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Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)

Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)
Five Productivity Ideas I'm Not Buying

    The body of work on productivity, life-work balance, and personal achievement sits uncomfortably – perhaps perilously — close to the genre of “self-help”. There are good ideas out there, but there are also a lot of hacks, quacks, and worse pawning off half-baked philosophies and poorly conceived analogies as solid advice.

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    While none of it is all that dangerous in and of itself, I think there is reason to be cautious about the ideas and strategies we invest our time, energy, and all too often our selves into. By presenting poor advice that promises but, in the end, fails to make us more productive, more able to handle the overwhelming press of personal and professional commitments, or more satisfied with our abilities, talents, and achievements, this mass of bad advice leaves us doubting ourselves, wondering not if there’s something wrong with the authors but if there’s something wrong with us.

    After working my way though a good part of my local library’s books on personal productivity and organization, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of ideas that, though popular, seem to promise a lot more than they deliver. A lot of it is built on poorly done, poorly understood, or even fraudulent research. I’m surprised, too, at how shallow so much of this literature is that promises to help its readers deepen their lives.

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    Much of it isn’t worth mentioning, but there are a few ideas that are so popular, that come up so much when we lifehackistas get to talking, that they do deserve examination. Here is my list of five ideas that I’m not buying – some of them I’ve tried and found lacking, others simply strike me as outright stupid, and some as sheer BS, but all of them are well-known and carry a lot of weight in the personal productivity world.

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    • Mind mapping. I wanted so badly to believe this one! As an academic, I’m always looking for ways to simplify and strengthen the organization and use of information, tools that would help me to see connections among seemingly disparate ideas. What a disappointment it was to sit down with Tony Buzan’s books and find almost nothing there – a way to make beautiful pictures that seems to offer nothing in the way of actual productivity. I simply can’t see why a handful of colored pencils and an hour of sketching little drawings and cutesy arrows (hey, let’s make this line look like a staircase, because it’s about “moving up” in the world!) should be considered an improvement over ten minutes of list-making. All Buzan offers to support any of this is his insistence that this is how the brain works. And if it isn’t…?
    • The 80/20 Rule. I get the idea here: eliminate the stuff you do that doesn’t make you happier, wealthier, or wiser, and focus on the stuff that does. But why wrap the pretty good advice up in a scientific-sounding pseudo-rule (hey, it’s mathy, it must be true!? What is “20%” of the stuff I do, anyway? How is that measured? Total calories expended on each task, minutes used on each thing, or maybe the amount of worrying I do in getting something done? I’m sure there’s some business psychologist somewhere who has sat down and tracked employees’ workflows – what does that have to do with me? How does that transfer out of the workplace, and why should it? What would “80%” of my productivity even look like? What does 20% of parenting look like? Of painting? Of writing? It’s a bogus measure meant to give more gravitas to advice that, frankly, doesn’t need it.
    • The power of Brand You. This is another one I get the idea of, but think it’s misdirected. Basically, the idea of Brand You is to stand out, to be memorable, to market yourself – through schmoozing, networking, the quality of your work, and so on – as THE person to turn to in your field. But the over-reliance on the idea of a brand, as if you were a product to be put on a shelf – it bother me. What’s more, the idea is that you’re always selling yourself. In no other part of life do we think of salespeople as holding the keys to success, but when it comes to shaping our careers and even our lives, we’re asked to turn to Willy Loman as a model?
    • Making productivity a habit. This strikes me as good advice, but it’s only halfway there. The problem with habits is that they become routines, reflexes – not even “become”, they are routines. As anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking or stop saying “um” will tell you, habits are hard to break. Habits can hinder our ability to adapt to change, can even prevent us from seeing change at all. They can also blind us to important information, forcing us to push it out of our minds the way the habitual smoker explains away his morning cough or wheezing after the second flight of stairs.
    • Visualizing success. I’ve saved the worst for last – the alleged power of positive thinking. It never ceases to surprise me how much traction this kind of new-agey, pseudo-mystical thinking gets among otherwise hard-headed, practical-minded movers and shakers. The worst part is that it’s not even true: research shows that visualizing yourself as successful, imagining you’ve won that promotion and corner office or walking down the street with the current object of your obsession rarely leads to effective action. Instead, psychologists find that mentally re-enacting the series of events that led one to have difficulty securing a promotion or getting a date is more likely to compel us to act, and in more productive ways. Self-examination is key, not escaping into an imagined but unrealized future.

    Like I said, these are ideas that have a lot of followers, which tells me that somebody, somewhere is getting – or thinks they’re getting – some use out of them. So I’m not ready to close the door on them entirely; if you think there’s a good reason to take another look at something in the list above, let me know!

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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