computers and couriers that can quickly and accurately route goods.

If you're a senior graphic designer at an agency, your product is your team and its collective experience, which enables you to deliver high quality results for your clients on time.

And if you're a teacher, your product is your set of lesson plans that engage and inspire.

When you step back to focus on process over product, the results fall into place more easily.

See also: Working On Vs. Working In

Reduce Friction

If you're having trouble concentrating on something, you can try to focus harder. But you might find it easier to change your environment so that there are fewer distractions.

If your floors are often muddy, you can clean them more often. Or you can simply take your shoes off at the door whenever you get home.

And if someone can't hear you, you could yell louder. But if you move closer, they might be able to hear you without you having to increase your effort.

Our instinct when we run into difficulty is often to simply push harder. But if we work instead to remove the friction in our path, we can accomplish our goals without increasing our effort.

Competitive swimmers understand this principle. The swimmer who wins the race isn't necessarily the one who moved their arms the fastest. It's the person who swam the most efficiently.

This is approach to life isn't just easier. It's also the most sustainable in the long run.

See also: Stop Pedaling

Adjacent Possible

Scientist Stuart Kauffman coined the term "adjacent possible" to describe the limited range of changes available to something in its existing state.

The idea was popularized by author Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson recently named his newsletter after it and writes:

In any system that is evolving over time—whether it’s a biological system or a cultural one—at any given point in that evolution, there are a finite set of ways that the system can be changed, and a much larger set of changes that can’t be made.

Single celled organisms had to evolve to become multicellular before something like a fish or chimp could exist.

The internet was science fiction until the computers that needed to be networked were invented.

And if you have dreams of running a marathon in under four hours someday, you'll need a lot of experience at shorter distances first before that becomes feasible.

The adjacent possible goes hand in hand with Gall's Law, which states that any complex system evolved from a simpler one. This is one of the reasons why the US failed in Afghanistan, for example. A government, and the economy it supports, is too complex a system to be implemented top-down. It has to incrementally grow from something simpler.

So if you're trying to scale an organization, embark on personal development, or invent something new, remember that trying to skip over the adjacent possible is setting yourself up for failure.

Like a pyramid of cards, if you're lacking one of the interdependencies at a lower level, the whole system will crumble to the ground.


Weekly thoughts on creating systems to sustainably grow your impact on the world.
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