Human Performance Bounds
How to avoid getting stuck
December 2011 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
Here is a simple two-step recipe for productivity:
Lots of people can make progress every day, but not many can consistently avoid getting stuck, especially when working on open-ended, creative projects such as design or research.
When I was a grad student, my most productive peers were those who could avoid getting stuck. And the most effective advisors were those who could reliably get their students unstuck.
To avoid getting stuck, first realize what's limiting (bounding) your performance at the moment. Only then can you take the proper steps to eliminate those “performance bounds.” Here's a computer systems analogy:
Software engineers often speak about the speed of computer programs being CPU-bound, I/O-bound, or network-bound. A CPU-bound program (e.g., a scientific simulation) is one whose performance is limited (bound) by the speed of the processor; an I/O-bound program (e.g., a file copying utility) is limited by the speed of the hard drive; a network-bound program (e.g., an online game) is limited by the speed of the network connection. Before engineers can optimize a program's performance, they must first profile (measure) it to assess the true causes of slowdown.
Similarly, here are some human performance bounds that could get you stuck, along with ways to overcome them:
Note that above a certain base threshold, raw intelligence—mental “CPU power”—is only a small contributor to professional effectiveness. People with genius-level IQs might be less energy-bound or insight-bound, but they are otherwise susceptible to the same performance bounds as the rest of us.
Thus, whenever you're feeling stuck, it's vital to step back and reflect on which human performance bound you're facing at the moment (i.e., “profiling” your own performance) and then take the proper steps to overcome it.
And as a manager, whenever your employees, students, or mentees are feeling stuck, work with them to figure out which performance bound they're facing at the moment.
However, misidentifying someone's performance bound and then attempting an improper fix can make matters worse. For example, if you think that you're knowledge-bound but you're actually insight-bound, then spending time learning new technical facts isn't going to bring you any closer to a solution; it will just get you more frustrated. In a similar vein, it's futile to try to speed up an I/O-bound computer program by buying a faster processor.
Takeaway for everyone: identify your own performance bounds to become more effective.
Takeaway for mentors: identify your mentees' performance bounds so that you can help them become more effective.