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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 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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