Between the years 1912 to 1915, Albert Einstein was a focused man. His previous work on the special theory of relativity and the quantization of light, among other topics, was starting to gain notice. Einstein left the Swiss patent office, and, after hopping from professorships in Germany and Prauge, ended up, in 1912, at Switzerland’s ETH Institute.
Once there, he met mathematician Marcel Grossman and became convinced that if he applied the new non-euclidean math studied by Grossman to his own work on relativity, he could generalize the theory to account for gravity. This advance would be huge. Nothing short of overturning the single most famous law in the history of science.
Einstein set to work
Between 1912 to 1915, he became increasingly obsessed in his push to formalize general relativity. As revealed by several sources, including his recently released letters, he worked so hard that his marriage became strained and his hair turned white from the stress
But he got it done. In 1915 he published his full theory. It stands as one of the greatest scientific accomplishments — if not the single greatest — of the 20th century.
The Einstein Principle
Einstein’s push for general relativity highlights an important reality about accomplishment. We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects on which we can devote a large amount of attention. Achievements worth achieving require hard work. There is no shortcut here. Be it starting up a new college club or starting a new business, eventually, effort, sustained over a long amount of time, is required.
In a perfect world, we would all be Einsteins. We would each have only one, or at most two, projects in the three major spheres of our lives: professional, extracurricular, and personal. And we would be allowed to focus on this specialized set, in exclusion, as we push the projects to impressive conclusions.
But this doesn’t happen…
In Search of Your Own Theory of Relativity
Our problem is that we don’t know in advance which project might turn out to be our theory of relativity and which are duds. Because of this, most ambitious people I know, myself included, follow a different strategy. We sow lots of project seeds. We e-mail a lot of people, join a lot of clubs, commit to a lot of minor projects, set up lots of meetings, constantly send out feelers to friends and connections regarding our latest brainstorm. We don’t know which seed will ultimately take root and grow, so, by planting many, we expose ourselves to enough randomness, over time, to maximize our chance of a big deal, interesting, life-changing success eventually happening.
These numerous seeds, however, have a tendency to transform into weeds. While some of them clearly grow into pursuits worth continuing, and others die off quickly, many, instead, exist in a shadowy in-between state where they demand our time but offer little promise of reward in the end.
These weed projects violate the Einstein principle.
We can no longer focus on a small number of important project, but find ourselves, instead, rushing between an increasingly overwhelming slate full of a variety of obligations. This time fracture can prevent real accomplishment. Imagine if Einstein maintained a blog, wrote a book, joined a bunch of clubs at ETH, and tried to master rowing at the same time he was working on General Relativity? We’d still be living in the age of Newton.
The Productivity Purge
Most of us will never fully satisfy the Einstein Principle. It’s too risky. If you invest fully in one thing, and then it fails, you’re left empty. More importantly, it can be boring. Life requires zigs and zags.
There is, however, a simple strategy for coming as close as possible to satisfying the principle without giving up a quest for the unexpected next big thing. It’s called the productivity purge. And it works as follows:
- When it feels like your schedule is becoming too overwhelmed, take out a sheet of paper and label it with three columns: professional, extracurricular, and personal. Under “professional” list all the major projects you are currently working on in your professional life (if you’re a student, then this means classes and research, if you have a job, then this means your job, etc). Under “extracurricular” do the same for your side projects (your band, your blog, your plan to write a book). And under “personal” do the same for personal self-improvement projects (from fitness to reading more books).
- Under each list try to select one or two projects which, at this point in your life, are the most important and seem like they would yield the greatest returns. Put a star by these projects.
- Next, identify the projects that you could stop working on right away with no serious consequences. Cross these out.
- Finally, for the projects that are left unmarked, come up with a 1-3 week plan for finalizing and dispatching them. Many of these will be projects for which you owe someone something before you can stop working on them. Come up with a crunch plan for the near future for shutting these down as quickly as possible.
- Once you completed your crunch plan you’ll be left with only a small number of important projects. In essence, you have purged your schedule of all but a few contenders to be your next Theory of Relativity. Here’s the important part: Try to go at least one month without starting any new projects. Resist, at all costs, committing to anything during this month. Instead, just focus, with an Einsteinian intensity, on your select list.
The productivity purge is a necessary piece of project gardening. By doing these regularly, you keep yourself focused on whats important. You get at least one month after every purge in which serious work gets done on a small number of projects. It’s during these focused months, when the Einstein Principle comes into play, that you’ll end up making the progress on those activities that might end up becoming life changing.
Case Study: My Most Recent Purge
As I write this, I’m in the second week of a two week purge. After a busy summer of traveling and wildly sowing project seeds, I’ve been looking forward, for a long time, for a focused month — spanning mid-October to Thanksgiving — during which the Einstein Principle can be in full effect.
Here’s how the purge is taking shape:
In my professional life I’m clearing some lingering research projects off my plate. This includes, among other things, finishing some revision on papers under submission and finalizing some proofs for some close to being finished new work. My crunch plan has me pushing to finish this lingerers with a rabid intensity.
My focus, for this upcoming period, is on two research projects that I think hold great promise. I look forward to spending 90% of my academic time wracking my brain on these pursuits, which, I think, will shape the direction of my first year or two after graduation. Bring it on!
In my extracurricular life, I’m finishing up the final articles in a long series of those I owe various editors through various pitches conducted over the summer. With this slate cleared, I can spend my focus period on exactly two things. The first: producing quality, user-tested content for this blog. The second: finally completing the preliminary research for my second book idea. I need to either officially abandon it, or get my agents blessing and start work on the proposal.
In my personal life, I’m turning my focus back to some lifestyle improvement issues that have fallen fallow recently (it’s time to throw out clothing I bought before college…). I am also planning to push into overdrive the variety of interesting things I do each week. I have a long list of other projects I would love to tackle, but they can wait.
If the Einstein Principle holds, come Thanksgiving, I should have: a fully developed new book idea, a much expanded readership of this blog, interesting new academic research results, and a mind overstuffed with new experiences and ideas. I’m looking forward to it!
How would your life change if you were to plan a productivity purge today?