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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 9: The Trouble with People

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 9: The Trouble with People

 

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the ninth part of a 12-part series I am posting from the end  of December and into 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). For more discussion along these lines, be sure to check out Beyond Productivity: Living from the Inside Out, a new series of discussions featuring Charlie Gilkey, Andre Kibbe, Duff McDuffee, Jonathan Mead, Sara Pemberton, and me. There are currently five episodes posted, with more to come.

    Here they come! Hear them? Their thundering footsteps pounding down the hall? Their greedy little fingers stabbing at their mobile phone keys? Their hands flailing away at email? The squeals of pain, of terror, of worry, of immediate need?

    In other words, people.

    Or as David Allen and a lot of others in the productivity world call them, “inputs”.

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    If productivity is, as Allen insists, about managing attention, then every person you interact with, whether face-to-face or mediated by phone, email, webconference, memo, tweet, status update, shared calendar, or a thousand different other high- and low-tech means is yet another strain on your productivity system, yet another piece of attention to manage.

    We can’t get around that, of course. Even Thoreau had a steady stream of visitors during his “isolation” at Walden Pond.

    The problem is, people are sloppy. They’re disorganized. They’re random, chaotic. They are, many of them, unproductive.

    Most systems deal with this by conflating interpersonal demands with the rest of your work – “Call Rashid to discuss 3rd quarter sales estimates” is another next action or task, alongside “Replace hard drive” and “Look up lockdown facilities for Junior.” Allen’s latest book is very explicit on this front: make it all “work”.

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    I said at the beginning of this system that one reason I thought there was a lot of resistance to productivity systems is that people are loathe to treat the people that matter a great deal to them the same way they treat their coworkers and their clients or customers. Indeed, Allen writes very much as if he has never had to deal with children (I don’t know whether he has or not), as if he’s never had his day intersect with a task list that looked something like this:

    · @someday/maybe: Fy like Superman

    · @home: Throw self down stairs. P: Achieve flight

    · @home: Smack head on banister.

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    · @home: Bleed freely.

    · @agenda (Mom): Discuss great pain in long, ragged sobs.

    · @out and about: Get stitches.

    In principle, when GTD and other systems are working, dealing with emergencies is easier – you have the mental energy and capacity to respond quickly and decisively. But no system can handle the emotional strain that “inputs” from people close to us can put on us.

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    Which makes me think that the next great piece in the productivity puzzle with be added by the folks studying the psychology of happiness, positive psychology. I imagine a system in which stress is managed not just using paper lists and effective filing techniques but with tools that encourage positive reflection and techniques of centering and regaining focus.

    Too, I imagine systems that are more explicitly social. I find it interesting that although Allen, Covey, and thousands of other productivity experts regularly address corporate groups and counsel them on both individual productivity and habits for more effective teamwork, few of the major productivity leaders have expanded their personal productivity works beyond the individual (Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families is an important exception).

    As the world gets more social online – even as we physically interrelate less and less – I expect to see a more social productivity literature emerging. What that will look like I can only guess, but it will necessarily be grounded first and foremost in the psychology of groups and of interpersonal relationships.

    How do you reconcile your personal productivity with the demands of people who have no inkling of how disorganized (and disorganizing) they are? How do you manage your system in the face of inputs from those who have no system? Do you ever wish for a way to bridge the gap between your own efforts to keep things functioning and other people’s lack of such effort, even open hostility towards it?

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

    More About Goals Setting

    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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