Productivity vs. creativity dilemma

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Maximization of productivity

This text presents an important enhancement to my productivity in 2023. It might be useful for those who struggle in multicriterial optimization aimed at maximizing productivity in several creative pursuits.

As soon as I entered college, my life was a never-ending battle between creativity and productivity. These are highly synergistic forces. This battle is a pleasure. However, creativity tends to run wild and takes you in unpredictable directions. For example, the first four years of my college were a constant conflict between passions for science and for music. Music died on the battlefield for the sake of productivity. I had to make a rational decision to execute a painful radical cut, and to focus on science. I wrote 3 letters to the 3 music bands I was involved in, and I quit at the time of highest promise.

For four decades, I kept ramping up productivity that was never to limit my creative potential. In 2023, I came up with yet another enhancement to that toolset. This is pretty surprising if you consider that the battle has been waged for 43 years now, and it took just a decade to reach what seemed to be the limit. These days, I would rather expect to be on a declining slope as should naturally happen to people nearing the retirement age. However, as appetites are undiminished so is innovation.

I reported a risk to my productivity at the time when I opened the door to social media (see: [link]). I got involved in plans to reform education. However, with my schedule packed tight from early morning to bedtime, I should expect some productivity ripples when adding one more major goal into my life. This necessitated a bit of a rethink.

It was easy to be highly productive in the early 2000s when I was entirely focused on incremental reading. Today, not only did I add extra goals and obligations, but I am also actively involved in rescuing individual families from the clutches of the oppressive education system. That family counsel job is material enough for a full-time job.

In this text I will present my short history of productivity enhancements, and how I managed to squeeze in more goals into 24h without reducing appetites, passions, creativity, or health.

It is possible to keep increasing productivity beyond middle age without harm to creativity

My story

I immodestly claim that my productivity is remarkable. At the same time, I know I should never suppress my appetites for doing things in life. Today, there seems to be no more room for doing more! I sleep little, and I eat fast. I cannot give up sports, as I would probably quickly surrender to aging. I seemingly cannot add new dreams without undermining old dreams. However, in 2023, I still came up with a trick that might push the limit. The trick is hard to explain without understanding my story, and my productivity terminology. In shortest possible terms it can be described as: using maximum creativity peak for juggling creativity.

Here is my story that you can skip if you know tools such as micro-rules, Plan, and tasklists. It is also helpful to know my claims in reference to sleep, creativity cycle, and optimal problem solving.

The story of my productivity (incl. essential milestones):

  • 1962-1980: total improvisation in younger years: natural development, lots of learning, lots of exercise, no significant productivity issues, sensible performance sparked by freedom and passions. I diverged into seemingly time-wasting directions such as boxing, music, pet zoobiology, harmless "ecoterrorism" [link], and even "competitive crime" [link], etc. However, in this time, I also seeded my interests in science, biochemistry, brain and memory.
  • 1980-1983: increased dissatisfaction with my productivity caused with the arrival of ambitious goals confronted with reality. For example, IVS theory made me think that humans must strive at immortality. This instantly made me think that my days and my life are too short. My interest in science solidified, and my dissatisfaction with my own memory led to the concept of spaced repetition
  • 1983: micro-rules of productivity dramatically changed my life (e.g. with progress in learning human biology, math, physics, and English).
  • 1983-1990: I advanced from some 65 min. of targeted productivity (e.g. aimed at health, learning, playing musical instruments, etc.) towards whole days packed with efficient learning aimed at long-term goals (see: IVS). Some of my micro-rules started causing some highly educational "social friction". For example, when I declared I would not attend weddings or funerals, I instantly gained weeks of productive life. I also learned how to withstand social pressure by which culture seriously suppress creative thinking. Some of my crazy rules introduced in the following decades became a form of excuse. For example, when I am being invited to political life, I point to my barefoot lifestyle as a serious obstacle (see: bio notes)
  • 1986-1987: first attempts to plan the day with the help of a computer. The effort was thwarted by the chaos of life and computational complexity (ZX Spectrum); interestingly, Bill Gates started with a similar task in his "programming career". Unlike me, he succeeded in planning a class schedule for his school
  • 1990: using a fixed schedule Plan (on paper). It only became possible once I could give up the chaos of the university life
  • 1993: introducing tasklists in which mountains of jobs could be sorted by productivity yield (priority = value/time)
  • 2000: schedule Plan in SuperMemo provides more creative freedom away from fixed time slots. Creativity slots can squeeze the rest of the schedule on good days. Natural creativity cycle is well-accommodated as the entire schedule can be shifted depending on the wake time. Bedtime and other fixed slots can be adjusted accordingly
  • 2003: introducing a set of rules that is to be reviewed daily so that it was always kept fresh in memory: rules such as: Plan is God; start the day from the creative slot; and ... start the day from reviewing the rules! The review is to tackle immortal productivity weaknesses such as diverging from the schedule, being late with late jobs, wasting best creative time on activities that do not require peak brain, etc.
  • 2003-2017: high productivity focused on incremental reading in SuperMemo
  • 2017: adding writing for SuperMemo Guru to my job loads. Interestingly, my writings were originally supposed to serve others. However, the use of Media Wiki makes it possible to work incrementally and use that effort to boost my own memory and my own understanding of things I write about
  • 2020: adding liberation of children to my job loads (school strike, school laws, etc.). This resulted in a temporary drop in productivity due to the impact of chaos, social interaction, and social media (see: link)
  • 2023: a new approach to juggling creative slots using the guidance of creative passion (see next)
Major productivity milestones in my life: (1) micro-rules (1983), (2) tasklists (1993), (3) Plan (2000), and hopefully (4) creativity juggling (2023)

Warning! If the above testimony makes you want to start super-hard work tomorrow, remember that micro-rules are the way. All milestones require adaptation that may take weeks, months or perhaps even years. If you plan a marathon tomorrow, you will only get injured!

Too many things on the plate

For me, in the early 2000s, maximizing productivity was easier. I had two interleaving and synergistic things to do: (1) learning with incremental reading, and (2) improving incremental reading technology. I was able to tackle some important issue, e.g. the neurophysiology of sleep, learning about sleep, learning how to learn better about sleep, and work on tools that would make learning more efficient. It was the time of the arrival of Wikipedia that assisted with all areas of learning needed to build good models of the studied phenomena.

Along the principles of the natural creativity cycle, the best time for creative effort comes in the morning. I start my day from 500 ml coffee and get down to work as soon as I sense the brain peak, which coincides with the end of drinking coffee. In the coffee slot, I seek inspiration with incremental video. I delve into interesting topics which seed my brain with new streamlets of creative inspiration. In the early 2000s, I would usually start from programming some rudimentary tools of incremental reading and interleave that with learning itself. I would often encounter bugs, problems or things needed fine tuning (such as countless heuristics used in the learning process). I would then go back to programming or spend more time learning while testing new tools. I had no morning dilemmas. My first creative slot was called SuperMemo and it looked very similar over the years.

Around the year 2016, I realized that I might be one of the most qualified people to speak about the need to end compulsory schooling. With 30 years of data, I have unique understanding of the dynamics of the process of acquiring knowledge in free learning. Incremental reading is a great model for free learning with an additional advantage of documenting all individual steps. I can see with mathematical precisions how interests grow and branch out, how new pieces of knowledge arrive and fade. I can model the process with an eye to the lifetime perspective [link: human knowledge]. In contrast, the school system keeps its short-term focus on cramming, grades, test and exams. It blinds people to the true nature of learning. As much as Peter Gray who devoted his life to studying free children, I have a unique window into my own learning process, which helps me see the parallels with a child brain or a rat's brain alike. The school system works against the achievement of the evolution. With this new realization, I started building up a set of new goals that suddenly populated my life with additional areas of activity. The synergy between learning, SuperMemo and educational freedom is powerful. However, I now live with a dilemma: what should I devote my first 30-120 minutes of the day to?

In 2017, I added incremental writing to my morning creativity set of activities. I experimented with two approaches: (1) project periods, and (2) Plan slot selectors.

In a "project period" approach, I would take a project, e.g. writing a text about optimum problem-solving strategies. I would devote 10-100 days to the project. In that time, my day would start from the project slot (e.g. writing), and SuperMemo would play second fiddle 1-3 hours later. For each project, I would use a different schedule template to optimize the allocation of time.

In "Plan slot selectors" approach, with no major project in focus, I would use the concept of multiple Activities in Plan. It would randomly allocate a selected slot as first. For example, it might be (a) writing (b) programming or (c) learning. Multiple activities may also be assigned to specific days of the week, e.g. writing on Monday, etc. In this automated approach, I would override Plan's choices when on a streak (e.g. when having an important text or an important procedure to finish).

In 2020, this approach was insufficient. Suddenly, I faced too many areas of creative involvement. Interestingly, some of those involved social media, which is a treacherous ground for a creative effort. As you may have noticed, social media has never been designed for incremental approach. Instead of assisting, it may have a net negative impact on productivity. Social media has a great power to inform, stimulate and inspire, however, it leads to "effort dispersion" that is counterproductive. If you write for Facebook or Twitter, your text may explode today and die tomorrow leaving little mark in human memory. It is the opposite of Wikipedia, which ensures a steady march towards modelling all essential human knowledge.

By mid-2023, I arrived at 7 major areas of creative effort that combine synergistically in my quest towards IVS. SuperMemo and learning with SuperMemo are still in the center. But now I also feel obliged to participate in the effort to abolish the compulsory school system. The latter cannot be relegated to my "stress slots" or "sports slots". As we now think of formulating a simple law that could provide a blueprint for other countries, I need to use my best morning brain for that area of activity from time to time. 7 areas might nicely fit into 7 days of the week; however, the proportions of emphasis are uneven. What is worse they are changing. This is when I came up with the experiment for "creativity juggling". Instead of starting my creative day with rule review and the creative slot determined by Plan, I would start from reviewing "peak passions" of the morning.

Creativity juggling

In the years 2021-2022, my productivity dropped as a result of my involvement in a school strike and school reform initiatives. This necessitated learning new areas of activity. This included social media. It became obvious that social media is designed for engagement, not productivity. To get a grip on productivity in social media, I employed SuperMemo tools of which tasklists are essential to prop up a robust Plan schedule. However, the increase in the number of projects I am involved in, necessitated also a major rethink of my morning creativity. In 2023, I started experimenting with productivity juggling to maximize productivity while seeking minimum damage to the power of a creative thought.

Here is the outline of the original idea:

  • List of activities: produce the list of the activities or projects that are most dependent on the creative insight: Activities. These are the activities that dramatically lose on their effect if executed at later hours of the day. For example, writing texts like this one must happen at the time of peak brain. Otherwise, they lose on core qualities. Spelling, structure or grammar may be relegated to less creative hours. However, the creative chaos of the morning is essential for capturing the core value (with passion). When a big idea hits, even a few days of delay may deprive it of the fresh spark of new associations. At that time, expanding upon an idea becomes as inefficient as homework at school. At times, even the most essential core is hard to recapture in its essence. The old creative rule is to strike iron while its hot. Document the thought in a way that it can be decoded later without a need to retrace the train of thought
  • List of tasks for each activity: each project is naturally governed by a tasklist or an incremental reading process. However, some ideas at the top of the list are always richest in creative fruits, or tangible fruits that are a measure of productivity. Those top ideas or pursuits (Tasks) need to be kept fresh in mind. I keep the list of Activities in a collection called tasks.kno, and each activity is adorned with a few keywords, which are notes on projects or tasks that are most vibrant, most essential or most urgent. For example, in the activity School revolution, I may have a creative job of organizing independent vectors (a formula for organizing most active people into a form of social concept network), or an urgent 2-minute jobs of an "e-mail to the new minister of education". The collection tasks.kno on its own is 2 decades old and groups all tasks that cannot be classified into main task categories corresponding with activity slots on the schedule (e.g. buy a new chair, organize a folder on a disk, write an important e-mail, etc.)
  • Resolve the dilemma: every day, instead of reading the rules, or setting up a schedule template, before my Plan schedule is even ready, I start with a slot called Dilemma (i.e. creativity-productivity dilemma). In this slot I read my Activities with their key Tasks. In this process I see which specific tasks spark most creative passion. This is not an approach based on priority or tasks/value ratio. It is just a rudimentary introspection that tells me how much of a creative push a given task can receive. In other words, passion is the main decider here
  • Set up schedule: once my choice was made, I set up a schedule, and move the relevant slot directly to follow the "dilemma" slot

The time needed to resolve the productivity-creativity dilemma may range from seconds to long minutes. The cost is zero when I am working on a small project that requires a few days to complete. Upon waking, I instinctively know what that slot is. There is no dilemma, and there is no cost. However, there are also days where the answer is unclear. Ether there is a crowding of important inspiration, or the reverse, I wake up uninspired. Nothing seems to loom as the passionate topic of the day. In those cases, scanning the list with focus and deliberation helps settle the mind. Some tasks may lose their shine. The list itself may seem stale and reviewing tasks for a given activity may be the best strategy.

Interestingly, passion tends to spark more passion. When I noticed that a specific activity starts dominating, reviewing the other activities starts being cursory. This is the time, when another criterion may come into play: activity neglect. This is why, on a day when a major project is over, and no clear new winner comes to the top, I use the criterion of neglect. I ponder where the inevitable neglect built up to the highest degree. Picking up a task from a neglected activity has an inevitable effect of the revival of passions. All my prime areas of activity are no less than fascinating. All it takes to boost the passion is to do a bit of work in the area.

Is the above approach going to make a major change in my life? I do not know. It feels so. I still hear complaints from all quarters about neglecting opportunities. However, the presented approach seems to minimize the damage that stems from having only one life, one day per day, and too many areas where others bank on you.

New Year 2024 resolutions

While many people make New Year's resolution, I am relatively helpless. With a Titanic of a maze of micro-rules, it is very difficult to change the course. It is hard to add new goals, or even change the trajectory towards the goals. As much as knowledge undergoes consolidation leading to an increase in the inertia of models, so is a life of a productivity freak. Thus 2024 will not differ much from 2023. My life will still be dominated by learning, health, education and SuperMemo. I cannot even decide to lose a kilogram or two because even "dieting" can be only achieved by harmonizing the lifestyle (see: Optimal diet).

For comfort, I have a little tradition based on a nice superstition: "whatever you do at midnight on New Year's Eve will dominate your life in the newly arrived year". This is relevant for this text. I resolve my productivity dilemma first thing in the morning. This time I took the dilemma approach to midnight 2023/2024. What should I do in hope of influencing my mindset in 2024. My first thought was to pick the area that is most neglected. Perhaps more consistent sports that were messed up with ridiculous micro-injuries in 2023. Perhaps more time for plugging up potholes in SuperMemo 19 along user requests? Perhaps outstanding mail that calls for new strategies due to a never-ending pile up?

In the end, I chose simple repetitions in SuperMemo. This choice was dictated by the fact that incremental reading has a magic quality of creatively enhancing my reasoning in all areas. It is unpredictable. It may boost my knowledge of health, brain, history, or education. It may spark a new idea. At midnight, I hit some old item about calcitonin. Repetition was dated as "made" at 10 sec. past midnight. It prompted some research on correlations between the levels of this and other hormones with schooling, helplessness and depression. Nothing special, except for a chance to reiterate once again that creativity forms the basis of a happy and productive life. Good choice. Good test for the "productivity dilemma" approach.

When in no particular creative urge, incremental reading is a good resolution of the productivity dilemma

Happiness factor

While going into detailed analysis of the productivity dilemma, I realized that I missed a vital ingredient in my formula for happy life. There is a happiness-generating magic in tasklists (and SuperMemo collections in general). On one hand there is no limit to the number of ideas (or tasks). This eliminates the FOMO component of modern life (esp. in social media). On the other, on the worst of worst days, I can peek into my options, and there are always so many that I can match the worst day: sleepy, injured, overwhelmed, stressed, whatever. The key to intelligence is freedom of choice. Similarly, the key to happy life is a great deal of options to choose from at any given moment. If your day starts with an array of happy choices, by a good pick you maximize productivity and the associated happy state of mind. This is the opposite of what an average kid on the planet faces today in his day of compulsory schooling.

Intelligence is based on the freedom of choice. Physics drives the brain to reward intelligence. This is why rich options are a key to rich reward.