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How Not to Impose Productivity Systems On Others

How Not to Impose Productivity Systems On Others
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    My baby sister visited me this weekend and brought along a stack of homework that I thought was unbelievable: she’s a junior in high school and her task list had something for every class — and projects in most of them. She keeps track of it in a planner that has such small spaces for recording appointments or tasks that I thought my eyes would fall out of my head from squinting so hard.

    So I did what any good big sister interested in productivity would do: I offered to set her up with something a little easier to use. Nothing fancy, of course: I was thinking of introducing her to Remember the Milk. I like RTM for a lot of reasons, although I know a lot of other people have their preferences — the fact that I can use plugins to integrate RTM with both Google Calendar and GMail do a lot for my productivity.

    My sister’s response? An immediate no. She relies on paper, not some fancy online gizmo. She proceeded to explain that she only goes online every couple of days, mostly to check her Hotmail email account. It was like an arrow straight into my Web 2.0-loving heart. Somehow, I survived and suggested that maybe a new planner — a bigger one — might be in order. I even offered a trip to the bookstore. I was again shot down, with a whole list of counter-arguments: she’d have to transfer everything over, she’s used to this particular planner and this planner was free, whereas a new one would cost money.

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    I don’t consider myself some sort of productivity evangelizer; I just think that her system could be improved upon, if only to protect her eyesight. It’s her schoolwork: she’s more than welcome to organize it however she wishes. I managed to keep my advice down to a short suggested reading list and making her promise to consider this whole newfangled internet thing.

    I did start thinking, though, about other situations where a person can be forced to adopt a productivity system that just flat out doesn’t work for her, and how to maybe work around it. It’s happened to me before, and I certainly didn’t like it. One of my past employers required us cubicle-dwellers to use a custom system based on Excel spreadsheets accessible across the network to track not only our ongoing tasks but our time cards, accomplishments and a host of other information. I was the employee who constantly forgot to update the spreadsheets and had to be reminded where to check for a given piece of information on a regular basis. It wasn’t a case of my not having the necessary data — I had everything my manager wanted at any given time — but I didn’t translate it into the company’s system very well. We finally managed to slip into an arrangement where I used my own methods to track my work and then filled out my spreadsheets once a week or so.

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    I’ve heard plenty of horror stories about calendars, task lists and other imposed time tracking and productivity systems (a surprising number of them include required use of Outlook, often in ways it wasn’t intended to be used). Most seem to boil down to the fact that a worker views the ‘productivity’ system as creating hours more work than he otherwise might face. A bad time-tracking system can quickly become as much of an aggravation as a payroll screw up.

    I’ve heard plenty of work-arounds, as well: there was the guy who wrote himself a little piece of software to translate between his employer’s task management system and his own, the girl who just refused to play along at a system that didn’t work for her and the guy who convinced his manager to change the whole company to suit his needs. There were varying degrees of success — the girl who wouldn’t knuckle under to her task manager wound up in a new workplace very quickly.

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    It seems like the best most of us can do with an imposed productivity system is to try our best to make it work for us — and often we can’t do much better than pretending to find it useful. My personal experience shows that most people have to find their own way of implementing time management — whether by adapting GTD to their lives or writing their own handbook. It’s a matter of knowing what solution works for your specific situation. Nobody else will face the exact same time management issues that you do, making your personal touch a necessity when implementing some sort of productivity system.

    For companies or organizations looking to create some sort of time management system, however, there is still hope. Bringing the people who will be using the system in on its planning can avoid a whole list of common problems: micromanagement interfering with work, requirements for recording minutia into the system taking up time that could be better spent on projects or poorly integrated systems that require time to shift between. Whether you’re tracking productivity, or just trying to make it easier for employees to get their work done, the employees will be the only people able to tell you if your system will help or hurt them.

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    And my sister? I managed to convince her to try out GMail since we both agreed that her 2cute4words Hotmail address might not impress college admissions offices.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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