Background Ops #1: Strict Limit


“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

— Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics, 1911



Have you ever had an epiphany?

It’s a wonderful feeling — but very hard to describe.

One moment you’re going about your life. You’re thinking the way you normally think. You’re going with the currents and flows of life. Your mind is operating in a normal way; nothing noteworthy is happening.

And then — flash!

At first it’s like an explosion of beautiful chaos, followed immediately by rapid connections in the mind… the newly recognized concept branches and generates dozens of new ideas. The mind can barely process it all — it feels like one’s brain is overflowing.

But just then, almost as rapidly, the lines between these disparate ideas all start connecting… long-invisible and mysterious patterns of the universe coalesce into clean lines and solidified understanding.

The world seems different afterwards — how could I have not known that before? One is shaken by the experience — not shaken in the present, now, but shaken looking backwards — before, I didn’t know; now, I know.

I remember the first time I encountered Alfred North Whitehead’s remarkable lines — they set off those waves of splendid chaos and connection in mind.

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”




How could I not have seen that before?



Welcome to our investigation into Background Operations.

The basis of this series will be that wonderful line from Whitehead –

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.”

He wrote it over 100 years ago — and he was talking about large-scale civilization. During the Middle Ages and onwards, around 75% of all people in world worked in agriculture.

By 1900, that number had fallen to around 20% in the most developed countries — England, America, France, etc.

Now, the number is below 5% — and still falling.

If you actually sit and reflect on that a bit, you come to some striking conclusions — in the Middle Ages, three out of every four people were farmers or ranchers. That meant that civilization-as-a-whole could only have one person out of every four dedicated to doing anything else besides making food. All of science, philosophy, tool-making, inventing, writing, printing, government, the arts — everything — was drawn from only one-quarter of the world’s population.

Nowdays, it takes less than 1 person out of 20 working in agriculture to feed everyone — and we’re all freed up to work on everything else. And thus, civilization progresses.

The same trends have been followed in just about every field — making iron and steel now requires a small fraction of the people as when those processes were first developed; making tools, industrial goods, consumer goods — same pattern.

Civilization indeed advances when operations happen with less conscious effort — whereas in the olden days, we’d have to pump water from a well or hike to the nearest river to fetch water to drink, nowdays in most developed cities you turn on the tap and clean drinking water comes out.

The amount of time people as a whole need to spend concerned with food and water has been going down every single year.

Now, if you’re new to The Strategic Review, it’s worth mentioning what we’re doing here — we’re not learning about general trends simply for the joy of learning or to be more informed. Rather, we want to draw lessons and examples from history in order to practically improve our lives.

To that end, let’s pay attention to a major force that’s effecting the world that many people aren’t aware of — the fact that a Background Operations approach can now be taken by the vast majority of people as individuals, but that most people aren’t trained in the skills to think and act in this way.



Before we talk Background Ops specifically, let’s look at the problem that staring us right in the face — what we’re running up against.

We’ve explored the concept that time is the last and fundamental limit in the past at TSR, but it’s one thing to recognize that as true — and a much more difficult thing to see the implications of it and act accordingly.

We all get 24 hours each day, which adds up to 168 hours per week.

Everything we want to do in a given week has to fit into those blocks of 168 hours.

And if you really set out to live a great life, you quickly come to the conclusion that there’s many worthwhile things in life that you could do — far, far more than can possibly fit in any given week.

Of course, this means you need to make choices and you need to prioritize — that’s the common advice. It’s true.

But a key point is missing –

Any unnecessary hour is stolen from the supply that you need to do everything that matters to you.



The futurist William Gibson had a famed quote –

“The future is here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

In 2017, it’s possible to have a lot of great things happen in the background of your life without constant effort and involvement. Even when effort is needed, the amount, duration, and intensity of that effort can often be greatly reduced.

Consider, for instance, having decent quality tap water in one’s home. This is fantastically useful — you just turn on the tap and can get water to drink, cook with, etc. For people that have it, this supply of clean tap water runs pleasantly in the background of your life; you merely pay your water bill every so often and the water keeps flowing.

We often neglect to notice or appreciate these little conveniences and time-savers of modern life, which is a shame — because if we paid more attention, we might realize that we can build all sorts of small infrastructure and processes for ourselves that do the functional equivalent of what the water company does for us.

Probably the most staggering example is Facebook acquiring the startup Instagram for one billion U.S. dollars.

It’s not just the purchase price that’s impressive — it’s the fact they only had 13 employees when it was acquired.

All of my friends with a background in programming marvel over what Instagram was able to do — supporting tens of millions of users who were taking photos, uploading them, editing them, sharing them, and commenting on them in real time… the company was acquired five years ago now, but what they did technologically was likely impossible to build at all 10 years before that — and would have required a vastly larger staff even five years beforehand.

Really, stop for a moment and reflect — using modern technology and a bunch of best practices they developed, the team at Instagram built a billion-dollar company… with only thirteen people.

Tools and information, right now, are good enough to vastly decrease the amount of time we need to spend doing things — but most people aren’t thinking this way at all; thus, all the possible gains are far away from them.

“The future is here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”



Alfred North Whitehead’s Introduction to Mathematics has a lot of gems in it. It’s not always easy reading, but it makes you smarter –

“By relieving the brain of all unnecessary work, a good notation sets it free to concentrate on more advanced problems, and in effect increases the mental power of the [human] race.”

He’s talking about mathematics, of course — but this applies to our investigation into Background Operations as well; remember it, we’ll return to it in a moment.

Whitehead then talks about arithmetic –

“Now, the first noticeable fact about arithmetic is that it applies to everything, to tastes and to sounds, to apples and to angels, to the ideas of the mind and to the bones of the body. The nature of the things is perfectly indifferent, of all things it is true that two and two make four. Thus we write down as the leading characteristic of mathematics that it deals with properties and ideas which are applicable to things just because they are things, and apart from any particular feelings, or emotions, or sensations, in any way connected with them.”

We’ll turn in a moment to some very practical examples and guidance, but stop and see if you can trace the lines of Whitehead’s argument.

First, he’s saying that by learning explicit ways to notate and do particular operations, the brain’s processing power can then be turned to work on more advanced and interesting problems.

Second, he notes that it’s possible to learn generalized skills independent of any particular domain. He’s talking about mathematics of course — but it equally applies to our efforts here on time and building better operations.



Making things run better in the background of your life has a general and universal skill associated with it. There are specific implementations of the general skill, but understanding the nature of the general skill is incredibly powerful.

The skill is roughly this –

1. Make the operation explicit.
2. Simplify, streamline, and reduce the effort required to run the operation.
3. Move the operation back to the background by automating or habitualizing it.

If we wanted to try to come with catchy single words to remember this, it might be –

1. Explicate.
2. Improve.
3. Backgroundize.



When you start looking for this skill, you start seeing it everywhere — Ray Dalio talks about it in Principles; you can see the lines of it in Sam Walton’s memoir Made in America about building Walmart into the largest company in America; you can trace the lines of it in how McDonalds and Starbucks got built; you can see how teams that greatly outperform like Instagram and Netflix embody it.

Of course, those are all organizations — they had immense amounts of resources available to them to develop operations to run smoothly in the background. By my reckoning as an amateur historian, this only became a practically viable skill for individuals sometime in the last 10–20 years.



There’s immense power available here, but let’s be frank — the process of doing this is incredibly joyful and satisfying once mastered.

But until then, it can be a little boring and tedious.

I study and brush up on mathematics periodically — frankly, there’s often long and boring periods of grinding away at leveling up one’s math before getting into more interesting patterns.

Background Operations works the same way. Aside from the rare people who naturally think like engineers and love taking things apart and putting them back together, the skill can be rather boring to get down.

It’s worth it, I think — it’s incredibly powerful and makes for a life that’s simultaneously more thriving and more tranquil — but the initial learning can be quite boring.

Let’s look at a specific example — a wonderful American businessman named Sam Carpenter who had bought and operated a telephone-answering service (TAS) in Oregon for 20 years, and who was working something like 100 hours per week to keep the company afloat through constant crisis and firefighting.

He outlined his story and how he got out of an overworked entrepreneurial hell in his book Work the System — he came to realize that the business, specifically, had a series of operations around it, and each one could be improved systematically and then moved back to the background.



From Work the System

“Coming immediately after my midnight epiphany, our first Working Procedure was the Deposit Procedure, which provided our administrative staff with exact directions for processing the dozens of client payments that arrive by mail in our of office each day. This involves more than the actual bank deposit. It also includes physically receiving incoming checks, crediting them to clients’ accounts in the receivables software, and cross-checking totals. Years ago, when we created this first Procedure, three management people, including me, were authorized to make a deposit. Whoever was available on any particular day did it. No written instructions existed.

The reason we focused on the Deposit Procedure first was because it was a critical system and it had deep flaws. It seemed to be our most troublesome system. Without any set-in-writing protocol, and with each of us performing the task in our own unique way, we too often made random mistakes, seldom in [our] favor (and if they were in our favor, a client was shortchanged). Sometimes we applied payments to the wrong accounts, and too many times deposit sums were incorrect. One time, a $3,000 deposit was lost by one of our managers, only to be inadvertently discovered weeks later under her car seat.

[…] with all the gyrations and outright errors, the process was taking far too much time, and that was a waste. So the three of us put our heads together. After thoroughly interviewing my managers, this first Working Procedure took me four hours to compose. Then, to make it perfect, it took maybe three more hours spread over a couple more days.

This first Deposit Procedure contained fifty-three individual steps. Here is how it went:

Step 1: “Put the envelopes in a stack in front of you on the desk and open all the envelopes. (Do not yet take the contents out of the envelopes.) Leave them in a stack.”

Step 2: “Open the receivables software and go to the deposit module.”

Step 3, etc. progressed through the procedure, up through the last step. step 53 (“Place the deposit printout in the daily deposit file in the receivables file cabinet in the CFO’s office”).

We agreed that if any one of us saw room for betterment in the procedure, we would collaborate on the spot. If we were convinced the change would improve the process, we would instantly update the Working Procedure — and just as quickly implement the revised version.”

So — Carpenter is the boss of the company, and the company was screwing up deposits fairly often. If you’ve worked in or around small business, this shouldn’t be surprising — there’s often problems around payments, accounts, and accounts receivable. (It even happens to larger companies — Oracle almost went out of business in the late-1980s when they had a crisis around accounts receivable and bad account management.)

Carpenter and his team then,

1. Made the process explicit: they wrote down all the steps that should happen every single time to have payments go through.

2. Streamlined and simplified the process, writing down best practices that should happen every single day.

3. Trained everyone on the process until it was good enough to be largely forgotten — except for when the written process was periodically improved upon.

This took Carpenter seven hours personally — four hours across a single half-day burst working session to get the rough outlines down, and then a few hours over the next week to tune it up.

Afterwards –

“We put the Deposit Procedure into play. From then on, no matter who performed it, the deposit process proceeded the same way every single time. Over time, we improved it even more, and each time we improved it the procedure became more efficient. We built double checks into it so we knew for certain the payments were tallied correctly, and we added steps to ensure that the deposits made it to the bank.

Because we put the procedure together in a simple 1–2–3, off-the-street format, anyone within the company could make a deposit. As a result, I didn’t make deposits anymore. All these years later I recall the moment I physically handed the brand new written Working Procedure to someone else. I remember wondering happily, is it really possible I am doing this? And I also remember realizing that because of the written procedure’s simplicity, I didn’t have to take time to train this staff member on how to execute the task. I just physically handed over the Working Procedure and walked away! It was a profound moment in time that I will never forget, and that was the point when I knew we would document every system in the company.

Completing that first Working Procedure reduced my personal workload by at least two hours each week. That’s two hours per week over twelve years. Do the math: that’s the equivalent of more than seven months of full forty-hour workweeks completely eliminated. Yeah, man!


Today, the Deposit Procedure is down to merely twenty-three steps because of better software and my staff’s learned ability to simplify, streamline, and economize. We still work it, and recently added a bank-provided check reader that allows Teresa, our accounts receivable manager, to make deposits without physically leaving the office.”



I can think of very few things more boring than explicitly studying, documenting, and refining a process to deposit checks in the bank.

Let’s not sugarcoat things — this is boring work.

But if I might draw your attention to the math…

Carpenter noted,

After thoroughly interviewing my managers, this first Working Procedure took me four hours to compose. Then, to make it perfect, it took maybe three more hours spread over a couple more days. […] Completing that first Working Procedure reduced my personal workload by at least two hours each week.

He saved two hours per week, which is 104 hours per year… and went on to run the company for over another 12 years. That’s 1,248 hours saved for a 7 hour investment of initial time.

Regardless of how busy you are, this type of thing makes immense sense — those initial seven hours would have paid for themselves within a single month.

And as boring as explicating, studying, documenting, and designing a check deposit system is — it’s not that much more boring than going to the bank at haphazard intervals, fixing mistakes when customers get angry that you screwed up their account, while subsequently worrying that “things aren’t working right.”



A Background Ops type approach can be taken towards anything from the largest to smallest of things — earning and saving money, making investments, creating art, caring for one’s children or elderly parents — really, anything that happens on a somewhat regular basis can be studied and improved.

Carpenter wrote of it,

“First, make the various systems consciously visible. Second, one at a time, bring them to the foreground for examination. Third, adjust them. Fourth, document them. Fifth, maintain them.

By plucking individual systems out of the amorphous mass of your real-time existence — that intense conglomeration of sights, sounds, and events that is your life — you can examine and then precisely manipulate their workings. But first you must see them. Reaching the point where you see the systems around you is the first and most significant step. It’s a mini-enlightenment.”

The actual steps to do this aren’t particularly hard. For my part, once I realized this was a skill and skillset worth developing, I started seeing it everywhere among people that were really and truly effective.

It happens on the organizational level in all very successful organizations, but just as importantly, this process can be learned and mastered by individuals for disproportionately large gains of time, things running smoothly, thriving, and quality-of-life.



We’ll look at Background Operations and specific instances and techniques to develop them throughout this series.

But I’d like to challenge you to start in a small and unassuming way — pick a single routine and boring area of your life that’s currently done implicitly, make it explicit, tune it up, and then move it back to the background.

I think it almost doesn’t matter what you pick — because the generalized skill is so incredibly valuable to learn. Even if your first efforts were into something small, like how you paycheck flows into your bank account, or streamlining your grocery shopping and household supplies, or even something as basic as ensuring your laundry is done — nevertheless, like learning the basics of mathematics, the general skill becomes a building block for greater control, quality, and tranquility across one’s life.

It almost doesn’t matter what you choose first, so long as you choose something — and even if it took you 5–10 hours of study to remove 10 minutes per week of routine effort, the general skill is worth cultivating.

When Alfred North Whitehead was talking about discoveries in mathematics and science, he pointed out that often abstract theoretical discoveries seemed useless… before becoming building blocks of very large things –

“The momentous laws of induction between currents and between currents and magnets were discovered by Michael Faraday in 1831- 82. Faraday was asked: “What is the use of this discovery?” He answered “What is the use of a child — it grows to be a man.” Faraday’s child has grown to be a man and is now the basis of all the modern applications of electricity.”

Background Operations are simple enough, but extremely uncommon for individuals — despite the modern world now offering immense advantages to people who take this approach.

Again, pick a single area of your life, and then –

1. Make the operation explicit. Figure out what the purpose is and what the final result you are looking for. Figure out how you’ve done it in the past. Study and think.

2. Simplify, streamline, and reduce the effort required to run the operation. Perhaps research or discuss with someone else effective how they do it. Search for a way that was better than your implicit and unstudied way.

3. Move the operation back to the background by automating or habitualizing it. (We’ll talk about both habits and automation later in the series; for now, the main idea is that after making improvements to something, you slot it back into your life in the improved way.)

Or, to make it easier to remember –

Explicate — Improve — Backgroundize

Truthfully, the process is at times boring — but the power gained is immense.

We’ll continue with Background Operations next week. Until then, yours,

Sebastian Marshall


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