The modern productivity problem boils down to this:
How many transformative projects did we actually complete last year?
I'm guessing few people like the answer to that question. I certainly don't. Oh, we got plenty of things done. We swatted emails like flies. We texted like champs. We put out fires and paid close attention on every conference call. We were nothing but diligent on the tarmac. That's because we were strong on task productivity. We hit our deadlines (I hope). But we were mostly reactive.
We were not so effective with what Cal Newport calls value productivity. Alas, value productivity is how our work is ultimately assessed. It's how we transcend the to-do list and put our dent in the universe.
Yes, productivity is an employer problem. Especially when you consider this troubling reality: all our wondermuss tech innovations have not resulted in collective productivity gains. Over the holidays, I worked through the bulk of Done Right - How Tomorrow's Top Leaders Get Stuff Done, by Workfront CEO Alex Shootman. He has plenty of field tips for rethinking workplace productivity.
But productivity is also personal. We can't wait for our employers to implement better collaboration tools, or improve their project methodology. Productivity is a "you" problem. That's liberating/terrifying in equal measure.
Productivity winners for 2019
Here's how I see productivity in 2019:
- Keep task productivity under control. Get the needful done efficiently - without creating cycles of accelerated busywork (e.g. responding to non-urgent email threads five times a day only increases its velocity back to your inbox).
- Advance your value productivity via projects that enhance your topic authority, or you/your company's IP.
- Bonus: avoid having a work meltdown as you hit a burnout wall.
I hear what you're thinking: "That sounds freaking lovely, Jon - but easier said than done. I can't get away with that highfalutin value stuff with my employer/project/pressurized situation."
Yep, it's not easy out there. Let's not sugar coat it. However, there are proven ways of increasing your chances:
1. Prioritization is today's essential productivity skill. With so many notifications and tasks flying at us, our work days are perpetually unfinished. Those who can adapt on the fly, and prioritize the right things daily and weekly, have an edge over the task-chasing "inbox zero" crowd.
2. Those who consistently protect time for "deeper" research/creation/planning have the edge. Add training and continuous learning to that mix.
3. A flexible filtering system that can raise or reduce notification levels is necessary to accomplish the first two. That includes everything from email filters, to phone notification control, to social network presence and withdrawal. Those who pride themselves on being "always on 24/7" are at a value productivity disadvantage.
4. Team communication and "how to reach me" preferred access is needed, to ensure that projects march on during team members' protected time.
5. Incorporate sharing of work-in-progress - even beyond company walls. Collaboration software can help, marking tasks and milestones for us. Sharing work-in-progress with teammates - and even exposing work product outside company walls, via social networks and advisory groups - can be impactful. External feedback sets up a so-called iterative work cycle that is much more likely to result in relevant output. One classic example: your deep research fuels your public content curation.
Productivity in the real world
Let's get real: not every employer is going to support our value productivity efforts. For every company that allows employees ten percent time to work on their own projects, another expects employees to take their deadlines with glee and get to work. The employee-as-worker-bee mentality is still too pervasive, though it gets dressed up these days in bogus KPIs.
Whenever possible, it's important to get buy-in from employers on deeper projects. Whether it's building mobile apps, or publishing books, it's worth hammering out an agreement on IP ownership and creative time allotment.
Failing that, your projects may have to be relegated to weekends until you have momentum - or a new employer. Call it staying ahead of the robots or personal branding. Whatever it is, this deep work needs to get done. No job title is immune from the value productivity imperative. Yes, even sales. Give me a salesperson who builds their own collateral or competitive analysis slide deck any day. Or maybe a sales proposal to target a much bigger fish.
Even if you have the go-ahead on a deeper work project, there is the problem of notification fatigue and interruption culture. Some companies have downright oppressive expectations about "always-on" email. Thankfully, others are moving towards team collaboration tools that reduce that email load, or instituting email off hours.
In most work environments, I've found that if you educate team members on your "off email" times, or make sure they have an easy alternative way to reach you, then you're good. Yes, you may miss a few important pings here and there as you fine tune those filters, and who has access to you. But hey - it's better than missing out on a better career. It's better than blowing yourself out on inbox whack-a-mole.
Yes, we do have to filter news notifications as well - particularly to keep sketchy and inaccurate info at arm's length. But, we should also build in a surprise factor into our networks. It's important as we design our filters not to become too insular. There are ways to build discovery into our filters.
I've breezed past crucial points in this article, such as how to put email filters to work. If you follow the links, you'll find deeper dives.
A final word on measuring productivity. Workplace productivity metrics are in vogue. Applied sensibly, some are useful. The same holds true for measuring against your own goals. Just be careful the metrics don't become the sole arbiter of your output. KPIs can be one heck of a creativity stifler. Try to cultivate something that isn't subject to a KPI - or that has a chance to incubate before its value is assessed.
A productivity motivational message from yours truly
When I wrote my first piece on deep work and value productivity in 2014, diginomica was still in its early stages. Since then, robotic automation has intensified the threat of skills commoditization. Productivity requires a certain ruthlessness. I don't know about you, but I find that the fear of becoming irrelevant is a darn good motivator.
But it's the upside that should motivate us the most. As Newport put it:
It’s not that task productivity lacks importance — it has saved me much stress — but I think the value variety is what will rule in an increasingly competitive knowledge economy.
To which I added in 2014:
I jumped to the same conclusion Newport reached. Any competitive advantage I have achieved in the last five years is directly tied to the creation of high-value deliverables.
I should have gone further. This approach saved my career. I still consider myself a student in this quest, learning and failing and trying to get better. So - let me know what's worked for you. I hope there is something here you can apply in 2019.
End note: this piece is from my semi-occasional diginomica series on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise with curation.