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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.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    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. 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.

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    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.

    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.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    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.

    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.

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    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.

    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.

    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.

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    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.

    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.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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