This text is by far the most important text I’ve ever written. That’s not to say that it is the best written or that my most important text has any importance whatsoever in the grand scheme of things. That is just to say that this is the most important piece of advice I have to offer people interested in the “productivity” cluster of themes.
(Crazy) people keep taking me for some kind of productivity “expert”, which is patently absurd. I’m just the old man, Internet veteran who happens to be both an universal early-adopter and an aggressive generalist. Instead of summarizing what I’ve seen in 15+ years of “experience” with productivity systems I’ll just present the most simple and non intrusive yet obscure system I’ve grappled with, which tellingly may even be interpreted as a kind of “anti-productivity system”. On the other hand, perhaps surprisingly so, this system is as data-driven as the most sophisticated ones.
Warning: in this text I only deal with the “philosophical foundations” of the system, not with its mechanistic part. If you find it useful, go implement the concepts in your own way. Or wait for me to write about the ways I have or have not tried to use it for running my own life. Note that I’m the “theory guy”, so adjust your expectations accordingly.
(For the reasons I’m deeply skeptical about the benefits of the adoption of any kind of personal productivity system, see this text; sadly it was originally written in Portuguese.)
I’ve finally came up with the time – or rather, with the correct design of self shaming system – to propel me to organize my general notes on a hypothetical AJATT-style personal productivity “system”. (Meaning mostly “just type the small handwritten collection of notes I made from various Matsumoto’s texts approximately 3 years ago.” Why would anyone take handwritten notes from a web page? I dunno.))
For those not in the know, AJATT stands for “All Japanese All The Time”, a popular website from ancient times (now defunct), embodying both a collection of specific language learning techniques and its author’s personal philosophies about what ‘productivity’ is about. It’s basically “productivity for typical human beings” (instead of idealized superheroes), with minimal but critical support of “technology”. AJATT’s famous motto was
Don’t learn it, live it, get used to it.
AJATT’s author called himself “Matsumoto”, and he’s allegedly one of the four gurus of language learning as far as autodidacts are concerned. (The other three being Steve Kauffman, Alexander Arguelles and Michel Thomas. Theory of Instruction is behind all of them. Good old Zig Engelmann effectively made education a solved problem; it’s a shame that no one knows this. Also note that almost all of them deal with or make heavy use of the spacing effect, manually, or of space repetition software. For more on spaced repetition see this text.)
Who the hell is this Matsumoto guy, anyway?
Basically, I don’t know, and I’m not particularly interested anyway. But as far as I can tell, he is an African American male insanely interested in Anime and many other aspects of the Japanese culture, and he decided to put himself in a position most humans would find to be somewhat uncomfortable: he went to Japan with a level of knowledge of Japanese that was not enough for him to function properly, and put forth a radical strategy of immersion in the language and culture (but no formal, institute-centered study) – e.g. consuming not a single piece of media or information in any other language -, eventually ending up “fluent as a native” Japanese speaker, allegedly in a tiny fraction of the time any sophisticated learning method would be able to do (actually, no typical method would be able to do that anyway). The blog was his way of sharing what he discovered in the process, to as many people as possible. Then he proceeded to apply much of the same principles to learn chinese Cantonese, with the same rate of success I guess.
I’ve never been a Japanese-language learner myself (only now hopelessly adventuring into some chinese Mandarin); so I’ve always been into Matsumoto’s writing mainly for his vision on general productivity. (Of course, language learning-wise, his method is language-agnostic; so if what you want a productivity system for is to optimize your language learning experience you may find some of these notes helpful as well.)
As the notes were sparse, it all seemed to went well in a sort of “expanded tweetstorm” format. Plus a lot of bullet points.
Aim to fail
Massive failure is one of the keys to success. Failure needs to be sought actively. You should then find or build a mechanism that allows you to fail a lot. In the less consequential ways possible, I mean.
It doesn’t make sense trying to “strike surgically” at the beginning of a very long, fundamentally uncertain process. That should be reserved for mature mindsets (the opposite of that of a beginner), one you can only acquire by (rationally) making room for a lot of (low cost) failures.
Make failure as cheap as possible, as measured in terms of time, money, effort, emotion, etc. (Children are naturally way better than anyone at this, for rather obvious reasons.)
Because the goal is too far away (e.g. becoming “fluent” or decently competent at comprehending, reading, speaking and writing a foreign language), one should try to ignore the immediate failure-point at hand, and get excited about the overall process-function.
Of course that’s easier said than done for grown-ups. Society’s biased towards outcomeism/resultism, a cultural state-of-affairs that, beyond its obvious benefits (though I’m probably overestimating those benefits), can lead to short-sightedness, stress, and “ethical lapses”, to say the least.
Focus on building a trend/habit/process that’s guaranteed to decrease ignorance over time, on starting tasks instead of finishing them. In a sense you can’t ”physically” finish a learning or skill acquisition task, just experience its effects.
Matsumoto cites three paths to “achievement”:
- paths based on goal-focused models don’t work because, contrary to modern beliefs, identifying or making up your values and goals are actually the “easy” part of the process of properly functioning in this world; having a viable implementation is what matters, values and goals should be discovered and updated along the path.
- paths based on the infamous planner model are what society thinks to be the only viable, responsible way to go about living your life; people, institutions and society as a whole are said to be “lacking in planning”, that supposedly explains all existing problems at once (that’s a ridiculous option that doesn’t deserve further thinking).
- paths based on a more nuanced player model: over time, the player causes the points to form a trend, but there’s no actual line to be followed through; at every point, the person makes a choice that’s both fun (this part is important) and takes her closer to the goal; deviation is even actively sought through experimentation (play).
Individuals or even small groups don’t have the resources to waste on writing impossible plans. Plans that are almost certainly going to be thrown out anyway. (You’ll likely feel so bad with the failure that you’ll not even keep track of the specifics of the failure and won’t start a learning cycle. Because it’s almost certain that you’ll feel like having failed at life itself.)
The most specific, detailed plans and processes you could ever conceive are not even close to the hypothetical, theoretical first best currently “available”. On the other hand, the meta-process implied by the player model (“make it fun, iterate a lot, fail a lot, and tweak to win”) is virtually “indestructible”.
Warning: Making your own plans, especially if it is deemed “creative” by comparison, especially if it effectively seems like an “anti-plan”, is considered dangerous. Schools and any other big, tradicional organization operating in the old economy actively tries to kill your maneuverability in order to get you to follow someone else’s plan. But they do so in a way that keeps a superficial sense of freewill. In the case of the school system, having a universal, single plan makes it easier for them to grade students’ performances, among other things.
So you should focus your resources on deciding what you’re going to do next. That’s a process that is practically guaranteed to give you some kind of “instant gratification”. Of course you should have some “decision support system” in order to make that decision, but it will be more like two-lines of code. Also: you’re not favouring instant gratification for instant gratification’s sake. The goal is to avoid delaying gratification in unhelpful ways, mostly for signaling purposes (that’s what the old society thinks to be the only way to unambiguously signal your worth as a human being: by maximizing effort, independently of its effect on actual results.) Do something. Ultimately “anything” counts (compared to “doing nothing”, “doing something someone else said you to do” or being trapped in a cycle of analysis paralysis).
Hypothesis: Modern work is mostly “mental”. It’s also large, fuzzy and unclear in scope, at least compared with ancient times. We don’t have access anymore to the small, guaranteed satisfaction that comes with the completion of a small physical task. For a fairly large share of humanity, not being able to “win” soon is practically the same as not being able to win at all.
The secret to generating “utility” from your learning or skill-acquisition activities is mostly doing only “fun stuff”. Do you remember The Procrastination Equation (the book)? It make it famous a description of procrastination behavior that the author embedded in an informal equation that named the book. Matsumoto proposed a slightly different version of it that goes like the following:
Utility = (Expectancy x Value)/(Proneness to distractions x Delay)
Now, let’s define things:
- Utility: “how much you want”; which here we consider to be at least highly correlated with “how much fun I’ll have”);
- Expectancy: how much confidence you have in getting the task at hand done;
- Value: how important and/or sucky said task is;
- Proneness to distractions: given environmental stimuli, “bad” habits, etc.
- Delay (of the gratification): related to an existing deadline, a due date, a measure of how long you’ll have to do the task at hand.
Most ultra-popular self-help books could be categorized along those variables. For example, most Tony Robbins (of the Neurolinguistic Programming fame)’s books seem to focus on the “expectancy” variable, Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” is dedicated to the “value” variable, Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” focus on the “proneness to distractions” variable, etc. Note that the all-immersive environment Matsumoto himself used in order to learn Japanese also focus on minimizing distractions (in a radical way). With regards to the “delay” variable, two of the most important techniques available are:
- timeboxing: considering specific timeframes is the only way one is allowed to think about time within the AJATT universe; deadlines are strictly prohibited.
- spaced repetition (note it appears almost everywhere): it’s even potentially addictive and you’re actively incentivized to timebox the SRS sessions themselves.
Okay, but what about that (looong) period you suck so hard at the skill you’re trying to acquire?
There’s no way out here, you’ll have to try to forget your current position and focus on your velocity. There are only two variables to keep track now:
- direction: it basically entails “just showing up” (given an adequate environment, with the appropriate level of immersion and free of obvious distractions);
- magnitude of speed: basically how quickly you’re racking up those number of hours one is supposed to practice in order to master a skill.
Here’s Matsumoto himself:
Forget the past, pay no attention to how quickly you are or are not progressing. Let go of the future. Don’t worry about ‘estimated time of arrival’ at your destination or about you ‘probability of success’.
Physical actions that led to becoming great at something are as simple as any activity involved in menial jobs. What you need is a mindset that is curiosity- or interest-driven one:
- never set out to learn something in a specific amount of time;
- succeed by giving up trying to control the process;
- any daily progress is better than no progress; keep low standards if you will; don’t compare yourself with anyone or anything.
You can have, do, or be “anything”, but you can’t have, do or be everything (and that one hurts a lot on me). For the language learning case, learning something effectively may come from immersion, and the cost of it is giving up your native language for quite some time (including people, literature, food, etc.). But remember it is only temporary; otherwise, if you fail, don’t blame it on your natural learning ability.
It seems legit to relate Matsumoto’s “system” with the Growth Mindset, which, in very simple and rude terms, somehow amounts to concluding that convincing people – especially children – that it’s only or mostly effort that matters in skill acquisition/success (rather than natural predisposition) – even when it’s clearly not the case – is a way better choice both for them and for society as a whole. It sums up to promoting a useful delusion, to making a utilitarian choice of beliefs. But I think AJATT-productivity is different, because it proposes an actual underlying system or mechanism with which to naturally converge to your destination, with almost no hard expectations in place. The primary explicit goal is to enjoy the process. There’s no guilt; “if you’re not having fun, it’s because you’re doing it wrong”.
In a sense, the “system” embodies an algorithm designed for people who are neither smart, nor talented, nor disciplined, to win anyway. It promises (eventual) success without suffering/struggle. You will win the game (against nature) of mastering the thing you want to do expertly, not the zero-sum status game most people are playing. It’s practical long term thinking (rather than intellectual long term thinking). There’s a first, “engineering” step, when you design your system. After that ideally you forget about the system. You just build “the flow”, then go with it.