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The 3 Bottlenecks to a Productive Life: Vision, Focus, and Energy
In a previous article, I introduced the concept of behavioral design. When I think of behavioral design, what makes it so powerful is that it enables us to do & have the things we say we want. If we want to get great at a skill, or accomplish some task, or realize an achievement, or live the life of our dreams, then we can have those things. All it takes is knowing the formula for getting them. And that's the amazing thing about behavioral design: it provides a blueprint for getting the things we want in life.
In my mind, getting what we want out of life primarily comes down to managing bottlenecks.
The idea of bottlenecks comes from the world of manufacturing. Israeli physicist-turned-management consultant, Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, developed the now infamous Theory of Constraints which says that improvements made anywhere besides the constraint are an illusion. Every system has a constraint that limits the overall productivity of the system.
Think of an assembly line that has 10 steps, and imagine there is a constraint/bottleneck at step 5. Any improvements made before step 5 will only result in a larger bottleneck occurring at step 5. Conversely, any improvements made after step 5 won't improve the throughput at step 5, meaning the system will still be constrained by step 5. In all cases, the constraint in a system is the precise point that must be improved if one wants to remove the bottleneck and improve the overall productivity of the system.
The Theory of Constraints doesn't just apply to manufacturing processes. Our personal and professional lives are also subject to the Theory of Constraints. If you want to improve the results you are getting, then you have to address the key bottlenecks that constrain human productivity.
While there are a lot of ways you can slice and dice the equation, I believe that there are 3 key bottlenecks we need to solve in each of our lives:
Each of these areas can be sub-divided into thousands of additional bottlenecks, but I believe the Key Bottlenecks are like the "parent class" from which all their "children" inherit. [Technically, there is a parent class that is above the Key Bottlenecks - I'll talk about that in a moment]
Let's briefly look at each of them.
Vision is about knowing what we want out of life. In Lewis Carroll's popular book Alice in Wonderland, there is an iconic exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat that beautifully captures this dynamic:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.
“I don’t much care where–” said Alice.
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
“–so long as I get SOMEWHERE,” Alice added as an explanation.
“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”
There are many ways to interpret this conversation, but one that has always stood out to me is the importance of knowing where you want to go. One of the most rewarding parts of life is that there is an infinite number of paths you can take to live it. But the sheer magnitude of the options poses a challenge: which path should you take?
In the time-honored tradition of philosophers, the answer is: it depends.
It depends on what you want out of life. It depends on your interests, skills, strengths, weaknesses, environment, culture, upbringing, and a thousand other things. But at the end of the day, you have to decide which direction to move in if you want to make progress.
It is instructive to think about what a decision is. The root of the word "decide" comes from Latin and means "to kill, to cut off". When you decide to do something, you necessarily cut off the option of doing something else. There are always trade-offs with the decisions that we make. Vision allows us to "cut off" options that are less valuable or less meaningful so that we can allocate our limited resources towards the things that matter most.
Developing a vision is about clarifying what you most want out of life. The method for accomplishing that doesn’t have to be complicated, however. Discovering one’s Vision essentially comes down to positive reinforcement and negative elimination.
Positive reinforcement is about pursuing those things that instill in you a strong sense of purpose, meaning, and pleasure. Obviously, we want more of those things in our lives!
Negative elimination, on the other hand, is about progressively discovering what takes away from those feelings of purpose, meaning, and pleasure, and then systematically removing/mitigating them in your life.
"Where there is no vision, the people perish." (Proverbs 29:18)
For most people, Vision is something that develops slowly over time. While a lucky few seem to have a strong internal Vision early in life, my experience is that most people have to slowly develop their Vision over years and decades. This process can be sped up by conducting lots of A/B tests (i.e. performing many small experiments that provide fast feedback), but discovering one's Vision is - and, in my opinion, should be - a life-long pursuit.
In my mind, Vision is less about goal-setting and more about living in alignment with what brings you the greatest pleasure and meaning in life. In future articles, I will talk more about the difference between goals vs. systems. I view Vision more as a system than a goal. Vision provides the blueprint, the template, the general direction in which you want to move. But how you move towards that Vision is highly personalized and will change over time. Learning to listen to yourself is a more powerful skill than simply setting goals and blindly chasing after them.
One last thought about Vision:
At the beginning of this article, I hinted that there is technically a “parent” constraint above the 3 Key Bottlenecks. That constraint, of course, is Time. Time is the ultimate constraint in life since it is (currently) the only non-renewable resource we have. The reason that developing your Vision, Focus, and Energy matters is that we are constrained by Time.
Developing a clear Vision is critical to accomplishing what you want in life because it guides you in the right direction. But even the strongest Vision in the world won't accomplish anything if you never devote enough of your attention to it. This is why developing Focus is crucial to getting the things you want.
We are going to talk a lot about the nature of attention in future articles. Attention is a funny thing: most people think they are good at focusing it, yet very few people realize how easy it can be manipulated.
Serge Faguet has described the mark of an intelligent person (i.e. a person who knows how to accomplish their goals) as someone who consistently spends 5-8 hours a day in deep work related to their Vision (credit to Cal Newport for the concept of "deep work"). Deep work does not mean simply showing up to work for 8 hours and mechanically going through the motions of your job. Deep work means engaging meaningfully with your Vision; creatively elaborating on solutions; exploring new connections; and pushing yourself to grow. Deep work requires long, uninterrupted stretches of time that are spent immersed in the problem/challenge at hand.
If we're honest with ourselves, how many of us can truly say our daily work is primarily composed of deep work?
Focus is a matter of deciding what things you are not going to do.
- John Carmack
Our modern world is very, very good at stealing our Focus. Over 80 years of behavioral science have resulted in increasingly sophisticated strategies for capturing and manipulating attention. I have written a separate article dedicated to this topic, but consider one simple example: smartphone "badges".
Those little red icons on your apps are not friendly reminders designed for your benefit. Badges are designed to leverage the well-known psychological concept known as "fear of missing out" (FOMO).
Fearful that you are missing something, you click on the app and see the missing content, which rewards your brain with a little shot of dopamine. Do that a few more times, and your brain quickly learns that clicking on badges is good for your survival; after all, that's what the reward system evolved to detect. And badges are one of the simpler attention devices - your phone is literally packed with hundreds of other (and more sophisticated) techniques.
Every successful person that I have met - whether in finance, career, relationships, science, or any other arena of life - has understood the importance of controlling where their attention is directed. I can think of zero exceptions to that observation. We even have common expressions in our culture for people who achieve great things but then fall from their position of glory due to mismanaged attention: "They took their eye off the ball", "They forgot what matters most", and perhaps the most concise, "They got distracted".
Distraction destroys Vision. It really is that simple. What we focus on grows - what we fail to focus on withers. The question is: what are you Focusing on?
As we have discussed, Vision and Focus are necessary to obtain the things you want in life. But the third leg of the stool - and one that is rarely talked about - is the concept of Energy. When I talk about Energy, I'm not talking about some esoteric, mystical, woo-woo BS. I'm talking about the actual biochemical components produced by your body's metabolic processes. If we want to live our lives at the highest level, then we have to learn to manage our Energy.
Vince Lombardi, the infamous NFL head coach of the Green Bay Packers, once said, "Fatigue doth make cowards of us all". I think every person reading this article can relate to that statement. How many times have you had the best of intentions to do something, but you found your resolve weakened due to a lack of energy? Motivation and willpower are not ephemeral psychological processes - they are rooted in the world of neurotransmitters, hormones, and neuroscience.
Humans are not robots. We cannot simply "will" ourselves into doing things at the same level of intensity, day-in and day-out, regardless of the state of our bodies. If you don't believe that's true, then try staying up all night and then operating at your best the next day. It won't happen. Your ability to show up in the world and perform at your best is contingent upon your body functioning optimally.
I will discuss energy management in detail in future articles, including strategies for boosting basal levels of energy (sleep, diet, movement, stress management, circadian rhythm entrainment, etc.) as well as techniques to manipulate your psychological arousal at will (behavioral design principles).
Learning to manage your Energy feels a bit like a superpower. It won't let you run through walls, but it will give you an incredible sense of control over your life. Once you realize that how you show up day-to-day is largely within your power, then you can start actively removing the impediments to getting what you want in life.
Order of Operations
So, where do we start? Vision, Focus, or Energy?
Remember our discussion at the beginning of this article about the Theory of Constraints? We can translate that same insight into our personal decision-making process. When evaluating whether to start with Vision, Focus, or Energy, ask yourself these twin questions:
Which area - Vision, Focus, or Energy - represents the greatest bottleneck in my life?
If I were to improve just one of these, which one would give me the greatest leverage in improving my life?
You know yourself better than I know you. Whatever answer you come up with is the right one for you at this moment. Trust yourself and start taking action! (Of course, trust is contingent upon honesty, so make sure you're being honest in your self-assessment). Over time, the bottleneck to your growth will naturally shift, so you'll want to make a habit of reassessing where you are currently at and adjust accordingly.
In the next several articles, we'll talk about how to actually change your behavior at will so you can make these things a reality. Stay tuned!