Clarifying Productivity

latest issue of The Read and Trust Magazine and an expansion of our recent conversation on Twitter.Note: This post is an open response to Matt Alexander’s “Obscuring Productivity” article for the

There’s a lot of conversation surrounding productivity. For some, it’s a topic of ever-growing interest, for others, growing concern. But in reality, it’s impossible to use the word productivity and actually be talking about a single thing. The subject has grown into something massive. It encompasses everything from lifestyle design, life hacks, self-improvement, self-confidence, tools, tricks and tips. It’s a beast and dismissing the whole because of the valid areas of concern seems short-sighted to me. It’s also not universal, the importance of the subject really depends on the individual. Tasks that seem mundane to some are often insurmountable to others. Someone who has more of a naturally organized mind may need these teachings far less than someone like me. Regardless, the longer I study this subject, the better I try to get, the more I’m starting to understand that, at least for me, it’s becoming about one thing and one thing only: finding the best way to do your best work.

It’s All About Workflow

For those who struggle, I believe that improvement begins when you set out to discover your ideal workflow. Finding the best possible tools and techniques to help you do your work can be transformative. This doesn’t mean the most expensive or even the most actual tools. It means seeing what’s out there, experimenting with what works for others (especially those who have similar challenges as you) and then attempting to discover what works best for you. It’s not about smoothing out every rough edge (at least not for a long time), it’s about finding the core elements that you will use daily to do your work and learning the hell out of them. It’s about understanding the structure your work needs to take in order for it to actually get done (and by the way, that structure could just as easily be less than what you’re already using. There are just as many people who are buried in their existing tools as there are those who don’t really have enough).

If You Think You Don’t Need This, You Probably Don’t

If you have a workflow that’s working for you or don’t need one to make things happen, then you don’t need to be reading shit like this. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Hell, sometimes you may not even want to bother trying to improve it. This is a slippery slope, so if it can be avoided, do just that. But if you have no process or, more likely, your process isn’t actually generating… you know… any actual work, you’re probably going to want to take some time to think about the way you’re going about things. If you’re already productive and only feel minor gains from the tactics that others rave about, it’s probably not a matter of the entire system being flawed, it’s likely that you just don’t need all that much help in these areas.

But If You Do…

You have to be careful, there are people preying on those of us who need help with the promise of an easy solution. There are sites that are optimizing around important questions and attempting to offer the “get rich quick” equivalent of productive living. It’s also easier to work on how you do your work rather than thinking about why you want to do it. Unfortunately, true productivity and a coherent workflow don’t come easy (or at least they don’t come easily to many who need it most, myself included). It comes from learning about what’s out there, learning a lot about yourself and taking some time to see how those options can help you improve. There’s no right answer and no one else’s solution will work perfectly for you. What works for you will probably look nothing like what works for me. It’s a game of trial, error and thought that should inevitably lead to significantly greater output.

The Naturally Organized vs. The Naturally Disorganized

In Matt’s post he suggests that we should be “working toward honing our minds naturally for the better.” He questions, “can we really not keep promises made with ourselves without the crutch of productivity apps?” He recommends that “you can, and should, rely upon yourself.” For some, these may be a viable option, but not me. Trust me, I tried. I tried really, really damn hard. It didn’t take, my wires are too crossed and 15 years’ worth of attempting to overcome my challenges with willpower, intent and desire has not been nearly as impactful as the past few years spent discovering my workflow.

A Note About Those Of Us Who Talk About This

It’s important to remember that many, if not most of the people, who think and write about productivity aren’t doing this because we’re seriously amazing at it; we’re here because we struggle. Getting our work done and achieving our goals requires a lot more of our thought and energy than we’d like. Sure we get caught up in things, sure we go too far and get lost, but more often than not, we’re just trying to untangle our own knots, not snare people in some kind of trap. We know what it is to suffer through this process and we try to share what we know. We’re far from perfect… if we were, we wouldn’t be thinking about this nearly as much as we do.

As Matt says in his latest piece, “productivity, at its core, is borne out of the desire to achieve more with our lives.” I agree that this is where the desire comes from, but productivity at its best only occurs when the effort we put in pays dividends, when the difference in output is compared to how we used to work and is greater. It happens when we are actually being productive vs. when we’re just “doing productivity” (as Mike Vardy is so fond of saying). In other words, there’s a big difference between doing something faster and finding the way you do your best work. I can’t help but think that this distinction is the difference between the type of productivity that Matt dislikes and the kind that I love. I think his valid frustration over the excess of tiny hacks and shiny new tools has made it difficult for him and others to see the potential that the better parts hold for those of us who are struggling. I’m not sure his need is great enough to experience the impact that finding the right workflow can have on ones ability to actually get things done. And boy, do I envy him for that.

Let me know what you think. Let me know if you’ve seen a difference in your own experiences or if you often feel as if you’re spinning your wheels. And while I know it costs you a few dollars, I can’t recommend the latest issue of Read & Trust highly enough, it has an array of perspective on productivity from David Sparks, Brett Kelly, Brett Terpstra, David Chartier and of course, Matt Alexander.

This post includes affiliate links, because I’m shameless and because I think you’ll like the thing I’m linking to…

14 Responses to Clarifying Productivity

  1. I liked this entire piece, but this line was the first one to stop me in my tracks and say “hmmm”: “It’s about understanding the structure your work needs to take in order for it to actually get done.” Just so you know, a “hmmm” is a very good thing.

  2. Very good post. There is this constant battle between doing things faster and doing the right things. Many of the tips and hack cater to the former one. It’s easier and more fun to find new ways of doing things quicker etc.

    I think sticking to the right things is the hardest part and one that takes the most time to develop. There are no easy and quick solutions. You need to know what is important to you and then leverage any tools, workflows and techniques to achieve that. In the end it’s never a straight line and you end up bouncing between tool and focus and hopefully get the things done along the way.

  3. […] may be… but it works for me. Since embracing these tools and figuring out how they fit into one cohesive workflow, I’ve managed to get more done. A lot more. While you may need less, or possibly more, to […]

  4. […] well, they can have a very real impact on your ability to get things done, but only when they are incorporated into a sound workflow. Life hacks have their place, but only when used to enhance the way you work. We often think of the […]

  5. Hi Mike,

    Just reading your post now. Your point is excellently written, and I really appreciate your posting of the conversation.

    Our tools are there to support us. While we do need to be able to rely upon ourselves for choice, we learn and use the tools around us to help actualize those choices.

    I cannot speak for Matt, but I wonder if his concern is for those times when our tools can steer or even remove our choice in ways that are less than obvious. Such occasions do exist, likely many more times than we are aware. This does not, however, remove the power of tools when used well and carefully.

    To make an analogy outside of productivity, I can make music just by whistling, but I’m not about to give up my piano. To say I haven’t fiddled with the piano and even made downright terrible sounds would be completely wrong. But, the scenario highlights the error of blaming tools. To me, those occasions of noise are all opportunities and paths consistent to learning the tool of the piano to help make music that would otherwise not be possible.

    It may take time but all learning takes time.

    • Kourosh
    • Matt and I plan to have a beer at Macworld to talk/fight this one out. While I’ll need to hear more from him, I think he tends to conflate those who talk about tools that help us do meaningful work vs. those that only focus on clever sounding life hacks that don’t help much of anyone do much of anything. I also think he’s someone who organization tends to come naturally to, making information like this far less valuable/useful.

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