Category Archives: Productivity

Forget Productivity Hacks – Just Do The Work

The self-help world is filled with ‘hacks’ to optimise our personal effectiveness. All of them rest of the dubious notion that we should override our in-the-moment judgment in favor of deliberate strategies or techniques.

To the common advice that we should focus on high-leveraged tasks that play to our strengths, while delegating those that don’t.

The idea makes logical sense, but implementing it is a different story.

In the early years of my business, for example, I bent myself into pretzels to delegate tasks to assistants and contractors, but since my business too young, I did not have a good sense of what or how to delegate. It felt forced and stressful, so I ended up retrenching and starting from scratch.

Eventually, I abandoned all concepts and started just doing needed doing, as best as I could manage. And that is what took my business to a place where hiring and delegating began to make sense.

From a performance standpoint, all of us are at our best when we immerse ourselves with a mind that’s relatively free of clutter and over-thinking. In that state, we bring a powerful instinctive living intelligence to our work.

That intelligence is responsive to the needs of the moment, it learns and adapts, it makes connections and generates fresh ideas, it brings us what we need to respond to what’s at hand. And it’s all automatic and built in.

Self-management strategies interfere with that intelligence. They fill our mind with clutter, blunt our instincts and reduce our effectiveness.

Am I focusing on a strength? Is this in my zone of genius? Should do more of this or less of that? No. We are not designed to live that way. What’s worse, it’s counter-productive.

Now that I have a team, what I delegate is part of the flow of judgment calls I make all day long. An instinctive sense of my own strengths and weaknesses and where to focus my time is built into those judgments by default, without any extra analysis on my part.

Strategies have us fumbling with self-management, instead of immersing ourselves in the work.  And it’s the work that makes the difference.

Of course, we all get stuck in our heads and experience doubt and uncertainty. We got through periods of being unsure how to proceed. We linger over decisions or question our own judgments.

That’s all perfectly normal and part of the process. So long as we stay in the game, our intelligence will help steer us through the rough patches.

Success may look in retrospect like it comes from applying formulas or techniques. That idea gets reinforced by well-meaning people who reflect on their accomplishments and offer some kind of roadmap to ease our path.

But in truth, our roadmap can only come from within, through personal engagement in our work. Progress may follow trends and patterns, but we can’t reverse engineer it. We have to live it from the inside-out.

On Productivity and Wild Goose Chases

Take a room full of people and ask how many have productive and not-so-productive days, around 100% will raise their hands.

Take the same room and ask how many wish they were more productive, the same 100% will raise their hands.

Do you see what is going on here?

We all have productive and unproductive streaks. Some days we’re clear and focused, others less so.

Rather than roll with the cycles, we tend to turn it into a problem and a project. We focus on improving our “productivity” and that focus ends up being a huge obstacle to enjoying our work and, ironically, to getting things done.

Let me expand on that.

As with all things in nature, there is an rhythm to our energy and mental life. Our minds ebb and flow from clarity and decisiveness to reflectiveness and uncertainty, from energy and exertion to rest and renewal.

Sometimes we know what to do and we move rather effortlessly into action. We instinctively prioritize what’s on our plate and tackle our next tasks and projects. At other times, we may linger on things, or our attention may drift, or we may move into general planning or reflecting, or feel unfocused or out of sorts.

Unless we understand the natural ebb and flow of thought, we may grow insecure about shifts in our productivity, question our level of self-discipline or commitment, and seek solutions to so-called “procrastination.”

Rather than just do the work as best we can, we go out and buy a book or app that will eradicate our natural “unproductive” periods, and implementing that becomes part of the to-do list (subject, of course, to the same ebbs and flows in thought).

Now, in adding systems and techniques to our workload, we further clutter our mind — unwittingly putting decisive action that much farther from reach.

The upshot is we’ve create a multi-billion dollar market for productivity tools and trainings, all to help us escape a harmless – and inescapable – fact of the human experience, while adding to the mental clutter that interferes with our natural instincts to get things done.

Personally, I’ve tried many productivity tools over the years, each time starting off with hope and promise, only to find them gathering dust a short while later.

Some might say it’s a lack of discipline – that’s what I thought for a long time. Now I know better.  Now I know it is common sense that leads us to drop these complex productivity systems in favor of just showing up and doing the best we can.

Most of us understand at a deep level that obsessive self-management is no way to live or work. We know that there is only one way to focus on the work, and that is to focus on the work. In doing that, our instinctive intelligence tells us how best to organize things to get things done.

There’s a deeper issue as well: When impose outside systems on ourselves, we not only struggle needlessly, we may miss the deeper intelligence behind the rhythms of thought, an intelligence that is working for us whether or not it’s satisfying our rational notions of efficiency.

I finished last year with a burst of activity completing a demanding client project. Early January came around and my mind unexpectedly became reflective, unfocused and curious. What’s next, it seems to be asking, as I started tinkering around with ideas.

Other work began to pile up (I occasionally berated myself for this), but I found myself placing it on the back-burner while my mind considered new initiatives and approaches to my business.

I was still working, mind you, keeping the business running, just not focused in the same way. You might even say I was procrastinating.

Inwardly, however, I knew there was some kind of reordering happening. Somehow, I was being called to consider my business with a more strategic perspective.

This period lasted about 3 weeks before I had a burst of insight into a new direction for my firm. By the end of it, I  felt literally like a different person.

Our slower periods are invitations to reflection and reevaluation, or our psyche taking the time to digest information. Slowing down, it turns out, can be one of the most powerful productivity tools around.

The good news here is while don’t control the rhythms of our productive life, what does ultimately control it is an intelligence greater than what’s available through mere rational thought.

As we come to recognize and rely on that natural intelligence, as we learn to trust in its wisdom and continual presence, as we learn to relax around this whole subject of productivity, we move into an easier and more consistent relationship with doing.

We don’t waste time on trying to productivity problems that don’t exist. We trust our slower periods and embrace our productive periods. We show up as best we can and do what’s next.

And quite surprisingly, a whole more gets done.