This is a post from Michael Simmons, co-founder of Empact.
With Ian Chew
The Internet has been saturated by productivity porn.
We all love the idea of habits. Morning habits, afternoon habits, evening habits. We love it all. Do something over and over until it becomes so easy that you don't even have to think about it.
Habits are incredibly powerful, and they've made my life more healthy, successful, and productive.
But habits have a downside, and we don't talk about it enough. Habits can cause stagnation.
Why Habits Can Cause People To Stagnate
To understand how habits cause stagnation, we need to understand why they're amazing.
Let me illustrate with a story...
I almost got into an accident the first time I got behind the wheel of a car. I meant to hit the brakes at the stop sign, but I hit the accelerator instead. I remember the driving instructor grabbing the door handle and bracing for impact. The fear on his face was palpable. Fortunately, the car in the intersection swerved, and my foot found the brake pedal. Driving back then took all of my effort and attention, and I still almost got us killed.
Fast forward to today, I can drink a smoothie, listen to my favorite podcast, and drive with no effort. I can talk to someone next to me and not lose a beat. Sometimes, I even find myself in my driveway with no recollection of the trip home.
What happened between when I first started driving and now is automaticity. Automaticity is our body's incredible skill to do something without thinking about it after we've practiced it over and over. It makes us more productive.
Here's the problem with automaticity though. The more we automate, the less we think about how we can keep learning and improving the skill involved; the less we try new things. We trade improvement and serendipity for efficiency, and plateau as a result.
Just doing things over and over does not lead to improvement. 2006 U.S. Memory Champion and author Joshua Foer calls this the "OK plateau". In his book Moonwalking With Einstein, he explains the underlying process:
"In the 1960s, the psychologists Paul Fitts and Michael Posner tried to answer this question by describing the three stages of acquiring a new skill. During the first phase, known as the cognitive phase, we intellectualize the task and discover new strategies to accomplish it more proficiently. During the second, the associative phase, we concentrate less, making fewer major errors, and become more efficient. Finally we reach what Fitts and Posner called the autonomous phase, when we're as good as we need to be at the task and we basically run on autopilot. Most of the time that's a good thing."
Bottom line: human beings are not designed to just repeat the same thing over and over. Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, has it right: "In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury."
Learning > Productivity
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." - Abraham Lincoln
Here's the crux of the issue: habits are about becoming more efficient at doing the same thing over and over. Learning is about growing by doing things we've never done before and challenging ourselves.
So, here's my proposal to the Internet.
Let's focus our days more on learning than productivity, because learning is the ultimate form of productivity.
Let's think about learning from what we do just as much as we think about what to do.
Let's set learning goals just like we set to-do lists.
Let's celebrate what we've learned as well as what we've accomplished.
While learning takes time upfront, it pays us back forever. Warren Buffett has it right when he says, "Generally speaking, investing in yourself is the best thing you can do. Anything that improves your own talents; nobody can tax it or take it away from you."