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Personal Productivity in the 21st Century

Personal Productivity in the 21st Century
Knowledge Worker

What does it mean to be productive? The “gurus” have given us a few ideas — it means to “get things done”, to be “highly effective”, to know who it was, exactly, who moved your cheese. What things, effective at what, and who is bringing cheese to work anyway are questions that these books don’t — and can’t — answer.

There’s something profoundly old-fashioned about much of our productivity literature today. I’ll admit — I’m quite a fan of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, but there are aspects of his work and his philosophy that bug me, that hearken back to the Industrial Psychology of the early 20th century. Whenever he talks about “cranking widgets”, I can’t help but see in my mind Charlie Chaplin the Modern Times haplessly wielding a wrench against an ever-increasing onslaught of bolts that need tightening. And from there, I’m led inevitably to the famous image of Chaplin being dragged through the cogs and wheels of the machine — a fitting metaphor for how many people feel when they try to put all Allen’s ideas into practice.

The others — Covey, Drucker, and the flood of personal development books aimed at managers and executives that fill the business shelf at Borders — bring to mind the business world of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. I see Covey and my mind flips to Darren Stephens heading off to work at the ad agency, or men with hats whistling at the pretty girls in the secretarial pool in some madcap ’50s comedy. I see ZIg Ziglar’s books on the shelf (tons of them!) and imagine Willy Loman out there on the road, desperate for one more sale.

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The productivity gurus of the last century seem to be describing a world where water coolers and coffee breaks still rule, where the non-smokers are the outcasts, where short-sleeved white shirts are matched with white, chest-length ties and topped off with neatly parted hair. They’re not describing worlds I’m familiar with — they’re not describing worlds I suspect most of us are familiar with.

The 21st Century Worker

While I’m sure there are still Old School corporate executives out there, and boiler room salesmen, and more than a few factory workers (though they’re rare in the US, where less than 10% of our working population is involved in production), the professional of today isn’t likely to be any of those. Work in the Western world has been redefined as knowledge work — the production of ideas, not goods. We’re paid to think, not make.

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What does that mean in terms of productivity? In the 20th century, a worker’s productivity was measured in terms of how many widgets s/he cranked in a day, an hour — even a minute. Employers set up cameras and filmed workers at their machines, allowing them to time the steps taken to complete a task down to 1/28th of a second (most of the early development of film-making technology came from manufacturers, not artists). How do you measure the generation of ideas? How do you reduce thinking to a widget you can crank?

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Which is why, I think, so many people balk at much of the advice offered by the likes of Allen, Covey, Drucker, and the lesser luminaries of the personal productivity world — and why creative people tend to be especially suspicious of their systems. It seems unnatural to, say, schedule a block of time when we can think uninterrupted — ideas tend not to respect our schedules very much.

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It’s why, too, the idea of writing things down when they occur to us and following them up during our scheduled processing time also puts many people off — when we get a really good idea, we want to follow up on it now. Even if that means putting off whatever work’s in front of us.

Getting Creativity Done

There is a place in even the most creative person’s life for the kind of discipline offered by the systems of the productivity gurus. In fact, I’d say that a lot of us need those systems even more than the executives and managers that they’re aimed at. Getting places on time, forcing ourselves to handle our household necessities, keeping on top of our income and outlay — these are things that don’t come naturally to a lot of creative people, and following a productivity system can make that part of our lives a lot easier — which should in theory help us free up more time and energy for doing the creative stuff that gets us going.

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But I think there’s also an empty space, a lacuna (a favorite word of mine that I almost never get to use!) that we need to deal with. How can we keep our schedules rigid enough that we know what we need to do when we need to do it, but flexible enough that we can focus on the things that feed our passion? How can we educate the people around us who see us sitting in our office (or den, or on a bench at the park) staring into space and think we’re goofing off, so that they understand that this still time is part of our work — the most important part of our work? How can we break free from the economic model that posits time as a spendable thing, and measures only successful outcomes — when we learn most from the failures?

Tomorrow, we’re posting an interview of Guy Kawasaki, a man I agree with totally about 50% of the time (and the other 50% of the time utterly disagree with). In the interview, Guy says “People should stop looking for grails and start looking for personal enlightenment.” What he means — or what I mean when I quote him — is that the idea that there needs to be a financial payoff to every idea, the idea that the “return” is more important than the “investment”, all too often keeps us from pouring ourselves into things that we don’t see any way to measure. And yet those are the things that are the things we should be most willing to invest ourselves in: family, friendship, beauty, truth, trust, community — enlightenment.

So what’s the answer? Where’s the “hack”? To be honest, I don’t know. I have infinitely more questions than solutions right now. But this month, I’ve asked our writers (including myself) to take on some of the issues I’m raising here. I’ve asked them to consider what’s missing in the productivity systems we have today, and what have we missed in them that’s especially valuable? Stay tuned throughout the month as we explore these issues, and feel free to bring up your own questions — and your own solutions — in the comments.

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Last Updated on August 12, 2019

How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

How To Start a Conversation with Anyone

The hardest part of socializing, for many people, is how to start a conversation. However, it is a big mistake to go about life not making the first move and waiting for someone else to do it [in conversation or anything].

This isn’t to say you must always be the first in everything or initiate a conversation with everyone you see. What should be said, though, is once you get good at starting conversations, a lot of other things will progress in the way you want; such as networking and your love life.

Benefits of Initiating a Conversation

First thing is you should acknowledge why it is a good thing to be able to initiate conversations with strangers or people who you don’t know well:

  • You’re not a loner with nothing to do.
  • You look more approachable if you are comfortable approaching others.
  • Meeting new people means developing a network of friends or peers which leads to more knowledge and experiences.

You can only learn so much alone, and I’m sure you’re aware of the benefits of learning from others. Being able to distinguish the ‘good from bad’ amongst a group of people will help in building a suitable network, or making a fun night.

All people are good in their own way. Being able to have a good time with anybody is a worthy trait and something to discuss another time. However, if you have a specific purpose while in social situations, you may want to stick with people who are suitable.

This means distinguishing between people who might suit you and your ‘purpose’ from those who probably won’t. This can require some people-judging, which I am generally very opposed to. However, this does make approaching people all the more easier.

It helps to motivate the conversation if you really want to know this person. Also, you’ll find your circle of friends and peers grows to something you really like and enjoy.

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The Rules

I don’t have many rules in this life, for conversation or anything; but when it comes to approaching strangers, there are a few I’d like used.

  1. Be polite. Within context, don’t be a creepy, arrogant loudmouth or anything. Acknowledge that you are in the company of strangers and don’t make anyone feel uncomfortable. First impressions mean something.
  2. Keep it light. Don’t launch into a heartfelt rant or a story of tragedy. We’re out to have fun.
  3. Don’t be a prude. This just means relax. This isn’t a science and conversation isn’t a fine art. Talk to people like you’re already friends.
  4. Be honest. Be yourself. People can tell.

Who To Talk To?

I’m of the ilk that likes to talk to everyone and anyone. Everyone has a story and good personalities. Some are harder to get to than others, but if you’re on a people-finding excursion, like I usually am, then everyone is pretty much fair game.

That said, if you’re out at a function and you want to build a network of people in your niche, you will want to distinguish those people from the others. Find the ‘leaders’ in a group of people or ask around for what you’re looking for.

In a more general environment, like at a bar, you will want to do the same sort of thing. Acknowledge what you actually want and try to distinguish suitable people. Once you find someone, or a group of people, that you want to meet and talk to, hop to it.

Think of a few things you might have in common. What did you notice about their dress sense?

Building Confidence

The most important part of initiating conversation is, arguably, having confidence. It should be obvious that without any amount of self-esteem you will struggle. Having confidence in yourself and who you are makes this job very easy.

If you find yourself doubting your worth, or how interesting you are, make a few mental notes of why you are interesting and worth talking to. There is no question you are. You just have to realize that.

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What do I do? What is interesting about it? What are my strong points and what are my weak ones? Confident people succeed because they play on their strengths.

Across the Room Rapport

This is rapport building without talking. It’s as simple as reciprocated eye contact and smiles etc. Acknowledging someone else’s presence before approaching them goes a long way to making introductions easier. You are instantly no longer just a random person.

In my other article How Not To Suck At Socializing, there are things you can do to make yourself appear approachable. This doesn’t necessarily mean people are going to flock to you. You’ll still probably need to initiate conversations.

People notice other people who are having a blast. If you’re that person, someone will acknowledge it and will make the ‘across the room rapport’ building a breeze. If you’re that person that is getting along great with their present company, others will want to talk to you. This will make your approach more comfortable for both parties.

The Approach

When it comes to being social, the less analytical and formulaic you are the better. Try not to map out your every move and plan too much. Although we are talking about how to initiate conversation, these are really only tips. When it comes to the approach, though, there are some things you should keep in mind.

Different situations call for different approaches. Formal situations call for something more formal and relaxed ones should be relaxed.

At a work function, for instance, be a little formal and introduce yourself. People will want to know who you are and what you do right away. This isn’t to say you should only talk about work, but an introduction and handshake is appropriate.

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If you’re at a bar, then things are very different and you should be much more open to unstructured introductions. Personally, I don’t like the idea of walking directly to someone to talk to them. It’s too direct. I like the sense of randomness that comes with meeting new people.

However, if there is rapport already established, go for it. If not, take a wander, buy a drink and be aware of where people are. If there is someone you would like to talk to, make yourself available and not sit all night etc.

When someone is alone and looks bored, do them a favor and approach them. No matter how bad the conversation might get, they should at least appreciate the company and friendliness.

Briefly, Approaching Groups

When integrating with an established group conversation, there is really one thing to know. That is to establish the ‘leader’ and introduce yourself to them. I mentioned that before, but here is how and why.

The why is the leader of a group conversation is probably the more social and outgoing. They will more readily accept your introduction and then introduce you to the rest of the group. This hierarchy in a group conversation is much more prevalent in formal situations where one person is leading the conversation.

A group of friends out for the night is much more difficult to crack. This may even be another topic for discussion, but one thing I know that works is initiating conversation with a ‘stray’. It sounds predatorial, but it works.

More often than not, this occurs without intention. But if you do really want to get into a group of friends, your best bet is approaching one of them while they are away from the group and being invited into the group.

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It is possible, like everything, to approach a group outright and join them. However, this is almost an art and requires another specific post.

Topics Of Conversation

Other than confidence, the next thing people who have trouble initiating conversations lack is conversation! So here are a few tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Small talk sucks. It’s boring and a lot of people already begin to zone out when questions like, “What do you do?” or “What’s with this weather?” come up. Just skip it.
  • Everything is fair game. If you are in the company of someone and a thought strikes you, share it. “This drink is garbage! What are you drinking?” “Where did you get that outfit?”
  • Opinions matter. This is any easy way to hit the ground running in conversation. Everyone has one, and when you share yours, another will reveal itself. The great thing about this line of thought is that you are instantly learning about the other person and what they like, dislike etc.
  • Environment. The place you’re in is full of things to comment on. The DJ, band, fashions; start talking about what you see.
  • Current events. Unless it’s something accessible or light-hearted, forget it. Don’t launch into your opinion on the war or politics. If your town has recently hosted a festival, ask what they think about it.

Exiting Conversation

Although I’d like to write a full post on exiting strategies for conversations you don’t want to be in, here are some tips:

  • The first thing is don’t stay in a conversation you’re not interested in. It’ll show and will be no fun for anyone.
  • Be polite and excuse yourself. You’re probably out with friends, go back to them.  Or buy a drink. Most people will probably want to finish the conversation as much as you.

Likewise, you could start another conversation.

If you’d like to learn more tips about starting a conversation, this guide maybe useful for you: How to Talk to Strangers Without Feeling Awkward

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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