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Productivity doesn’t solve your problem

This week as I was discussing productivity with some Rocket Results students it struck me that the reason why productivity feels so important, and is so difficult, is that we are all operating in a totally new productivity environment.

We are managing infinity.

As you know, only a few years ago things were very different:

  • People had to be physically present to make requests or place demands upon us. Failing that, they had to spend the energy to compose and post a memo or letter and wait for a reply; or they had to phone us, which involved spending both money (calls weren’t cheap) and time (playing phone tag to catch us).
  • Our immediate access to information was limited to the books and the people around us.  Visiting a library was a deliberate step.

And now, of course, everything is infinite:

  • We have an infinite to do list. Anyone, anywhere in the world can add to our ‘to do list’ at any time if they know our email address.
  • We have an infinite content library.  There is always another good blog post to read, book to digest, TV series to binge, video to enjoy.  There is infinite potential for learning.
  • We live within an infinite store.  Practically any product on the planet is a few clicks away.
  • We have an infinite potential for social interaction.  There is always another Facebook post to like, another tweet we can read or send, another LinkedIn comment to make. There is always another free Skype call we can make, another person to catch up with.
  • We have an infinite amount of memories to store.  There is always another photo to snap, another video to take.
  • We have an infinite number of places we should be.  You could be anywhere on the continent in 5 hours; anywhere on the planet in thirty-six.  No conference, no meeting, is logistically unreachable.
  • We have an infinite number of causes to support.  Every issue, concern and charity is within reach.

This means that productivity won’t solve it.  Nobody can lift an infinite weight, swim across an infinite ocean or eat an infinite meal.

Productivity means you can get more done, or take less time to do it, but productivity doesn’t protect you from infinity.

However productive you are, demand (for your time, energy and attention) is greater than any possible supply.

The most important lever for you: Not productivity. Prioritisation.

Time to engineer your workload

The world of telecoms, in which I’ve been involved professionally for 20 years, is familiar with this issue.  How should a network respond when many different sources of demand combine to exceed available capacity?

The basic engineering choices are:

  • Loss. This is when demand is rejected. Think of when you get a ‘busy tone’ or your video call starts to pixelate.
  • Delay. Think of when your online video pauses mid-flow, due to ‘buffering’.  Of course, delay only works when faced with a temporary situation – a blip in demand or a dip in supply followed by a breathing space that allows the delay to work itself out of the system.

Once demand outstrips supply, everything becomes a question of priorities and trade-offs.  What do I lose and what do I delay?  What do I keep and what do I expedite?

So from a personal productivity standpoint, we need to examine the same engineering parameters –

OVERALL PERFORMANCE:

  • Am I working at the right level of quality on the right tasks?
  • Am I reliable, delivering what I promise when I promise it?
  • Am I able to cope with spikes in demand without “system overload”?

LOSS:

  • Am I managing a sustainable level of ‘inflow’ of tasks and projects?
  • Is my backlog is getting ever bigger (inbox constantly growing, 100s or 1000s of unread emails, unmanageable to-do list)?
  • How do I increase my LOSS parameter and say NO more often?
  • What are the criteria for saying NO and for saying YES?
  • What rules can simplify things? What can I start automatically saying NO to?

DELAY:

  • Am I delivering my tasks and projects with appropriate levels of delay?
  • Am I constantly behind schedule? If so, I may need to clear out my task queue (more loss!)
  • If it’s just a temporary blip, am I prioritising the most important things, and do I have breathing space coming to allow me to catch back up?
  • What tasks need prioritisation, and which tasks can be delayed?

Loss and delay are good things!

Now, you might have thought that loss and delay are bad things and to be minimised.  But actually, in a world of unlimited demand, the secret of success is in how you manage loss and delay!  Without managing these two parameters, the whole system gets clogged up with low value, low priority work; everything gets delayed and becomes increasing urgent, and nobody is happy at the results.  But by saying no (loss) and ‘strategic procrastination’ (delay) on low-urgency items, you can ensure you deliver on what’s truly important.

Practically, how do you manage loss and delay in your own approach to productivity?

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  • Nina Froriep

    Thank you, Richard for putting the finger on it!

    • Richard Medcalf

      Hi Nina. Thanks for your comment! At least once we know we have infinity to deal with, we can stop trying to ‘do everything’ and take the guilt off ourselves!