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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 1: Transformation

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 1: Transformation

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the first part of a 12-part series I will be posting over the next several weeks, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    Something is afoot in the productivity blogosphere, something which, I think, reflects a wider change in society itself. In the past year, several popular personal productivity bloggers have changed their focus, sometimes radically, or even stopped blogging altogether. At the same time, new writers have launched productivity sites that have attacked the very notion of productivity.

    Especially targeted in this shift is the work of David Allen, who brought us GTD (Getting Things Done). After several years of almost religious devotion among many, a small but growing number of people are becoming dissatisfied with the GTD methodology. For some, it is too focused on the issues facing corporate leaders; for others, it is too full of pseudo-religious Zen mysticism and California spiritualism.

    On the eve of the December 30th release of Allen’s new book, Making It All Work, which promises to extend the core ideas of GTD beyond the executive suite, I thought it would be a good time to clear the tables and to look into the future at what a new vision of productivity might look like. For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring the social context in which our ideas of productivity and, indeed, blogs like Lifehack and books like Getting Things Done exist, and explore some of the trouble areas in the field of personal productivity as we currently understand and live it.

    The goal here is not to put forth a new system or anything like that, but to think about what’s missing and how we might fill it. Ultimately, I don’t think there is any particular system that’s going to work for everyone; instead, I hope to develop a set of principles that will act as a guide for each of us – myself included – to put into action in our own particular ways.

    What’s Happening in Productivity Today

    I’ve said in the past, Merlin Mann has a lot to answer for. Like many others, I was introduced to GTD by a post on his blog 43Folders, probably via a link from BoingBoing. Mann joined a handful of bloggers, including Gina Trapani of Lifehacker and our own Leon Ho, in exploring the idea of “lifehacks” first put forth by Danny O’Brien in a talk at the Emmerging Technology Conference in 2004. Lifehacks are tricks aimed at making some part of one’s life a little easier. It might be a shift in perspective about email, a common tool used in a creative way, or a technological solution to a formerly non-technological problem.

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    For several years, bloggers both popular and obscure have been sharing their hacks with each other, looking for ways to shave a few seconds off a repetitive task, or to make the best use of their limited free time.

    But there are only so many useful tricks a blogger can share, and when there are dozens if not hundreds of bloggers in the same space, distinguishing yourself from the herd can be a tough challenge. It also does something funny to the mind, to write about productivity all the time. Writing about productivity becomes one of the things, if not the thing, that you’re getting done by being productive, and at some point that starts to feel just a tad too circular.

    Productivity is Dead. Long Live Productivity.

    In June of 2008, Glen Stansberry announced a change of focus at LifeDev. The change was subtle; the only immediately visible difference was his tagline, formerly “Productivity for Creative People”, not “Empowering Creative People”. On the surface, Glen’s reasoning seems innocuous enough: “The problem with the tagline was that it pigeon-holed me into one very, very specific range of topics.” But at a deeper level, the change has some profound implications. Productivity is supposed to be empowering, after all, or else why bother?

    Glen’s decision was mostly personal, and did not reflect much of a change in LifeDev’s content – if anything, it simply brought the tagline more in line with what Glen was already writing about. A couple months later, though, a more significant challenge was issued, this time by the Grand Master himself, Merlin Mann of 43Folders. Frustrated by both his management of his own site and the crop of productivity blogs that had sprung up in the wake of his own success. Merlin issued what amounts to the “J’Accuse” of the productivity blogosphere:

    Friends, I’m done with “productivity” as a personal fetish or hobby. There are countless sites that are all too happy to vend stroke material for your joyless addiction to puns about procrastination and systems for generating more taxonomically satisfying meta-work. But, presently, you won’t find so much of that here.

    Except inasmuch as it can help move aside barriers to finishing the projects that you claim matter to you, “productivity” is often a sprawling ghetto of well-marketed nonsense for people who really just need a ritalin and a hug. So, for myself, random tips and lists that aren’t anchored to solving a real-world problem for a smart but flawed adult with a mind are dead to me. Pour a forty on ‘em.

    From now on, I’m going to talk about how people make stuff.

    Merlin’s change of heart – and change of focus – was significant for a number of reasons. First, his site was one of the first big productivity blogs, and his personality and charisma have made him a (hesitant) leader. Second, his early posts on GTD have probably sold more copies of David Allen’s books than anything else ever written about them. Third, Merlin’s “branding” of a stack of index cards with a binder clip as the “Hipster PDA”, and his promotion of the Moleskine, initiated thousands, if not tens of thousands, of techy geeks into the world of pen and paper capture.

    Merlin obviously didn’t give up his commitment to being productive; what he gave up was his commitment to the idea of productivity in the abstract. For Merlin, what matters most is not the system, nor the tools, but the doing. And, more importantly, the doing of something meaningful to the do-er.

    While the mainstream productivity blogs were subtly or not-so-subtly shifting their attention to the pursuit of creativity, a new crop of blogs were emerging with a new counter-productivity (which is NOT to say “counter-productive”) stance. Nick Cernis launched his blog Put Things Off in January, with a decidedly different approach epitomized by his site’s cute and fluffy kitten logo, a distinct change from the file folder motif of 43Folders. By the end of his second month, Nick had announced the death of productivity:

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    [T]he productivity industry has become a techno-spiritualist movement. People are now using productivity ’systems’, software and small beeping devices just because almost everybody else is.

    Our obsession with ‘productivity’ is getting in the way of our lives.

    I think we all need to look at how much time and energy we’re wasting on our quest to become super-productive beings, and remind ourselves instead that simple is often best. Perhaps it’s time to stop all the beeps for a while [emphasis in original; quotes taken out of order].

    By the end of his third month, Nick had released an e-book, Todoodlist, detailing his own stripped-down take on productivity – sans gadgets, sans fancy notebooks, sans pseudo-spirituality.

    Nick might have been a little late to the game; a year earlier, Leo Babauta, a former Lifehack contributor, had also released a stripped-down productivity system called Zen to Done. Not as confrontational as Nick’s, maybe, Leo’s system still emphasized minimizing the use of fancy gadgets in favor of simplicity and a more meaningful, unmediated relationship with one’s work.

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    Clay Collins went both of them one further when, in May 2008, he posted his Alternative Productivity Manifesto on his own upstart blog, The Growing Life. For Clay, the central problem we all have to deal with is meaning, and the creation of a lifestyle (or, indeed, life) around those things that give us meaning. Productivity is part of the solution, but it is not the solution. Indeed,

    No productivity system can put you in a zen like, meditative, or mind like water state. A calm, focused, and meditative mind leads to greater productivity, but productivity systems cannot create a mind like water.

    In this single item from “The Alternative Productivity Manifesto”, Clay cuts to the heart of the matter: being productive can’t give our lives meaning, they can only help clear the clutter so we can figure out and focus on the things that do give life meaning – and in doing so, find the passion and motivation to get done those things which are, in the end, meaningful.

    “If you’ve crossed the river,” writes Merlin Mann, ”you should quit carrying the boat.” A productivity system helps us get across the river. A good one can help us navigate the shallows, ride out the rapids, and avoid taking any spills, but once we’re on the other side, we have to get out and do the work of making meaning of and in our lives.

    More by this author

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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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