How to Be as Productive as Einstein

Albert Einstein

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein

When most people try to be productive they generally ignore this piece of advice from one of the greatest minds of our time. But by keeping the same mindset that says, “Get more done faster,” you’re keeping yourself from being truly productive.

The idea isn’t to learn how to work more; it’s to learn how to get more out of the time you work. Einstein wrote five papers between 1905 and 1907.Three of them were groundbreaking. A fourth won him a Nobel Prize. He did all this while working six days a week at the patent office in Switzerland.

Einstein had a few other things going on during that time as well:

  • He got married to Mileva Marić.
  • He and his wife had a daughter, Lieserl.
  • And a son, Hans Albert.
  • He played each week in a string quartet

Einstein also didn’t have access to a public library to read other scientific papers and studies. And, of course, he didn’t have a computer or the internet.

While Einstein was definitely smarter than the rest of us, he had the same number of hours in every day that we do; he just knew how to make more out of them than we do.

How did he do it?

1. Less Is More

Einstein at his desk.

“We are most productive when we focus on a very small number of projects on which we can devote a large amount of attention.”

This idea is hard to swallow in a world of multitasking, but doing more isn’t always better. Most people feel that they have to have five or six plates spinning at one time to feel productive, when, in actuality, multitasking actually slows them down.
Einstein believed in focusing on a select few ideas and only working on one at a time until it was completed. Devote your time to the task at hand and give it your best. Remember, it’s impossible to pay attention to more than one thing at a time. At best you’re switching between them very rapidly, which is unproductive.

2. Clutter Can Actually Help

Einstein's office.

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Most productivity experts will tell you that you need to have a clean desk to be truly productive. The idea makes sense on the surface, but is there more to it than that?
The image above argues yes.

A report in the Journal of Consumer Research has actually found that a messy desk actually helps a brain to focus more amidst the chaos of the workspace. This is an idea that Einstein had long before any research was done on the matter.

The argument against a cluttered desk is that a disorganized and cluttered workspace leads to a mind that follows suit. The truth is, however, that the visual clutter actually makes the mind focus on the problem at hand more and tricks the brain into finding the clearest and least-cluttered solution possible, as to not add to the clutter any more.

Einstein wasn’t the only genius to practice the messy desk policy, Steve Jobs as well as Mark Twain kept desks that would make the today’s minimalists howl.

Want to be more productive and creative? Let your desk be messy.

3. Keep It Simple

E=MC squared spray painted on a fence.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

The world’s most famous equation, E=MC2, is simple, but the idea behind it is world changing. By keeping things simple in your own life, you can get more done.

There are hundreds of productivity apps out there for time management, to-do list organization, and daily planning, but in all this mess the core idea is lost. Instead of having a detailed system for everything and expecting that to make you productive, keep it simple and focus on the things that matter and everything else will fall into place.

Einstein didn’t have an iPhone with a to-do list on it or Outlook calendar to keep his appointments in order. He had basic pen and paper and in his later years of constant talks and appearances, he employed an assistant. By not allowing himself to be bogged down by additional fluff, he stayed on task and got things done.

Keep things simple in your daily actions, but only as simple as they should be.

4. Define Your Problems

Einstein standing in front of a chalkboard.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

This is one of Einstein’s most famous quotes, and with good cause. By defining the problem or task clearly, you can come up with far better solutions and ultimately spend less time doing the work. For example, Einstein’s work with the photoelectric effect that won him his Nobel Prize was started by just thinking about light and how it looks and interacts with the world. In other words, before he ever started to do math equations to try and solve the apparent paradox that is light, he thought about how light works and what needed done to solve the problem. Without this thinking, he may have never realized that light is actually made of photons instead of continuous waves. Could it be that his predecessors tried to solve the problem before truly thinking about it?

A problem solved quickly and without thought is one that will most likely need to be solved again.

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