5 Productivity Strategies from the Mind of Richard Feynman
In the book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist, relates a story about an ant he found near his bathtub.
Instead of squishing the bug, Feynman put some sugar out for his visitor and used a colored pencil to track the ant’s march back to its nest. When another ant emerged to collect more sugar, Feynman tracked its movements as well. Feynman soon discovered that the ants used each other’s trails to find the pile of sugar he’d left out. He also learned that the ants continually improved the route from the sugar to the nest over time.
Tracking ants all day with colored pencils doesn’t exactly seem like a productive exercise. But for Feynman, that was never a consideration. He let his curiosity guide him. He was always ready to tackle questions that interested him with focus and care.
For Feynman, productivity was less about work and more about exploring problems that intrigued him.
Leaders, entrepreneurs, and anyone who strives to do more can learn from Feynman’s unique way of working.
1. Don’t worry about what others are thinking
Feynman was an eccentric within the scientific community. He frequented strip clubs, drank heavily for a spell, and taught himself to paint. He never let the judgment of others get under his skin or unnerve him. He was content to follow his own course and do as he pleased.
He wrote, “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.”
By adopting this attitude you free yourself from paralyzing second guesses, doubts, and uncertainty. Work in your own way and don’t let other people’s criticisms delay you.
2. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do
Feynman did his best work when his curiosity, interest, and wonder were piqued.
“Fall in love with some activity, and do it!” Feynman advised. “Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all.”
If you do what you want to do, everything else will fall into place. If you undertake tasks you want to do first, your enjoyment will increase your productivity and enhance your focus.
3. Stop trying to be a know-it-all
Feynman accepted that he didn’t know everything and that most of the world was one big mystery. He didn’t bother trying to solve the mystery of the universe or being the smartest person. In fact, he liked not knowing things. Ignorance, and not having all the evidence, made him excited.
“I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong,” Feynman said during an interview. He once commented in a lecture, “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”
Embrace your ignorance and let it propel you to new, interesting discoveries. Try to prove yourself wrong and don’t be afraid to fail.
4. Get off the computer
Feynman was able to follow ants around with colored pencils, learn samba in Brazil, and discover how to crack a safe because he enjoyed learning things that interested him. However, he avoided computers because they were distractions that dulled his ability to investigate the world.
“There is a computer disease,” Feynman tells us. “Anybody who works with computers knows about [it]. It's a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. The trouble with computers is that you 'play' with them!”
Obviously, computers are crucial to today’s world of work. However, it’s advisable to free yourself from them whenever possible. They can distract and limit your productivity and perhaps your creativity.
5. Have a sense of humor and talk honestly
Feynman was never one to dress up his sentences with fancy words and complex phrases. He tried to explain things clearly and with a touch of humor.
He lived by a simple rule: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” The phrase speaks to Feynman’s enduring modesty and acceptance that he was no better than anyone else. His most urgent goal was to learn about the world and as such he did it with astonishing precision and productivity.
Don’t pretend to be better than others and don’t fool yourself into thinking you have all the answers. Like Feynman, be humble and talk directly and honesty.
SAMUEL B. BACHARACH | Columnist | Director, Cornell's Institute of Workplace Studies
Samuel B. Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant professor in the department of organizational behavior at Cornell University's ILR School, and is director of Cornell's Institute for Workplace Studies in New York City. Among his books are Get Them on Your Side and Keep Them on Your Side. His latest volume, A Good Idea Is Not Enough: Leading for Change and Innovation, will be published this November by BLG.