The Flywheel Formula


If my boys would let you slice open one of their monster truck toys to find the source of energy that allows it to plow across our carpet and power over obstacles, you wouldn’t find a battery. The magic comes from a somewhat heavy, but otherwise unremarkable disk. It is called a flywheel. These types of toys are captivating because they seem immune to friction, possessing a determination to keep moving no matter how difficult the terrain.

Do you know anyone like that, the type of person that seems unsinkable? No matter what life throws at them they persevere. Every blow makes them stronger, they always come out on top, and they make it look so easy.

Last week I wrote about doom loop triggers, the tiny things that can derail our lives and send us into a tailspin. The problem is that our productivity is based on a brittle equation that looks like this:

Output = (Energy x Skills)/Time

As mortals, this equation fails us because it seems so fixed. There are only so many hours in a day, the gods didn’t bless us with talent, and work is exhausting. Our output is mediocre, but it isn’t our fault. Or so we tell ourselves.

If we think about the equation as a flywheel we might be able to hack the system. Instead of a toy that requires constant battery swapping, our lives can be perpetual motion machines, driven by the power of our own momentum.

There is a flywheel inside each of us. Imagine three gears. One spins when we feel energized by our challenges. One spins when we are improving our skills. The third gear spins when we get more done than we expected. When all three gears spin, our personal inertia increases. If we can keep everything spinning in the same direction we become unstoppable.

So how do you keep the flywheel going?

1. Energy requires a mission.
We are drawn to leaders who give us a clear mission. We rally for the cause when we believe that the values of our employers are more than bullet points on a powerpoint slide. Unfortunately that is extremely rare. You are probably going to need to create your own mission. I used to work for a dental company. I couldn’t get excited about teeth cleaning, but that wasn’t my mission. My design work was adding meaning and beauty to an industry that is notoriously ugly and vague. Without a higher purpose, you will never maintain the energy required to fight the tiny battles that are attempting to slow your roll. (Wow, I swore I would never use that phrase.)

2. Skill requires education.
School sucks when there doesn’t seem to be a reason for the lessons. But when you are creating something that you believe in you can’t help but seek out the knowledge that you need. Working with people smarter than you is invigorating because you always feel like you are growing. Likewise, sharing your knowledge with a thirsty student recharges your energy reserves. That’s why repetitive tasks are demoralizing — without new knowledge your skill wheel grinds to a stop.

3. Time requires efficiency.
Reclaiming wasted time is like striking gold. It is counter-intuitive, but it takes time to create time. It takes time to exercise but the effort repays you with energy. It takes time to refactor your code but the effort repays you every time the code runs. It takes time to write weekly blog posts but the effort repays you with clarity in your thinking. Meetings take time but, uh, wait a second. Efficiency requires us to ruthlessly evaluate whether the time we are spending on something is going to spin our wheels or slow them down.

My son loves to get the wheels of his monster truck spinning. Each time he pushes the wheels against the ground the speed increases. Faster and faster until the truck is screaming to be released. With pure joy he sets the vehicle down and marvels at the unstoppable power of what he has set in motion. Our work should feel like that.


Thanks for reading. If this post spins your wheels, you should follow me. I write a post like this each week. Stay creative.

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