The supply chain and distribution network behind a simple product, like a lamp, is ridiculously intricate and complex. Chances are the lamp had to cross the seas, move through customs, hit a warehouse, get distributed via trucks or planes, hit the stores, get deboxed and brought out to the sales floor for a given store. And somewhere along the way, all of this needs to be coordinated.
Think of the sheer number of people involved, the time, the effort. But, somehow, we can keep massive grocery stores perfectly stocked with a few thousands different types of items. So, although the supply chain is exceedingly complex, the network becomes more efficient with increases in scale and follows a few basic principles.
If you consider the end product of thought and action — be it a novel, new business etc. — it too follows a mental supply chain of sorts, going from conception to finalization.
This post examines ways to improve the mental supply chain — decreasing the time/effort between thought and action and increasing efficiency overall.
1) Maximize Flow
The fewer times a product needs to be “touched” before getting to the shelves, the less expensive it is to get it there. Video games that require additional security, more re-stockings etc. will obviously be more expensive to get to the shelves than say, paper towels which can be handled in bulk.
Similarly, every time you pick up a task, drop it, and then pick it back up, the more “expensive” it is in terms of time/effort to complete it. For instance, don’t read an email with the “intention” of going back to it later with a response. If you’re going to read email, then bloody hell, respond to your emails at the same time! Don’t be that email reader that never writes back.
Whenever you can, commit yourself to completing as much of a task as possible in one go. This doesn’t mean write a novel in one sitting. This means when you’re going to sit down and write a novel, sit down and write an entire chapter with no coffee/email/food/soda/tv interruptions. Just do it.
2) Better your coordination across time
In a large corporation, you’ll find that there’s a lot of people whose primary responsibility is funneling communication to the right people. Vendor A has a problem who tells person B who then decides to forward it to person C who then funnels it to person D who will know people E and F who can solve the problem. With each jump of person, you have that transaction cost of having to become familiar with the problem and then actually figuring out what to do afterwards.
Similarly, if you need to break a large project into multiple steps — say a history paper — decrease the amount of time it takes for you to “re-familiarize” yourself with what you did the other day:
- Recency: Don’t let weeks pass between different phases of the project. It’s easier to pick up fact researching a day or two afterwards than a week. We’re all busy people. We all have short term memories.
- Provide yourself with guidance: Don’t you hate it when you go back to continue writing something and you don’t quite remember where you wanted to go with it to begin with? Jot yourself a few notes. Doesn’t have to be too coherent, but anything like “talk more about the King’s sordid history, more detail in Mary, recap birth of Louis” will be a God-send later.
- Determine optimal time chunk size: If you’re only going to write for 15 minutes a day for four days, you might as well write an hour every four days. You’ll need to figure out the optimal amount of time needed for a given project chunk. Too short, and you spend more time re-familiarizing yourself than actually doing work. Too long, and you burn out and perform poorly.
3) Moving up the Supply Chain is expensive
We have all experienced a time when we rolled out what we thought was a fantastic paper, only to find that we completely missed the point. Even if you’re given the opportunity to re-write, you’ve wasted all this time/energy and you still need to spend much more to recoup the loss.
So, do it right the first time. This means:
- Careful forecasting: Take that extra half an hour to drop by office hours and make sure you even understand that question. Time in the beginning is worth five fold downstream.
- Contingency planning: Have checks-and-balances built into your system. Maybe two weeks in, you want to double check with your professor to make sure you’re doing something correctly. Maybe you should think up two or three research questions in case your first proposal gets shot down. It’s easier to re-adjust course when you haven’t strayed too far.
- Double checking: Data entry is a prime example of a menial, easy task that can be easily screwed up and have major repercussions down the road. Take that extra 10 minutes to make sure you have all the elements you need or that you performed simple multiplication correctly. Don’t underestimate this step.
4) Efficiencies of Scale
If you’re new to this, applying all these considerations to just one project is going to blow. The awesomeness comes in, the more you double check to ensure that the PROCESS you’re using is appropriate, the more natural it is, the better you are at it, and the faster you can do most things.
Yes, it’s an investment to actually carefully complete a task deliberately when you’re used to pulling all nighters, but it’ll serve you much better in the long run.