Results Not Guaranteed


In 2013, I took an experimental course on deliberate practice that Cal Newport and Scott Young were developing. In the email announcing the course, Cal warned: “If … you’re expecting guaranteed results, this pilot might not be a good fit.”

It’s a standard marketing technique for products and services to promise guaranteed results. But that’s not really what they’re promising. They may be willing to refund your money if you’re not satisfied, or even throw in a gift card. But that’s not really what you want. You want those results you were promised. Rather than relying on a guarantee that is limited to the purchase price, what if you could make your own guarantee?

Job Security

Self-employed bloggers (a group of which I am not a part) sometimes make observations about the lives of their peers in the world of traditional employment. Here’s part of a conversation between John Sonmez and Marcus Blankenship, two entrepreneurs. They are discussing Marcus’s choice to leave his job and work on his business full-time.

John: I mean, people think that regular employment is so secure, but…

Marcus: Is so safe…

John: Yeah. But the fact that you now had spent all this time [building your own business] … you could actually make the choice and not have to worry. A lot of people would panic and would be sending out their resumes looking for another job.

Marcus: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. … It is actually a false security, right? I mean, if one guy gets mad at you, he can fire you. It just takes one. But right now, how many people would have to fire you, John, for you to say, “Oh my gosh. I’m going to have to find a different job.”

A common argument about the benefits of self-employment is that it’s less risky to start a business and create multiple income streams than it is to rely on a single employer for your income. I think the risk argument is a bit of a stretch. If someone has the skills to start a successful business, then they’re likely to be able to find a new job if they lose their current one.

But there’s a good underlying point: your job is not guaranteed. Whether due to layoffs, political mishaps as discussed in the video, or your employer going out of business, working for a company is not risk-free.

Despite the risks, the advantage of being an employee is that someone else takes care of finding business. As a programmer for a company that you don’t own, you don’t have to worry about sales and marketing. You can concentrate on more specific responsibilities, like designing and writing good software. In exchange, you have to accept that you only get one source of income.

If you don’t want to start your own business, how can you mitigate the risk of having a single income? The key is how you approach your assignments. In addition to doing a good job on them, you should also consider them from the perspective of what you’ll learn by doing them.

The real risk in working for a single employer is not the single source of income (you can find another job), but rather the risk of working on a project that doesn’t give you anything back. If you’re learning about technology that is becoming obsolete, too specific to internal company systems, or not in an area that you want to pursue in the future, then you really are taking an unnecessary risk.

Stand Back. I’m Going to Try SCIENCE.

When it comes to improving your productivity, it’s hard for anyone to give you guaranteed results. One reason is that it takes a lot of effort to find techniques that specifically work for you. Earlier this year, I wrote a post about productivity habits. It contains a collection of advice that I have found useful on my project and at work. Several of the techniques, like Pomodoro, are well-known among productivity geeks.

Would I advise someone to implement all of these techniques? That might be useful for a while, especially if done gradually by a motivated worker. But the best way to approach one of these habit changes is as a suggestion for starting an experiment. Each habit has any number of possible variations. For Pomodoro, you can adjust the length of the work period and the length of the break between Pomodoros. For todo lists, there are countless electronic and paper-based tools to choose from. You can track your time at different levels of granularity, and you can do it all the time or just take a sample once in a while. Other techniques, like the Seinfeld Approach (aka Streaking) may or may not help to motivate you.

To find out what works for you, you have to experiment. And you have to be a bit methodical about it. You don’t necessarily have to put on a lab coat and safety goggles, but surfing LifeHacker every morning and trying out whatever is at the top of the page is definitely not what I’m getting at. (That’s more of a procrastination technique).

Here are a few recommendations for running experiments:

  • Start one new technique at a time.
  • Give each technique enough time to become a habit before starting a new one. You probably need on the order of a few months, but a shorter time might work for easier habits.
  • Keep track of results, whether through a work diary or a more quantitative approach like time logging.

The Repeated Bout Effect

Once your experiments uncover techniques that work for you, you can integrate them into your routine and start taking advantage of them. But that doesn’t mean you can stop experimenting. Due to a phenomenon known as the Repeated Bout Effect, techniques that you use for a while will have less of an impact over time. This is related to the well-known experience of “reaching a plateau” with habits involving diet and exercise, or with learning a new skill.

To see how the RBE might apply to productivity habits, imagine that you have found a habit (Pomodoro, for example) that you are using to help improve your concentration. If you start using that habit to get a consistent amount of focused work done each day, you’ll get a bump in productivity. But eventually you’ll reach a limit to the amount of time you can focus in a day. Your limit may be the natural limit that people who do demanding, focused work tend to run into (4-5 hours). Or you may just have other responsibilities that don’t involve focused work.

Once you reach one of these limits, the amount of productivity gain that you can get from Pomodoro will level out. You’ll still get your 4-5 hours of focus from the technique, but that time won’t continue to increase. If you want to keep improving, you’ll have to find something else to adjust. In the James Clear article linked above, he talks about the “strange form of laziness” demonstrated by someone who goes to the gym every week and runs three miles. For someone who isn’t working out at all, this workout might be impossible. But if they start doing it every week, it gradually becomes achievable and eventually easy. Similarly, someone who is used to having their inbox open all day and responding to email alerts in real-time might find it challenging to do a single Pomodoro. But with practice, they could reach the point of doing eight strict Pomodoros per day. Then it’s time to think about what comes next.

It’s not easy to keep experimenting once you find a set of techniques that works. Like the three-mile runner, you can find a comfortable routine that feels productive. It’s certainly a lot more productive than responding to email all day. But there’s good news and bad news about the way minds and bodies adapt to stimuli. On the good side, it means that you can learn, get better, and accomplish things that would have previously been impossible. But it also means that to avoid the dreaded OK Plateau, you have to keep mixing things up.

98 and ¾% guaranteed

Although there are no guaranteed results, some results are mostly guaranteed. In other words, they have a high probability of happening. For example, let’s consider the probability of getting a university degree in four years. Some universities offer a four-year graduation guarantee. But of course a university can’t actually guarantee that a student will finish in four years. What if they spend all four years playing foosball? So the guarantee is more about putting an upper limit on the amount of tuition that a student’s parents will be required to pay. And there is plenty of fine print to ensure that students can’t just take tuition-free classes forever. So these graduation guarantees are the same as any consumer guarantee, like the one you get when you buy a toaster.

Let’s approach the problem from another angle. Consider 10000 students who enroll at one of these fine colleges with high four-year graduation rates. Because of the law of large numbers, we can expect that about 9000 of them will have a degree after four years. That’s not the same as saying that any particular student has a 90% chance of graduating in four years. But being admitted to one of these schools has some effect on the probability that a particular student will finish in four years. In other words, by doing what it takes to get admitted to one of these schools, and then following through with good study habits, a student can create their own personal four-year graduation almost-guarantee, which they have a lot more control over than an official guarantee.

Here’s Cal Newport’s take on mostly guaranteed results:

[L]ucky breaks are essentially impossible until after you have developed a rare and valuable skill. At this point, breaks actually become quite probable, so long as you are doing the right things to demonstrate your skill.

This idea of developing rare and valuable skills is a recurring theme on Study Hacks and in Cal’s book. As he explains it, you can accumulate career capital, which you then exchange for the type of job that’s difficult to get otherwise. And unlike the guarantee that you get when you exchange regular capital for something (like a toaster), the only guarantee that you receive after this exchange is one that you create yourself.

(Image credit: Anton Gurevich, previously at