Productivity 2018 gut check - our employers won't solve this problem. It's on us.

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 11, 2018
Overloaded inboxes can wait - it's time for my productivity gut check for 2018. Here's why we shouldn't wait for our employers to seize the day, and why the digital skills gap factors in.

Selfish reasons guide my quest for a productive 2018: I want to get more value productivity time in; I want to waste less time in a chaos of social traffic and notification spam.

Big thinkers have been kicking around the problem of productivity versus attention spans. Some, like author Franklin Foer, go so far as to argue that notification culture is a threat to humanity:

We’re being dinged, notified, and clickbaited, which interrupts any sort of possibility for contemplation. To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity.

I don't know if I'd go that far, though we don't solve vexing problems with sound bites. We do know that the smartphone blur of life and work has created as much stress as it's alleviated. As per Business Insider, the number of hours Americans work has gone down over the last several decades, according to data from the OECD. Meanwhile, leisure time has gone up. But that's hardly the perception for workers:

The psychologist Adam Alter offered one reason in his 2017 TED talk "Why our screens make us less happy." He says that screen-based devices eat up what precious free time we have left.

The digital skills gap has big implications for productivity

We should also factor in a persistent digital skills gap, a topic of frequent concern at diginomica. The digital skills gap implies we need to be transforming to stay ahead of automation -  and offer our employers a differentiated human ability. Firing off emails and browsing social streams does not qualify as skills development. I believe most skills transformations occur in the context of immersion, not in the midst of a Facebook binge.

In AI in the workplace - a female perspective, Cath Everett hit on the critical issue of how our human skills must adapt amongst machines. She cites a Deloitte report, Talent for survival: Essential skills for humans working in the machine age’, which concludes that:

Cognitive and social skills such as complex problem-solving, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking are already more than twice as important as manual skills to the economy.

Everett writes that by 2030, demand for soft skills will have jumped by another 5%, creating 8.9 million new jobs. Mariel Brown, director of futures at design consultancy Seymourpowell, says:

Soft skills will undoubtedly be more important in the age of AI. AI’s strength is in undertaking repetitive, predictable tasks at scale and velocity – so mining big data speedily. But human strengths are about being creative in an original way. The way our brains are wired means that no two humans are the same so AI will never be able to create the associations and nuances that humans bring to a challenge – and that will be a really important differentiator.

Everett points out there is a gendered skills twist here:

Interestingly though, such aptitudes, which have historically been undervalued in the workplace but are now in the ascendancy, have traditionally been associated with women. Manual skills whose value is now in decline, on the other hand, have traditionally been considered the domain of men.

These kinds of wake up calls are everywhere. Those upstarts who find a way to round out their skills might just break in. Others used to coasting might find themselves Netflixing full time instead.

What are employers doing about the value productivity problem?

But wait a sec - given employers' need for the right digital skills mix, shouldn't they be:

  • Helping employees transition to digital roles through tech and professional development training?
  • Protecting employees time to allow them to build things that matter? Isn't real (value) productivity about gaining competitive advantage, not just hitting deadlines?

The answer is yes, but I'm not at all confident it's happening. Last April, Deep Work author Cal Newport asked Why Are Maker Schedules So Rare? Riffing on a 2009 blog post by tech investor Paul Graham, Newport note the differences between makers and managers. As Graham wrote:

But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.”

Graham adds:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.

Newport brings the argument up to smart phone speed:

Though Graham doesn’t mention it specifically in the essay, we might add that the need to keep up with an inbox or chat channel can be equally disastrous to a maker. The constant context switching, as we now know from research, also prevents the maker’s brain from fully engaging the creative task at hand.

I'll add this twist: most of us need to think like makers now, including managers. Last time I checked, machines are pretty darn good at most of the logistical needs of the corporate manager. Machines aren't good at crafting blog posts, designing leadership retreats, or taking a negotiation course.

I don't know how many employers are actively protecting their employees' time, aside from banning social media, which is no protection against the dual culprits of email overload and meeting creep. But as I noted in and the great enterprise productivity debate, more vendors are trying to address this. defines the problem this way:

  • While tech advances and the exploding app economy aim to drive economic growth, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, year-over-year productivity growth has flat lined overall.
  • Employees often find themselves so overwhelmed with information that instead of becoming more productive, they grind to a halt.
  • An infinite array of notifications from multiple business apps and a mess of disjointed activity streams creates too much distraction, which becomes a major efficiency obstacle.

That looks right, though I added an even more important one:

I’d add to “efficiency obstacle” that this disjointed activity is a career blocker, if not killer, especially in the automation era where today’s “busy” is tomorrow’s “automated.” takes a technical approach to this problem, providing a new way of organizing data so workers don't have to chase it across portals:

To combat this dilemma, people want solutions that aggregate together all the content and colleagues around a given topic, allowing them to stay focused and get their work done.

They call this "topic computing."'s Collage product addresses this with machine learning, albeit in the context of Microsoft Outlook. As Yaacov Cohen, the CEO of told me:

We’re using natural language to analyze the email you’re receiving. We might be analyzing a Salesforce opportunity which you just updated, or analyzing an Office 365 or SharePoint Online document which has been uploaded. We’re trying to figure out how to categorize by topic, because the way our brain works is really by categorizing things by topics, getting a lot of signals, but ultimately saying, “Okay, this is about this customer. This is about this account, or this project I’m managing.”

Cohen was a good sparring partner. I'm sure solutions like these can help, but in my mind, they don't get at the root of the problem:

The problem is most workplaces don’t respect an individual’s space enough to let them set reasonable limits on their availability and time on these tools.

I said to Cohen:

I don’t honestly think cloud apps are to blame. If anything, it was email that hurt productivity, or the “always on” approach to email. Not the tech, but the assumption you are now always available.

Productivity - my tips for making it real in 2018

Which brings us to my productivity tips for 2018:

1. If your employer offers tools and time blocks for you to get deeper work done, great. But don't wait for your employer to enable your productivity. The stakes are too high.

2. Create a digital skills and creative output plan for 2018. Figure out which training and creative projects you want to accomplish in 2018.

3. Determine how you will secure the immersive time to progress on those in 2018 - inside and outside of work.

4. Where appropriate, share your skills expansion/productivity goals with your employer, what you hope to achieve. Agree upon a work routine that will enable that to happen (e.g. work from home on Fridays, restricted hours for email checking etc). Also, get your family on the same page with how individual and family time will be protected within the household.

5. Fine tune notifications to make sure you are only getting the ones you need, and that they are pinging you in a convenient (central) place (e.g. time spent configuring Slack notifications always pays off). Also get email under filtered control.

6. Set up prioritization filters to allow you to open up or pare down your filters as needed (example: your core team members know how to reach you via text or instant message when you're off email). Fun tip: "airplane mode" might be more useful on the ground than in planes.

7. Reassess your progress every few months and tweak.

Some might think #4 is a stretch, but I've seen employees work out arrangements with their employers that include work on book projects or research dives. Granted, not all employers see the value in helping you develop IP they won't own, but some will see the mutual gain In other cases, they might benefit directly from the IP you create.  Deliverables are a good thing - "attended the most meetings of anyone in my division" is not a deliverable. It's better to push back creatively than accept terms of busywork, err, I mean terms of employment, that will burn you out.

I've seen these principles pay off in many careers. The time to act is now. "Specializes in answering emails" is not what we want on our business cards.

This piece is part of my occasional diginomica series on productivity, filtering, and beating the noise.

Reader comments update - received some excellent reader comments on Twitter:

To which I added: "I think I will add your comment about "no".... it does mean saying "no" to your employer as well IMO, albeit in a constructive way." I should have said constructive AND creative.

Another productivity buff and clever tool hacker, Chris Kernaghan, added:

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