The Problem with Productivity

3285787684_e8ff66ed35There’s a movement that’s been going strong for a few years; I’m sure many of you are aware of it.  It’s called “lifehacking”.  It’s all about making your life easier by developing certain habits or utilizing certain tools to complete tasks more quickly and efficiently.

I don’t have a problem with this.  Improving efficiency is a great thing.  In fact, this blog is all about taking steps to form good habits to become a better person.  By definition, good habits are going to make you more productive and efficient.

What I oftentimes think is missing, though, is an emphasis on effectiveness.  Doing the right things, as opposed to doing things the right way.  There’s so much emphasis on “being productive” and making sure all our ducks are in a row, that I’m concerned that we don’t check to make sure we’ve got the right ducks to begin with (if you follow my cliche/metaphor).

Let’s talk about productivity and how it’s being approached in the world today.

There’s an extremely popular productivity system out there called “Getting Things Done“, or GTD for short.  I’m not going to rehash the details for you; you can look anywhere on the ‘net for that.  What I am going to say is that the emphasis in GTD is on getting things done (obviously), not necessarily on getting the right things done.  I’ve read the book and practiced the system myself, and I’ve found that there’s little to no real emphasis on discerning whether or not the things you’re running through the system to accomplish are actually tasks that you should be focused on in the first place.  It’s taken for granted that all the tasks you pursue are worthwhile.

The author, David Allen, talks about capturing all the demands on your time and making lists of things that need to be done when you have the opportunity.  This is great, but how is a person supposed to determine what’s really the most important task that needs to occur?  Rather than focusing on the most urgent problem, shouldn’t you focus on the most important?

There’s a difference between urgency and importance.  I know everyone understands this on a theoretical level, but it’s really hard to put it into practice sometimes.  Typically what happens is whatever is most urgent moves to the top of our list of “priorities” (ringing telephones, or the TPS reports that have to have a new coversheet or whatever).  The things that are truly important (time with family and friends, or working on some task that truly has intrinsic meaning to us) get shoved down the queue.  GTD assumes some pre-screening of inputs.  It assumes that everything you currently do is something that you not only want to be doing, but is contributing to your life in a positive manner.  After years of living unintentionally, I don’t think that’s  a fair assumption to make.

The Franklin Covey (FC) system, however, approaches things differently.  Rather than beginning with accumulating all the tasks and “stuff” you need to take care of, the Franklin Covey system requires that you determine what’s really important to you.  From that determination of your values and missions, you work your way down, finally creating tasks that move you closer to your goals.

This method also presents problems, because things come up in life that, while not necessarily aligned with your “personal mission statement”, have to be done.  What do you do with those urgent, but not terribly important, tasks that keep you occupied for long periods of time?  FC says you just throw them on your calendar’s task list and you knock them out when you get around to it.  However, it doesn’t tell you how you should tackle the list, or when you need to focus on doing urgent tasks as opposed to important ones.

GTD doesn’t provide a framework for determining what should occupy your attention; it only provides a means to ensure that you don’t lose track of things.  Franklin Covey is great for determining what really matters most to you, but doesn’t really provide much of a framework for handling those tasks that just seem to pop up and demand your time.

There’s a better way.

In order to be what I view as a “complete person”, you need to focus on things that are important to you, while still getting things done.  You need to be able to capture all the demands on your time before you forget them, and then be able to make value judgments on them.  You need to have a framework within which you can judge, not only the urgency of the tasks in front of you, but their importance. You need to know what the long-term repercussions will be if you ignore one urgent task or another to focus on something else.  Will dropping that obligation have any real long-term impact toward getting you where you want to go in life?

Once you’ve taken the time to really figure out  your true priorities in life, you have to ensure that you’re really allocating time to them in accordance with how important you claim they are.  If you say your family comes first, but you’re missing Timmy’s T-Ball games so you can work another 14-hour day, then you need to reevaluate.  Either your family isn’t as important to you as you claim it is, or your job has taken over that priority level without you resisting.

On the other hand, there are always going to be things that come up in life that you have no control over and that only you can handle.  This is why you need to adhere to some kind of habit to capture all these tasks, and where it’s important to have a good handle on the “bottom’s up” picture that a system such as GTD provides.

I believe that people waste a lot of time because they don’t really know what it is they need to accomplish at any given time.  This means people need to understand the roles they have (spouse, parent, employee, etc.) and how each role helps them realize their priorities.  Essentially, folks need to do an ROI (Return on Investment) analysis on their lives.  Where do they spend too much time for too little reward (be that money, acknowledgment, fame, whatever)?  Conversely, where could they spend more time and reap larger and more satisfying rewards?

Areas in your life (called “contexts” in GTD parlance) should fairly well match up with the values you’ve determined previously.  Every context should serve to advance your values somehow; at the very least, it shouldn’t actively fight against it.  If one context in your life is preventing you from realizing a value, you know you have a problem.

Within every context, there can be any number of “projects”.  By making a list of all the projects (for those unfamiliar with GTD, a project is anything that will take more than one discrete task to accomplish) you’re responsible for, you can reduce psychic stress and procrastination by thoroughly defining the problem.  Once you’ve gotten every project you are aware of out of your head and into a system where you can see it constantly, you’ll no longer be worried that you’re forgetting something.  It’ll also allow you to see where you’ve committed to spend your time.  If you find that you’re spending too much time on a job (to pick an easy and popular target) that doesn’t pay enough money and provides more than your fair share of stress, now you know what the true issue is.

Once you’ve defined the problem by understanding what you’re committed to, it’s a simple effort to figure out how to get from where you are to where you need to be.  You can then quit worrying about all you have to do and simply start doing it, by making a step-by-step “roadmap” of sorts to achieve those projects.  You begin wherever you’re currently at, and then get to work.

By taking the time to finish all that life dumps on your plate (the urgent), you’ll allow yourself to focus on getting to a place where you can do what’s really important to you.  Approaching life from both a top-down and bottom-up view gives you the best of both worlds.

Photo courtesy: GlennFleishman

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