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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 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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