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Personal Productivity in the 21st Century

Personal Productivity in the 21st Century
Knowledge Worker

What does it mean to be productive? The “gurus” have given us a few ideas — it means to “get things done”, to be “highly effective”, to know who it was, exactly, who moved your cheese. What things, effective at what, and who is bringing cheese to work anyway are questions that these books don’t — and can’t — answer.

There’s something profoundly old-fashioned about much of our productivity literature today. I’ll admit — I’m quite a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but there are aspects of his work and his philosophy that bug me, that hearken back to the Industrial Psychology of the early 20th century. Whenever he talks about “cranking widgets”, I can’t help but see in my mind Charlie Chaplin the Modern Times haplessly wielding a wrench against an ever-increasing onslaught of bolts that need tightening. And from there, I’m led inevitably to the famous image of Chaplin being dragged through the cogs and wheels of the machine — a fitting metaphor for how many people feel when they try to put all Allen’s ideas into practice.

The others — Covey, Drucker, and the flood of personal development books aimed at managers and executives that fill the business shelf at Borders — bring to mind the business world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I see Covey and my mind flips to Darren Stephens heading off to work at the ad agency, or men with hats whistling at the pretty girls in the secretarial pool in some madcap ’50s comedy. I see ZIg Ziglar’s books on the shelf (tons of them!) and imagine Willy Loman out there on the road, desperate for one more sale.

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The productivity gurus of the last century seem to be describing a world where water coolers and coffee breaks still rule, where the non-smokers are the outcasts, where short-sleeved white shirts are matched with white, chest-length ties and topped off with neatly parted hair. They’re not describing worlds I’m familiar with — they’re not describing worlds I suspect most of us are familiar with.

The 21st Century Worker

While I’m sure there are still Old School corporate executives out there, and boiler room salesmen, and more than a few factory workers (though they’re rare in the US, where less than 10% of our working population is involved in production), the professional of today isn’t likely to be any of those. Work in the Western world has been redefined as knowledge work — the production of ideas, not goods. We’re paid to think, not make.

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What does that mean in terms of productivity? In the 20th century, a worker’s productivity was measured in terms of how many widgets s/he cranked in a day, an hour — even a minute. Employers set up cameras and filmed workers at their machines, allowing them to time the steps taken to complete a task down to 1/28th of a second (most of the early development of film-making technology came from manufacturers, not artists). How do you measure the generation of ideas? How do you reduce thinking to a widget you can crank?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Which is why, I think, so many people balk at much of the advice offered by the likes of Allen, Covey, Drucker, and the lesser luminaries of the personal productivity world — and why creative people tend to be especially suspicious of their systems. It seems unnatural to, say, schedule a block of time when we can think uninterrupted — ideas tend not to respect our schedules very much.

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It’s why, too, the idea of writing things down when they occur to us and following them up during our scheduled processing time also puts many people off — when we get a really good idea, we want to follow up on it now. Even if that means putting off whatever work’s in front of us.

Getting Creativity Done

There is a place in even the most creative person’s life for the kind of discipline offered by the systems of the productivity gurus. In fact, I’d say that a lot of us need those systems even more than the executives and managers that they’re aimed at. Getting places on time, forcing ourselves to handle our household necessities, keeping on top of our income and outlay — these are things that don’t come naturally to a lot of creative people, and following a productivity system can make that part of our lives a lot easier — which should in theory help us free up more time and energy for doing the creative stuff that gets us going.

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But I think there’s also an empty space, a lacuna (a favorite word of mine that I almost never get to use!) that we need to deal with. How can we keep our schedules rigid enough that we know what we need to do when we need to do it, but flexible enough that we can focus on the things that feed our passion? How can we educate the people around us who see us sitting in our office (or den, or on a bench at the park) staring into space and think we’re goofing off, so that they understand that this still time is part of our work — the most important part of our work? How can we break free from the economic model that posits time as a spendable thing, and measures only successful outcomes — when we learn most from the failures?

Tomorrow, we’re posting an interview of Guy Kawasaki, a man I agree with totally about 50% of the time (and the other 50% of the time utterly disagree with). In the interview, Guy says “People should stop looking for grails and start looking for personal enlightenment.” What he means — or what I mean when I quote him — is that the idea that there needs to be a financial payoff to every idea, the idea that the “return” is more important than the “investment”, all too often keeps us from pouring ourselves into things that we don’t see any way to measure. And yet those are the things that are the things we should be most willing to invest ourselves in: family, friendship, beauty, truth, trust, community — enlightenment.

So what’s the answer? Where’s the “hack”? To be honest, I don’t know. I have infinitely more questions than solutions right now. But this month, I’ve asked our writers (including myself) to take on some of the issues I’m raising here. I’ve asked them to consider what’s missing in the productivity systems we have today, and what have we missed in them that’s especially valuable? Stay tuned throughout the month as we explore these issues, and feel free to bring up your own questions — and your own solutions — in the comments.

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Last Updated on March 31, 2020

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

Why We Procrastinate After All?

We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

Is Procrastination Bad?

Yes it is.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

How Bad Procrastination Can Be

Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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Procrastination, a Technical Failure

Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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