Goals

Want To Achieve More by Working Less? Stack Your Problems How to figure out the right problem to solve so you can stop doing busy work and start doing your lives work

In my previous article, I discussed why it’s more important to make sure you are solving the right problem, rather than doing your work efficiently. If you want to get a $100 bill on the other side of a brick wall, sure it’s more efficient if you bring a sledgehammer. But there is likely another room down the corridor with an open door to a stack of ten $100 bills. Even if you crawled your way to that door, you’d still make more money in less time compared to knocking down the brick wall.

But how do you know whether you are working on the wrong problem? And more importantly, how can you find a better problem to solve instead?

The answer is a technique I call problem stacking. The way it works is that you start with your current problem, and then ask:

“What outcome am I trying to achieve by solving this problem?”

Then you keep asking this question five times to uncover the root problem you are trying to solve. For example, this is how problem stacking would have looked like for me while I was building the online math academy Eureka:

Me: “I’m so busy this morning because I need to…

  1. Email hundreds of college students. What outcome am I trying to achieve by emailing hundreds of college students?

  2. To get more volunteers to contribute to Eureka. What outcome am I trying to achieve by getting more volunteers?

  3. To get more math courses for the Eureka website. What outcome am I trying to achieve by getting more math courses?”

  4. To build an online math academy to help understimulated students realize their potential in problem-solving. What outcome am I trying to achieve by building an online math academy?

  5. To create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy. What outcome do I aim to achieve by impacting many people?

  6. To feel that my life had a purpose.

When you keep asking: “What outcome am I trying to achieve?” five times, you eventually arrive at the true reason for why you do what you do. Why was I sitting hunched over my computer and firing off emails, rather than doing something more enjoyable? Because I wanted my life to have a purpose.

This is the point of problem stacking, to help you:

  1. Step back and examine what you actually are trying to accomplish, and
  2. Evaluate whether your current approach is an efficient way to accomplish that goal.

In my case, my problem stack had two critical weak links.

First, cold-emailing hundreds of college students was an incredibly inefficient approach to getting people to sign up as volunteers. Why? Because 99% of the people I was emailing hadn’t themselves experienced the pain point I was asking them to help, so they had no motivation to contribute their time for free. Also, they didn’t know me, so they also didn’t have any motivation to contribute just as a kind friendship gesture. After 40 hours of emailing, I had gotten just one volunteer to write one math course. It would have been faster to write the course material myself.

I instead started to reach out to a few people I had personally met at math contests. That took me just 1 hour of messaging, but I got several volunteers that ended up writing a total of five math courses. I went from 1 math course per 40 hours of work to 5 math courses per 1 hour of work. Changing the problem from: “Email hundreds of college students”, to: “Send targeted requests to people in my own network” made my productivity multiply 200 times!

The second weak link in my problem stack, however, went much deeper. The reason I started Eureka was to: “Create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy.” But would an online math academy for understimulated students allow me to good impact many people at scale?

The honest answer was “no”. There were just too few people who would want that service. And even if I created the world’s best math website for them, would that impact their lives in a profound way? Again, the answer was “no”.

This realization hit me shortly after the Eureka website went live. By this point, I had poured more than one thousand hours into making this vision a reality. But all this time, I had not realized that I was working on the wrong problem. Eureka was never going to achieve the scale and depth of impact that I desired. So a few months after going live, I decided to stop working on Eureka entirely.

I don’t regret having started Eureka at all. It was an incredible learning experience that taught me both grit and how to communicate a vision that inspires others to join. But could I have realized that my ladder was pointing toward the wrong wall a lot sooner? Absolutely. In fact, it was this process of problem stacking that helped me understand that Eureka wasn’t the right problem to solve. But had I only done it earlier, I would have saved myself hundreds of hours that I’m never getting back.

Do you want to achieve more by working less?
Then stack your problems.

Do you want to replace your busy work with your life’s work?
Then stack your problems.

Do you want to make a difference and also have time to enjoy life?
Then stack your problems.

And how do you stack your problems? Just pick any problem you are currently facing, and then ask:


“What outcome am I trying to achieve by solving this problem?”

Ask that question five times to uncover the core problem you are trying to solve. Then step back to examine whether your problem stack is strong at every point, from the base to the top.

If you discover that one of the problems in your stack is actually not a good way to achieve the outcome you want, then you must:

  1. Replace the weak problem with a stronger one.

  2. Rebuild a completely new stack of problems on top of the one you replaced.

This means that everything you have built on top of the weak problem must go as well. Once I realized that a math academy was the wrong problem for me to solve, it didn’t matter how many volunteers I managed to recruit. It didn’t matter if I built the best math website the world had ever seen. Because it would never achieve the outcome I set out to accomplish: “Create something that impacts as many people as possible as deeply as possible, and that leaves a lasting legacy.” The only right thing for me to do was to stop working on Eureka, and instead find a better organization to build.

This kind of deep change is painful. But the sooner we make it, the sooner we can stop wasting our time doing busy work – and start doing our lives work.

What change will you make once you begin asking: “What outcome am I trying to achieve?” five times?

The Efficiency Paradox How focusing on efficiency might actually make you LESS efficient

Don’t we all love productivity hacks? It’s almost like a breath of fresh air when we discover a way to more efficiently deal with all the work that keeps overflooding our inbox. But have you ever considered that being more efficient at your work might make you less efficient at achieving your goals?

 

To illustrate this point, let me share a personal story. When I was starting the online math academy Eureka, I needed help with writing all the course material that would go on the website. And since Eureka was a non-profit, I had to convince people to do this service for free. It was not a very compelling deal, so I thought the more people I reach out to, the higher the likelihood that I will find a few brave souls to join me on this mission. I therefore looked up the student register of the math programs of all the major colleges, and then email-blasted my pitch to become a Eureka volunteer to Every. Single. Student.

To make my emailing more efficient, I crafted an email template, bought a software that could mass-duplicate email drafts, and created personalized shortkeys that would, for example, would type “Stockholm University” when I wrote “su”. Let’s go productivity hacks!

The result? After 1,000+ emails sent, I had gotten two volunteers (one of which dropped out), and I ended up with just one math course.

I then received an opportunity to pitch Eureka to a weekend math program for students who had previously competed in a big math contest. That pitch took me 30 minutes to do, and immediately got me four new volunteers (two of which wrote multiple lessons), and I ended up with six great math courses.

If you run the math, you’ll find that this second approach was 480 times as efficient at achieving my goal of getting lessons for the Eureka website.

If you are working on a problem that’s inefficient for reaching your goal, it doesn’t really matter how efficiently you can do the work. You are still producing inefficient results.

A more efficient way to reach your goal is to find a better problem to solve.

The hierarchy of productivity

A more productive way to approach our work is to:

  1. First, identify a problem that – if you solved it – would be a major step in achieving your goal.
  2. Then, design a system to solve that problem as efficiently as possible.

I call this the “Hierarchy of Productivity”, which can be illustrated with the following pyramid:

If the base of your Productivity Pyramid is small and feeble – i.e you are solving a bad problem – then the impact of all the work you produce on top of that base will also be small and feeble.

Designing a more efficient system can make your inefficient approach suck less. But don’t expect it to compensate for more than 2% of the productivity you lost by choosing the wrong problem. The remaining 98% you will have to make up for by working more hours.

This is what happened to me. The problem I had been working on was: “How can I send out as many cold emails as fast as possible?”. But the problem I should have been solving was: “Where can I find the right audience to pitch Eureka to?”.

Designing a more efficient emailing system made me 10X faster at emailing. That seems like a great improvement! But compared to finding a better audience, I had merely gone from being 4,800X less efficient at sourcing math courses to 480X less efficient.

Being more efficient only compensated for 0.18% of all the productivity I lost by choosing the wrong problem. The rest I had to make up for by working more hours.

The efficiency trap

My story is just one of many examples of how we can fall prey to the “efficiency trap”. That is, we believe that the problem we are currently solving is good enough, and whenever we find a way to solve that problem more efficiently, it feels like a huge win. When I got 10X faster at emailing, that felt like a great leap forward. And being as busy as we are, that feeling of progress is addicitve.

The problem with productivity hacks is that they blind us from seeing just how inefficient the base we are starting from is. My base was 4800 times less efficient. Optimize all you want – there is no way you will climb out of from such a deeply inefficient hole.

That is why I believe we should treat productivity hacks with a very healthy dose of skepticism. More efficient practices can make your current approach suck less. But if you are working on an inefficient problem, no amount of productivity hacks will ever compensate for all that lost productivity.

What better problem could you solve?

Think of an area in your life where you wish you were productive. Now, can you find a new problem that – if you solved it – would result in much more progress towards your goal than if you kept solving your current problem?

Imagine if you, like me, discovered a problem that was 100X, or 10,000X, more efficient at achieving the goal that matters.

How would that change your life?