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Productivity or bust in 2014: expert tips

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 3, 2014
The vexing problem of staying ahead of tasks seems to be intensifying, not diminishing.  Here's the best approaches I've seen.

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New year's resolutions are made by many, but achieved by few. It took me years to realize I should worry less about charging out of the gate in January, and more about what I could sustain.

Enter my completely healthy obsession with productivity, filtering and 'deep work.'

Why productivity remains a problem

The vexing problem of staying ahead of tasks seems to be intensifying, not diminishing. Technology, once thought to be the friend of productivity, has turned out to be doubled-edged at best as hard-to-control notifications surge to all our devices.

On the enterprise level, 'social' was thought to be the magic dust we could sprinkle on our organizational problems, or at least reduce our email to sane levels, but the problem of meeting creep and the deluge of tasks continues to befuddle.

When Nobel Prize winner Peter Higgs says he couldn't be productive in today's academic environment, we should take heed. Higgs is critical of the 'publish or perish' mantra, but he also fingers technology as a culprit:

'It's not just the focus on productivity that would have derailed Higgs' work, however — he also thinks modern technology would have been a detriment. "It's difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964," he says.'

Real productivity is more than a to-do list

Fortunately there are bloggers who share a healthy obsession with the art of genuine productivity, though most of them overlook one key issue. Since I last wrote on how prioritization rules and organization drools, I've been tracking and tagging the best posts on productivity. I'll share a few keepers here, along with some recommended tools and apps from the 'technology may yet save us' file.

Most of those who blog on productivity  agree on one thing: daily commitments and an influx of distractions undermine our ability to accomplish what Cal Newport calls 'deep work'. I also like his phrase 'value productivity', as in the kind of productivity that truly advances our cause in the workplace and beyond (see my post The career-defining consequences of value productivity for more on that).

Newport returned to this them in a recent post, The Difficulties of Depth: A Case Study in Getting Important Things Done. Newport examines the predicament of knowledge workers based on his review of his own good and bad weeks of 'deep work.'

He comes up with the following premise: knowledge workers have two kinds of time constraints: obligatory commitments and optional commitments. In his case, Newport includes teaching and emails from colleagues in the obligatory category. He's concerned with the optional commitments. In short, he urges us to say 'no' more often, and that includes saying no to meetings that could readily go on without us:

Any time dedicated to deep work will come from the optional commitment pool. Every time you say “yes,” therefore, you’re also saying “no” to an equivalent amount of deep work. In the moment, for example, it’s easy to agree to a meeting, but the hour required by that meeting is an hour drawn from the same pool used for deep work.

Newport ends by exhorting us to approach such optional invitations with skepticism and caution once we realize their consequential impact.

Todd Schnick, the creator of the Intrepid Radio podcast, juxtaposes busy work versus genuine productivity as Processing time vs. creative time. Here's how Schnick frames our productivity problem:

Funny thing is, I love my processing time. I feel good updating, filing, sorting, getting the inbox to zero, checking things off, cleaning up and organizing. This is great fun for me, and as an anal retentive minimalist, this process is very important to my well being. But it doesn’t put food on the table.

After extolling the career-defining necessity of creative time, Schnick has a not-very-sexy solution for us - discipline: 'There’s no magic app, book, tool, software, hardware, or hack that magically shifts you into creative mode. You just have to do it. For yourself. Discipline here is key.'  And just when we thought a magic app or a cure-all book like the 4 Hour Workweek could fix everything!

What the 'deep work' folks missed

While I'm an advocate for the deep work that changes your career, I think these folks missed something: the need for powerful filters and curation.

We definitely have a filtering problem. A provocative piece in The Atlantic argues that the social stream is bringing more chaos than insight to our lives. As author Alexis C. Madrigal puts it:

Nowadays, I think all kinds of people see and feel the tradeoffs of the stream, when they pull their thumbs down at the top of their screens to receive a new updates from their social apps. It is too damn hard to keep up. And most of what's out there is crap.

Squeezing value from the stream (and accepting its limitations) is a piece for another time. But there's something the deep work folks haven't honed in on: filtering, prioritization and curation are not only vital skills to manage the content deluge, they are also an essential part of the creative process.

So a weekly productivity cycle could have three phases:

1. Daily 'core' commitments (we could call it 'busywork' but that may trivialize it, sometimes I call it 'paying the rent'}.

2. Filtering/prioritizing/consuming and curation - using our system of sorting and absorbing content that informs our work and specialization, and, not to be overlooked, sharing the best of that content with our audiences or followers. We are all curators - or should be.

3. Creative time that advances our cause (aka deep work).

All three are essential. Some overlook the importance of number 2, but as someone who curates enterprise content semi-professionally, when I read blogs written by those who are not plugged in socially or who are unaware of other blogs on the topic they are opining on, that blogger comes off as archaic and out of touch. The same is true in any of our specializations. Enterprise practitioners need curation skills to keep up with the disruptions and advancements as they are happening.

We could probably break down number 2 further into 'quick consumption' and 'deep consumption'.  Both have their place. Reading articles on the fly is one thing, transformational learning and/or skills development requires a deeper, immersive kind of listening - another type of time well worth blowing off a meeting for.

Tips and tools to test drive

There isn't a single happy solution that can solve the three types of productivity in this article. But you can usually find an app or tool that can solve a pain point within one of the three.

My newsfeed readers liked 9 Ways To Create Time, Space, and Stillness For Meaningful Work, which is chock full of tactics for squeezing the creative juice. Other posts and tips that stood out:

  • Chirag Mehta with a clever post on how he managed to achieve his goal of going to less meetings.
  • For those who want a way to tag articles for later consumption and archiving, this individual has a workflow to post such articles from his RSS reader to Instapaper (where they can be consumed and/or shared). You can use Instapaper standalone for that also, to tag articles in your web browser (I use Google Bookmarks for that, others use Evernote).
  • Dragon converts your verbal meanderings to written text. Some folks find this useful for blogging - I recently listened to a podcast with an author who had used Dragon to write his last three books. He liked the conversational style he was able to capture writing this way.
  • Fancy Hands has a team of online virtual assistants to provide support for a monthly fee. Here's how one writer uses it.
  • Some swear by Trello, a project management and organization solution that includes collaborative task sharing. Supposedly it is super mobile friendly, I just signed up but have not attempted to organize myself.
  • It can require some trial and error and a hacker's mentality, but IFTTT allows you to create "recipes" that automate functions and connect services. Here's a guide to getting started. I've played around with this IFTTT to automate Google Plus posts via a loophole in Google's API long since closed. You can use existing recipes - some of the recipes on the home page include 'email me when it's going to rain' and 'send photos from Dropbox to an iPhone album', so there are a range of uses, mostly to automate different services that should talk to each other, but don't.
  • Collaboration vendors are trying to solve these problems on an enterprise level also. To take one example, Huddle wants you to save and share documents in the cloud, not via your desktop. Enterprise-level solutions have a long way to go, and 'social' hasn't solved the email or task management problem either - a case provocatively made in The Way We Work Is Soul-Sucking, But Social Networks Are Not the Fix.
  • For a different angle, The Zen Programmer takes a Zen lifestyle view to better coding, but the principles outlines in Ten Rules of a Zen Programmer can be used by more than code jockeys.
  • Jerry Seinfeld's key to getting important stuff done is common sensical but effective: 'don't break the chain.'

I'm sure you have a useful tool or tactic to add. I'd love to hear abut them in the comments. Regardless of how you pull it off, good luck getting things done in 2014 - here's to a year of work that matters.

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