• Curt Mercadante

Channeling Rube Goldberg for Your Daily Schedule

Have you ever heard of Rube Goldberg?


Rube was a cartoonist and engineer who gained fame by drawing cartoons of Uber-complicated machinery and gadgets performing simple tasks and very extraneous ways.


Some engineering organizations, such as the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers, even hold “Rube Goldberg” contests to see who can invent the most convoluted machinery to perform a basic task.


For example, here is the 2018 winner of that organization’s contest, which makes a simple bowl of cereal:


The thing about Rube Goldberg machines is that they use up extra energy, resources, and mindshare to perform a task that could be completed much easier and more efficiently.


Watching these machines is entertaining and comical.


Unfortunately, many of us tend to craft Goldberg-esque schedules and processes for our days and wonder why we’re “busy” but not actually productive.

There are a number of reasons people practice “Goldberg Productivity”. Here are just a few:

  • “Perfection”: I put this word in quotes because while many claim “perfection” what they’re really doing is hiding behind the complicated machinery so they don’t have to focus on actual outcomes. They become enamored with the beautify of the machine. The machine becomes the goal, rather than the actual goal becoming the goal. That’s safe. Because if you measure the machine based upon it’s complexity you can easily set yourself up for the “win” without ever having to risk not achieving your actual outcomes.


  • Parkinson’s Law: In the 1950’s, British author C. Northcote Parkinson published in essay in which he introduced this “law”, which holds that, “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, when we give ourselves a lot of open-ended time to complete a task, we’ll use up all of that time. There is no incentive to find the shortest route. So we have extra time to pile layer after layer of Goldberg-ian complexity to our tasks throughout the day. Then we complain we’re “busy” when we’re really just filling our hours with bloat.


  • Failure to Reverse Engineer: Most people plan “to” their outcomes, rather than clearly defining their end goals and reverse engineering their outcomes. In the old days, before we had Google Maps and GPS, we had to take out a paper map, define our end destination, put a pin in the map, and take a pencil to reverse engineer our route. It should be the same with our days. Define your long-term goals, then reverse engineer to define your three (yes, just three!) outcomes you need to achieve for every month, week, and day.

This last part is so key because it allows you to plot the shortest, straightest, simplest line to your outcomes.


That’s fundamentally different than how so many people consider “productivity.” In their eyes, the word means getting more stuff done.


Sorry. That’s not productivity.


Productivity actually means getting more of the right outcomes accomplished with less effort. The actual definition of the word productivity is: “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.” The rate of output per unit of input. Notice the definition doesn’t simply say “as measured in terms of units of input.” It’s all about the rate of output, or, as I prefer to call it: outcomes.


A Goldberg machine is all about the inputs. True productivity is about the outcomes. Yet so many people think they’re being productive simply by increasing the amount of inputs in their day. Nope. Knowing that, I must ask you: Were you productive today? Many times, when I ask that question, I get the following response: “Yes, I got a ton of stuff done today.” When we delve deeper, however, we might find that “stuff” is simply defined as a long list of to-dos — many of which may have an actual real impact on the outcomes that person is trying to achieve. Our days become defined by these task lists. Simply churning and grinding out inputs with no real progress toward a desired outcome. The hamster keeps spinning, and the spinning seems to define whether we are “productive.” It’s complete lunacy. When many people are asked, “what’s your secret to productivity?” they answer: “Well, I start working earlier” or “I get up at 5 a.m.” or “ I stay at the office later.” But are you getting the right outcomes done? Have you defined clear outcomes for your year, your month, your week, and your day — and then reverse-engineered it to determine the actual essential inputs that will most efficiently get you to those outcomes? While we’re talking about the meaning of words, let’s also talk about the popular term, “grind.” Entrepreneurs, business owners, and executives are told they have to “grind” to be successful. So many of them define their days and their “productivity” by how hard they grind. When I worked in political campaigns, so many “experts” would judge the effectiveness of campaigns by how late or early their campaign teams were working. That kind of mentality is what causes the caffeine- and Red Bull-fueled burnout culture in business startups. It’s what leads so many people to fit five hours of work in a 15-hour day. It’s easy to become so focused on these external expectations or inputs that we lose sight of what defines real success: Are you meeting your desired outcomes? Because when you are working within your zone of strength, focusing on the essential outcomes, and auditing out all the B.S. inputs that waste your time and burn you out — you can get in the flow. That’s when you lose track of time because your work becomes almost effortless. You flow like water, instead of grinding yourself into the ground (more on “flow” in the next chapter). When you meet people who constantly say they are “too busy” (it may be you!), it’s likely that they feel that way because their days are chock full of B.S. inputs that may not make any sense given their desired outcomes. When you change that mentality and begin making better choices about how you spend your time — you will feel like you are actually creating more time in your day.


But when you continue to build a Rube Goldberg Schedule — you ensure that you’re relegated to the grind of “busy” instead of the flow of true productivity.


And so I leave you with the following passage from the Tao Te Ching — 2500(ish) year old wisdom that reminds me of the importance of flow each day (this is from the Derek Lin translation):

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action3
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying noninterference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world.
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