by Site Author


Consider the three funnels above: two large funnels and one narrow funnel. The rate at which water can pass through all three funnels is determined by the narrowest funnel. The narrowest funnel is called the bottleneck. It doesn’t matter whether the bottleneck is the first, second, or third funnel; wherever it is, it determines the overall rate.

The concept of bottlenecks has enormous implications. Imagine a large factory, with raw materials coming in one side and finished product coming out the other. The factory can only produce so much product per hour, and the rate at which it does so is determined by the bottleneck. And so the factory’s engineers dedicate enormous amounts of time to finding the bottleneck and to eliminating it. Some management consultants call this “The Theory of Constraints.” It can mean focusing on a small part of the factory that you would otherwise ignore.

Much has been written about bottlenecks in manufacturing. But what does the concept imply for those of us who work not in factories but in offices? I don’t produce manufactured goods, I produce lectures and research papers.

And yet, the Theory of Constraints might apply to me, as well. I go through steps to produce a paper: I generate the idea, analyze the data, write the manuscript, submit the manuscript to a journal, and so on. There can still be a bottleneck in such a process. The Theory of Constraints encourages me to find it.

More importantly, the Theory of Constraints suggests ways that I should not invest my time. I shouldn’t worry about aspects of my work that are clearly not the bottleneck. For instance, I shouldn’t bother learning to touch-type faster. My typing speed is definitely not the bottleneck.

And that is true for many “productivity hacks.” Fancy new software, computers, or notebooks wont help me. The rate at which I produce papers is determined by the bottleneck, and superficial changes don’t touch the bottleneck.

I keep this argument in mind whenever I see anyone promoting some new gadget or self-help book. Most new tools are useless, in that they don’t help you precisely where you need it most.