Identification of Force Multipliers for Success

by Nick5a11 min read21st Jun 201434 comments


Personal Blog

For a while now I've been very interested in learning useful knowledge and acquiring useful skills. Of course there's no shortage of useful knowledge and skills to acquire, and so I've often thought about how best to spend my limited time learning.

When I came across the concept of Force Multiplication, it seemed like an appropriate metaphor for a strategy to apply to choosing where to invest my time and energy in acquiring useful skills and knowledge. I started to think about what areas or skills would make sense to learn about or acquire first, to:

  1. increase speed or ease of further learning/skill acquisition,
  2. help me achieve success not only in my current goals, but in later goals that I have not yet developed, and
  3. lead to interesting downstream options or other knowledge/skills to acquire.

There have been a small number of skills/areas that have helped me surge forward in progress towards my goals. I look back at these areas and wish only that I had come across them sooner. As most of my adult life has been focused on business, most of those areas that have had a tremendous impact on my progress have been business related, but not all.

So far I've found it hard to identify these areas in advance. Almost all of the skills or knowledge  that I learned, that had a large impact on progress towards success, I pursued for unrelated reasons, or I had no concept of how truly useful they would be. The only solution I currently have for identifying force multipliers is to ask other people, and especially those more accomplished than me, what they've learned that had the most impact on their progress towards success.

So, what have you learned that had the most impact on your progress towards success (whatever that might be)?

Can you think of any other ways to identify areas of force multiplication?


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[-][anonymous]7y 29

When working with my clients I often tell them that there are only 4 types of job related skills they should focus on:

  1. Minimum Viable Skills - The skills they absolutely need to get a job done, and/or get hired for a job.
  2. Force Multipliers - Skills that will make their entire process more effective
  3. Bottlenecks - Skills that are the slowest point in their whole process.
  4. Competitive Advantages - Skills that make them less replaceable or more specialized.

Tangentially related, but as you're thinking about effective skills to focus on, a rather useful framework that my clients have used to great effect.

That's excellent!

Is that list your own formulation or is it from earlier work? (or, I suppose, to what degree from earlier work)

[-][anonymous]7y 5

It's mostly of my own formulation, although I'm sure similar lists exist elsewhere.

funnily enough this list translates pretty well in the context of a whole business or organisation. great work!

You should really share the things you found to be force multipliers! You spend a lot of time explaining how hard they are to find and then you don't even share yours :)

One thing that I suspect has been a force multiplier for me: I have a digital notebook, and I managed to train myself for a bunch of the pages to "hook in to my life" at certain situations. For example, I have a page for when I get home from work, for when I get up in the morning, for when I go to sleep, etc. And also pages for when I encounter specific failure modes like being insufficiently alert, needing to take a break, etc. (As a way to train this habit, I suggest training the proto-habit of writing down a description of any failure mode you notice yourself entering for later review.) Then whenever I read about a new technique that seems worth using, I figure out the specific situations where it's worth using and put it on the appropriate page. Unfortunately I have been getting worse about using my pages as time goes by.

Most self-improvement interventions seem to fade away eventually, but one that has stuck for quite a while for me is a Chrome extension I wrote to block the "related links" sections you see on webpages. This seems to have substantially cut down on the amount of time I waste online. (The key may have been to change my "oh, that looks like an interesting link" habit in to an "oh, I should add another rule to my extension to block this kind of link" habit.) I was interested in it specifically because it seemed like a painless way to make myself more productive that would not reverse itself, and that has turned out to be the case so far (have been using it since late January). I'm quite interested if people have other ideas for these sorts of not easily reversible capacity gains. And if enough people are interested in my extension I could probably release it. (You can view the code here but at this stage you'd probably have to read the source to get it to work. It also does lots of other things aside from blocking "related links". My overall objective was to add enough drag to my internet use in various ways so that I would make everything I did online intentional instead of mindless.)

Better nutrition, exercise, and sleep are also arguably force multipliers.

Good point. Here are mine:

  1. The systems mindset. Almost everything we do is a repetitive task, and for every repetitive task we have a process. It's tempting to think that a lot of what we do is complex problem solving that is not repetitive, but that's not true. We still follow a process to solve seemingly complex problems, even if we don't initially realise it or it initially seems complex. That means most of what we can do can be described and documented. If it can be documented, then it can (a) be systematically optimized and improved, (b) act as a guide for us to follow to ensure quality control, (c) reduce the required mental energy to perform the task, due to not wasting energy on thinking about the process, and (d) have someone else (with any necessary requisite knowledge) complete the task.

  2. Hiring excellent people for very little money. People are motivated by much more than just money. You can pay people a lot less by giving them much more in the other areas. An easy way to get started is with outsourcing. If you can afford to pay someone $4/hour there's no reason for anyone not to have a virtual assistant. This obviously pairs very effectively with documented systems.

  3. People skills. This is a large area but the 20/80 is to read and take notes on How to Win Friends & Influence People, and turn it into a 1 page cheatsheet to follow when interacting with anyone.

  4. Idea extraction. This is a term that was coined in a business course I did, the idea being to identify business opportunities by interviewing people to uncover their business problems, and continuously drill down to their root causes. But it has much wider application. The ability to uncover other people's root causes is incredibly helpful in sales, customer development and all kinds of situations.

  5. Journaling. Whenever I am faced with uncertainty (constantly) I turn to journaling, and it is incredibly effective in problem solving and raising my self-awareness.

  6. Learning. This is one I'm still working on, but understanding how we learn has been very helpful in creating personally effective methods for learning and memorization.

  7. Productive downtime. Another one I'm still working on, but is based around the idea of pursuing tasks that are enjoyable but are still beneficial, as opposed to time wasters like watching tv, playing computer games etc.

Productive downtime. Another one I'm still working on, but is based around the idea of pursuing tasks that are enjoyable but are still beneficial, as opposed to time wasters like watching tv, playing computer games etc.

Another approach is to try to increase the quality of your downtime rather than increase its productivity. For example, do deep breathing meditation. Laughter has been shown to restore willpower depletion, and I've found watching cartoons like The Simpsons to be much more rejuvenating than watching stressful live-action TV shows.

Seconded. This feels somehow similar to purchasing fuzzies and utilions separately? Basically figuring out what value you're getting out of what you already do in your down-time (relaxation, making social connections, etc) and try to get more of it. A possible failure mode for productive downtime would be doing things that are to-do-list productive but don't leave you feeling like you've had downtime.

Can you give specific examples of things that you systematized/outsourced?

People skills. This is a large area but the 20/80 is to read and take notes on How to Win Friends & Influence People, and turn it into a 1 page cheatsheet to follow when interacting with anyone.

Can I have that cheatsheet please?

I used metaphors to encode it into a form that would make it easier for me to remember, so it wouldn't be of much use to you. The book is a really quick and simple read, and I highly recommend you go through the process yourself.

Hiring excellent people for very little money. People are motivated by much more than just money.

Could you expand on this?

Money is just 1 small part of the equation. People are motivated by other things such as freedom (ability to work remotely, set their own hours, set their own holidays), the ability to learn, respect (treating them like a partner/integral part of the business) etc. I haven't read it, but I've heard that Drive by Dan Pink[1] does a really good job at explaining this.

An example of this would be my Hire an Aspiring Entrepreneur strategy, which you can read about here:

The $4/hour part refers to hiring overseas contractors on places like oDesk. Again, you can get some fantastic people here by designing a position that gives them what they want in other areas. For example, contractors on oDesk are constantly looking for work, so giving them a permanent position where they are guaranteed a set number of hours per week is a great way to attract high quality candidates. I also wrote about this on my blog:


Psychologists now classify motivation as intrinsic vs. extrinsic - are you doing something because you want to, or because someone told you to/offered you something? Importantly, for creative tasks like knowledge work, extrinsic motivators like bonuses are weaker than people's concern for a job well done. Many studies in a variety of situtations have shown the counterinuitive result that adding bonuses to a task makes people perform worse, give up quicker, and not do it on their own initiative.

The book Drive by Daniel Pink is an excellent walk through the research.

Especially on the $4/h part.

Unfortunately I have been getting worse about using my pages as time goes by.

Massively downgrade your expectation of your average self to deal with a complex system. Adding complexity to a useful habit should be entered into very cautiously.

I don't follow. What's the useful habit and how did I add complexity?

The useful habit is what you call using your pages, and you added complexity by adding more and more rules to the pages as well as by making new pages.

Well the habit itself is pretty simple: in situation x, read page y. Arguably each page has its own associated habit; I don't know to what degree this all could be considered a single habit.

Thanks for sharing the extension! I'll try to post a walk through of how I got it working if I do.

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This may only work if you're me, but ...

My workplace performance took a huge upswing about a month ago. My boss sat me down and told me that I was annoying and upsetting various management people - who had no lack of annoyance factor themselves, but were after all the management. He told me to engage the public relations skills I'd shown in my volunteer work with Wikipedia.

Turns out this was the magical key - just by thinking of my emails as PR communications, and thinking of my job title not as "senior system administrator" but as "senior system administrator and operations team public relations", I'm charming and delighting people while the substance of the message remains the same. (Recent example: leaving a high-up marketer delighted and pleased that we'd blocked their broken effectively-open-relay "email a friend" form when it had been used for a spam run, and that the company would not be email blackholed a second time.) And it turns out that about half the job is in fact dealing with others.

Now I just need to remember to keep up with the machine-tending that is the first half of my job ...

This sort of optimization is a pretty foundational concept for software engineers. These are things that have helped my career as a software engineer and made me more effective in my job (not exactly the same thing, but related!):


  • Touch typing. This should go without saying, but I've worked with people who hunt and peck and it's painful to watch. But you don't have to type really fast to get most of the benefit, since other bottlenecks will start to dominate. In my experience a pokey 50 WPM is more than sufficient.

More Advanced Mechanics

  • Gain fluency in a powerful shell, a good text editor, and an expressive "scripting" language
  • Learn a modern version control system such as git
  • Set up an environment that works for you and keep improving it – this is very much along the lines of Nick5a1's systems mindset. Keep your dotfiles in version control.
  • Don't repeat yourself. Learn to refactor code to remove unnecessary duplication.
  • Keep configuration decisions out of code
  • Understand dependencies among different pieces of code and know a few strategies for simplifying them (the pub/sub or event bus pattern, dependency injection, etc.)
  • Know how to deal with asynchronous operations using both callbacks and promisesNodeSchool has a great tutorial for server-side JavaScript.

Soft Skills

  • Keep a todo list (I keep my own, or you can get really good with your issue tracker)
  • Keep a log of things you've done (bonus if you can generate the log automatically from your todo list)
  • Keep notes on how you solved tricky problems
  • Understand your role (you're not a designer or product manager, but you need to know what they care about to work with them effectively)
  • prioritize the product, then others' goals, then your own (this is usually the most effective way of furthering your goals)
  • insist on regular one-on-one meetings with your manager
  • before answering a question find out why the question was asked

Looking back at this, I'm realizing that a lot of these suggestions are more plain old advice rather than force multipliers. The true force multipliers are proficiency with tools, continually investing in improving your workflow, and probably certain people skills like delegation and team-building.

Touch typing. This should go without saying, but I've worked with people who hunt and peck and it's painful to watch. But you don't have to type really fast to get most of the benefit, since other bottlenecks will start to dominate. In my experience a pokey 50 WPM is more than sufficient.

I don't touch type, and my typing speed is about 65 wpm. Do you think learning how to touch type will result in a significant increase in speed, enough to be worth the effort?

I'm an academic, so typing speed is probably not as important for me as it is for a software designer, but I do a lot of writing, so it is a potentially significant productivity boost.

Yes. Speeds of 100wpm are not particularly hard to reach with deliberate practice. The benefit is not the time savings of typing less, it's the cognitive savings of spending your attention on your topic rather than the mechanics of entering text and correcting errors.

As pushcx said it's not about speed as much as not having to pay attention to what your fingers are doing (and crucially, being able to look elsewhere while you type). The bottleneck isn't bandwidth but the size of your L1 cache.

Social skills. Without them, any other skill has the problem that you can't "sell" it.

Making notes. Otherwise everything you learn, and don't use for a longer time, will be soon forgotten.

And obviously, rational thinking.

Getting things done. Being able to set goals and work towards their achievement is one of the core skills that are very useful and towards which I didn't put enough attention in my school time.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

One of my tutors used to say: "Learn your tools!" It may sound very basic, but some examples from my own (computer science oriented carrier) are: Learn to use Git (including more seldomly used functions like git log). Learn to use some advanced IDE like Eclipse. For some purposes, using the Terminal is faster than clicking through the finder/explorer/nautilus/... As mentioned, typing fast is usually very handy.

Usually, one tends to rely on learning by doing, but often this does not let you find the optimal solution but rather the first one that works at all, so maybe it is good to force yourself every once in a while to learn from manuals etc.

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Meditation and metacognitive training in general.

Self link:

I have made some unsubstantiated claims in the "I’ve given you some reasons to meditate:" bullet in the link above. More generally, there is plenty of evidence that meditation does good things to you.

One Force Multipliers I can think of is to strategically search and use synergies.

This can be complex business synergies - which can be hard to find - but also combining simple tasks in space and time, e.g.

  • doing as many purchases as possible on one day (possibly with support or a large car or running additional errands)

  • doing gymnastics while doing household chores

  • with children: combine routine appointments like haircut, physician examinations, courses, friend visits (but leave buffers)

doing gymnastics while doing household chores

Will you expand on this? I am intrigued.

It basically started when I read that the deep back muscles cannot be trained by voluntary tensing but only by unconsciously during keeping balance. This appears to be oversimplisitic but it led me to the idea of one leg balancing in everyday situations. After starting to use it in a few limited situations (preparing fruit basket) I added more and more situations and now use it automatically in most situations that involve standing like washing, preparing meals, waiting for commute etc. It doesn't cost you any time adds some minor fun to many of these tasks and as far as I can see has reduced my back problems.

Beside the balancing I started to add some more gymnastic-like motions to my program when I started fencing. E.g. when (un)loading the dish-washer I do quat-like or lounge step motions. When lifting things I focus on avoiding to bend over but instead use the 'correct' weight lifting motions. And I take the fencing stance or parts thereof as often as I can.

I can't remember where I read about this. Could have been this source (German) or this one. After quite some searching I turned up these English links: Wikipedia on the relevant muscles with some exercises and this physiotherapy article with many details. The latter explicitly mentions unstable balancing as one exercise in a complex therapy setup.

[-][anonymous]7y 0

During (the German equivalent of) middle and the beginning of high school, I studied mathematics at my local university. This helped me not only to learn more efficiently but also to think more systematically. (Maybe physics is an even better choice, because having studied physics one has good job opportunities in all kinds of business areas indicating that the physicist's skillset is a very large and generally useful one.)

This massively helps me to acquire new knowledge, because mathematical formalisms are used not only in mathematics but also in physics and especially computer science.

Also, learning to program is a good idea if you have not already done so. As Steve Jobs said, "“Everybody should learn to program a computer, because it teaches you how to think.” I think the ability to program to be of great importance whenever one has to judge the precision of a text or a proposal but also your own understanding - I can always ask myself: "Could I theoretically turn this idea into a computer program or at least a mathematical formalism?" And during this thought process, I can develop ideas, indentify imprecisions and find ways to eliminate them.

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