The Physics of Productivity

The Physics of Productivity

In classical mechanics, Newton’s Laws of Motion are the three laws that governs the relationship between the motion of an object and the forces that are acting on it. In this article, we are going to apply these laws to a non-physics context — productivity.

Newton’s 1st Law of Motion

The first law states that states that an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless it is acted upon by an external force. This is also commonly known as the law of inertia.

Simply put, the law means that objects in motion will tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest.

Procrastination may be one of the strongest inertia in this world. The longer we procrastinate a task, the harder it is for us to get started — objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Luckily for us, the other half of the law hold true in the context of productivity as well! When it comes to being productive, the biggest step is to get started. Once you start on a task, you will start to gain momentum and it will be so much easier to stay in motion.

How to get started when stuck in procrastination?

There exists a rule called the “2-Minute Rule” . The rule states that “when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do.”

When tasks seem herculean, take a step back and see if you can scale it down into a two-minute version instead —

  • “Read through biology textbook” can be scaled down to “read two learning objectives from chapter 1”
  • “Study for class” becomes “take out my books and open my notes”
  • “Practice Physics MCQ” becomes “attempt 3 MCQ questions”
  • “Write finish English essay” becomes “Pen down points for first paragraph”
  • “Train for 2.4km run” becomes “put on my running shoes”

The idea of the 2-Minute Rule is to make the task as easy to start as possible. Reading the whole textbook may feel dreadful, taking out your book and just reading the first two learning objectives might be enough to get you started reading one chapter and perhaps more.

Motivation does not come from thin air, motivation often comes after you start on a task. Find a way to start small. An object in motion, stays in motion. Get started.

Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion

Very commonly known as F=MA, the Second Law of Motion states that the sum of the forces on an object is equal to the product of the mass of the object and the acceleration of the object.

Force (F) is a vector. Vectors are physical quantities that requires both magnitude (how much effort is being put in) and direction (where that effort is applied). This is true for big and small decisions that we make in our daily lives.

An example will be how we can apply the same skill set in different directions and get different results. Someone with a degree in Science can apply his/her skills into different areas such as becoming a teacher, an entrepreneur or a researcher. Depending on where he/she directs his/her efforts, the eventual outcome will be vastly different.

Each of us only have a certain amount of force to provide to our work, and where we direct this force is as important as how hard we work. To be productive, it’s not merely about how hard you work (magnitude), it’s also about where that work is applied (direction).

Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion

The Third Law states that When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body. (i.e. For every force there is an equal and opposite reaction force.)

Our day to day level of productivity is often the net result of productive and unproductive forces. Productive forces in our lives will include being focused, positivity, and motivation while unproductive forces examples will be stress, lack of sleep, and trying to juggle too many tasks.

As such, there are two options when it comes to increasing productivity — increase the productive forces or eliminate the unproductive forces.

Increasing productive forces can be done by “powering through” your tasks. You watch motivational videos to psyche yourselves up, drown yourself in coffee and just just work harder and harder in hopes to overpower the unproductive forces. This may work in the short run, but you will risk burning out.

Eliminating unproductive forces can be done by simply learning to say no, and simplifying your lives — reduce the amount of responsibilities, changing environment, removing distractions. When you decrease the amount of unproductive forces, you will naturally move forward in the productive direction.

Most of us will try to power through and push ourselves past the barriers, but this also means that we are still deal with the unproductive forces. Oftentimes, it may be much easier and less stressful to cut out the unproductive forces and let ourselves naturally move forward in the more effective direction.

Adapted from The Physics of Productivity: Newton’s Laws of Getting Stuff Done by James Clear.

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