Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the first part of a 12-part series I will be posting over the next several weeks, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

Something is afoot in the productivity blogosphere, something which, I think, reflects a wider change in society itself. In the past year, several popular personal productivity bloggers have changed their focus, sometimes radically, or even stopped blogging altogether. At the same time, new writers have launched productivity sites that have attacked the very notion of productivity.

Especially targeted in this shift is the work of David Allen, who brought us GTD (Getting Things Done). After several years of almost religious devotion among many, a small but growing number of people are becoming dissatisfied with the GTD methodology. For some, it is too focused on the issues facing corporate leaders; for others, it is too full of pseudo-religious Zen mysticism and California spiritualism.

On the eve of the December 30th release of Allen’s new book, Making It All Work, which promises to extend the core ideas of GTD beyond the executive suite, I thought it would be a good time to clear the tables and to look into the future at what a new vision of productivity might look like. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring the social context in which our ideas of productivity and, indeed, blogs like Lifehack and books like Getting Things Done exist, and explore some of the trouble areas in the field of personal productivity as we currently understand and live it.

The goal here is not to put forth a new system or anything like that, but to think about what’s missing and how we might fill it. Ultimately, I don’t think there is any particular system that’s going to work for everyone; instead, I hope to develop a set of principles that will act as a guide for each of us – myself included – to put into action in our own particular ways.

What’s Happening in Productivity Today

I’ve said in the past, Merlin Mann has a lot to answer for. Like many others, I was introduced to GTD by a post on his blog 43Folders, probably via a link from BoingBoing. Mann joined a handful of bloggers, including Gina Trapani of Lifehacker and our own Leon Ho, in exploring the idea of “lifehacks” first put forth by Danny O’Brien in a talk at the Emmerging Technology Conference in 2004. Lifehacks are tricks aimed at making some part of one’s life a little easier. It might be a shift in perspective about email, a common tool used in a creative way, or a technological solution to a formerly non-technological problem.

For several years, bloggers both popular and obscure have been sharing their hacks with each other, looking for ways to shave a few seconds off a repetitive task, or to make the best use of their limited free time.

But there are only so many useful tricks a blogger can share, and when there are dozens if not hundreds of bloggers in the same space, distinguishing yourself from the herd can be a tough challenge. It also does something funny to the mind, to write about productivity all the time. Writing about productivity becomes one of the things, if not the thing, that you’re getting done by being productive, and at some point that starts to feel just a tad too circular.

Productivity is Dead. Long Live Productivity.

In June of 2008, Glen Stansberry announced a change of focus at LifeDev. The change was subtle; the only immediately visible difference was his tagline, formerly “Productivity for Creative People”, not “Empowering Creative People”. On the surface, Glen’s reasoning seems innocuous enough: “The problem with the tagline was that it pigeon-holed me into one very, very specific range of topics.” But at a deeper level, the change has some profound implications. Productivity is supposed to be empowering, after all, or else why bother?

Glen’s decision was mostly personal, and did not reflect much of a change in LifeDev’s content – if anything, it simply brought the tagline more in line with what Glen was already writing about. A couple months later, though, a more significant challenge was issued, this time by the Grand Master himself, Merlin Mann of 43Folders. Frustrated by both his management of his own site and the crop of productivity blogs that had sprung up in the wake of his own success. Merlin issued what amounts to the “J’Accuse” of the productivity blogosphere:

Friends, I’m done with “productivity” as a personal fetish or hobby. There are countless sites that are all too happy to vend stroke material for your joyless addiction to puns about procrastination and systems for generating more taxonomically satisfying meta-work. But, presently, you won’t find so much of that here.

Except inasmuch as it can help move aside barriers to finishing the projects that you claim matter to you, “productivity” is often a sprawling ghetto of well-marketed nonsense for people who really just need a ritalin and a hug. So, for myself, random tips and lists that aren’t anchored to solving a real-world problem for a smart but flawed adult with a mind are dead to me. Pour a forty on ‘em.

From now on, I’m going to talk about how people make stuff.

Merlin’s change of heart – and change of focus – was significant for a number of reasons. First, his site was one of the first big productivity blogs, and his personality and charisma have made him a (hesitant) leader. Second, his early posts on GTD have probably sold more copies of David Allen’s books than anything else ever written about them. Third, Merlin’s “branding” of a stack of index cards with a binder clip as the “Hipster PDA”, and his promotion of the Moleskine, initiated thousands, if not tens of thousands, of techy geeks into the world of pen and paper capture.

Merlin obviously didn’t give up his commitment to being productive; what he gave up was his commitment to the idea of productivity in the abstract. For Merlin, what matters most is not the system, nor the tools, but the doing. And, more importantly, the doing of something meaningful to the do-er.

While the mainstream productivity blogs were subtly or not-so-subtly shifting their attention to the pursuit of creativity, a new crop of blogs were emerging with a new counter-productivity (which is NOT to say “counter-productive”) stance. Nick Cernis launched his blog Put Things Off in January, with a decidedly different approach epitomized by his site’s cute and fluffy kitten logo, a distinct change from the file folder motif of 43Folders. By the end of his second month, Nick had announced the death of productivity:

[T]he productivity industry has become a techno-spiritualist movement. People are now using productivity ’systems’, software and small beeping devices just because almost everybody else is.

Our obsession with ‘productivity’ is getting in the way of our lives.

I think we all need to look at how much time and energy we’re wasting on our quest to become super-productive beings, and remind ourselves instead that simple is often best. Perhaps it’s time to stop all the beeps for a while [emphasis in original; quotes taken out of order].

By the end of his third month, Nick had released an e-book, Todoodlist, detailing his own stripped-down take on productivity – sans gadgets, sans fancy notebooks, sans pseudo-spirituality.

Nick might have been a little late to the game; a year earlier, Leo Babauta, a former Lifehack contributor, had also released a stripped-down productivity system called Zen to Done. Not as confrontational as Nick’s, maybe, Leo’s system still emphasized minimizing the use of fancy gadgets in favor of simplicity and a more meaningful, unmediated relationship with one’s work.

Clay Collins went both of them one further when, in May 2008, he posted his Alternative Productivity Manifesto on his own upstart blog, The Growing Life. For Clay, the central problem we all have to deal with is meaning, and the creation of a lifestyle (or, indeed, life) around those things that give us meaning. Productivity is part of the solution, but it is not the solution. Indeed,

No productivity system can put you in a zen like, meditative, or mind like water state. A calm, focused, and meditative mind leads to greater productivity, but productivity systems cannot create a mind like water.

In this single item from “The Alternative Productivity Manifesto”, Clay cuts to the heart of the matter: being productive can’t give our lives meaning, they can only help clear the clutter so we can figure out and focus on the things that do give life meaning – and in doing so, find the passion and motivation to get done those things which are, in the end, meaningful.

“If you’ve crossed the river,” writes Merlin Mann, ”you should quit carrying the boat.” A productivity system helps us get across the river. A good one can help us navigate the shallows, ride out the rapids, and avoid taking any spills, but once we’re on the other side, we have to get out and do the work of making meaning of and in our lives.

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