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There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management

There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management
Being Productive

What does it mean to be productive? A typical definition might be something like, “Getting the most done in the least possible time.” In a workplace context, this means one and only one thing: more work. If the process for a task can be streamlined so it can be done in half the time, then you can have your employees do that task twice as many times.

In order to cram more into the same amount of time, we need careful time management, but I want to suggest that productivity is far more than just time management. That in fact, the definition of productivity above might be fine if you’re an employer and paying your employees by the hour or the workday, but it’s absolutely dreadful for just about everyone — and everything — else.

Another definition of productivity

Here’s a different take on what productivity is: You’re being productive when your work is entirely satisfying and fulfilling.

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Although the specific things that are satisfying and fulfilling to you are, of course, a matter of individual tastes and preferences, here are a few qualities most people would consider important:

  • You grow as a person.
  • You enjoy the company of others.
  • You are proud of what you’ve completed.
  • You feel confident about your abilities.
  • You look forward to undertaking the same or similar projects in the future.
  • You help others.
  • You receive the acclaim of your peers.

Notice, the qualities that make work satisfying are all about you, not about the work. There is no job that is inherently so dirty or demeaning that nobody could find it satisfying and fulfilling. (Unfortunately, that isn’t at all how work gets assigned in our society, where race, class, gender, social standing, ambition, educational certifications, and other irrelevancies determine who will do what job, leaving only a small amount of “wiggle room” for each of us to choose among a limited number of options.)

There are dirty jobs, and you have to do them

There are, of course, lots of tasks that are neither satisfying nor fulfilling that have to get done nevertheless. Few people enjoy doing their taxes or getting a root canal, but they need doing. Since it’s unlikely that every routine, boring, dangerous, or repetitive task that our society needs to keep running will be automated within our lifetimes, there is still a need to manage our time.

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But the goal of time management should not only be to get the most done in the time allotted. At it’s best, time management offers a set of strategies for maintaining balance between “work” and “life”. I’ve put those terms in quotes because a) our work is, of course, not a thing separate from life, and b) by “work” I don’t mean our job but all the least satisfying and least fulfilling tasks that we need to take care of in order to live. Frankly, if your job consists entirely of that sort of work, you’d best be considering a switch!

Looked at this way, the hoary phrase “work-life balance” that so many employers are paying lip service to these days takes on a new meaning (and one most employers don’t have even remotely in mind): to balance our lives more in favor of tasks that are satisfying and fulfilling.

Those tasks that are draining and unstimulating should be done as quickly as possible, not to maximize shareholder value but so that people can get on with the stuff that makes them human. Sometimes that means giving employees family days or setting them up to telecommute, but often that means giving employees room to do things that challenge and stimulate them, and minimizing or automating the things that don’t.

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This applies outside of the workplace, as well. If your family life consists entirely of chores and drudgery, you’re not in balance no matter what percentage of your time is spent at home. Household organization and chores should be, as much as possible, systematized and routinized so it can be gotten out of the way with the least possible investment of time and effort, so that you and your family can get on with the things that make you grow closer together.

Getting to doing

When you have the “work” under control, you can afford to give time to the projects that turn you on. In fact, you can afford to take pleasure not in getting things done but in doing them. While a completed task or project can give you a great deal of satisfaction, the act of doing should also be fulfilling. Consider fishing: everyone loves landing a big fish, but at the end of the day what counts is not how many fish you’re bringing home or how big they are but the time you spent sitting in the boat watching the line.

For a writer, having a finished manuscript to send off to a publisher is great, but it’s the daily flow of words that makes writing worth doing. Same thing for a painter, for whom the feel of paint on canvas is as important — if not more so — as having a finished work to hang or sell. There are sales people who love being in the thick of a negotiation, actors who love the thrill of the stage, athletes for whom the feeling of pushing their bodies is far more important than a win. And when they’re finished, they move on to the next one.

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The most useless thing you do

There’s a word in Yiddish that I’ve always loved: “Luftmenschen”. Literally “air people”, Luftmenschen are people who deal in “air” — in the non-tangible: ideas, thoughts, dreams. While it’s a bit of a put-down to be called a Luftmensch, I’ve always felt is seemed like an admirable occupation.

The Luftmensch knows something the rest of us don’t: that the most useless thing you do is the most important. That is, the things we do with no final purpose in mind, solely for the enjoyment of doing them, are the things that make us human — that make us Menschen. (A Mensch is a genuine, authentic person.)

If we’re lucky, these things are part of our job — we get paid to do things we’d do anyway just for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. But lucky or not, they are the key to real productivity — not doing as much as possible in as little time as possible, but doing the least fulfilling stuff as quickly as possible so we have plenty of time to do the “useless” stuff — thinking, dreaming, living.

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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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