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Do You Understand Personal Productivity? Tried dozens of systems and didn't get anywhere?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Basic Concepts

Ever been stuck in a cycle of developing personal productivity systems, applying them, nothing really changes and then starting over gain? This post if for you. It’ll help you understand the main reason conventional personal productivity systems fail and guide you to what can work for you.

Personal productivity has many names and related ideas: personal workflow, personal operating system, life hacks, goal setting, motivation. What is challenging is that different people define personal productivity in different ways. You will find it more useful to understand what you are trying to accomplish rather than just labelling it.

What does personal productivity mean?

The definition of personal productivity encompasses many imprecise ideas, so it makes sense to start with an imprecise definition.

Imprecise Definition: Personal Productivity is doing “things” in a “better” way.

This imprecise definition of personal productivity is an important step forward. It breaks down the question into what are the things that you are trying to accomplish and how do you want to improve how you accomplish them.

What “things” do you want to do?

The question of what are the things you are trying to accomplish has been covered by books and  posts talking about tasks, checklists, goals, projects and more. In terms of what all of these mean some people prefer looking at the smallest step one can take, often called an atomic task or a next action. A trip to the grocery store might start with the next action: “make a list for grocery shopping”. You can get silly and start with the next action: “find pen” but let’s try and be reasonable here. Next level up would be a task: “go grocery shopping”. The next action would split this into “make list”, “go on errand”, “shop according to list”, “note items not found”, “put groceries away”, “plan next grocery trip.” At the other end things that you might want to do is the life goal for how you want to remembered on your death bed, a goal that is decades away.

There exist many different approaches that cover each level well. The problem is that each of these levels interact with each other. Going grocery shopping for some people is an independent function from other objectives. For others grocery shopping might be part of an overall nutrition project. This nutrition project might be short-term, a few weeks as per the doctor’s orders to manage a medical issue, or it could a life-long goal to manage your health. You are well aware of how difficult it is to manage a simple task list. There are issues with deciding which of the tasks to execute, i.e. prioritization, as well as with actually executing these tasks, i.e. motivation, and then deciding which new tasks to add to the list.

Keeping a task list prioritized across time is next to impossible, because there is new information and input all the time. If your manager gives you more responsibility, if you have a child, if you get into a serious car accident, if you win the lottery then all these things fundamentally change your priorities. Far more often it is the small things that throw you off track. A friend who needs to talk, a flat tire, an internet interruption.

Prioritization of goals and tasks is difficult

Prioritization of tasks is difficult and some of the great writers on the subject of personal productivity systems have tried to tackle it in different ways. Stephen Covey is a fan of the Eisenhower Decision Matrix which he covers extensively in his books The 7 Habits of Effective People and First Things First. The basic summary is that humans tend to prioritize tasks that are urgent but not important and ignore tasks that are important but not urgent. It makes sense to reverse this, if you tend to the important things then you’d expect everything else to fall into place.

The problem is that the Eisenhower Matrix is a restatement of the idea of prioritization with a twist: if something is important then that does not mean that it is clear that it is important. Covey solves this problem by introducing the idea of a person’s values and how important it is to align your goals to your values. Covey isn’t the only person to promote this idea and there are plenty of books and even free workbooks on the internet to help people identify their values. Intuitively this makes sense but suffers from the problem of applying it to real life.

Values don’t drive personal productivity

If you’re a student you no doubt value good grades. However, isn’t it hard to put in the work to get those grades? The same goes for people learning to play the guitar, learning a new language, trying to lose weight, trying to save money. Nearly everyone values something greatly but has a hard time prioritizing and executing the work. If this were not true then there be far less therapists, procrastination books, life coaches, and books on habits.

Worse, psychology tells us that if there is a habit that you wish to break, such as eating ice cream, but you find it difficult to do so then there is a hidden reward that you experience by keeping the bad habit. Similarly, if you wish to learn a new habit, such as exercising in the morning, but you cannot seem to stick to the schedule, then there is a hidden reward in avoiding the habit.

Finally, you don’t live in a world where your values take precedence over other people’s values. Your spouse, your children, your manager, your friends, your work colleagues all have their own values and you are constantly negotiating whose values take priority. It is difficult.

Aspirational Values versus Authentic Values

Core values

Certain psychological schools of thought believe that your core values, usually called core beliefs, drive you. This school of thought believes that changing core values is extremely difficult and requires a lot of hard work. If this is true then anyone who tries to apply a productivity system without working on their core beliefs is doomed to fail. It has been my experience that people fail to choose the “right” things to do because they believe it is as simple as following a system.

The difficulty with changing core values from your current, or authentic, values to those you want, your aspirational values, is why people fail. They repeat their mistakes over and over again and find themselves reading self-help books but never moving forward. This cycle of failure slowly wears them down until they finally give up on themselves and their dreams. Don’t let that happen to you.

How do you want to execute “better”?

Assuming that you know what your goals are, how do you execute your tasks better? Do you constantly feel as if you are spinning your wheels? Projects remain unfinished no matter how many tasks you complete?

An interesting take on this is by looking at another bible of personal productivity systems, David Allen’s Getting Things Done usually known as GTD to productivity connoisseurs. GTD is quite light on “what things should you do,” talking in general about high altitude views of your project of portfolios and the idea of using your gut. Personally, my gut is as confused as my brain. But GTD is often quoted as the main source for knowing how to do things. Just as there were issues with The 7 Habits there are also issues with GTD.

Multi-tasking and action contexts are a failure

Studies have recently shown that multi-tasking for humans is ineffective. Before moving on to the idea of contexts, especially as used in GTD, let me explain the process of multi-tasking for a computer. The classic way that a computer multi-tasks is that it runs a program for a short time, milliseconds, and then it saves all the files and the state of the program to disk. The computer then goes to another program, reads its state from disk and runs it. This happens at such speed that to humans it seems that the computer is actually multi-tasking. It isn’t.

A well known problem in the early days of the personal computers is what is called thrashing. There are so many programs that by the time the computer has copied the state of one suspended program from the disk it is now time to copy it back. The computer is simply writing to disk and then reading from disk without accomplishing anything.

The same thing can happen to you. You will feel that at the end of the day that you have done a lot of work. Much to your disappointment you will also know that you have not accomplished much. The idea of contexts as used in GTD is harmful. The idea here is that you have contexts such as: at your computer, on your phone, at the office, etc. So under the context of on the phone would be a list of people to call and therefore you can whiz through all of them quickly. This makes intuitive sense. But what you will learn is that it only works if there is no other context that need.

For example, if you are calling to make a dinner reservation, calling a friend and thanking them for gift and finally the cable company to add a package then, yes, it would be nice to have this all lined up. But if you needed to call the accounts department to go over in detail your project budget and then you needed to call an outsourced programmer to talk in detail about some technical issues and finally you needed to talk to a lawyer about an acquisition then you would not be happy. For each of those calls you would need to have multiple files open, your notes ready and some preparation is necessary. Would you not prefer to have these calls during a deep focus session for each of those different projects? To use the computer example, the amount of state information for the second set of phone calls is high whereas the amount of state information for the first set of calls is far less. Depending on your job, the project context is far more expensive than the computer/phone/office context.

Tasks are rarely atomic

The fallacy of the GTD system is the idea that tasks are atomic with little connection to other tasks. This system recognizes two connections. The first is to group related tasks. The second connection is to allow precedent tasks, i.e. one or more tasks must be accomplished before another one. In today’s service economy this is rarely the case. There is so much interrelation and context that even the simplest of project tools allows aggregating large amounts of information via attachments or links to give real context to a task. The amount of energy and resource use in coming up to speed with regards to the context of a task before executing the task is so high that it makes no sense to have any contexts other than project based contexts.

The failure of personal productivity systems

Personal productivity systems fail because we are human. We look externally instead of internally. We look at aspirational values, i.e. values that are not ours but which we would like, instead of working on our core values. That’s like saying you value an Apple phone when you own a Samsung that you have been using for a decade. Conventional productivity systems would then tell you to switch phones. That might be hard to do if you’ve been using a Samsung for so long. Or if you don’t have the resources. Or if you really don’t want to because you love your Samsung but are subconsciously responding to peer pressure.

The discussion around personal productivity systems is “What do I want for my future?” Perhaps they should start with “What do I want today? Why do I want it?”

Productivity gurus often use a quote from Alice in Wonderland:

Alice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
The Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
Alice: “I don’t much care where.”
The Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

The idea is clear: You need to understand your goals. There is another quote from the same book that is less famous but just as important:

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle. – Alice

What next?

I’m dedicating this blog to looking at how you can become more effective at finding or developing a personal productivity system that actually works for you. The next step is understanding your authentic values – aspirational values trap (publication date: Wednesday, 31 January 2018).

Series NavigationYour Values Ruin Personal Productivity >>

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