Traditional View (TV): Do more in less time.
Gospel-Driven Productivity (GDP): Do the right things, and you can care a lot less about efficiency.
TV: Use the right techniques.
GDP: Be the right kind of person. Then, use smart techniques.
TV: Seek peace of mind and fulfillment.
GDP: Seek to do good for others first, and make a contribution. Peace and fulfillment will follow (and so will suffering!—but of a different kind).
TV: Minimize work and maximize money.
GDP: Do hard things and find joy in your work as a fulfillment of your calling. Maximize meaning, not money.
Stephen Covey, in his stellar book First Things First:
For most people, the large majority of waking time is spent communicating or interacting with people — or dealing with the results of poor communication or interaction.
Effective interdependence is core to the issue of time management. But the traditional literature essentially deals with it in a transactional way. This transactional approach grows out of the mechanical, controlling, managing “things” paradigm. People are essentially seen as bionic units to whom we can delegate to get more done, or as interruptions to be handled efficiently so that we can get back to our schedule.
But fourth-generation interdependence is not transactional; it’s transformational. It literally changes those who are party to it. It takes into consideration the full reality of the uniqueness and capacity of each individual and the rich, serendipitous potential of creating synergistic third alternatives [see note below on why these aren't just buzzwords] that are far better than individuals could ever come up with on their own.
Fourth-generation interdependence is the richness of relationships, the adventure of discovery, the spontaneity and deep fulfillment of putting people ahead of schedules, and the joy of creating together what did not exist before.
In other words: Just as leadership can be transactional or transformational, so also our approach to productivity can be transactional or transformational.
In leadership, the transactional view sees people merely as means to an end. They are a tool to accomplish a task, rather than also being valued in themselves. In a transactional view, people are viewed as expendable. If this person can’t do it, then that person will. Instead of adjusting jobs to fit people, people are “adjusted” to fit a standardized view of a job (all in the name of “efficiency,” of course; note: this hardly every works out well for people!) People with a transactional view say things like “why is this taking you so long? I’m not paying you to learn, I’m paying you to get a job done.” Truly horrible. I mean that.
In transformational leadership, people are not seen as a means to an end. People are valued as well as tasks. People are seen as important and valuable in their own right. Thus, the goal becomes not simply to get tasks done, but to build people up in the accomplishment of tasks. This is the only view of leadership consistent with the Scriptures, which teach us that people are created in the image of God, and thus are always to be treated with respect, value, and love.
As with leadership, so also with productivity. In the transactional view of productivity, we think of others either as tools to help us get more done, or interruptions who are getting in our way. This is disrespectful and unbiblical, just as transactional leadership is.
The correct view of productivity is transformational. People are not merely means to help us get more done, or obstacles to doing what we really want. Rather, relationships are seen as part of what it means to be productive at all. True productivity comes from working with others, and doing so in a way that recognizes and values their individuality and seeks to help them grow through the process of creating something great together.
The essence of the transformational view of productivity or leadership or anything else is this: see people as people who are valuable for their own sakes, having been created in the image of God, and thus even when you have tasks to accomplish, make the aim not to “get things done through others” but rather to “build people up in the accomplishment of the tasks.” Value people as well as tasks, and more than tasks. For it is the effect you have on people that is the true measure of your productivity.
Here’s the note I mentioned: Covey is often criticized for using terms like “synergy” and “paradigm” too much. I think that’s a very wrong-headed criticism. Sure, lots of people use those terms not knowing what they are talking about. That’s annoying.
But when someone who actually understands such terms uses them, it’s not something to criticize; it’s something to pay attention to. If we criticize people every time they use a word that has become “common,” we undermine all teaching. For teaching is about making important concepts universal. If we then make fun of those concepts because they have become so common, haven’t we then undermined the whole enterprise of teaching?
It is so completely strange to me that really odd naming conventions for computer files continue to persist to this day.
I have probably over 10,000 documents on my computer (Word documents, spreadsheets, keynote presentations, PDFs, and so forth). If I followed the usual naming conventions that most people seem to use, I would be totally lost. I’d never be able to find anything.
For example, one of the things I do in my consulting is write business plans for people. Sometimes, when the client takes the first attempt at writing the business plan, the file will be named something like “plan234.doc.”
It’s as though we think we need to intentionally give our computer files cryptic, obscure, hard-to-grasp names. This, in turn, makes it really hard to find the file when you are going to work on it, since it’s not like it’s the only file you have.
Far better to call it what it is. In this case, the best file name would be: “Business Plan for [Name of Company].doc.” Then, you know what the document is right away when you see it in your files. You don’t have to guess or, worst of all, open it in order to know for sure what it is.
I see this type of mistake made over and over again: people continually give their computer files names that are hard to decipher. I don’t know if the aim is to save space or what; if the aim is to save space, the need to do that went away about 20 years ago. It used to be that file names had to be kept very short, because we were limited to just a few characters. Those days are over.
And, spaces are OK!
In one of the call-out boxes in What’s Best Next, I summarize these principles as one of the immediately-applicable productivity tips I give. Here’s the box:
How to Name Your Computer Files Well
- Give the file a name that actually means something.
- Don’t abbreviate (it makes no sense and makes it harder to know what the file is at a glance!)
- Make the file name the same as the title of the document in the file.
Good name: “Bookstore Procedure Manual.” Bad name: “Bkstr_2305.”
If someone says: “The type of file name you suggest is too obvious,” my response is: That’s the point! If you don’t make it obvious, you’ll forget what the file actually is down the road or the next day. By making it obvious, you save time.
The principle for naming your computer files well is the same as the principle for making websites effective: “Don’t make me think.” That is, minimize your cognitive workload by making the file name something obvious. The aim is to know right away, at a glance, what the file actually is so you don’t have to spend time trying to figure out which file you are looking for after all.
Stephen Covey would often talk about people climbing the ladder so fast that they would get to the top, only to discover that their ladder was leaning against the wrong wall.
So how do we set goals that actually take us to a place we want to be? I give seven principles. The first is that a good goal always starts by asking not “what do I want to do,” but “what needs to be done?” That’s the question that orients you toward contribution and service, which is the core principle for being effective in any area.
This is the full version of my interview with Seth Godin on the essence of productivity and avoiding productivity whining, found in chapter 10 of my book What’s Best Next.
It is fascinating that when you study the most effective individuals throughout history, you see the same theme coming back again and again in how each of them managed their time. The key was focus and concentration on a few very significant priorities, always keeping in mind what is centrally important at the moment (that is, what’s best next).
We see this especially in Winston Churchill. Here’s how Steven Hayward very effectively summarizes Churchill’s approach in Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity:
Despite his wide-ranging attention and interests, he always kept in mind what was centrally important to the moment. He was always able to focus his full concentration on the immediate task at hand, and he sent clear signals to his subordinates when an inquiry or directive was of special importance. “When his mind was occupied with any particular problem,” Sir Ian Jacob wrote, “it was relentlessly focused upon it and would not be turned aside.” Ultimately this served as the cornerstone of his time-management system.
….His general method of work…was to concentrate his personal attention on the two or three things that mattered most at any given moment, and to give to each of these all the time and attention that it merited.
This is the same observation Peter Drucker made about effective executives in the midst of his 50 years of observing them: “Effective executives put first things first, and do one thing at a time.” That’s the key.
Note one misunderstanding we can fall into, however, about what it means to focus on a few core priorities. It doesn’t mean that you are getting less done and doing fewer things overall. Rather, it means you are doing more things overall. That’s why you do one thing at a time — precisely because you have so many things that need to be done. Hence, you focus on one thing at a time because “doing one thing at a time means doing it fast. The more one can concentrate time, effort, and resources, the greater the number and diversity of tasks one can actually perform” (Drucker, The Effective Executive).
So the key is you identify that which is centrally important, and work on that all the way until it’s done. Then you work on the next thing of central importance until it is done. And so forth. (And, of course, above all of these and governing the choices you make about what to do next are just a few, overall, chief goals for the current quarter or year or season.) Drucker summarizes this well:
Effective executives know that they have to get many things done — and done effectively. Therefore, they concentrate — their own time and energy as well as that of their organization — on doing one thing at a time, and on doing first things first.
From Peter Drucker in The Effective Executive:
- Pick the future against the past;
- Focus on opportunities rather than on problems;
- Choose your own direction, rather than climb on the bandwagon; and
- Aim high, aim for something that will make a difference, rather than for something that is “safe” and easy to do.
My guest post at The Institute for Faith, Work, and Economics. I talk about the importance of setting goals and how to do it well for this year, without overwhelming yourself.
This is a really good article over at 99U on overcoming the biggest obstacle to delegation. I love out how it starts out by nailing the exact difficulty that I find with delegation:
You’ve tried every productivity hack in the book and have reached your max capacity in terms of output. You know that you need outside help to bring the work to the next level… but you hesitate. On the one hand, the idea of not having to do everything yourself really appeals to you. On the other, you wonder if you can handle the management responsibilities on top of your already heavy workload.
Your concerns are valid. In order for people to help you, they need to know what you need and to receive feedback and direction along the way. Your workflow that was uniquely yours will now have to account for another person. With the right systems and communication, this process can run relatively smoothly. But without them, the people who were supposed to help can end up creating more work.
She then gives five very helpful strategies. It’s worth the read.
I appreciated this post from Michael Hyatt today on how he’s had a low-productivity week. I can relate, because my week was the same! It’s frustrating.
I even did a sort of experiment this week. Normally this week I’m at ETS, the annual convention of the evangelical theological society. I didn’t go this year. So I thought it was a good opportunity to test this question: Do business trips decrease your tangible productivity?
As I’ve argued elsewhere on this blog, I believe that conferences are incredibly productive because of the relationships developed. In fact, I believe that everyone should go to every conference they can.
But the question I was experimenting with this week is: what does business travel do to the more tangible aspects of your productivity? Specifically, would I have a more productive week in terms of tangible output because of not taking that trip this week?
Unfortunately, I feel like I would have gotten just as much done on that front if I had gone to Baltimore this week for ETS as if I had stayed home. For if I had gone to Baltimore, I would have put in a good 12 hour day before leaving in order to get a bunch of stuff moved ahead, and would have had a plan for a bunch of reading and such in between sessions. There would have been also time on the plane for work, and on top of that the conference itself. As it was, I got some good stuff done this week, but not near what I had hoped or planned, and my energy flagged on several days.
It’s probably not always the case that you can get the same amount of tangible things done on a business trip as if don’t go, and there have been many times when I’ve had to skip out on a trip because of tight project deadlines. But I think we can conclude that at least on many occasions, business trips do not cut down on your tangible productivity, but sometimes even increase it.
The question of business trip productivity aside, all of us can relate to Hyatt’s point about having low productivity weeks. What should we think about those?
I actually think low productivity weeks are not always bad. One of the features you’ll see in my book when it comes out (the release is set for March) is that I rarely fall into the stereotypical thinking on productivity. I believe that the process of productivity and effectiveness is much less linear than we often think; there is often a three steps forward, two steps back component.
Which means we can be encouraged even in the midst of times when it doesn’t feel like we are being productive. That’s why in an earlier version of the book, I even had a box called “Seasons of Low Productivity Are Not Always Bad,” quoting Jason Fried from a great post on his blog a few years ago. (I had to cut the box for space reasons from the final version, unfortunately.)
So, for the encouragement of everyone who had a low productivity week this week (inlacing me!), here is that box from the original version of my book:
Seasons of Low Productivity Are Not Always Bad
Jason Fried, co-founder of 37 Signals and author of Rework, from his blog:
“A few weeks ago, I was on fire. I was working on some designs for a prototype of a new software product, and the ideas were flowing as they hadn’t in months. Every day, I felt as if I were accomplishing two or three days’ worth of work. I was in the zone, and it felt fantastic.
“It lasted about three weeks. And then I found myself back at my old pace. Instead of being super productive, I was sort-of productive. Some days, I felt as if I barely accomplished anything.
“So what was wrong? Nothing at all.
“I believe it’s perfectly fine to spend some of your time, maybe even a lot of your time, not firing on all cylinders. Just like full employment isn’t necessarily good for an economy, full capacity isn’t always great for your mind.”