Paleo Productivity

Humans, like all animals, have evolved over millions and billions of years of trial and error. The modern human species, Homo Sapiens, appeared over 5 million years ago, but it is only in the last 12,000 years that agriculture and civilization have developed. So, for 99.76% of human existence, we grew, evolved, and adapted to one particular way of life, and in the last 0.24% of our existence, we have gone from planting a single seed to living with all of the modern comforts.

The Paleo diet has gained popularity recently, promoting eating like our Neolithic ancestors, consuming only what a caveman would have eaten. The proponents of this diet point out that human evolution took place over millions of years, and in all that time, we consumed primarily the same types of food. It is only in the last ten thousand years that humans have developed agriculture and begun consuming processed foods. The argument is then that our bodies are evolutionarily designed to operate in a certain way on a particular diet, and the rapid change of diet due to technological and societal advances has far outpaced evolution.

Our biological programming isn’t limited to the food we consume but affects all areas of our lives. We are biologically designed and programmed to operate in specific ways. This process is a slow one taking thousands of generations. Humans evolved to be an alpha predator, sitting at the top of the food chain. In this way, we share a trophic level with lions, crocodiles, and grizzly bears. Lions are not always on the move attempting to stay occupied. They do not focus on always being active; in fact, quite the opposite. Tigers sleep for sixteen hours per day, lions for closer to twenty, and bears can sleep for 100 days straight to conserve energy. These are not due to laziness that results in ineffective and unproductive days, but rather evolutionarily developed paradigms of efficiency. These animals intuitively know that it is more productive and efficient to unleash short furious bouts of effort than to drip effort throughout the day slowly. By focusing all of their energy into a condensed time frame, they are able to accomplish great tasks, far more significant than if that same energy had been spread out.

We, as humans, evolved to operate in the same way. A key component of our survival was our evolution to efficiently and productively use our energy. We had to be successful when we hunted in order to gain the nutrients to survive and procreate. The nutrients and energy we acquired from a successful hunt then had to be used efficiently in order to have another successful hunt. Failure to be productive during the hunt could be fatal, as could inefficiently wasting energy.

Through the millennia, we developed tools to make our lives easier. The tools increased our efficiency and productivity, allowing for better chances of survival. These tools and the altered survival scenarios shifted the way we as humans lived and worked. We no longer had to conserve energy until the next hunt, releasing all of that stored energy in a fury of activity where only success ensured our survival. Now, humans could spend hours and days farming and then storing the crops to ensure survival. This shift was significant for us as a species. Survival rates, lifespans, and civilizations all increased. The security that came with this shift is what allowed us to develop culture and technology. And this shift has all happened in the last 12,000 years.

The biology of our bodies and our brains hasn’t shifted in that time, though. Evolution takes thousands of generations to effect change. While our society and our lifestyles have drastically shifted from being nomadic alpha predators, our bodies and brains are still built for that. Ignoring this fact produces inefficiencies in the way we live and work and leads to states of dissatisfaction and morass. This has negative effects on our productivity, happiness, and overall mental health.

We need not fight our biological programming and instead understand it to best utilize it in the modern world. We can learn from our ancestors and integrate some of their methodologies to maximize our productivity and efficiency. By using our bodies and brains as they were designed/evolved, we can get more done with less effort.

In the modern world, many people whittle away their time, eking out small amounts of effort throughout the day. They focus on keeping and appearing “busy.” There is no prize for being the busiest, for the one staying at the office longest, or the one frantically running around day in and day out. Busy is a byproduct of having too much to do and too little time to do it in, or rather, acting as if you have too much to do in the time that is allotted. Busy then is sometimes unavoidable, but it is never a positive thing. In fact, busy is the opposite of our biological programming.

Action is not the same as effectiveness, and busy is not the same as productive. We most definitely should glorify productivity in getting things done and accomplishing our goals. These accomplishments can come about without being busy if we focus on our efficiencies. We want to structure our day like the lion, conserving our energies to be used in the most effective and productive way. We don’t want to squander our energies on busyness for the sake of being busy.

The way to do this is to carve out a small portion of the day where we will be in “Beast Mode” for our work. Time separated and devoted purely to the accomplishment of work without distractions or interruptions. A good target is to follow suit of the lion and have four hours per day of single-purpose attention to accomplishing tasks.

Getting stuff done can be hard. It’s harder when we are left to our own devices and have plenty of free time to fill up. There always seems to be something else to do; email to respond to, a phone call to make, a dog to pet. The things that we should be working on often pushed and delayed, often with the rationale that ‘there will be plenty of time to work on it later.’ The problem is that we then lose the time where we could be working and end up facing deadlines and the stress that they bring with it.

This problem compounds with the constant flow of new information, notifications, and other issues that present themselves as ‘pressing.’ The beeps, announcements, and unread message icons all play into this, vying for your attention and causing distractions. Each of these distractions may seem small, only a few seconds or a minute to handle, but it’s much more than that. Recent studies have shown that it takes up to Twenty-Three minutes to get back on task after a distraction. So that thirty seconds of checking an email are going to cost you Twenty-Three minutes and Thirty seconds of productivity. Extrapolate this out, and a full eight hours is getting back on task from only Twenty-Four distractions. And most people are going to have many more than Twenty-Four emails in a given day. And looking at the psychological effects of these distractions gives us even more reason to avoid them, as Gloria Marks of UC Irvine says, “[A]ttention distraction can lead to higher levels of stress, a bad mood, and lower productivity.”

A way to deal with the blank page of an unstructured day that could quickly fill with an inflow of distractions is to set aside blocks of uninterrupted time for work. This is difficult in the current work culture of always being connected and a focus on multi-tasking. There may be exceptional people who can work on multiple things at once (like DaVinci or Mozart), but most of us need to focus on a single task at hand. Continually being distracted and dividing attention will result in very little forward progress. It is better to set aside time to deal with all of the distractions in batches and focus on a single task at a time.

Choose two hours that you know you can protect and keep separate from the rest of life. For most people, this means setting these hours outside of normal business hours, although with the current climate of flexible work hours and working from home, that is changing. I find that splitting my four hours of “Beast Mode” into two 2 hour blocks is more effective than trying to accomplish it all at once. There are studies that show the human brain’s attention to a single task maxes out at a little over two hours, so trying to have a laser-like focus for the entire four hours is fighting against our natural programming. For me, I attack one block in the morning and another block in the afternoon. And within each of these two-hour blocks that make up my four hours of “Beast Mode,” I follow the Pomodoro method of blocking my time. I work for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break to move around, and repeat that four times. That gives me 200 minutes per day of focused attention, where I am attacking my work like a savage animal. In those 200 minutes, I get far more done than I would be able to in a full day of lackadaisically trying to chip away at my tasks.

This time not attacking tasks in “Beast Mode” isn’t wasted time. It can be filled with all of the other mundane tasks that are required on a given day, including pure rest and relaxation. It is impossible to be in “Beast Mode” all of the time, and it is a draining experience. There must be rest to recover and to grow. By taking time away from hardcore work to rest, relax, and rejuvenate, we are conserving the energy that allows us to put our all into “Beast Mode” when the time comes.

This time doesn’t need to be spent purely idle, though. There is much of what we can do that will make our working hours even more efficient and more productive. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.” The four hours not viciously working are not wasted, but rather increasing the focus and hone of the tool. The ax is a force multiplier that concentrates all of the efforts onto a sharp edge, allowing it to dig deep into the wood. The duller the ax is, the more force is needed, and conversely, the sharper the ax is, the easier the cutting will be. So being the strongest lumberjack with a dull ax will have you exerting large amounts of effort over large amounts of time with little to show for it. By having a sharp ax and focusing all of our effort in that very narrow blade, we can fell mighty trees.

Our day is then structured with four hours of concentrated effort. This leaves twenty hours for all of the remains of life. If we assume eight hours sleeping and two hours of gym and personal time, we have ten hours of our day left to spend with family, relax, or pursue other interests. The key is to block off and vigorously defend those four hours of work. By keeping those four hours interruption-free and putting our full focus and effort on the task at hand, the work we can accomplish will be incredible.

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