Philip Guo (Phil Guo, Philip J. Guo, Philip Jia Guo, pgbovine)

Human Performance Bounds

How to avoid getting stuck

Here is a simple two-step recipe for productivity:

  1. Make some progress every day.
  2. Avoid getting stuck.

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:

  • Energy-bound – The main limitations here are your mental and physical energy levels. This is sort of like “CPU-bound” for humans. If you had more energy, then you could definitely accomplish your given tasks more effectively. The easiest way to overcome this limitation is to get better rest or to eat.

  • Motivation-bound – The main limitation is your lack of motivation. Even a highly-energetic person cannot make much progress without the proper motivation. The ideal way to overcome this limitation is to find another work environment or assignment that is more intrinsically motivating. However, not every piece of work is intrinsically motivating (very few actually are!), so it's fine to embrace external motivators such as grades, respect from peers and mentors, goodwill from others, recommendation letters, job promotions, or money if that does the trick.

  • Emotion-bound – The main limitation is emotional distress, which can destroy all motivation. One solution is to resolve the immediate source of distress before attempting to seriously concentrate on work again. Of course, that's not always possible; but no matter what, don't discount the importance of properly dealing with emotions in your life.

  • Attention-bound – This happens if you're constantly being distracted (e.g., by email errands) or in a work environment that's not conducive to deep concentration (e.g., an open-plan office). Being attention-bound is sort of like I/O bound for humans, since one's “I/O” is slowed down by external distractions. Possible solutions include: temporarily blocking Internet access, changing your physical workspace, hiring child care, saying “No” to extraneous obligations, or delegating.

  • Coordination-bound – Your main limitation is waiting on others to coordinate on tasks, which is common in team projects. This is sort of like “network-bound” for humans. One solution is to try to do another productive task (or to take a break and mentally recharge) during those inevitable waiting times.

  • Knowledge-bound – The main limitation here is a lack of background knowledge about a topic. The only way to overcome this limitation is to learn more and to gain additional experience, ideally under good mentorship.

  • Insight-bound – This is similar to knowledge-bound except that here it's a lack of creative insight that hinders progress, not a lack of raw knowledge. Possible ways to overcome this limitation are talking to colleagues about your technical issue, asking for help, making sketches and prototypes, and even taking a rest to let your subconscious mind ruminate on the problem at hand.

  • Discomfort-bound – The main limitation here is physical discomfort such as wrist or back pain from sitting in front of the computer for too long. The best solution is to take a break, walk around, stretch, or exercise.

  • Money-bound – If you feel like you're being underpaid for your job role, especially compared to your peers, then you will not perform effectively. Possible solutions are to negotiate a higher salary, to find a better-paying job, or to accept your circumstances if you have no other choice.

  • Politics-bound – Here the main limitations to progress are political factors such as alliances, partnerships, or organizational doctrines that are at odds with your plans. The only solution is to first deftly deal with the politics in order to pave a path to doing the work you want. Doing so involves recognizing the importance of political capital, generating political capital, and spending it effectively. (This entry was inspired by comments from John Regehr.)

  • Personnel-bound – As a manager with a promising idea, if you can't hire the right people to implement it, then you're out of luck. This blockage is sometimes caused by being politics-bound – you might not have the political capital to get “headcount” to hire new team members. Or you might be money-bound – a professor without enough grants to fund research staff or a startup founder without enough funding to hire more employees. The only way forward is to become a better politician or businessperson, respectively.

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.

Created: 2011-12-08
Last modified: 2014-02-06