TSR's Series on Celerity — A Summary

The Strategic Review Series on Celerity is an eleven-parts mailing list series written by Sebastian Marshall.

The subject is celerity, roughly speed as a trait of character: moving fast as in business, not necessarly as in a race. The series explains what celerity is and how to achieve it.

Here are the titles of the ten parts (parenthesized annotations are mine):

  1. Frenzied Genius (Suppression)
  2. Power Laws (Exponential Growth)
  3. Attrition and Maneuver
  4. Cohesion
  5. Sociotechnical Alignment
  6. Pace (Maximum vs Maximum Sustainable Speed)
  7. Windows of Opportunity
  8. Surface Area (Many Simultaneous Problems)
  9. Threshold Breaks
  10. Speed of Execution (Project Selection)
  11. Effectiveness First

The series is full of interesting insights tied around a common purpose, and I thought it was important enough to deserve a one-page summary. I still encourage you to read the original, especially for the vivid historical comparisons that I often had to cut for the sake of brevity. I've put a link to the original at the start of the summary for each issue.


Celerity is as much a character trait as it as actual speed. Some people are regularly able to do things much more quickly than others, and those people tend – unsurprisingly – to get a lot more done in life.

The advantages to Celerity are fairly straightforward – there's many things in life that are worth doing. By accomplishing them faster, you can do more of what matters to you. Even when you have things that aren't particularly meaningful but which you're somewhat stuck doing (admin, paperwork, taxes) – getting them done as quickly as possible frees you back up to get on with what matters.

When you analyze where speed actually comes from, it usually isn't just trying harder to "go faster" – the Mongol horse archers, for instance, typically rode with 3-4 horses per soldier. Their famous speed didn't come from whipping the horses to ride harder and having them break down, but from changing horses regularly on the journey and traveling light with very little supplies needed.

The way to gain celerity – to become fast-as-a-character-trait – is often about small variables and far-upstream decisions that often might not seem to relate much to speed at all.

It can be a little counterintuitive. You can't just will "I want to go faster" – without the relevant design, infrastructure, and thinking that allows you to go faster. Of course, this makes perfect sense when you think it through, write it down, and read it – but most people don't think it through, write it down, or read it; most people also don't go very fast.

The cultivation of celerity isn't raw speed. Hastening your way to a loss is not celerity.

The world is a marvelous and amazing place – there's so many things worth doing. Building speed into your thinking and character is worthwhile – it can then be flexibly deployed into getting whatever you want. But first and foremost, you have to figure out what's worth moving fast towards.

01. Frenzied Genius (Suppression)

🔗 original issue

Impulse or impetus – the arising of an urge or cue to go do things. We're feeling these all the time. There's hunger, or the need to go to the bathroom; likewise, remembering an old friend out of the blue and wanting to write them a note, or remembering some recent event and wanting to learn the facts of it – like who won the recent Dutch election?

Suppression or control effect – the overriding or contextualizing of an impulse or behavior we desire to do. We put diapers on very small children because they can't suppress the desire to discharge their bowels after feeling that impulse. Likewise, concentration involves suppressing urges to look up who won the recent Dutch election if we're doing important work.

[...] One hears – one does not seek; one takes--one does not ask who gives: a thought suddenly flashes up like lightning, it comes with necessity, unhesitatingly – I have never had any choice in the matter.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

This quote illustrates something close to maximum anti-suppression.

The right amount of personal suppression is a tricky thing. Nietzsche had strong opinions on this, talking about how art, at its best, involved a blend of the influences of the gods Apollo and Dionysus – Apollo being law, order, and control; Dionysus being chaos, disorder, liberation.

Getting the precise right amount of suppression is tricky. An inability to make unique or new works of art, to evaluate and weigh the merits of controversial ideas – heck, an inability to take social or interpersonal risks come as a result of suppression.

When we procrastinate, it can come from either side of impulse and suppression – it might be that we have impulses that we fail to suppress; or it might be that we feel a generalized weight against doing whatever action occurs to us, and we don't follow it through.

Nietzsche went frenzied notably because he ruined his reputation, travelled constantly, used opium heavily and had a very poor health.

Nietzsche's ability to produce an immense amount in a frenzied manic genius only was possible because he built a huge background of knowledge and skill – he had 10-15 years of constant and diligent thinking and scholarship before he flipped the switch and began to act in a more frenzied way.

If Nietzsche had been max-anti-suppression from the age of 14, he would have accomplished nothing.

It would be natural to ask if it was worth it, but who cares? Most of us won't choose Nietzsche's path. He broke down mentally at only 44 years old. There are many diagnoses, but there is no doubt that the way he lived must have exacerbated the condition.

Nietzsche wrote the frist draft of "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" in 10 days. In 10 days, Nietzsche wrote one of the most important 100 pages in modern history. Most people won't ever have a run of 10 days like those. Who has? Winston Churchill? Mustafa Kemal? But these are war leaders. Who, in peace, has 10 days like Nietzsche's best 10 days? These 10 days were hundreds of time more productive than 10 solid productive days for most people. And yet the cost is too high.

While it's somewhat abstract and the exact patterns of implementation are very personal, thinking through what mix of suppression is in your life long-term (culture, society, reputation) and short-term (habits, consumption, intoxicants, training, sleep schedules, behavior, escapism) can easily unlock 3%, 5%, 10%, or much higher gains on a regular basis.

02. Power Laws (Exponential Growth)

🔗 original issue

Compound interest is an exponential growth rate, not a fixed linear amount of growth.

Exponential growth rates can be a lot better, but humans are bad at naturally understanding them. The human brain, it seems, is just not well-primed to understand how exponential growth diverges so heavily from linear growth. If you get 10% on $100, you get $159.37 in 10 years.

That's better – it's, well, it's 59% higher. But it's not shockingly better in absolute terms; the brain naturally tends to fail to notice the huge tidal wave of gains that's about to hit. In 20 years, the fixed growth gets +$200; the compounded growth gets +$572.75… and it keeps growing. 30 years is +$300 or +$1644.94.

Maybe compound interest is boring to people because 20 or 30 years seems like a long time. But the thing is, compounding exponential gains can happen on any timeframe – in startups, Paul Graham advocates for looking for compound business growth on a weekly basis.

Norswap's note: If you grow at X% per time unit, it will take you ~70/X time units to double your capital.

If instead you had a new business making $100 per week (which is a measly $5200 per year), and you grew your revenues 10% per week, you'd make only $110 in week two… but at week 31, you'd be making $1744.94 per week – or over $90,000 per year. In just 30 weeks. That's pretty exciting. Most of us can get excited about that kind of growth.

Three forces are arrayed against long-term compounding exponential growth:

  1. Carrying capacity: at some point, everyone in the whole world will own an iPhone and every city will have a lot of Starbucks locations, and then growth will slow down.

  2. Operations and scaling: things seem to get harder to manage, or at least different, as they get bigger.

  3. People don't search out for exponential growth opportunities.

It's not just that if you want to succeed in some domain, you have to understand the forces driving it. Understanding growth is what starting a startup consists of. What you're really doing (and to the dismay of some observers, all you're really doing) when you start a startup is committing to solve a harder type of problem than ordinary businesses do. You're committing to search for one of the rare ideas that generates rapid growth. Because these ideas are so valuable, finding one is hard. The startup is the embodiment of your discoveries so far. Starting a startup is thus very much like deciding to be a research scientist: you're not committing to solve any specific problem; you don't know for sure which problems are soluble; but you're committing to try to discover something no one knew before. A startup founder is in effect an economic research scientist. Most don't discover anything that remarkable, but some discover relativity.

-- Paul Graham

Howard Schultz (Starbucks) saw an opportunity for premium-priced coffee in nice locations, and saw that it was largely unfilled. As soon as he realized that his stores were profitable, he raced to expand Starbucks at the fastest rate that he could without having operations and management break down. He succeeded.

That's the game right here:

  1. Basic math
  2. Basic logic and thinking-through implications
  3. Constant testing and experimenting to search for exponential growth

The book Traction has some great practical guides on how to do it in entrepreneurship, and just about all of Paul Graham's essays are worth reading – these are good starting points to start thinking about it more.

03. Attrition and Maneuver

🔗 original issue

This issue explores the difference between taking an attrition approach or a maneuver approach – both in warfare, and in general life.

Attrition is wearing down an opponent or a challenge through sheer and repeated force: "charging the machine guns".

Maneuver warfare is slightly less straightforward – it involves assessing critical points in the enemy and reaching those at the lowest possible cost using speed, surprise, and innovation. The general idea is go around the most heavily defended points of the enemy and strike as what's vulnerable – if successful, this comes at much lower cost and much greater efficiency.

The theory is straightforward. Go around the machine guns instead of charging the machine guns. The practice is much harder, for two reasons –

  1. The concept seems unnatural and unintuitive to humans. Overwhelmingly, the first instinct and response of humans to problems seems to be to charge them head on.

  2. It's often very straightforward how to fight along established lines and conventions, whereas it's almost always non-obvious how to successfully maneuver around strong points effectively.

This issue focuses on the first problem: the concept seems unnatural. Further issues (in particular 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9) will expound on the factors that make or break the maneuver approach.

Most of the errors of attrition warfare can be attributed to two in-built flaws typical to humans – fixation and sunk cost effects.

Fixation is becoming obsessed with a particular thing. Exemple: During the Gettysburg battle, general Robert E. Lee believed he was close to a victory (by the third day, he wasn't) and that he needed a victory there (he didn't). He thus turned a minor loss into a very bad loss.

A counter example for fixation: During the second Punic War, Roman general Scipio Africanus ignored Hannibal entirely and focused on weaker commanders in Carthage's power base in Spain, and then invaded North Africa and launched some very effective surprise raids against Carthage. The Romans never beat Hannibal in the field in Italy, but he was recalled and had to leave Italy by maneuvering around his local superiority.

Sunk costs magnify the effects – during WW2, both the Allied naval assault and amphibious landings at Gallipoli had a chance to succeed when they were launched with speed and surprise, but after the Ottoman Turks had defended the initial assaults, the Allies and British in particular became very concerned about "prestige" – thus they kept reinforcing an objectively terrible position with more and more troops, slowly pouring units into Gallipoli in terrible unsanitary positions, overlooked by well-defended Turkish positions. Eventually, they left Gallipoli not with a minor defeat, but with one of the worst defeats in British history.

The obvious thing to do in most situations is the obvious thing – but the obvious thing is also often the most expensive in terms of material resources and psychology. The victories in such situations are the most expensive and exhausting – Pyrrhic victories.

The human tendency is to attrition-away at problems, both in military operations and in everyday life. The temptation is to see a large problem and go right after it, fixating on it, and thus being denied the potential to see more creative and less expensive ways around and through the problem.

Sunk cost effects multiply the problems – once failure starts to set in, human nature is often to throw more and more force after it, turning small defeats into outright catastrophes.

Both of these, of course, are devastating to celerity – speed is not achieved by focusing on an intractable and brutally expensive problem and attritioning away at it forever; it's achieved by spotting more cost-effective and innovative ways around problems to get at gains.

04. Cohesion

🔗 original issue

Why have so many wars throughout history bogged down into attrition warfare? After all, the long historical record has shown maneuver-oriented commanders to be much more successful (e.g. Hannibal, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte). Meanwhile, attrition warfare always came at exceedingly high cost even in victory, and often led even the stronger side to horrific defeat.

Partially this can be attributed to human nature – as discussed last issue.

And yet... often, there would be voices of insight and innovation within a camp that would nevertheless up taking a disastrous approach. The challenge is, holding firm to a non-obvious plan is hard to do when human factors get in the way.

To gain the gains and advantages of speed through creativity and unorthodox approaches, you need cohesion.

In order to make a genuinely innovative plan succeed, there are a number of factors you need – the first we could call sociotechnical alignment, meaning having people, technology, and resources work effectively together. This will be discussed in the next issue.

But once you understand your capabilities and are well-trained in them, a few more things are required:

  1. See the problem
  2. Unit cohesion: the ability for multiple people to execute together
  3. Speed, especially around windows of opportunity (cf. issue 7)
  4. Cohesion: getting every element of strategy, timing, people, technology, goals, and leadership working together.

Two historical examples: Germany's Schleiffen Plan during WW1, and the British assault on Gallipoli during WW2.

The Schleiffen Plan called for the germans to fight defensively, with minimal forces, against the Russians on the eastern front. The goal was to deploy almost all their forces against France on the western front, and knock it out of the war as quickly as possible.

The Schleiffen Plan had called for both sacrifice and surprise. Sacrifice, in that the Russians would have been able to do a lot of damage in the east as the price for pouring all of the German Empire's soldiers into France. This is also precisely why it would be surprising. But general Moltke couldn't do it; or at least, didn't do it.

The British made similar errors at Gallipoli. The high command had been willing to sacrifice up to a dozen obsolete warships to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. But the Admiral leading the attack was not fully onboard with the plan; he was unwilling to sacrifice the ships. In the end, half of the ships were lost and the Ottoman Empire was still in the war.

The British followed up the mistake by landing not-enough troops on the Gallipoli Peninsula. It was enough soldiers to lose in a drawn-out and brutal fashion, not enough to break through.

We see that this, too, becomes a sort of fixation. The Schleiffen Plan and the Gallipoli Naval Operations were both innovative maneuver-oriented plans. They were surprising and audacious. Neither plan was committed to enough to succeed, due to different incentives and indecision. As such, both plans were run uncohesively and led to disaster.

If a bunch of political stakeholders have different personal goals, and different traditions and preferences, plans get butchered and halfway-ran, which is often worse than running no plan at all.

Even if you're working solo on your endeavors, there's no doubt that we often get conflicted within ourselves – a desire for making large gains on one hand, for instance, and for not looking stupid on the other.

No matter how innovative or good your plans are, it's essential to be fully committed in the execution in them, and to have provisioned enough resources to them. This requires having all the people involved getting on the same page, and making require sacrifices. There's often major breakthroughs possible – but it's often not possible to make major breakthroughs simultaneously with doing a dozen other things.

05. Sociotechnical Alignment

🔗 original issue

In WW2, the first big initial innovation was the breach-loading rifle. It was easier to reload, even when prone, and became cheap to produce due to the industrial revolution. This means soldier could be trained in a matter of days, resulting in a large amount of soldiers available.

The second big innovation was more low key: it was the barbed wire. It completely stopped cavalry charges in war, and it took infantrymen a substantial amount of time to navigate it safely. Barbed wire in front of a trench, guarded by men with breach-loading rifles, was nearly impossible to approach with any chance of survival.

Whichever side was attacking was, almost without fail, going to take more losses. Unlike the old times, taking a fortified position meant little: the ennemy could build one just like it a bit further.

The two sides went on to develop two very different innovations to deal with this new reality.

The Germans went on to develop modern infiltration tactics. For this, they trained shock troopers equipped with a large number of grenades to overwhelm the ennemy, often after an artillery barrage. It was also possible to avoid strong points to pass behind ennemy lines, then navigate to the position where it was possible to do the most damage. Afterwards, conventional troops could clean up isolated pockets of ennemy forces.

The allies, on the other hand, developped the tank to break through trenches. Sebastian speculates it would have gone on to win the war had the armistice not been signed. On the other hand, German innovation had come close to breaking the front in the late stages of the war.

The Germans developped a soft technology, the allies a hard one. Hard technologies are material innovations, while soft technologies are systems, hierarchies, processes, management methods. Typically, the second is overlooked in favour of the first.

Both the largest opportunities and the largest perils in any era come from technological evolution – both hard technologies and soft.

When technology improves, it seems like the default human reaction is to try to do whatever happened in the past in a stronger and bigger way using the new technology. Indeed, the initial movements of World War I looked something like a larger and more destructive high-technology version of the Napoleonic Wars from 100 years previous.

Sociotechnical systems in organizational development is an approach to complex organizational work design that recognizes the interaction between people and technology in workplaces. […] sociotechnical theory is about joint optimization, that is, designing the social system and technical system in tandem so that they work smoothly together.

In other words, sociotechnical alignment is all about making hard and soft technologies work in tandem.

To navigate any situation well, you need to discern the universal principles that apply, as well as what specifics have recently changed.

When setting up sociotechnical systems, there are two things you should look out for:

  1. When something that was formerly expensive becomes inexpensive.

  2. When something that formerly required high skill to accomplish can later be achieved with low or no skill.

You shouldn't stop there, though – you should next ask yourself what soft technologies and different objectives would pair with the now-cheaper hard technologies.

Getting into alignment as such is where a lot of celerity comes from – when you're operating with the right technologies, with the right tactics, and aiming for goals and objectives that are only possible with new combinations, you can greatly outpace those who do not adopt such measures.

06. Pace (Maximum vs Maximum Sustainable Speed)

🔗 original issue

There's the maximum possible pace, which is going as all-out fast as possible, and which is typically sustainable only for a brief time.

Then there's the maximum sustainable pace, which is going at a rate that doesn't deplete your capabilities faster than you can replenish them. It's worth working towards reaching.

You can red-line and put in all-nighters with no sleep, consume heavy amounts of stimulants and simple carbohydrates for energy, neglect recharging and maintenance activities like leisure and fitness, and in doing this, you can do a much greater amount of work in a short period of time than you could if you were running at a sustainable pace.

Should you ever red-line yourself?

There's a variety of smart opinions on this. One opinion is that being forced to red-line is an error attributable to poor upstream planning. Another view is that red-lining occasionally, going closer to the maximum possible pace, is insightful in that it demonstrates what's possible in a crisis and gives you a better awareness of your capabilities under pressure.

A possible plan is to red-lining two or three times per year – say, once by choice, and responding to two crises or large emergent opportunities.

One shouldn't intentionally red-line too often, because it puts you in a fragile and dangerous state following the red-lining. If a major opportunity or crisis happens shortly after you've red-lined, you're ill-equipped to handle it. Better to red-line defensively and opportunistically rather than intentionally.

Issue 9 will deal with threshold breaks, but for now, suffice to say that it's one of the times that red-lining truly makes sense.

Often, there's a threshold that, if you pass it, it makes a huge difference. If you're going much faster than the maximum sustainable pace, you should know in advance when you can end it and recover from the damage you took. When there's a logical and obvious threshold or checkpoint to hit, this can help immensely. You red-line to get past a threshold of wins or gains, and then recover afterwards.

07. Windows of Opportunity

🔗 original issue

Seize opportunities when they present themselves.

Julius Caesar was certainly one of the figures in history who cultivated the most celerity – he moved quickly in all things, usually to his advantage. When the Senate threatened to make him a public enemy if he did not disband his legions, he crossed the Rubicon. He suppressed Pompey's loyalists in Spain rapidly, and then moved to bring the fight to Pompey in Greece.

A large part of the cultivation of celerity is in seizing opportunities, especially during a window when large gains can be made quickly and safely.

At the end of the day, major windows of opportunity are almost always going to come with some measure of fear. Almost by definition, it'll be something unusual or surprising. "Is this really possible... ? Could I really... ?"

I suspect this can be trained, to some extent, by rapidly moving on small opportunities. Seeing an opportunity to go to a conference, or speak at an event on short notice if one of the speakers dropped out, or traveling to a city to meet someone you find admirable on short notice. Some people naturally move very fast; most people do not. The ability to cut through fear and move quickly can be trained, probably in small and low-stakes situations. You could arbitrarily pick any unfamiliar event this weekend and attend it. That's a very unusual pattern for most people, but it can help for getting over fear.

With that said, a brief caution around impatience and impulsiveness. One of the most dangerous things is when you spot an opportunity as it's developing, barely miss it, and then jump into the fray late – it's a common human error.

If you're reasonably sure a company's stock is going to go up because it's doing well, but you neglect to buy it, and then you see it rapidly double or triple – a lot of people then jump in late, annoyed at themselves and neglecting to take the gain, and buy after the gains have happened.

08. Surface Area (Many Simultaneous Problems)

🔗 original issue

There are no quest logs in real life: you need to make your own, and seek worhty missions.

As individuals, there's only so much progress we can make at a given time. The last and fundamental limit becomes the fact that we only have 168 hours per week – even if doing everything else perfectly, we eventually run into this limit.

But practically speaking, oftentimes people get "bogged down" far before hitting that limit, and often it's only time or random feats of inspiration that break through. Renowned scientists and mathematicians would often get stuck on a particular problem for months or years before finally making a breakthrough.

The solution, then, is self-evident: learn about how to develop a greater surface area of opportunities in our own lives. Seek more worthy missions. They provide you with work to make progress on when you're bogged down, and might just provide you with the inspiration you need to break through.

More surface area (good people, interesting problems, new skills and techniques) lead to accomplishing more in life easier and faster.

People often view games as the opposite of work, but some sociologists believe games are an idealized form of work. "Most people find work rewarding; we have built-in emotional reward centers that encourage us to complete tasks"

At their most basic levels, work and play look a lot alike. The difference between the two is that games couch this kind of work in a fiction that makes them enjoyable. A game's narrative makes our choices feel significant enough that we buy into the game emotionally, and the feedback system encourages us to keep working.

Games are more consistent at rewarding us for the choices we make and are immediately rewarding, providing instant feedback when we do something right, and telling us how well we perform every step along the way. These highly tuned feedback systems are the key to turning video games into an indispensable tool for bettering our future.

About the mathematician Paul Erdos:

But for me his even greater importance is that he created a large number of mathematicians. He was the problem poser par excellence. His ability to formulate problems of any level of difficulty is legendary. Many people can ask questions which are impossibly difficult or trivially easy. It is given to few of us to tread the narrow path between triviality and unattainability. Erdos problems were not Hilbert problems, which took half a century or more to settle. Erdos questions were always just right. So often, when we are fumbling with our research, it is because we are not asking the right question. Many of Erdos's questions have remained as outstanding but important problems, but most have been attacked and partially, or perhaps completely, solved.

But Erdos not only asked the right question. He asked them of the right person. He knew better than you yourself knew what you were capable of. How many people must have got started on research by solving a $5.00, or maybe even a $1.00, Erdos problem? He gave the confidence that many of us needed to embark on mathematical research.

He had the unique ability to identify problems which were just beyond what you could currently do. It's easy to state impossible problems but he would state a problem whereby if you could solve this problem you would then know more than you knew before and open the door wider. It was like climbing a mountain and being able to drive one more piton in to be able to work your way up the mountain.

By working on the right problems, the right missions, you can build up your confidence and knowledge to tackle increasingly ambitious tasks.

09. Threshold Breaks

🔗 original issue

In a closely-matched fight, whichever side breaks and flees first loses, and often takes more casualties during retreat than they took in the fight.

This is an example of a threshold break.

A key aspect for celerity is understanding threshold and checkpoints. That is, being able to recognize what targets you should sprint towards to collect large amounts of gains.

But moving fast towards no objective doesn't get you any results.

In one's own life, it pays to be assess where the next set of major gains are and to devote as many resources as possible towards breaking through to those gains. Bravado, stubbornness, or a lack of reasoning about where those threshold breaks are will lead – at best – to middling results, and at worst to disaster.

Mull over it some – many people work very hard and diligently, but do not analyze where the next round of major breakthroughs will come from. Thus, their efforts are diffused and they never reach the next levels and thresholds of success.

Thinking, analysis, and emotional fortitude are ever and always required to get focused on what really matters and stay focused on what really matters.

10. Speed of Execution (Project Selection)

🔗 original issue

A majority of Sebastian's solo successes were "burst/incremental" projects that were released in little pieces. He also noted that his collaborations tended to succeed much more than his solo endeavours (about 90% vs 50% success rate).

As a response, he started drastically cut down the number of solo projects he did, and started looking to be more collaborative.

From his perspective, it helped him immensely because before taking that decision, many of his projects had been a mix of "too unclear" and "too clever" in the initial setup and scoping of the project, and that had set him up for failure as projects would get too complicated to ship out the door.

When engaging in collaborations, the collaborator would catch these excessive complications as they were hammering out a scope of things to do, and they'd simplify the project scope.

Burst/Incremental type of work tended to succeed more often because of two reasons:

  1. Regular progress got made with lots of mini-deadlines getting clear.

  2. Feedback from the incremental/burst work was gotten and course corrections could be made before getting oneself into a dead end of being stuck on some large too-clever mess of a project.

Sebastian's business partner, Kai Zau, emphasizes project selection as the most crucial part of getting high project success rate.

He came up with two criterions:

  1. Is the project "goldilocks-sized"?
  2. Can the project be completed within the "project honeymoon window"?

Pick a project too small, and you won't get enough gain. Too big and it could fail or be a huge hassle to succeed with the costs outstripping the gains.

It's better to finish a project while it is still fresh, exciting and motivating. It should be complete within a few weeks or more rarely a few months. It doesn't feel good to have a project that lingers on. Complete the project and collect the gains before things get stale.

In order to complete his projects as fast as possible, Sebastian uses a spreadsheet. For each active project he records:

The goal is to minimize the number of days elapsed before completion, and of course the best way to do this is to minimize the "advance percentage" (the ratio).

In the end, Sebastian's recommendation for improving speed of execution – completing more projects successfully in less time – boil down to:

  1. Generally sound good work habits (covered elsewhere)
  2. Careful project selection
  3. Minimizing the days elapsed from the time a project starts until it completes
  4. Maximizing the advance percentage – how many days you worked on a project while it was active, towards concluding it.

Even if you have multiple ongoing projects, you're better off taking a single day to march one of them to completion than to "make a bit of progress" on all of them. There is actually some research/math on project payoffs and decay rates that supports this.

11. Effectiveness First

🔗 original issue

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

– Peter Drucker

In our investigation so far, we looked at different aspects of celerity. A large part of it is sizing up the world correctly – thus, knowing of Power Laws and how to analyze them and hone in on them is important; likewise, being able to spot windows of opportunity, emerging technical and sociotechnical trends, and key potential threshold breaks.

Self-management is key – we explored the difference between the maximum possible pace and the maximum sustainable pace, and we honed in on specific instances of each – looking at Paul Erdos and his surface area approach for an example of max sustainable pace, and Friedrich Nietzsche's frenzied genius for an example of the maximum-possible-pace with its great rewards but also heavy downsides.

Last issue, we looked at raw speed of execution – with the perhaps counterintuitive idea that project selection might be the key determinant of speed of execution. Working in "goldilocks-sized" chunks of work and aiming to get key initiatives done in the "honeymoon window" greatly helps with attaining a higher speed of execution.

But at the end of the day, all of the raw Celerity in the world isn't worth much if deployed into the wrong areas – and so we end our series with an exploration of some of Peter Drucker's ideas.

To be reasonably effective it is not enough for the individual to be intelligent, to work hard or to be knowledgeable. Effectiveness is some thing separate, something different. But to be effective also does not require special gifts, special aptitude, or special training. Effectiveness as an executive demands doing certain — and fairly simple — things. Effectiveness can be learned — and it also has to be learned.

Speed is, broadly, a good thing. But rapidly dispatching and achieving a set of things that results in nothing, that adds nothing to the world or one's own life – this is folly.

Effectiveness before efficiency: going somewhere before going fast.

Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement. They never have learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work. Conversely, in every organization there are some highly effective plodders. While others rush around in the frenzy and busyness which very bright people so often confuse with "creativity," the plodder puts one foot in front of the other and gets there first, like the tortoise in the old fable.

How to become effective?

  1. Perform a Theory of Constraints-type analysis. It will help you find the area where work is needed in order to hit maximum performance.

  2. Answer the question "What needs to be done?" (not "What do I want to do?"). The answer almost always contains more than one urgent task. But effective executives do not splinter themselves. They concentrate on one task if at all possible.

Drucker: "I have never encountered an executive who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time."

In terms of both effectiveness and celerity, whatever is the most important thing should be focused on to the maximal extent possible.

It seems common sense, but most people either don't know what their most important thing is or are not making routine progress on it.

  1. Do I know what the most important thing is?
  2. Am I focusing on that to the maximal extent possible?