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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 January 21, 2020

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

How to Self-Taught Effectively

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

More About Self-Learning

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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