Working smarter, not harder, to get more done.

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.

System Design

When an outcome isn't what we wanted, there are two questions to ask:

Did the system that produced this outcome work as intended?

If it did, is the system really designed correctly if this is its result?

This is a critical distinction to make, because if we're unable to implement a system to function as it's supposed to, tinkering with its design is useless.

On the other hand, if the implementation is solid, but its design doesn't produce the correct result, we need to go back to the drawing board.

No process is perfect. Sometimes we've done the best we can to optimize a system, and because the world is messy, anomalies are bound to happen.

But instead of just pointing fingers or bemoaning what happened, we are better off when we take a step back and assess the process holistically. When we do that, we see that we have three choices:

  1. Correct our implementation
  2. Redesign the system
  3. Let it go

Store Your Work

If you can spend a day automating a task that usually takes five minutes, you'll eventually earn that day back and many more.

There's a famous xkcd comic that illustrates this: Automating a five minute task that has to be done five times a day will save you four weeks of time over the next five years.

You don't necessarily need to automate something to benefit from this approach: Start by assembling the templates, links to important documents, and instructions for common procedures you frequently refer to in one place. This cuts down on the amount of time you need to spend each day looking for (or recreating!) them.

The challenge, of course, is finding a little bit of extra time today to make your work more effortless tomorrow.

When you store your work like this, it pays dividends. And if you reinvest that extra time in getting more done or simply relaxing, your efforts will compound over time as your work gets more effective.


We tend to assume that a perfectly efficient system has no slack.

But in order to maintain optimum efficiency, a little bit of slack is important for whenever the unexpected inevitably happens.

The current supply chain issues are a great illustration of this. A system designed to manufacture goods just in time for consumption (in order to reduce storage costs) is really brittle. If a pandemic strikes, or a ship gets stuck in one of the most important canals, there’s no slack to handle the interruption.

This globalized system of interdependent logistics and production companies quickly starts to fall apart.

The same is true for how you spend your time. If you are booked every minute of the day, you have little flexibility to adapt if something unexpected happens. By maintaining some unscheduled time, you free yourself to more easily pursue a sudden opportunity or troubleshoot a surprising challenge.

And so we’re left with a paradox: A system with slack built into it may seem less efficient, but its resilience helps it win in the long run.


If it takes 45 minutes to roast potatoes at 400° fahrenheit, when will they be done if you cook them at room temperature?

The answer, of course, is never.

If you're writing a book, but only dedicate an hour a month to it, you might eventually be able to complete your manuscript. It'll just take years.

But if you're trying to fly a plane and go down the runway at 30mph, you won't be flying to your destination – you'll be driving. No matter how long the runway is.

Some things just take a certain level of commitment to take off. Without it, they'll simply languish in perpetuity.

And those potatoes certainly aren't going to roast themselves.


The quickest way to transport a petabyte of data (that's 1,000 terabytes) from Boston to LA isn't to upload it to Dropbox and email someone a download link. It's just too much data.

The quickest way is to copy it to a bunch of hard drives, drop them in a physical box, and ship them on a plane.

This is known as sneakernet. Sometimes, the old way of doing things is best.

This a useful heuristic for exploring the solution to any problem. Progress often falls into one of two categories: An old solution to a new problem, as in our sneakernet example, or a new solution to an old problem.

The automobile was a new solution (cars!) to an old problem (getting from point A to point B quickly). But new solutions bring new problems. With cars came air and noise pollution, fatal injuries from crashes, and more.

So in response, we created mufflers, added seatbelts and airbags, and otherwise continued to innovate to minimize the downsides of this new solution.

And so the cycle of progress continues.


A useful question to ask yourself when deciding whether or not to change something: "How hard will it be to reverse this decision if it turns out to be incorrect?"

So many of the decisions we make are easily reversed, and yet it's easy to ignore that the cost of changing them down the road are often small. Because of this, it makes sense to iterate constantly, because incremental progress is extremely powerful.

The Japanese philosophy Kaizen embodies this approach. The idea is simple: Consistent, incremental changes can lead to significant improvements over time.

In the business world, where the concept originates (most famously in Toyota's approach to its production system), Kaizen also emphasizes the role that everyone in the organization's hiearchy plays in its improvement.

When we engage all of the stakeholders affected by a problem in the process of incrementally solving it through trial and error, we embrace our humanity and expand what we're capable of.

Magical Preparation

Warren Buffet once said, “You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant. It just doesn’t work that way.”

In a world obsessed with hacks and shortcuts, sometimes there’s just no substitute for careful preparation and patience.

This principle is the secret to one of my favorite magic tricks: The magician invites an audience member to pick a card, which is then sealed in an envelope. The card is ultimately predetermined – the magician knows ahead of time which one it will be.

The next step in the trick is truly a free choice, though.

The magician asks the audience member to pick from dozens of sealed boxes of tea. And from one of these brand new boxes, the participant selects a sealed packet and opens it, revealing their card inside!

Of course, the boxes aren’t actually brand new. The magic is that the magician has painstakingly opened all of the boxes ahead of time, inserted the same card into every single packet, and resealed them.

That’s it. That’s the trick. Just an insane amount of preparation.

The more boxes the magician preps, the more unbelievable the trick becomes, because no one could possibly voluntarily dedicate that much of their lives to something as tedious as sealing a six of diamonds in hundreds of tea packets.

But someone has.

And when you’re willing to put in that much preparation, the results can be magical.

Hat tip to Jacob Kaplan-Moss for sharing the magic trick.

The Power of Incremental Progress

As humans, we tend to overestimate what we’re capable of accomplishing in a small amount of time and underestimate what’s possible over a much longer period.

On top of this, seeing our true progress is often challenging. For example, increasing the conversion rate on your ad from 1% to 2% is not a 1% improvement, it’s a 100% improvement.

Moving from a 20 pound weight at the gym to 25 pounds may also seem like a modest increase, but if you can get the same number of reps in, you’re now 25% stronger.

And if you can write just 3 pages a day, you’ll have the draft of an entire book manuscript in two months.

Start small, and don’t stop iterating.

See also: Kaizen

Stop Pedaling

Following up on yesterday's post about strategies vs. tactics, here's a cyclist who stops pedaling to pass the competition:

Tactic: Pedal faster.

Strategy: Stop pedalling entirely and let physics do the work.

Via Seth Godin


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