Toward a New Vision of Productivity

This is the ninth part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end  of December and into 2009, 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). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. There are currently five episodes posted, with more to come.

Here they come! Hear them? Their thundering footsteps pounding down the hall? Their greedy little fingers stabbing at their mobile phone keys? Their hands flailing away at email? The squeals of pain, of terror, of worry, of immediate need?

In other words, people.

Or as David Allen and a lot of others in the productivity world call them, “inputs”.

If productivity is, as Allen insists, about managing attention, then every person you interact with, whether face-to-face or mediated by phone, email, webconference, memo, tweet, status update, shared calendar, or a thousand different other high- and low-tech means is yet another strain on your productivity system, yet another piece of attention to manage.

We can’t get around that, of course. Even Thoreau had a steady stream of visitors during his “isolation” at Walden Pond.

The problem is, people are sloppy. They’re disorganized. They’re random, chaotic. They are, many of them, unproductive.

Most systems deal with this by conflating interpersonal demands with the rest of your work – “Call Rashid to discuss 3rd quarter sales estimates” is another next action or task, alongside “Replace hard drive” and “Look up lockdown facilities for Junior.” Allen’s latest book is very explicit on this front: make it all “work”.

I said at the beginning of this system that one reason I thought there was a lot of resistance to productivity systems is that people are loathe to treat the people that matter a great deal to them the same way they treat their coworkers and their clients or customers. Indeed, Allen writes very much as if he has never had to deal with children (I don’t know whether he has or not), as if he’s never had his day intersect with a task list that looked something like this:

· @someday/maybe: Fy like Superman

· @home: Throw self down stairs. P: Achieve flight

· @home: Smack head on banister.

· @home: Bleed freely.

· @agenda (Mom): Discuss great pain in long, ragged sobs.

· @out and about: Get stitches.

In principle, when GTD and other systems are working, dealing with emergencies is easier – you have the mental energy and capacity to respond quickly and decisively. But no system can handle the emotional strain that “inputs” from people close to us can put on us.

Which makes me think that the next great piece in the productivity puzzle with be added by the folks studying the psychology of happiness, positive psychology. I imagine a system in which stress is managed not just using paper lists and effective filing techniques but with tools that encourage positive reflection and techniques of centering and regaining focus.

Too, I imagine systems that are more explicitly social. I find it interesting that although Allen, Covey, and thousands of other productivity experts regularly address corporate groups and counsel them on both individual productivity and habits for more effective teamwork, few of the major productivity leaders have expanded their personal productivity works beyond the individual (Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families is an important exception).

As the world gets more social online – even as we physically interrelate less and less – I expect to see a more social productivity literature emerging. What that will look like I can only guess, but it will necessarily be grounded first and foremost in the psychology of groups and of interpersonal relationships.

How do you reconcile your personal productivity with the demands of people who have no inkling of how disorganized (and disorganizing) they are? How do you manage your system in the face of inputs from those who have no system? Do you ever wish for a way to bridge the gap between your own efforts to keep things functioning and other people’s lack of such effort, even open hostility towards it?

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