Rethinking enterprise productivity - a critique of digital minimalism

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed January 2, 2017
Digital minimalism questions the link between our gadgets and our quality of life. Maybe we should rethink enterprise productivity while we're at it. Here's some practical ways to rise above the noise.

It was inevitable. With so many people glued to Facebook - or getting themselves in car accidents while messing with Facetime - we were sure to have a backlash. One provocative response: a techno-limited lifestyle called digital minimalism.

Digital minimalism stems from a broader movement called minimalism. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, self-dubbed "The Minimalists," set the agenda:

Minimalism is a lifestyle that helps people question what things add value to their lives. By clearing the clutter from life’s path, we can all make room for the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and contribution.

Sounds appealing, but it casts a wide net. Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and the Study Hacks blog, brought this into sharper focus for me. He advocates digital minimalism:

Digital minimalism is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing your use of the tools that really matter, can significantly improve your life.

Newport can be a provocateur, challenging people to live without Facebook and/or email. Newport's an academic; his minimalist idealism doesn't always translate well to the "did you get my email?" enterprise world.

In his follow-on post, Some Thoughts on Transitioning to Digital Minimalism, Newport suggests two methods:

  • The subtractive approach - evaluate each digital tool you regularly use, asking: is this tool relevant to living a good/full life? "If the answer is “no,” then take a break from that tool. If the answer is “yes,” keep it in your life."
  • The additive approach - which Newport sees as more aggressive but more effective: "Start by eliminating all optional digital tools from your life for a short period. Thirty days is a good length, but the specifics aren’t crucial."

Both models have merit; neither is viable for most enterprise folks.

A practically different approach

The stakes are high. In 2017: The year people are forced to learn new skills… or join the Lost Generation, Phil Fersht of HfS Research urged:

You need to be thinking like Amazon does… how can you be more valuable to your firm - without having to add heaps of staff to support you - by managing your time better; by reading (a lot) more; by making the effort to forge relationships with people who can make you smarter; by looking after your health better.

If you're perpetually distracted by memes and status updates, none of that will be accomplished:

So turn off that Facebook – and stop checking your bloody email every 5 minutes and focus on investing your time in making yourself a smarter, more hybrid, versatile, employee. Don’t become part of this Lost Generation…

Digital minimalism may have answers. For the enterprise worker, I see three:

  • Productivity - How can these tools improve my productivity, by automating tasks and easing workflows?
  • Differentiation - How can tech differentiate my skills, rather than turning me into a Facebook/email generalist?
  • Sanity - How can these tools be limited before they encroach too far on my quality of life?

It's not just about the tools we use or don't. That's way too all-or-nothing. It's about how they are utilized and configured.

Deep work - differentiation enabled by filters

As I wrote in The career-defining consequences of value productivity, Newport sees deep work as the differentiator for exceptional careers. He's charted this across disciplines and decades. His goal? Value productivity:

There’s a lot written about task productivity (the ability to organize and execute non-skilled obligations), but much less written about value productivity (the ability to consistently produce highly-skilled, highly-valued output).

I break "deep work" into three components:

  • Deep listening/reflection (including evaluation of goals/direction)
  • Deep research (ideally turned into a curation practice, sharing research as you go)
  • Deep creative efforts. Hopefully the trial and error turns into assets for the creator and/or their employer.

One not-insignificant byproduct: you wind up what Hugh Macleod, AKA "Gaping Void," once coined as social objects - something to share on professional networks rather than retweeting the latest infoturd.

Over years, that deep work adds up, resulting in a professional reputation and maybe - wait for it - guru status as a thought leader. Yeah, I make fun - but cultivating expertise via shareable work is the real professional currency. It beats the heck out of stockpiling performance evaluations or golf course schmoozefests.

Newport's hard stances on avoiding email or social media are tied to his agenda to protect deep work time at all costs. But avoidance isn't realistic for most. What is realistic? Using tech to create distraction filters. Properly designed filters:

  1. Automate and control who can reach you, and what channels are permitted to interrupt you.
  2. Allow you to ratchet up your availability up and down throughout the day, from "full availability" to "team members only" to "family/friends and urgent work only."

Anticipate the expectations of your clients/employer; wherever possible, construct filters using the tools on your corporate white list. You'll almost certainly test email filters (here's how I do it in gmail). You'll experiment with other channels (text, Slack, Facebook message) to enable key players to find you when your main channels are closed.

Filtering needs vary. I have one diginomica colleague - you may be able to guess which one - who I have witnessed writing a brilliant piece that sourced numerous primary notes, all the while a (bad) TV show blaring, 50+ browser tabs open, two phones and a tablet on deck, Facebook mobile stream causing chuckles at the latest absurdities, then back to writing said brilliant piece - with no discernable impact on productivity. Actually the opposite.

Calibrate filters to your level of distraction tolerance, and as JP Rangaswami reminds us, create filters that allow for stumble/discovery, rather than an insular bubble.

We might use digital tools for our so-called deep work - depends on our niche. "The minimalists" - who clearly include branding as an approved minimalist activity - do plenty of blogging and podcasting.

Productivity - enabled by automation

Productivity is about automating as much as possible. There are a host of tools to help us automate tasks. The big collaboration vendors are trying to tie these together, such as Microsoft's integration plans for Teams and Office 365.

Productivity is about making the most of the tasks we can't get rid of. That means doing the needful for our team - while plotting new automation of the mundane.

My life's been a tad easier since integrating all my calendars into one master calendar, each synced with proper notifications. One notorious productivity killer is travel planning. I can't reduce all the friction from travel bookings, but emailing my reservations into TripIt for automatic import into an itinerary, and then automatically back into my integrated calendar - that's way better than the time-suck I had before.

Intrepid life hackers make the most of services that glue tools together. Two big repositories, IFTTT and Zapier, allow you to design your automation or make use of an existing one. Chances are the services you use can be tied together.

Digital sanity - the notification tolerance threshold

Some are addicted to digital media, compulsively checking to see what we missed. For the rest of us, it's the pros and cons of the ping. Properly configured, "pings" alert us to exactly what we need to know, when we need it. I've got my New England Patriots score alerts, my New-England-weather-sucks-alerts, Slack alerts, and priority email pings.

Filters include turning my mobile email on and off, and/or adjusting the Slack channels allowed to send me alerts. Control of notifications is not just a method of protecting time - it's also a means of retaining sanity. I prefer services that allow me to control my pings with precision - a big reason I thrive on Slack.

I've even willing to go deep into the bowels of LinkedIn to adjust my group and notification settings. LinkedIn is notorious for sending excessive amounts of low-value emails, apologizing for doing so, and sending almost as many as before. Fortunately, most can be controlled.

Lately the biggest offender is Facebook. Unlike some minimalists who commented on Newport's blogs, I see personal and professional value in Facebook. Like Linkedin, Facebook allows you a good deal of latitude to configure your notifications. Unlike LinkedIn, Facebook doesn't give a hoot about honoring those preferences.

Lately, Facebook has been sending obnoxious, generic, pseudo-personalized "pings" that are not configurable in its settings, including "do you know _____" (invariably someone I can't stand). To avoid the every-few-hours ping-spam, I shut down my mobile Facebook notifications (except Messenger). Since then, I've had no algorithm-from-hell interruptions. I visit the site a couple times a day to check up.

That change in notifications wasn't about protecting creative time. It was about getting rid of a digital cockroach. For someone else, those pings are perfectly acceptable. For me, unsolicited pings are gasoline on the flames of my Facebook discontent. In areas where our peace of mind is at stake, we must take action.

My take - networks matter

Digital minimalism might be a reach, but the vision is worth a ponder. Sometimes the digital tools themselves can be brought to bear on the problem. One reason I push back against Newport is because I've found huge value in tools like Twitter that he sees as borderline useless. But as I've just demonstrated, no network is inherently distracting - if your filters are up to snuff.

Abandoning social networks is not just unrealistic; it's self-defeating. Modern success is not about clinging to an employer like a life raft. It's about a professional network built on topic authority and collaboration. Yes, the deep work must happen, but the sharing, arguments, and vigorous feedback loop around that work make us a lot better  - while connecting us to remarkable people. Networks can do that for us; now we must limit their intrusive aspects.

However you choose to blend it, the concepts of filtering, automation, creativity and curation should serve you well in 2017 and beyond.

End note: this piece is from my semi-occasional diginomica series on productivity, filtering and beating the noise. Updated, January 3, 8pm PT with final three paragraphs clarifying my view on networks.

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