Effectiveness and our bad intuition towards it

My childhood home is having made some reparations at the moment. Old walls are torn down, new ones are build. It is a long and expensive process, so I told my parents that I would lend a hand. My job was to clean the old bricks from mortar and cement, so that they may be reused. Also, the dust is dangerous for plants and animals, so I had to be carefull to collect the dust in a large container. I quickly reckoned that this would take a long time. I had an entire wall of bricks that need to be broken down, collected, cleaned and stacked.


I started this project by stacking the bricks on pallet, and scraping the old binding material with sandpaper. I had properly done this for nearly three hours, when one of our workmen noticed that I made very little progress. He came back with a screwdriver and two boards, measured the length of the brick and fastened the boards one bricks length from each other, so that I could fix the stones between them. This small insertion took about 2 minutes, by I was amazed at how much my speed improved. When the stones was not sliding away from me, I could clear the rocks a lot quicker. I was even more amazed, that I did not realise that I could make this change myself.

This revelation of making small adjustment with virtually no material or time costs, but with huge upsides seems constantly present in any project where a lot of effort is to be exerted over a long time period. The problem is that our intuitions is often fighting us because we don’t feel productive when we evaluate. We like to work without interruptions. Hence, we often misread evaluating our process with taking a break. I think Bill Gates summarised it beautifully when he said: “always chose a lazy person to do a difficult job, because he will find an easy way to do it” .

The problem is that evaluating a process takes mental energy. Something that is incredibly energy intensive. On average the human brain consumes about 25% of the caloric intake during a normal day despite only being 2% of our body weight. Hence, our brain does everything it can to limit cognitive tasks. As a result, the brain has two main modes of operation, often conceptualised in the names given by nobel laureate Daniel Kahnmann, system 1 and system 2. System 1 is our modus operandi, it is automatic, intuitive, quick and unconscious but prone to error. Sytem 2 is deliberate, conscious, cognitively straining and slow but reliable. “2+2?” is a system 1 question. We know intuitively the answer was “4”. “7 x 546” is system 2 question, it requires deliberate attention and the answer (which is 3822) is not intuitive. 

When we repeat a process a couple of times, it becomes a system 1 task, so we stop thinking about it. That is the moment where we need to be conscious of alternatives. We need to step back and evaluate. Can this be done better?

There is nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, but sometimes it is a hindrance to being productive. We need to reframe breaks as a part of being effective, rather than sluggishness. As Abraham Lincoln famously was quoted: "Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe."