When I was about 15, I noticed a trend in my creative output. There appeared to be a correlation between the success of the result and the relative amount of work I put into it. Specifically, I and others would often be more satisfied if the endeavour took less effort. The observation still holds at double the age. The converse appears to hold as well — that a protracted slog will be barely worth completing, if at all.

Of course, I have also had plenty of easy failures and difficult wins, and like everyone else I am biologically biased to perceive patterns in my environment. I will leave the establishment of whether this phenomenon actually occurs in the capable hands of the cognitive science community. Meanwhile, I have a business to run — the business of solving problems.

Let us assume the following for the sake of argument. Past a certain threshold, the more back-to-back effort I put into a monomaniacal quest, the slower I progress and the more appealing distractions become. I'm not sure why, or if it happens to anyone else. Maybe it's boredom, fatigue, or lack of incentive. Maybe it's some kind of fractal monotony only perceptible to the most primitive lobes of my brain. Whatever it is, it seems as if I need to significantly vary my creative activity in order to be effective. But in what way, and how do I reconcile that with my professional obligations?

The Nature of Problem-Solving

Why do we solve problems, as opposed to giving up and doing other things? I don't know, but I can suggest why we might. For starters, the payouts for doing so are often enormous. When we understand the principles underpinning a system, we eliminate much of the gamble in our decision-making process, and that is a great starting point for a massive strategic advantage. Moreover, when results aren't materially valuable on their own, they often contribute to the solution of some other problem that is. Solving many diverse problems keeps us mentally fit and more apt to tackle what life has to throw at us.

The first step of an effective method of problem-solving is to understand it. This involves asking a lot of ostensibly stupid questions, like what are we actually trying to accomplish? and why? and does it really have to happen that way? Moral and ethical questions also sometimes manifest. Is this a problem I want to see solved? and am I comfortable with my client possessing the solution? And on the opposite side of the spectrum, it is worth noting that convincing a client we've solved their problem is an entirely different class of problem than whatever they actually hired us to solve, and one that is much less effort to learn. Only one does the job, only the other pays. It is my sincere hope that professional problem-solvers do both.

It is also important to acknowledge that solving problems relies on having the correct information. It is even more important to recognize that information is infungible — meaning that copies notwithstanding, no piece of information can be usefully substituted for another. If we do not possess the requisite information to solve our problem, thinking harder will do little to procure it. Instead, we must go in search for clues.

The Physiology of the Problem-Solver

We are made of meat, and that meat is subject to a fairly universal set of limitations. We thrive in an extremely narrow band of gravity, temperature, atmospheric conditions and ambient radiation. We require copious sleep. We need water and food several times a day, along with frequent bathroom breaks. Our strength, speed and stamina conforms to a well-documented envelope. Likewise with how fast we think, read and react, and how long we can expect to live. To prosper we must continually forge and maintain deals and social relationships. In there, somewhere, we need to concentrate enough in order to solve problems.

When we succeed in sequestering some time to think, we may proceed for a while at a decent pace, and then start to trail off. Sometimes this is due to fatigue, other times I suspect we run out of inputs. I submit that all creative work reduces to problem-solving, and all problem-solving reduces to information processing. Given what I wrote above about the fungibility of information, a mental block can be understood not an obstruction but a vacuum — a lacuna. Consider the following ostensibly trivial equation: 5 + x = y. It's missing a piece — without more information it cannot be solved.

Actually, you can turn it into a function that adds 5 to its input, and you can graph the expression, but you can't apply the resulting function if you have nothing to apply it to.

If we are stuck on a problem, it is entirely reasonable to go looking around the vicinity for clues. If our vicinity happens to contain a computer, television, phone or other connected electronic device, we have an abundant artificial source of red herrings. But notice if we're in the zone, we may ignore those things entirely. Consider a craving for distractions as an indication that we need a change of context — A twenty-first century Archimedean bath.

But What About Getting Things Done™?

I apologize preemptively to the Reverend Allen and his flock. Although effective, his method hinges on reducing all tasks to a series of simple actions he refers to as cranking widgets, with well-understood results and with the next step always known. Indeed, we can only reliably promise, on an appointed schedule, results that are well-understood, that are accompanied by a well-trodden method, that have at the ready all requisite people, tools and materials, and for which we have plenty of statistical data on how long the job takes.

In my line of work, however, it is often difficult to know in advance what results to expect, and a significant part of the job is establishing what that next action is. Moreover, the materials I end up needing aren't obvious at the outset and I often find myself inventing new methods as I go along. If I were to absorb these as operational expenses, there wouldn't be much left to charge for.

When a Sprint Becomes a Marathon

The idea that I'm prone to fatigue from too much back-to-back exposure to the same problem calls in to question the utility of an age-old ethical framework: first-come, first-serve. It's especially pernicious when a small job unfurls into a major undertaking. Unless someone wants to pay me to stare blankly at a computer screen until something happens, it might make sense to shuffle the deck of pending work. Not too much, mind you, but certainly enough to break up the monotony. Perhaps doing so would even save clients money in the end by enabling me to resume their work with a fresh perspective. The only problem with this proposal is that it makes it even harder to forecast to clients when their work will get done.

But I submit once again that we can't even come close to reliably forecasting completion dates on novel and poorly-understood deliverables. The only activities whose outcomes we can hope to forecast are David Allen's widget-crankings — and only then with the appropriate statistical data. Given that, about the farthest out I would reasonably be able to project at any time is the sum of the next known actions divided over my team — assuming I have one, we are all available, and that I can even partition the work.

Moreover, I've observed that for a great deal of these kinds of projects, an exact deadline isn't even all that important. Because the value of creative work is often so high, it only really matters that we eventually achieve the goal without breaking the bank, and that we do so at a spirited, but not necessarily frantic pace.

Bye-Bye, Gantt Chart

When Karol Adamiecki invented the technique for which Henry Gantt was awarded the eponym, the world was busy making things. Things like steam ships and railroads. Things that depended on the coordinated manual labour of many people. Things for which the cost of execution dwarfed the cost of design.

But in the business of creative work, once we can satisfactorily describe the result we want, that's it: we're done. That goes for literary work, art, music, law and software. The only exceptions might include movies and video games that shoot live action and hire expensive actors. But even more importantly, we don't really create things anymore, but rather we create experiences.

The Gantt chart assumes that the expected result is known, that the process breaks down cleanly into a sequence of distinguishable parts, that there is no feedback from one part into another, that those parts can be accurately estimated, that the people taking on the work can give it their undivided attention, and that one worker can be substituted for another should the first not be able to work. Fit, perhaps, for the late industrial revolution, but of questionable utility for today.

In the 21st century, endeavours are novel and complex, the order of business is not obvious, critical paths are vacuous at best, workers engage in multiple projects at once, their skill sets overlap only slightly if at all, their productivity ebbs and flows from virtual torpor to unprecedented inspiration, and the scope of work changes continually with new information. What would be useful is a tool that reflected that.

It's a Good Thing We Have Computers

If we're going to make products with computers to be used on computers, it might make sense to also manage projects with computers. And not in the sense of acting as a surrogate for a drafting pencil and paper, but rather to take into consideration everything I mentioned above and actually computing the optimal course of action.

That means that clients don't get fantastical prognostications about when to expect their results, but rather up-to-the-minute, realistic depictions of what has been done, the value it represents, where it fits in, and what is next.

That means that architects and managers make plotting the course a part of the process, and clients recognize that.

That means that the work is partitioned into standard units that can be swapped, shuffled and billed on the fly.

That means that individual workers come in to the office with a clear game plan, have the freedom to act on serendipity and inspiration and still stay focused, and can leave for the day at a reasonable hour with a solid sense of completion.

Most importantly, that means that the products of a post-industrial society get made in a post-industrial way — with the value on the table, the risks out in the open, and mutual respect for everyone involved.