Why Productivity Shouldn’t Be Tossed Out

Leo Babauta over at Zen Habits has come up with an interesting and provocative post: “Why Productivity Should be Tossed Out.

His idea is right in line with a lot of the themes he focuses on in his popular blog, which offers tips on how we can simplify our lives and return to a more basic set of habits.  That’s a hard job to undertake in the times in which we live, unfortunately!  In his post, he argues that productivity advice should be tossed out, at least according to his definition:

“the advice is wrong for a simple reason: it’s meant to squeeze the most productivity out of every day, instead of making your days better.”

What he doesn’t leave room for is the fact that people have different goals, and that these goals change from one phase of life to the next.  Their definition of “productivity” evolves and needs to be used as the yardstick for whatever improvements they contemplate.  The same change might have very different effects depending on what the user wants at the end of the day, including simple decisions such as “whether or not to work this weekend.”

He makes the mistake that many in the productivity and time management field make, which is to assume that we should (or do) have the same goals.  While this assumption is arguably a reasonable one to make, simplifying people’s goals isn’t the same as simplifying their habits.

When he gets into the “7 Tips” that make up the meat of the article, his broad strokes turn into broadsides, as he recommends that his readers not measure anything, not have goals, not focus their work, not plan to do more than one thing per day, not make plans for time spent waiting in the dentist’s waiting room, and even not get organized.

If he were to add that these recommendations are some fun variations from the unquestioned routine we find ourselves in at times, that would be one thing.  But his words appear to be stronger than that and sound prescriptive.

Here’s the contradiction:  I imagine that he wrote his article on a computer and shared it on the Internet.  It’s a mistake to think that the technology that allows his message to reach his 200,000+ readers takes place without a lot of people committing themselves to mastering complexity and doing exactly the very things that he is advising people not to do (it could be that he’s only writing to his core constituency, but the article makes it seem as if his one size “should” fit all).

It’s a bit of over-reaching on his part.

He does, however, end the article on an interesting point:

You shouldn’t be forcing yourself to work hard on something you dread doing, and then take a break to reward or relieve yourself from that dreaded work. You should work on stuff you love, so that you can’t wait to do it, and taking a break is just a matter of enjoying something else (maybe a nice walk, a nice book, a nice conversation with a friend). Life where you work hard in bursts, with some breaks, is dreadful. Life where you’re always doing something you love is art.

Apart from the part where he’s telling everyone what they should do, he paints a great possibility: it’s possible to get to the point where we don’t shun the stuff we dislike, but instead we prefer what’s happening at any moment, simply because… nothing else can be happening, and we are at our best when we accept what is.

That would make for a helpful article, but the doctrine of simplifying everything doesn’t seem to be the answer that would make a difference.

Why I’m Inspired by CK Prahalad

A long time ago when I was a young consultant at AT&T Bell Labs I remember reading and then advocating the ideas of CK Prahalad, the recently deceased professor, thought leader and management consultant.

He shared some of his interviews before his death in Strategy and Business, on the topic of thought leadership and the source of new ideas.  Not surprisingly, it echoed some of the 2Time Labs discoveries around building competence slowly, via deliberate practice.  He also says:

I was very keen to write. I found writing was the best way to clarify my own thinking. When you talk you can be vague, and the English language can be delightfully vague. When you sit down to write, you see whether you can express your ideas clearly or not. That habit has stayed with me. When I think I have an interesting idea, I try to write it down for myself first.

…it takes time to develop a new idea. If you are a writer, like me, then what you write on any given day may be only a fragment of what you know or what you believe, because you may not be ready to write down everything you have to say. There are breakthroughs, but they happen over a long period of time.

To me, the problems of greatest interest are things that you cannot explain with the current prevailing theory.

In developing all of these ideas, I learned not to start with the methodology, but with the problem. A lot of times, research tends to start with the methodology. I prefer to start with a problem that’s of interest and apply whatever methodology is appropriate.

Every one of my research projects started the same way: recognizing that the established theory did not explain a certain phenomenon. We had to stay constantly focused on weak signals. Each weak signal was a contradictory phenomenon that was not happening across the board. You could very easily say, “Dismiss it, this is an outlier, so we don’t have to worry about it.” But the outliers and weak signals were the places to find a different way to think about the problem.

If you look historically at the strategy literature, starting with Alfred D. Chandler Jr.’s Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise [MIT Press, 1962], the most powerful ideas did not come out of multiple examples. They came out of single-industry studies and single case studies. Big impactful ideas are conceptual breakthroughs, not descriptions of common patterns. You can’t define the “next practice” with lots of examples. Because, by definition, it is not yet happening.

For example, with the “Twenty Hubs and No HQ” article [which described a proposed structure for multinational companies], we didn’t prove the value of this system through examples, because we didn’t have examples. But we laid out a logic about how it might work, connecting the dots, showing a new pattern. I believe that conceptual breakthroughs come when you see a new pattern. And you use stories or companies’ work as examples and illustrations of the concept, not as proof of good practice. In The New Age of Innovation, for instance, I write about Aravind’s remarkable cataract surgery practice, but I use it as an example, not as proof. I never say, “Because of Aravind’s example, we know this should work.” Current practices, however successful they are, may not be robust enough to stand the test of time.

Of course, we all invented our own terms. Indeed, the biggest impediment in the growth and strategy literature is that, unlike in the financial literature, there are no standardized terms. There is no organizing thesis and principle. My bottom of the pyramid becomes someone else’s “base of the pyramid.” What’s the difference? There’s not even agreement about appropriate units of analysis. Is it one person? A team? A division? What is the fundamental building block of HR?

Over the next year, I came to the conclusion that it would be very easy to stay on course and keep mining these ideas and writing more about them — but then I was likely to write a mediocre next book. I think many writers fall into that trap. So in the late 1990s I started looking for the next big idea.

This perfectly encapsulates the reason why I share ideas here at 2Time Labs.  When I worked at AT&T Bell Labs, we published Technical Memorandums and Internal Memorandums in order to disseminate ideas, get feedback and bring some order to jumbles of ideas.  That’s apparently what Prahalad used to do also.

What he says about “weak signals” is quite important to the work we do also.  There’s not a whole lot of evidence for many of the popular theories in time management, but there are certain patterns that can be seen, and they go well beyond today’s cliches.  Time Management 2.0 is made up of such patterns, and there is scant evidence of their truth… at the moment.  Emerging research by experts such as Dezhi Wu is confirming these patterns, but it might be a while before they are accepted as everyday, obvious truth.

I love the warning at the end, and in fact, the article revived an idea I have had for some time that connects the dots between strategic planning and time management.  In our firm, we have been showing our clients how to craft 30 year strategies and it’s something I haven’t written much about since Amie Devero, a former partner of Framework Consulting, made note of the technique in her book, Powered by Principle.

All in all, I was deeply inspired by his example — and his passing was a great loss.


The New York Times Gets It Wrong, but a Little Right

An article in the New York Times entitled 5 Easy Steps to Staunch the Email Flood seems to fall into the trap that most time management tinkers fall into.

An author shares a system of habits that works for them and essentially tells everyone else to “follow me” based on the evidence of a single success.  It then follows with suggestions that, honestly, fly in the face of accepted best practice such as “don’t treat your Inbox like a To-Do list” which the article heartily recommends.  (This approach works only under certain conditions, according to the research done here at 2Time Labs.)

The article does get one thing right, however, when it’s author, Sam Grobart states:

But the problem with a lot of organizational systems is that they replace one anxiety (“My stuff’s not organized”) with another (“My stuff’s not organized according to this specific system”).

Not to get too Zen here, but maybe the best system is no system. Or, put another way, the best system requires the least behavior modification. A few small habits may have to be adopted, but nothing as rigorous as GTD.

He’s a bit right here, and the point made about replacing one anxiety with another is well taken and related to his second comment. I would reword the sentiment.  The best upgrade requires the least behavior modification.

The problem with GTD® and every other static system is that they don’t attempt to meet the user where he/she currently is.  Most people find themselves:

1) in habit patterns that are far from ideal that they have practiced for many years

2) without a clue, let alone a plan, for how to bridge the gap to a new ideal set of habits

3) lacking any experience in changing complex systems of habits and therefore under-estimate what’s needed to make new habits stick

The result is frequent failure, and it sounds as if the author counts himself in that number.  But the answer is not to come up with a new set of guru-drive prescriptive behaviors, even if they do seem easier. Instead, it’s better to question the game, and then change it entirely.

What users desperately need is help to figure out what small behavior changes to make first, second and third.  And, they must figure it out for themselves as one-size certainly does not fit all when it comes to time management.

The good news is that MyTimeDesign 1.0.Free is about to re-open for registration and you can see exactly what I mean when I imply that the game can be changed.  Stay tuned., and in the meantime, if you are new to this website, see the About tab above for an overview of  Time Management 2.0.

Why You Need to Take a Multi-Calendar Point of View

I just completed an article for Stepcase Lifehack that was picked up and expanded on by the LifeHacker website.

The idea is a new one:  the time is fast approaching when your time demands will sit in the cloud, and not on your desktop, smartphone or laptop.

Furthermore, the way you look at your schedule will also change when you get used to the idea of looking at your calendar from different points of view, each of which hides the stuff that you don’t want to see.  The benefit?  Being able to track more stuff with less effort, and making it easier to get to the point where your calendar replaces your list.

Here’s the original Stepcase Lifehack article: How to Use 6 Calendar Views to Be More Productive

And the follow-on Lifehacker article: Use a 5-Calendar Setup to Avoid Cluttered and Confusing Schedules

It’s my first time being published on the Lifehacker website — so this is a happy moment!

Why You Need a Batphone…NOW!

If you have so many sources of interruptions, including phone calls, email messages, tweets and SMS’ that you don’t know what to manage and when, then you need a Batphone.

There’s a cool article on the TimeBack Management website on the reasons why we need a way to be contacted in a time of true crisis.  Most of us have trained ourselves to not answer every call, or process every email message upon arrival — to do otherwise is to turn oneself into a slave to incoming calls/messages — but we still need a way to be reached that cuts through whatever we are doing in the moment so that we can pick up the “Batphone.”

The article makes a larger point, which is that companies desperately need policies around communication an responsiveness that fit in with the smartphone age.

Here’s the article:  “What’s your BatPhone?”

Dezhi Wu on the Calendar Tools We Really Need #4

A major focus of Wu’s research as outlined in Temporal Structures in Individual Time Management: practices to enhance calendar tool design, is on the paucity of tools that exist to manage our schedules.

She decries the fact that electronic calendars do little more than mimic paper calendars, and offer little functionality in important areas.  She states: “the porting of the paper-based calendar to its electronic cousin, in our view, suffers from a lack of vision.  The electronic version is a replica of the paper version with… fast search capabilities.”

“Builders of electronic calendars could have examined how users think about and construct their schedules.  … they would have run into thinking about how to build tools that allow users to capture the more esoteric and complex temporal structures affecting their time coordination.”

She writes that the current tools offer no support for automatically changing scheduled activities.  For example, in planning software like Microsoft Project, a change in the final due date can automatically cause all the dependent tasks to shift their due dates in concert.  In Microsoft Outlook, no such capability exists.

Also, there is no way to download a project’s individual commitments into one’s calendar.  Instead of manually entering the tasks required to complete one’s taxes, an entire sequence of events could be downloaded that reliably produce the end-result, if followed.  It would allow us to see more clearly what happens when we commit to play a role on a new project, for example, and more realistically deal with the time it will consume.

She gives the example of airlines that allow passengers to download entire flights directly into their calendars.  A smart calendar would incorporate the time it take to get to the airport from the office, and block that time out also!

She also talks about the need for working groups to make their norms that require calendar space more explicit, such as the fact that that the group has a mandatory lunch discussion each Friday and a meeting with the Vice President every last Wednesday of the month.  New members could immediately download these structured commitment upon joining, and observe the impact on their overall schedules.

One of the major complaints from the most effective time managers is the fact that they have to do so much manual work to set up effective schedules that cover the temporal structures mentioned above.  An intelligent auto-scheduler would know to never set time aside for a trip to the grocery store at a time when it’s closed, for example, on a holiday.

Lastly, it should be easier to coordinate schedules.  A project manager should be able to “see” a view of a person’s calendar to determine whether key action items need to be changed in keeping with events happening in other calendars.

Wu mentions a particular intensity around these complaints, and I take that to mean that the opportunity for a significant product innovation exists.  Companies that make electronic scheduling tools could be producing much, much better products, a point that I make here at 2Time Labs.

She obviously has some insight into what an effective user-design might look like, and if game-changing software were to emerge, it would probably sweep into the lives of working professionals at an awesome pace.