Wasting Time on Productivity

Wasting Time On Productivity - Brass Tack ThinkingFor the most part, we all really think we’re busy, and that our work is important.

Ask anyone you know how they are, and their likely response: “Busy!” I’ve been guilty myself.

We talk about slaying the inbox dragon and achieving “inbox zero” (which is a terrible objective, incidentally, but that’s a different discussion). We scramble for the latest productivity apps, shortcuts, or new-shiny methods, lamenting how over-communicated and over-connected we are all the time and hungry for something, anything to help us feel less overwhelmed. We tweet about it and Facebook about it, sharing our busy with everyone so they know we’re doing a lot of stuff.

To an extent our overwhelm is a product of our environment, but mostly it’s a monster of our own making. Too often, what we’re really doing is focusing on our “busyness” because we feel desperately powerless over the actual things we need to achieve or get done, or we’ve no idea where to start and we think that being more “efficient” is the answer.

So we focus on our email system or our to-do list applications or we convince ourselves that our problem is that we simply don’t say “no” enough and rally around the idea that dammit, our time is just too valuable so we have to have a better system to manage it.

The more likely reality – and I know this has been true for me, so I’m hardly speaking from a place of immunity here – is that we are convincing ourselves of our own “busyness” because we lack clarity of focus and priorities, and we’ve been utterly unwilling to sit down and gut through the thought processes – and reality checks – we need to whittle them down and articulate them. We’re even more unwilling to hold ourselves accountable for our progress on a regular basis, however incremental.

So we spend way too much time thinking about the mechanisms and processes of “being productive” and not nearly enough time doing the things that are actually producing anything of substance at all.

Productivity exercises can become hamster-wheel traps that make you feel like you’re making progress, but in reality are endless busy work roads to nowhere. At a certain point, the time you spend testing umpteen new apps or shuffling around your Evernote folders or re-organizing your Gmail labels and reading countless life-hacking posts becomes an exercise in diminishing returns, though a very easy way to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing something to improve your game.

But the only way to really improve your game is to play, not to plan to play.

I can’t give you the “right” system and balance because there isn’t one. Myself, I’m a purist. I use a scant few applications (Evernote, Gmail, Google Docs), keep my to-do list on a piece of paper, and have a pretty stripped-down system of managing things and priorities on my own plate. Maybe you need or want more than that. That’s okay.

Regardless of where you end up, I can give you the most important question you can ask yourself about this stuff to keep it all in check:

“Is this actually helping me become significantly more effective in my work – now or for the long term – or am I focusing too much on building the system instead of nailing the outcome?”

Be honest with yourself. The only person that will know the truth is you, and you don’t have to tell.

But I promise that your answer is going to be enlightening.

  • John D’Alessandro

    I’m with yo for the most part, Amber. I always liked paying instead more than practicing.

    The hardest part is finding that balance, but in terms of systems I’ve always found it best to try to think of or create my own before looking at third party solutions since I know my needs the best.

    I suppose that its best to try and then adjust than to paralyze yourself by trying o find the best way to do it before you’ve even tried.

  • http://www.mynotetakingnerd.com/blog Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2

    I use the same few apps but I don’t use them for productivity. I use Evernote for keeping notes. I use gmail for my email, my reader and for docs.

    I like to keep things simple as you’re professing here.

    And the most important lessons I’ve learned on the topic of productivity have come from Dan Kennedy. Dan is anti-technology so the extent of his planning tools equal a pen and a pad of paper much like yourself.

    Dan is the person who taught me that time can be wasted and abused only to the extent that it’s available to be so.

    So look at this scenario.

    Say you’ve got a phone appointment with the person who is a #1 VIP in your life in 30 seconds – President of the United States, Seth Godin, Nelson Mandela, client who wants to give you $280,000 dollars, your favorite Hollywood celebrity, whoever, and you’re waiting for the call to come through and some guy in your office pokes his head in asking if you’ve got a minute.

    Would you brush him off? Of course I would.


    When you look at it like this, it’s easier to be tough about this but this goes beyond simply scheduling your day.

    Dan’s days aren’t scheduled in the sense that you’ve got a page in the appointment book where there’s a meeting noted down, a lunch, and a couple of phone calls written in.

    Dan’s days are scripted.

    A schedule is your appointments for the day. A script is every minute of the movie that is your day. That’s the easiest way to explain what scripting your day is.

    Think about it in terms of a movie script and you see that most people are trying to shoot a movie with just an outline. This doesn’t work very well in Hollywood and it doesn’t work very well on the street.

    You need to have everything blocked out minute-by-minute-by-minute (in hunks of minutes of course).

    With a good Hollywood script, if someone is walking from the front door to their car, it’s determined how long that’s gonna take. You have to take all of this into account because you have a target for how long the film is and just the same with your day, you’ve got a fixed numbers that you’re awake and in a place you can work.

    If you want maximum productivity, you want to know how long it takes from pushing the on button to your computer to having all of the programs you need to use takes so that you’re factoring that into the script that only gives you X amount of film a.k.a. your work hours to use.

    Everything that needs to be accomplished for the day is listed according to the time it’s going to take to complete, each of them totaling up to the minutes available in the time block.

    Every minute of Dan’s work day is accounted for. So if he lets an interruption in, something in this script, something isn’t going to happen. Something, or someone is going to get cheated today if somebody barges in and bumps to the front of the line.

    Dan is always assessing where he is on his work list, to where he is on the clock. On most days for Dan, there is no time to be wasted or abused because he has pre-assigned it all, the day before or earlier.

    When I started practicing this simple tactic, I absolutely amazed myself with how much I got done and was relieved that the decision making had already been done for me.

  • http://twitter.com/SusanGiurleo Susan Giurleo

    Amber, I totally agree. I use a sticky note on my desktop as my to-do list. My email boxes are not at zero (because I don’t have time to delete all the crap). I barely touched Twitter all summer, my schedule is a mish mash of business planning, seeing clients, and being the primary parent to my son. I got a huge amount of work done this summer between camp drop off,pick up, beach trips, etc. I spent not one moment worrying about my productivity. I have no productivity apps anywhere on my person or in my tech. Just set priorities, make a list, get started, do the work — repeat…simple.

  • http://suitcaseentrepreneur.com/ Natalie Sisson

    Great post Amber. I get quite sick of hearing `How are you?!’ `Busy’. I often want to ask – and sometimes do, `Are you busy doing busy work or work that has meaning and impact?’. So on that note I did send you an email with an initiative I’d love you to be part of and it requires 10 mins of your time – hope you’re not too busy :) Would be honoured to have you as part of it!

  • http://twitter.com/rdopping Ralph Dopping

    Why am I not here more often? That’s some solid thinking.
    Funny, I recently finished reading a great guidebook that basically tells you the same thing in 300+ pages. The Accidental Creative. loved the book but like you said, just another process. What’s good about what Todd Henry says is that you need a certain amount of process to free up creative time and by following your process your productivity will increase. I am not doing it justice here.
    What you’re saying makes total sense to me. Thanks.

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