NOTE: In this article, I’m trying to wrap my head around the very tenuous beginning of an idea: that despite the highly subjective nature of productivity, there may be some way of creating a standardized measurement of one of its aspects that would be useful and implementable. I probably should have written this as 3 or 4 different articles, but it pretty much jumped out of my head and I didn’t feel like stopping it :) That said, it may be a little difficult to follow.
AN UNCERTAIN BALANCE
The past six weeks have been rather hectic. I’ve incorporated new personal routines on top of my existing work practices, which has led to a general increase of happiness. However, I feel that some of this has come at the expense of maintaining the quantity of work that I’d like to be doing. In other words, it feels like I’ve been playing too much, and now it’s time to work more.
I think the idea that one should work more than play afflicts a lot of us. Here in the USA, our national fable is that The American Dream is within the grasp of everyone who works hard (and perhaps catches a bit of luck). Those of us who haven’t yet discovered that magic formula for success are constantly left wondering what it is we could be doing better. The lack of certainty leads to procrastination, which is a lack of action. This eventually leads to apathy.
There is a simple cure, the much-touted just do it approach. It’s absolutely true that if you just do the work, you will be in a better place than if you didn’t. This is true even in the case where your work didn’t lead to where you wanted it to go, because the experience has shown you what didn’t happen according to plan. Yeah, I know…it’s kind of a lame consolation prize, but I think just about every genuinely happy person you come across will tell you that what doesn’t happen was just as valuable to them as what did, and that they could not have possibly planned for it. Your future constantly changes as you choose to do new things, new doors opening and closing with every moment. Statistically speaking, the number of opportunities increases if you are mindful of two things:
- You are doing tangible work that others can relate to and use
You are paying attention to how people are reacting to your work, so you can see the door that might opening.
But I digress. I’m really more interested in the complicated cure, the one that we procrastinators seem to demand without knowing quite what it is. There is an interesting line of inquiry buried here that I want to bring to light.
THE SWING OF THINGSAs I was mentioning earlier, I’ve been experiencing some swings in the balance of my personal and work life. On the personal side, establishing the gym habit, which at 6 weeks is still holding strong, is a major win. However, I have been sleeping a lot more, so I’m learning to find the right balance of working out so I don’t exhaust myself. Stamina will slowly increase, I think. I’ve also been building new personal relationships and this has resulted in an increase in contentment; there are so many delightful people out there, it’s just crazy! Some days, I want to burst from the sheer awesomeness of this. On the work side, it looks like I am booked until the end of the year thanks to this big museum project I’m kicking off, with several smaller projects tucked in here and there. It’s all interesting work too, driven by the kind of design thinking that I like to do. And on top of that, I am finally seeing clearly the kind of business I’d like to run. More importantly, I can see what my business will stand for. The net result of all this happy talk is that my to-do list is insane. It’s so insane, that I’ve stopped keeping track of it, letting project deadlines and the availability of delightful people dictate my immediate tasking and scheduling. This is, perhaps, the way that a lot of us do things. You’d think I’ve be using my various Printable CEO™ forms, but I have not yet created a process that specifically addresses this question:
How can I make time for the people in my life while maintaining optimum forward momentum in my work?All of my forms sneakily avoid the question. The most applicable form is probably the Concrete Goals Tracker, which provides narrow focus on those big big goals. The Emergent Task Timer gives up entirely and just lets you keep track of whatever is happening to you, because this kind of information is often illuminating. The Emergent Task Planner, by comparison, enables you to visualize how much you can realistically expect to get done in a single day, but doesn’t tell you what to focus on. Etc. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized that addressing the BIG QUESTION is what will tie all the PCEO forms together into a system that will work for me…though I suspect that if I can answer the question I might not need the forms anymore.
DEALING WITH TO DOS and INDIVIDUAL POWEROk, I have a zillion to-do list items, each of which requires between two minutes and 40 hours to check off. There are several methods for dealing with the mountain of tasks:
- Ignore them, because you don’t feel like doing them.
- Procrastinate by telling yourself how much needs to be done before you can even start. Pass the Doritos!
- Just do them by starting at the beginning (slow and steady wins the race, grasshopper!) or starting anywhere you feel like (getting anything done is better than nothing, dude!)
- Coerce yourself into action through sheer panic, self-loathing, and shame. It’s an awful place to be, but Procrastinators often need the drama to push through.
- Project manage by defining clear and tangible results, then planning and executing to completion. For success, you must be able to assess results and estimate the time to achieve them.
- Get a trusted project manager that will tell you what to do so you don’t have to think about it. Spouses, you may all raise your frying pans or poking sticks in solidarity.
LESSONS FROM THE GYM, REDUXOne thing I’ve learned from my new gym experiences is that the body is a kind of engine, and that it can be tuned. When I first started, my stamina was low and my cardiovascular limits were easily reached. After 6 or so weeks of daily cardio, I’m at the point where I can actually feel that my body can do more than it used to. I also can push past the resistance my muscles put up after just a few minutes of activity, reaching that zone where the body can operate efficiently for an extended period of time. The key tool that I’ve used at the gym is the heart rate monitor, which tells me how fast my heart is beating. I monitor it constantly, comparing the reading to how I am feeling physically. Since I am new to exercise, I’ve been very careful about not letting my heart rate exceed a certain point until it’s apparent that I’m no longer being challenged by it. I assess the challenge by monitoring how short of breath I feel and whether I feel elevated internal stresses in a place other than the working muscles. After a week or two at a certain level, my body seems to adapt, and then it feels safe to push a little harder. I am thinking that there must be some equivalence between productivity and the gym experience. When we first become aware that we’re not productive in the way we’d like, we immediately look for the magic key that will allow us to unlock and apply our potential, which I think is one of the universal desires that everyone has. There is, of course, the non-magical path, which is to actually learn what productivity means, and how to measure one’s effectiveness relative to that meaning.
SEPARATING LAYERS OF PRODUCTIVITYThere’s a somewhat subtle difference between looking good and being physically fit. Looking good is about surface appearance, while being physically fit is more about internal strength, resilience, and adaptability. It’s possible to look great without having all that power under the skin, and it may be good enough just to look good depending on what your goals are. Analogously, it may be good enough just to feel productive rather than to be productive. My forms are designed to address both these aspects because their focus is to provide feedback for the right actions, and if you feel good about something you’re more inclined to keep doing it. I’m thinking it’s time to look at the substructure of productivity itself. We all have an innate ability to assess the physical attractiveness of a given individual. I’m not sure where it comes from, but we can generally decide hot or not within seconds of an initial ogling. I’m not sure what exactly the equivalent for productivity is, though I can relate my own experiences regarding my site. Because I tend to write a lot about productivity and have produced some interesting forms, people naturally assume that I’m a productive person. Ironically, I don’t think myself as being that productive, which is why I label myself as a productivity enthusiast :-) However, if I were to measure myself only on (1) number of words written and (2) number of forms created and shared, then I could say I am more productive than average, since the average person doesn’t spend time designing forms :-) Identifying the metric by which you are going to measure results is necessary if you want to define how you are productive, and that metric depends on what you really want to do. I’m reminded of the American muscle cars of the 1970s, for example, were affordable street vehicles designed for little else than rapid acceleration and style; you could pretty much forget about good road handling. You can find other examples of this kind of trade off in military aircraft design. One of my favorite examples of a specific need creating a specific kind of design is the MIG 25 interceptor, which was designed by the Soviets because of their hypothetical vulnerability to US bomber attack. The Americans, with their very fast high altitude bombers, had the capability to bomb the U.S.S.R. without challenge. Thus, the Soviets built the MIG-25 specifically to close that gap: shoot down high-altitude supersonic bombers with air-to-air missiles. The design goal was similar to that of an American muscle car: climb very high very quickly, at an affordable price. That’s easy to focus on, and it was achieved. This is the project-focused mentality that is so highly effective in getting things done. So being more productive seems simple: identify the metric by which you measure your productivity, and then you should be able to construct a set of relationships to get you there. It’s just a matter of doing those things and assessing whether they are getting you the results you want. This is pretty much what the Concrete Goals Tracker was designed to do, but there’s a big problem when you try to apply this to general productivity: often we don’t know what kind of life we want to design. We just know we want to be better. And having spent the last 15 years trying to figure out what I wanted to be, I know that finishing projects has not yet helped me answer that fundamental question, which I’ll repeat here:
How can I make time for the people in my life while maintaining optimum forward momentum in my work?Which is my begging-the-question way of asking:
How can I be happy?Maybe when you find you indeed ARE happy, you can tell the people around you the whole story of how you came to arrive where you are, but until then all anyone has are guesses and a few pieces to a puzzle. You can’t answer the question in any kind of direct way, which is what we want. That’s the magic pill. Instead, you have to answer the question obliquely, by doing things and finding out whether they make you happy or not.
PRODUCTIVITY POWER THEORYI’ve tried the project management approach to finding productivity, and have gotten fairly good at it. However, the project management approach is time consuming and frankly draining for me; this is probably why I have not really found GTD that compelling. What I want really is a productivity heart rate monitor, something that I can use to assess my given level of productivity fitness at any time. Then, I need a set of ranges that tell me when I’m being lazy, productive, and dangerously productive for my given level of “productivity fitness”. I am modeling productivity in a way that is similar to average power:
- the strength to do a task
- the level of challenge of the task
- the length of time it takes to do the work
- Measuring productivity requires a metric, but as there are multiple goals we’ll need multiple ways to measure measure strength and challenge. Eventually, I think we might be able to put together a list of common specialties in which people wish to be productive, thus forming a useful standard for comparing one’s own ability against a realistic ideal. This is good for the long term measurement of one’s advancement toward goals. This has been the traditional way I’ve been approaching the productivity. In terms of the gym, this is the equivalent of recording your weight, strength, and challenge levels over time. As for realistic ideals, the physically-fit men and women at the gym show you that it is, indeed, possible.
In the medium term, there are certain ranges of effort that are most appropriate for your given level of fitness. At the gym, this is maintaining my heart rate such that it is high enough for me to be challenged, but not so high that I grow short on breath or collapse. I could see some kind of scaled approach happening here; the Emergent Task Planner has this implicitly designed into it with the groups of three tasks. Once we have some kind of unit of measurement for productivity, we will be able to define these ranges.
To have any hope of making progress toward your goals, you’ll concentrated attention over a period of time. This is a short-term—actually, this is an immediate and present—focus. In the cardiovascular training, I’m supposed to maintain an elevated heart rate for at least 30 minutes a day to start making a difference. I don’t see why it would be any different for becoming more productive; the various dash approaches to breaking procrastination habits remind me very much of the cardio stuff I’ve been doing. The goal is to at least start somewhere to attain that higher-level of work. Start with 30 minutes of focused energy in the day minimum. What we need is a way to measure it, as with the heart rate monitor, on an instantaneous basis.
READER POLL: WAYS OF MEASURING PRODUCTIVITY and RANGES
p>So how does one define a unit of productivity. For that, we need to know what the following means:
To define ranges of productivity behavior, we need to know
- Typical duration of the productive activity
- Examples of strength
- Examples of challenge
Off the cuff, I’m thinking that STRENGTH here can be STRENGTH OF ATTENTION. In other words: FOCUS. The idea of CHALLENGE (that is, level of difficulty) might be measured by the NUMBER OF INTERACTIONS between the person and the work area that are occurring in the real world.
I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with a unit that will work for every possible circumstance, but I think they should be based on what is directly observable. For example, you might spend a lot of time thinking about things, but since no one else can see what you’re thinking, what’s the point. If you are, however, thinking and drawing at the same time, then you’re putting something new into the world. Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to measure the productivity of every kind of task throughout the day, because being productive in one area is a kind of good constraint that spills into others.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I am curious about the following:
- How many tasks are on your To Do list?
- How many tasks are you getting done a day, on average?
- Are you satisfied with what you’re getting done?
- What makes a task hard to start?
Thanks for any feedback in advance!
ADDITION: After Sarah’s comment, I realized that it’s not very fair for me to ask people to provide information like this because it can be very personal or embarrassing when you already feel like you’re not doing enough. So if you’d like to participate in an informal poll but prefer to not comment publicly, feel free to email me via my contact form instead. I’ll summarize any patterns I find at a later date.
In the meantime, my answers to the questions:
I’ve got several to-do lists. One’s a big one with EVERYTHING I COULD EVER DO on it, broken across several text files. There must be at least a hundred things on it, and there would be more if I looked at this every day. I rarely do look at it because it just makes me feel anxious. My “real” to do list consists of Google calendar and a handful of items that I need to get done for the week, and maybe has 5 or 6 immediate things on it, plus meetings and calls.
I feel like I’ve had a good day if I get 3 things done from that list…usually they’re just deliverables. Some days, though, nothing gets done that was on the list, though life did happen. I tend to list “big” things rather than small things, though you’d be surprised what a big deal tasks like “go to the post office” are to me. I’d sooner stick my head in a bucket of water.
Satisfied? In hindsight I can say that I’m making more progress than I used to, now that I know who I am and what it is I can do. But I keep thinking there’s so much more I could be doing. Which is why I want to make a realistic assessment of what that is, and use myself as my yardstick.
What makes a task hard to start? For me, it’s when I can’t tie the starting of the task directly with another human being in the room with me. This is a big problem when you work by yourself. So I end up IMing people and telling them what I’m about to do. Or I chat with someone in the morning about something. After that, I feel like I can start. Another hard thing is that I often have a lot of interesting ideas I’d like to pursue, and that’s a distraction from planned activities.