Inefficient Progress

“Don’t mistake motion for progress.”

This phrase used to be up on the wall at Slack (maybe it still is). It’s a good sentiment. Every time I walked by it I internally nodded my head and thought, “True dat.”

It’s about focus: how it’s important to move in a consistent direction. This avoids wasting time and resources. Another way to put it:

Motion + Direction = Progress

I.e., the faster you go in a particular direction, the faster you make progress. I think this is a good model when you’ve already figured out which direction to go in. It helps keep an organization aligned and fosters efficiency and productivity.

But what if you’re doing creative work and are just beginning a project? When I say “creative work,” I don’t just mean things like art or writing (though I mean those too). I’m thinking of any sort of work where you’re creating something new in an uncertain environment – starting a company, pure science research, side projects.

The early days of creating something new are fragile. You don’t know yet which direction to go in. You don’t know, of the 1000 things you could do, what to do next.

You’re still experimenting, playing and tinkering.

If you wait until you have clarity on direction, you’ll end up in analysis paralysis.

If you pick a direction and optimize for efficiency, there’s a good chance you climbed the wrong hill. All the “progress” you made then becomes an opportunity cost.

In fact, I think that when you're still working under high uncertainty, “progress” is impossible to measure. But if you can’t measure progress, and aren’t yet sure which direction to go in, then what can you do?

Efficient vs. Inefficient Progress

Great creative work is often done in bursts of output. Marc Andreessen wrote about research by Dean Simonton for people across a broad spectrum of creative endeavors. One of the key takeaways: the highest quality work comes during a time when someone produces the highest quantity of work. This also means that the best work comes during times when people do their most forgettable work.

This is fascinating because it contradicts our intuition that people who create the best work have the most experience or know what their best work is going to be before they start it. Andreessen summarizes it nicely:

The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.

The lesson here is it’s better to produce as much as possible and allow your best work to emerge from that.

Why not cut to the chase and just do your best work to begin with? Because the world is complex, and we often don’t know what’s going to work when we’re creating something new.

Put another way:

Quantity → Quality

I.e., quantity leads to quality. “Quantity” for our purposes is equivalent to motion — i.e. undirected experimentation and exploration, tested in the real world. Finding a promising direction is like discovering "quality":

Motion → Direction

In other words, motion leads to progress by helping you find direction. This allows you to make inefficient, unmeasurable progress (to the point you may not even know if you’re making progress).

Once you’ve found direction and have built momentum behind it, then it makes sense to focus on making efficient, measurable progress.

When you're in the inefficient progress phase, you can't predict how your time and resources will translate into an outcome you want. And you can't measure how far along you are. You need to continue to put time and resources into the process of discovery, until you make the discovery.

From a productivity maximization perspective, this is grossly inefficient. From a creating-something-new perspective, it's the only choice you have.

What blocks inefficient progress

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.‌‌
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.‌‌
— William Hutchinson Murray

When creative work is nascent, the bigger risk than wasting time on the wrong thing is doing nothing at all.

I’ve noticed several things that block people (including myself) from making inefficient progress:

  • Analysis paralysis
  • Prematurely editing ideas
  • Perfectionism
  • Self-doubt
  • A desire for external validation
  • A desire to have a plan beforehand
  • A desire to be feel "productive"
  • Ego
  • Thinking your idea isn't new or unique

I think building self-awareness and identifying when these blocks are happening is a useful first step to overcoming them. Acceptance is helpful too: progress will not be something you can track in a spreadsheet, or that you have direct control over – and that’s ok.

What have you found helpful in getting past these sorts of obstacles?

If you weren’t worried about making progress, what would you start today?

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