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Take the one on the far right, for example. The idea is, as the weights at the bottom of the wheel stop propelling it, the weights at the top have the potential energy to continue the propulsion.

A perpetual motion machine is not possible. It’s against the laws of physics.

We are a bit different, however: We can bring in new energy. We can be Perpetually Productive.

If that sounds like a medieval torture technique, whereby you are strapped into your computer and forced to type until the edge of death, it’s not.

Instead, it’s the recognition that, like this fantasy perpetual motion machine, every action we take can build the potential energy for another action.

Some guiding principles of Perpetual Productivity:

  • Production isn’t productivity. Just because you can type really fast for a long time, it doesn’t mean you’re productive. The scarce resource for knowledge workers to optimize for is insightful thinking. This will become increasingly important as computers get smarter. Mind management, not time management.
  • You have energy cycles. Most of us have peak, and off-peak times. Certain types of work are better for peak times, and certain types of work — believe it or not — are better for off-peak times. I like to write in the morning, when I’m still groggy, because those are the best conditions for insight.
  • The world has time cycles. Days, weeks, months, and years are not only useful units for managing your energy, they also present opportunities to coordinate with others, or isolate oneself, depending upon the work that needs to be done. Many people have a daily routine, but I find a weekly routine manages my energy better, with Monday and Tuesday loaded up with the most important work.
  • Your work is full of cognitive contours. Most of us recognize not all work is created equal, and Cal Newport has popularized the idea of Deep Work. But there are contours within work — requiring unique mental states — that are more subtle than “deep” and “shallow.” If you are writing a draft, and come across a fact you are unsure of, [put it in brackets], and keep writing that draft. Fact-checking is a different contour.
  • Rest is productive. We’ve all had periods where we felt guilty whenever we weren’t working. The result is that you can’t even enjoy your much-needed rest. Sleep, for example, clears out the mental cobwebs, consolidating memory, and preparing you for insightful thinking. As DHH recently said “the key to enjoying Mondays is to ensure the weekend is spent doing everything but Monday-type stuff.” Well-placed rest builds potential energy.
  • Your energy has to fight your inertia. The laws of physics apply to your own motivation. Sometimes, you need a little motivational Judo to get started. I do a thing I call “The Whip,” wherein I do a later-stage (and more fun) part of a project that makes the earlier stages easier.

It’s with these principles in mind that a person can build a life of Perpetual Productivity, wherein the kinetic energy of each action builds the potential energy of another action. How do you use these principles?

I advised Timeful (co-founded by Dan Ariely) on integrating elements of Perpetual Productivity into an app. Google bought that app, and they’re integrating elements of Timeful into Google Calendar. This podcast episode explains how I used a Perpetual Productivity technique to get the idea.

Written by

Bestselling author of “Mind Management, Not Time Management”

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