What is limiting my productivity right now?

We want to be more productive and achieve more faster. Yet, most of us do not really know the limiting factors. What is limiting your productivity right now? Is it a lack of knowledge? Imperfect technique? Poorly defined goals? Psychological barriers? Suboptimal equipment?

Skills and limitations

Things that limit us are numerous and often transparent for us. In software projects, one can easily run a profiler and see which functions take more time and kind of understand why. But in human activities that is rarely the case.

Most of us think we are much more skilled than we really are, except for the stuff which we do fairly well. Surprisingly, in the stuff that we do well we kind of underestimate ourselves. This is called Dunning-Kruger effect.

It will not be surprising that we often misplace our strengths with our weaknesses. For example, you may think that you do not know enough about some very specific subject you have been learning for the last year. If you gave a year of your life to learn something, whatever is limiting you is probably not knowledge. It may be the way you acquire knowledge or something else entirely.

Different kinds of knowledge

Reading the latest literature about a subject is not like actually handling the subject hands-on. You might have missed some basics, or maybe you need a human coach, or the entire subject might be wrong for you, or the definition of the issue you are trying to address is bad.

For example, years ago I had an issue with horseriding. I felt I made no progress at all no matter how much I tried. So I changed my coach, and there was instant progress. The guy who taught me the basics simply had an intuitive aptitude for horses, but could not explain to me the psychological aspects. I needed someone who had experience in horse training instead, and I needed to do some work on the ground and not on the horse itself.

Pushing very hard trying to acquire certain skill, or trying to learn online everything about the subject will not help if we do not know the right questions to ask. To do that we might need a friend, an expert, or a coach.

Set up the right accounting

Another example of productivity gone wrong is speedreading. I am routinely addressed by people who took some speedreading class. Now they read very fast but do not remember what they read. Why is that?

Speedreading teachers usually focus on words per minute count, slowly driving the count up. Instead, we can focus on the info learned. E.g. how many memorable markers did you create within a minute? If the memorization speed is small, the retention rates drop below 50%. And it is not reading with less than 50% retention, it is something else. So we learn to improve memorization speed before addressing the speedreading itself.

How do you set up the right accounting? Not everything is measurable. There is a constant temptation to improve something easy to measure and hope for the best. Sometimes this works, but not always.

Imperfect technique

Once we achieved something hard, we keep trying to handle other challenges in a similar way. If this works, do not try to improve… In this format, we acquire bad habits one by one. Eventually, it is not really clear what to do. Quite often the best thing is to learn the skillset from the beginning with new emphasis.

This kind of happens in biblical studies, more than in any other subject I know. Kids learn the bible one way, teenagers another, grown-up reread the book differently. Professionals learn it with a new set of commentaries and contexts. And if you happened to change your religious views, you will find within a wholly new kind of content. People kind of relearn the entire thing basically from scratch under different teachers.

Some subjects happen to be so complex and multifaceted that we need to relearn them several times, and still not master the basics. Yet these fundamental skills will influence every aspect of more complex activities we do.

If a person does not create visualizations properly, his reading speed and memorization will be limited. Yet every time I think I understand how to create the perfect visualizations, I learn of a way to improve the process. And if this happens to me, I guess it is even more confusing for everybody else.

Set up realistic expectations

Quite possibly everything is just fine and we are worried. Or everything might be wrong and we may have no idea. It all depends on our baseline.

We can easily select as a role model the most talented and lucky individual we could find. Will that work? Maybe for a while. But eventually, we understand that we can no way be as good as that person, no matter how hard we try. Consider playing chess against a future world champion when you are a child. A regular person does not stand a chance. The experience is extremely discouraging.

On the other hand, consider measuring yourself with respect to a regular amateur. You will spend much more time improving your skills than your baseline. Unless you do something terribly stupid, you will be very happy with yourself. In fact, you should not be. Other people within your skill category might be improving faster than you.

So selecting the baseline for your progress is critical to judge your progress correctly. Do not try to set up the plank too high, or you will lose faith in yourself. However, do challenge yourself to be at least as good as your peers.

Equipment is a limitation only for beginners and masters

If you are a total beginner, you might be totally lacking the right equipment for you. A master might be struggling against the limitations of his equipment. Everybody else is struggling against his skillset.

This is very visible with guitars or photography equipment. Total beginners try to do something decent with the cheapest stuff they can buy and the result is awful. So they buy decent but not very expensive equipment, and there is a monumental improvement. This makes them feel that further improving the equipment will make them perform even better. Only they do not know how to maximize the potential of new equipment, so instead, they buy more stuff.

If you try to speedread with a small poor screen, like your mobile phone screen, the results will be awful. Once you pivot a decent Dell 21 or 27 inch screen vertically, there is a huge improvement. It will not improve more if you take a larger screen or a screen with a better contrast ratio. Maybe I can optimize the reading experience over several heterogenous screens by choosing the best screen for each task, but this is hardly a common skill.

In the same way, switching from a cheap keyboard to a mechanical keyboard boosts typing speed. If you further switch to stenotypes you might be able to type significantly faster eventually, but the learning curve will last several months or more. You have more chances to improve your speed by training to place fingers properly for the common English phrases.

Poor technique due to lack of confidence

Lack of confidence or overconfidence can definitely lead to bad results. For example, a person with poor confidence tends to reread everything many times. A person with overconfidence tends to dismiss the stuff he does not immediately understand. I think overconfidence is more dangerous than lack of confidence, but possibly this is a personal bias.

At some point, people stop progressing. People who feel uncomfortable on a horse cannot safely go from trot to counter. As the pace changes, they feel they lose control of the situation. Occasionally they need to lose control over the situation and see they can handle the result safely.

In speedreading something similar happens when a person stops suppressing subvocalization. Suddenly the process of understanding becomes unconscious. We cannot fully control it. So we must trust ourselves and our coaches to understand that everything is still fine. And then again, when vivid visualizations stop, we must understand that visualization simply stopped surfacing into the consciousness. And again, when we stop saccadic eye movement we need to trust ourselves to see the entire line and remember the rest.

How do we learn confidence? By building a track record one step at a time. Occasionally we need good coaching because if we start failing one step at a time there is no way to know where we are heading.

Never stop trying

My personal limitation is actually not trying enough. When I fail I often move on to something else, when I should have been trying different processes with a new set of coaches. Even if we do not see the entire game from the beginning to the end, we should be trying to improve the situation, hoping that with the progress we will get insights. And at the same time, we should start from the very basics, building the track record one step at a time.

There is a huge difference between accelerated learning and jumping ahead to the next big thing. Accelerated learning is a steady gradual process. It should not feel risky or jumpy. If you feel that you are trying to do more than you can handle, you probably skipped several important steps along the way.

You may even start from the beginning. Each time we start, we progress faster.

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