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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 4: The Quest for Passion

Toward a New Vision of Productivity

     

    This is the fourth part of a 12-part series I will be posting through the end of December and into January 2009, 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…

    A Nerd’s Tale

    High school, Junior year. I admit it, I was a nerd. A whopping big one. I spent my lunch break in high school hanging out with my nerd friends in the Chemistry lab, which the teacher graciously opened to his nerdlings. We’d swap Tom Lehrer lyrics, discuss our latest D&D campaigns, or argue about whether Star Trek: The Next Generation was as good as the original. Like I said, nerds.

    One day, we’re talking math. “Listen, guys,” I’m saying. “If zero divided by anything is zero, and anything divided by zero is infinity, and anything divided by itself is one, then what’s zero divided by zero?” Truly a conundrum for the ages! The physics teacher walks in – his classroom is adjacent and shares an office with the chemistry lab. He overhears us and says, “Dustin, that’s really clever. You should be a mathematician, you have a knack for it!”

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    Fast-forward several months. Career aptitude testing. You answer hundreds of questions and they tell you what career you should pursue. Apparently I score pretty well at math – which fact would surprise every math teacher I’ve ever had, by the way, since I never got over a “C” in math – and very well in analytical thinking, too. According to the test, I should be a mathematician. Or at least an engineer.

    I’d already learned that with my awful eyesight, I was never going to be an astronaut, but I am still excited about space. Engineers design space craft! And the test said the same thing the physics teacher said – somehow, math and analytical thinking are my strong suits, so I should be an engineer. An aerospace engineer, in fact.

    Between the test and the physics teacher’s random comment, I was set – the classes I would take in my last year of high school, my choice of majors, my choice of universities to apply to, my career path, everything was laid out before me in golden letters.

    Three years later I would drop out of college and start drinking heavily.

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    What is your passion?

    I read a lot of career advice books. Some because their authors or publicists send them to me to review here on Lifehack, others because I review business and contemporary culture books for Publishers Weekly. While they all offer various approaches to the problems of career-building and career-change, they almost always start with the advice to figure out what you’re passionate about.

    This is a harder question than it seems. We haven’t really developed any kind of processes for determining or cultivating passions. My own experience in high school is probably shared by more people than not – we’re given a battery of tests to determine what we’re good at, under the huge assumption that what we’re good at is directly related to what we’re passionate about.

    This is reinforced by teachers who, I realize now that I am one, spend so much time teaching subjects to students who are bored and disinterested that they latch onto anyone with even an inkling of interest in the topics that, as teachers, they’ve dedicated their lives to. I wasn’t cut out to be a mathematician, or even an engineer, not because I wasn’t good at math, but because I hated math – I just happened to be a good analytical thinker who one day was playing with numbers. I might have been making puns or unpacking some turn of speech (like the use of “literally”, as in “I’m literally starving to death!” when of course, you’re not literally starving to death, you’re doing the opposite of literally starving) or playing with words in some other way and my future physics teacher wouldn’t have taken any notice.

    Schools are, in general, not equipped to help students cultivate passions. They’re structured around imparting a minimum body of necessary knowledge to as many students as possible, and cherry-picking students who show any aptitude for one topic or other to receive advanced instruction in those topics. Schools are, as Ken Robinson has noted, better at beating passions out of us than cultivating them

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    If a student is lucky, he or she graduates with some notion of a major to pursue in college – but ask around in any group of college freshman and sophomores, and you’ll find more “undecideds” than anything else. If those students are lucky, they’ll latch onto some topic in their four (or five, or six) years at college; a good number of them, though, will simply sit down with a course catalog their senior year, look over what they’ve taken, and figure out which major they’re closest to graduating in.

    And a surprising number of college students graduate with no idea of what to do next. With nothing guiding them one way or another, they fall into the first decent job they find, and thus begins the grind towards death.

    So they turn to one of the career guides out there – many of which are quite excellent – and somewhere in the first few chapters the author asks them what they’re passionate about – and they don’t know. How could they?

    Passionless Productivity

    Our productivity literature pays a great deal of lip service to the idea of a higher calling or higher purpose. In Merlin Mann’s Productive Talk podcast, a multi-part interview with David Allen, Allen repeats several times that people should constantly be asking themselves “Is this the most important thing I can be doing right now? Does this task help me fulfill my purpose here on Earth?”

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    Most people skip that bit in GTD, or in other productivity systems, because we honestly don’t know how to even think about the question, let alone answer it. But being productive without passion is a sure path to disappointment. Is it any wonder that so many people who pursue greater productivity find themselves burnt out and “fall off the wagon” after a few months of practice? Without passion, greater efficiency just means you end up doing more of the work you didn’t really care about in the first place.

    Of course, some of us get lucky and find ourselves doing work that is meaningful and deeply satisfying, often by accident. That’s another common theme in career books – someone stumbles upon an innovation that becomes their career and their passion. They invent something to solve some problem they happen to encounter, they do some favor for friends and are encouraged to do it professionally, or whatever.

    I have to believe that there’s a better system for the rest of us than luck, accidents, and hopeful thinking. Alas, I don’t know what it is – it took me 20 years to realize my own passion for writing. But it’s the first task in the journey toward a new vision of productivity, to figure out how to identify the kind of tasks that being really productive at would make us happiest.

    Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to figure that out in your own life, and to share with us or with others how you figured it out. If you’re one of the lucky few who has already found your passion, let us know how you arrived there.

    More by this author

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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