Design Your Work: Praxis Vol. 1 by Tiago Forte

Rating: 9/10

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High-Level Thoughts

Some of the best writing on productivity and knowledge management that I’ve found. Definitely worth reading through, and since it’s a series of essays you can easily jump around if any of them doesn’t speak to you.

Summary Notes

You see, I have to write to know what I think. All my ideas sound brilliant in the echo chamber of my own mind. It is only when I put down my thoughts, letting them stand on their own strength, that I start to see the cracks and imperfections. It actually goes beyond this – I have to write to think. Otherwise the same old ideas keep circulating round and round, clogging the synapses. Writing is not a result of thinking – it is thinking itself, scaffolded by the external props of a keyboard and screen.

10 Days of Vipassana

Sitting in a dark room for 10 days and peeling away layer after layer of my perception, I had discovered first-hand a truth that seems both obvious and far too good to be true: that the default state of the human mind is happiness. This is why happiness is not an achievement to be attained — every single thing you add merely obscures what is already there.

Do you know what they found to be the #1 predictor of unhappiness across the entire study? Not paying attention to what you were doing. And it didn’t matter if the thing you were thinking about was more positive or negative than what you were doing. Just the fact of not being present was the cause. Now think of the implications for a society where none of us is truly paying attention to anything we do.

Every time you respond to a distraction — a new email in your inbox, a notification on your phone, a red badge on an app — you are training your mind to value the new at the expense of the important.

But what if depriving pain of much of its power was as simple as paying attention to it? Anger, doubt, shame, envy, vengeance — all these feelings have such a hold over us only because they operate in the dark. Shine a light on them, and they wither.

For now, that means one hour of meditation per day, in the morning. It is less than the two hours they recommend, but still a challenge.

What’s Wrong with Productivity

Productivity can no more be achieved by collecting productivity tips than wealth can be achieved by collecting money-saving tips. Or health can be achieved by collecting health tips.

a praxeology (theory of practical action) — but

Perfectionism has now been shown to be an underappreciated risk factor in suicide. Stories of burnouts with long-lasting physical and psychological consequences are slowly becoming more commonplace.

As Albert Einstein purportedly put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.”

think we will find that many of the problems we are facing with our stagnating productivity and wages will not be solved by more technology, nor by improved workflows, but by a deeper reassessment of what really matters in our pursuit of success.

What I Learned About the Future by Reading Sci-Fi

We can explore this through an analogy: imagine an ant observing the behavior of a human. From the ant’s point of view, the human doesn’t spend its time “solving hard ant-centric problems.” Virtually nothing the human does is remotely comprehensible, nor even observable, since the scale and complexity of the human’s simplest action is far beyond the ant’s conception. From what it can observe, I think the word this ant would most likely use to describe the human is “weird.”

Tagging is Broken

In design, you create affordances when you want your user to do something, and anti-affordances when you want them to not do something. Thus you encourage desired behaviors by making them easier, and discourage undesired behaviors by making them harder.

The real potential of a digital organizational system is to be a tool for capturing and systematically reminding you of past ideas, inspirations, insights, and connections. The heart of creativity and innovation is making spontaneous connections between seemingly unrelated things, and note-taking programs can, when used correctly, serve as a cognitive exoskeleton, both protecting us from the ravages of forgetfulness and amplifying our blows as we take on creative challenges.

When I look at successful people, I notice again and again that it is this — the ability to systematically capture and review and deploy their ideas, further strengthening their creative self-esteem, leading them to value and generate more ideas, and so on in a virtuous loop — that really sets them apart. Not the original quantity or quality of ideas, not their brilliance from birth, not luck.

The Habit Graph

The modern science of network theory can be traced directly back to Königsberg, the prosperous 16th century capital of the Duchy of Prussia. Specifically, it can be traced to its seven bridges, which connected two islands in the river Pregel to each other and the mainland. No one seems to know who first asked the question, but over the centuries it became one of the great unsolved riddles of mathematics: Is there any way to visit all parts of the town crossing each bridge once, and only once? Königsberg and its seven bridges Konigsberg bridges / Bogdan Giuşcă / CC BY-SA The answer to the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem turned out to be a definitive no, proven in 1735 by mathematician Leonhard Euler. I’m sure he was proud of his accomplishment, but I’m even more sure he could not remotely imagine its implications. Euler’s work on the Seven Bridges problem laid the foundations for topology, graph theory, and network theory, which has since become one of science’s most powerful tools in understanding complex systems.

The problem is that when I really ask myself “Why didn’t I have a healthy lunch today?”, it usually isn’t a faulty trigger, a lackluster reward, or flaws in any of the dozen supporting strategies I’ve researched and taught. It’s usually because I didn’t have a filling, healthy breakfast. And that was because I didn’t get up early enough. And that was because I went to bed late. And that was because I worked late, because I didn’t get enough done that day, because I didn’t have enough energy, because…I didn’t have a healthy lunch. In other words, the answer seems to often be “Because I didn’t do other habits.”

When a critical fraction of nodes [or habits] is removed the network becomes fragmented into small, disconnected clusters. Have you ever had the sensation that your habits are grouped into “clusters” based on time of day, location, or interactions with other people? One cluster can fail without affecting the others. This phenomenon is called percolation and it represents an order-disorder type of phase transition with critical exponents Have you ever experienced such a “phase transition,” when a single core habit is disturbed and suddenly your whole life goes to pieces? Dependencies may lead to cascading failures… and a relatively small failure can lead to a catastrophic breakdown of the system Have you ever watched your good habits fall one after another like dominoes, beginning with some seemingly unimportant event?

The good news is that these measures are highly correlated — they tend to give similar results. I chose to run with eigenvector centrality, both because it is a good general measure of the influence of a node on the network, and because it is the basis for familiar systems like Google’s PageRank algorithm.

I started by narrowing my analysis to “medium difficulty” habits. These are habits that I perform consistently, but not as consistently as I’d like. They are the low-hanging fruit of behavior change — strengthening them would quickly and relatively easily improve my quality of life.

I then asked myself the following question for each pair of habits: Does [habit A] directly and unequivocally make [habit B] more likely to happen? For example, “Does waking up by 8am directly and unequivocally make meditation more likely to happen?” If the answer was yes (based on my subjective experience), this was counted as a positive one-way relationship.

I want to know not only the absolute number of other habits each one supports, but how influential these supported habits are themselves. In other words, what makes a habit important is not only that it supports many habits, but that it supports habits that are themselves important. This is where eigenvector centrality comes

the eigenvector equation allows us to rank the habits according to their influence on the entire network in a way that is not apparent visually. Here’s the relevant equation: Centrality / CC BY-SA Applying this equation to my habit graph, I came up with the following eigenvector centralities. The eigenvector number in purple next to each habit measures that habit’s “influence” on the network as a whole:

I already knew morning and evening habits were important, and that early waking set the tone for my whole day. The centrality scores I came up with for each habit are probably pretty close to what I would have guessed.

Imagine a future where we could map the topology of a person’s habits

More tangibly, imagine if we could create an app that, with some relatively simple inputs, could map your habits. It could tell you exactly which habits were the most important, the ones you should focus your willpower and planning on. You would know which habits you could strategically retreat from when life got crazy, and even if a keystone habit failed, you could have contingency plans in place to limit the damage.

What I Learned in 7 Years of Tracking Gratitude

I wondered: “What if I could predict what will make me happy in the future by looking at what has made me happiest in the past?

Productivity for Precious Snowflakes

But my favorite one comes from Josh Waitzkin, in The Art of Learning: “In performance training, first we learn to flow with whatever comes. Then we learn to use whatever comes to our advantage. Finally, we learn to be completely self-sufficient and create our own earthquakes, so our mental process feeds itself explosive inspirations without the need for outside stimulus.”

Instead of making a mini-outline of each book and article and podcast you consume, trying to preserve the logical structure of the argument, just wait in low-power mode for reactions like surprise, delight, intrigue, and outrage.

Emergent Productivity: A People-Centered Approach to Work

The purpose of companies is to build a culture that supports their people.

The job of employees is to use that culture as a platform to perform their work as productively and creatively as possible.

The purpose of the work is to serve as a vehicle for learning and personal growth for each employee, however they define it. In other words, having a kid counts just as much as learning a new skill. This is why maternity/paternity leave and related policies are just as important as productivity initiatives — they tie together the message that work is about holistic growth.

The purpose of leaders is to preserve and refine this alignment, to help people align with their work, and the company to align with its people. Notice the order there. First, you help people identify their goals; then you identify the company’s goals; finally, you help everyone manage the gaps and leverage the overlaps.

The Holy Grail of Self Improvement

I’ll call this theory Neo-Pavlovian Behaviorism (NPB), a throwback to Pavlov and his salivating dogs. We’re back to setting up simple one-way triggering mechanisms, linking cues and rewards to cut out all the stuff in between. You know, the human. This era has reached its peak with the launch of the Pavlok self-shocking bracelet, with its promises to shock you out of bad habits and into good ones.

A traveling exhibition called Disney and Dali: Architects of the Imagination unapologetically traces Freud’s influence on Dalí’s art, and Dalí’s influence and collaboration with Walt Disney, of which the film Fantasia is the most obvious product. Freud set the stage of the subconscious mind, Dalí provided the fantastic imagery, and Disney figured out monetization and distribution. This gives new meaning to the Disneyfication of society at large.

it. A more useful metaphor is bicep curls. Every time your mind wanders, the act of bringing attention back to the breath is a repetition, strengthening the muscle of focus. This allows you to greet the inevitable with a sense of progress: just as you need gravity to build muscle, you need distraction to build focus.

Or consider the ego depletion vs. non-depletion debate, which has recently been in the news. Voluminous research has shown that willpower is like a muscle — using it too much makes it tired, leading to poor performance and poor choices. Equally voluminous research indicates that willpower is unlimited, or actually increases with use, or depends on your beliefs about the nature of willpower. But my favorite model is that willpower is a story. People do what they enjoy, and then narrativize it as self-discipline after the fact.

Other studies have found that the most important factor in selecting athletic footwear is comfort, and a major reason interval training is more effective is that it is simply more enjoyable

The most durable habits are inherently rewarding, a quality that tends to arise because they are difficult or challenging, not despite it (think puzzles).

McGonigal cites studies showing that “…you can annihilate the entire dopamine system in a rat’s brain, and it will still get a goofy grin on its face if you feed it sugar. What it won’t do is work for the treat. It likes the sugar; it just doesn’t want it before it has it.” It’s

I call this curiosity arbitrage: how many different ways can you discover to be curious about something?

You can’t even understand an already existing emergent pattern by analyzing its components — because it is more than the sum of its parts, disassembling the parts will not reveal the essence, the “more.” Thus the pointlessness of all the books and websites chronicling the habits of successful people in tedious detail: success is an emergent pattern of emergent patterns, even more resistant to imitation.

“Across dozens of studies on behavior change interventions, researchers have found that the conscious mind’s sincere, concerted intention to change behavior has little relationship to actual change in behavior.” It is this grim

Disturbance propagation describes one way that emergent systems can change — by using an external disturbance as the “seed” of a new pattern, and propagating this new pattern across the rest of the system in a cascading sequence.

As any product designer will tell you, your main competition is not another new product. It is the status quo.

This study reported that 36% of successful changes in behavior were associated with a move to a new place

There’s even evidence that emergent systems need chaos in order to form stable patterns. Habits seem to be little bubbles of structure in the midst of our chaotic lives; thus many habit formation theories emphasize controlling the environment and reducing variability in a bid to help these bubbles survive.

Think of the whirlpool in a bathtub. No one designed it and it doesn’t require any extra energy to be maintained. If you disturb it, it gravitates naturally back to its previous form. This describes the ideal habit — it saves you energy not by preserving some conserved quantity of willpower, but by “sucking” disorderliness from the environment into a stable structure. The more chaos, the more order is created, like crystalline diamonds being formed under intense heat and pressure.

The main reason is that most people’s risk tolerance is very low, because self-efficacy (defined as “a person’s conviction or confidence about his or her abilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources or courses of action needed to successfully execute a specific task within a given context”) is remarkably fragile

The primary risk of entrepreneurship and other free agent lifestyles is not financial or even social — it is the risk to a person’s very self-concept as someone who does what they set out to do.

Stripped of risk-mitigating social structures, we are faced with the terror of total accountability. The correlation between individualism and suicide rates in developed countries speaks to the risks of this sort of attribution.

Take the example of health. This 2012 AON Hewitt healthcare survey reports that 80% of healthcare costs are accounted for by 15 conditions, which are driven by just 8 risks that are at least partly behavior-dependent (poor diet, physical inactivity, smoking, lack of health screening, poor stress management, poor standard of care, insufficient sleep, excessive alcohol consumption).

Experimental Habit Formation

I’d like to propose a framework for this type of learning that is both feasible and focused on the individual: experimental habit formation. I believe it can help resolve one of the fundamental paradoxes of modern life — how to balance our need for stability and routine with our thirst for novelty and exploration.

The first thing that’s clear is that experimental habit formation cannot be developed top-down like other business and self-improvement frameworks. To be feasible for the average individual, it needs to be built from the bottom up. Concretely, we need to start with people’s actual lived experiences, building from there to communities of practice, and finally to academic theories.

habits are MVBs — Minimum Viable Behaviors. They have a clear beginning, middle, and end (cue, behavior, reward), making them easy to define and identify when they appear. The good ones tend to be internally coherent and inherently rewarding, thus self-sustaining.

habits are famously difficult to create and sustain; yet every person maintains many habits, and they come and go all the time. This paradox is a strong hint that they flourish only as organic, emergent patterns. Since emergence is hard to fake, this gives us a high standard of success in our experiments.

sometimes, achieving statistical significance requires diluting the conclusions so much that their substantive significance is lost, at least at the level of a single individual. Who cares if a weight loss treatment is effective with 99.99999% confidence if the average effect size is 1 pound?

By relaxing the traditional requirements of population-sized clinical science, we lose universal validity, reliability, and replicability. But we gain a series of powerful benefits in our pursuit of self-improvement. Five benefits, to be exact.

This highlights an experience many self-experimenters have reported: that the self-awareness they gained in the process of self-tracking was the real reward.

Self-tracking enhances self-awareness by providing a concrete mechanism for self-reflection: the act of recording. So-called “active tracking” requires the subject to input something manually — a response to a question, a self-reported evaluation, or a device reading.

the single factor with the highest correlation with unhappiness across the entire study was mind-wandering. The more someone had their mind on something other than what they were doing, regardless of whether they were thinking about something more pleasant or less pleasant than what they were doing, the more unhappy they were likely to be both while mind-wandering and in general.

If you are extremely tall, you know you are an outlier, and can take measures to compensate for a world designed for the median. But for many things, medical and otherwise, you don’t know where on the distribution you fall.

We are all victims, at some point in our lives and especially in our most unique traits, of the Ecological Fallacy — inferences about us made from inferences about a group to which we belong, which are then turned into individual prescriptions presented as objective facts.

Creating one’s own context for a life change is difficult, but crucial, as numerous studies have shown that people are more likely to achieve goals they set for themselves. It allows people to focus on optimization — improving what’s already working to a certain extent — instead of what specialists from medicine to psychiatry to social work to substance abuse tend to focus on — remediation and intervention in extreme cases.

I often recommend “habit cycling”: trying one new habit per month, on a regular schedule. Start on the first of the month, even if you feel unprepared. Especially if you feel unprepared,

Meta-Skills, Macro-Laws, and the Power of Constraints

This is all another way of saying, “The opposite of every great truth is also true.” But with an asterisk: as long as you know thyself well enough to understand how it is true for you.

It is these tools and maps I want to discuss in the rest of this post. They correspond to what I believe are the two pillars of self-knowledge when it comes to productivity: meta-skills and macro-laws.

If “meta-learning” is learning how to learn, then meta-skills in this context involve “learning how to work.” Meta-skills are the skills you need to leverage other skills.

Imagine the optionality in knowing that, should the right opportunity come along, you could accomplish a month’s worth of work in a week. And before you dismiss this as something for privileged single 20-something’s with no real responsibilities, take a look at Bethany Soule’s similar experiment trading off childcare responsibilities with her partner for a week of dedicated focus. She saw a curiously similar 4.3x increase in productivity, as measured by code commits, and rated it equally satisfying.

Each of these meta-skills — defining one’s own work, inducing particular states of mind, systems thinking, habit formation, self-quantification, etc. — could be the target of a variety of self-experiments, each one defining and splicing the skill differently depending on the needs of the moment.

Sometimes these macro-laws take the form of simple rules of thumb: “I’m more productive in the morning” or “I prefer a distraction-free environment.”

Sometimes they take the form of stronger requirements: “I need this particular workspace to be productive” or “I can’t get work done without my coffee.”

the most consequential ones shape the future of one’s career and life, painting possible choices in broad strokes: “I’m more right-brained than left-brained.”

I know of is Buster Benson’s wonderful Book of Beliefs. He lists his metabeliefs, perceptions, opinions, and predictions in the form of an annually updated, open-source Github repository.

A constraint that one minute helps you focus, in the next minute blinds you to an opportunity. A constraint that in one situation saves you from risk, in another situation limits your possibilities. This is why the skill of constantly formulating, discarding, testing, and refining macro-laws may be the most “meta” productivity skill of all.

I’m borrowing the term “macro-law” from John Holland’s paper on emergence, in which he provides a fascinating historical example illustrating how difficult it is to formulate them.

Likewise, self-discovery is more than simply accumulating accurate descriptive facts about oneself. The goal is to define the direction of further study by “picking out a range of situations that occur frequently or involve possibilities that lever the system onto new paths.”

it takes creativity, intuition, and deep self-knowledge to formulate new macro-laws about ourselves that both fit our past and current identity, and simultaneously guide our future in interesting directions.

it is deep immersion in the messy details of experiments, contending in hand-to-hand combat with the subtleties and ambiguities and exceptions unique to each one, that produces the best breakthroughs. Not the actual outcome.

The paper Statistical Inference for Individual Organism Research: Mixed Blessing or Curse? argues that the introduction of inferential statistics into the field of experimental psychology in the 1970’s not only failed to produce breakthroughs (as one might expect), but actually held the field back. The explanation offered is that, in the “old days,” researchers had to create experimental controls — finely tuned counterbalances to independent variables. This process, while tedious and time-consuming, produced great insights:

Their purpose is to work themselves out of a job, by helping you internalize the dynamics that generate high performance such that you no longer need external support. Perhaps not the best business model, but it’s been remarkably successful by this standard: who had any idea what 10,000 steps felt like before?

There is a common thread uniting both meta-skills and macro-laws: the power of constraints. Meta-skills are constraints on how you work, to better leverage your knowledge, intelligence, time, people, and other resources. Macro-laws are constraints on what you work on, limiting your search space to a direction most likely to be fruitful. There’s just one problem: How can something that is literally “not there” have any effect on the material world? How can constraints have power?

Deacon makes a daring argument that helps explain how meta-skills and macro-laws work. He argues that emergent phenomena are not more than the sum of their parts; they are less than the sum of their parts. In other words, emergence is defined by what is not there — by constraints.

This could explain why reductionist analyses don’t work in explaining consciousness, or any other emergent phenomenon: what doesn’t exist has no parts. Deconstruct the experience of mind into its components, and you dissolve the very relationships that give rise to it, and are left with nothing.

Nothing magical or mysterious is added to the threads to make it a rug, yet you could individually replace each thread and still have the same rug. It is the connectional geometry of the system, the ways that constraints interact at different levels, that produces the emergent rug. This geometry has great causal power, but is not something material.

Is there any better definition of productivity? We learn meta-skills to perform higher-leverage work, but the best source of leverage is creating new constraints — new macro-laws. These macro-laws channel our energy more efficiently, giving us the surplus resources to acquire yet more skills. Improving one’s productivity is not a self-organizing process, but a self-simplifying one.

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