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A General Theory of Productivity
The question "Why am I productive?" very rarely comes up when we're talking about productivity. Usually, it's when we're not productive that we ask why we're not being productive. Asking the question in the negative like that often gets us to quick fixes, but very often does not answer it in a way that's helpful.
Here recently, I've been thinking a lot about what makes people productive in general. What follows is a general theory that captures what I think is going on:
Productivity = (Creative Energy + Focus + Motivation + Aptitude + Ideal Time)/(Difficulty + Distractions)
Productivity: Effectiveness vs. Efficiency
There's a difference between being effective and being efficient, as highlighted by most productivity systems. Basically, here's the difference: Effectiveness: Completing tasks related to meaningful goals. Efficiency: Completing tasks in a specified amount of time.
The model of productivity that I'm working with is based on effectiveness, not efficiency. We can complete any number of tasks in a given amount of time, pat ourselves on the back, and not have advanced a single meaningful goal. While it may seem that we should be proud of the feat we've just accomplished, the reality is that we have moved backward rather than forward. Time is finite, and every minute spent on tasks that are not related to meaningful goals puts us further behind.
"Meaningful goals" is intentionally vague at this point, and though it is a critical part of the theory, we're going to leave that aside for another day. I've started making stabs at it with this proposed model and I'm thinking it'll be something like "goals that promote flourishing."
The following components positively affect our productivity, meaning that having more of any one of them can make us more productive.
Creative energy: This one is fairly straightforward. Though we can influence ourselves by setting up the right conditions, the brute fact is that there are times when we are insanely, innately creative.
Focus: Another straightforward one. There are times when our attention is laser-focused on one task, project, or idea, and time, reality, and physical necessities melt away while we chase the muse.
Motivation: Motivation comes in two distinct breeds: general motivation to get something - anything - done and specific motivation to get specific tasks completed. The higher the motivation, the more likely we are to stay on task and complete the project.
Aptitude: Our proficiency at a given task has a major impact on our ability to complete that task in a given amount of time. For example, people who have difficulty writing have to work so much harder to complete the same given article, essay, or post than someone who is either innately better or better through practice. Experts at a task are quantum leaps ahead of novices in terms of productivity.
Ideal time: Different tasks require different amounts of time to complete them. Figuring out your own ideal time is a matter of practice, but it's critical for planning and execution. The importance of being able to plan work is obvious on the planning end, but many people forget that going past the ideal time in execution also hampers productivity.
1. All of the productivity enablers are internal
By internal, I mean that they have to do with our own natures, we can individually identify what's missing, and we can influence the components. The "hack" literature on the blogosphere is mostly about giving you ways to influence these components. While this is not a hack-y post, I'll provide some starting reads for each of these dimensions.
2. The enablers are interconnected
Each of the dimensions has a tendency to increase the others. Being in an incredibly creative mood tends to motivate us to work the ideas through. Working within an ideal time tends to make us focus on the task at hand. Being apt at the task tends to open up creative avenues to approach and complete our work.
This interconnected feature of the enablers can work to our disadvantage, too. Low motivation, for example, tends to make us lose focus, lose creative energy, and squander our ideal time.
So, there are two tricks here. The first is to figure out how to increase each of these dimensions and incorporate them into productive habits. The second is to identify the weakest dimension and work on increasing that one so that it doesn't drag down the other enablers.
The following components negatively affect our productivity, meaning that having more of any one of them can make us less productive:
Difficulty (of task): This is different from our aptitude at a task. Some tasks are inherently more difficult than others and require more of the enablers to complete. Compare the difference in difficulty between, say, writing a catch-up email to a friend and writing a pillar post for a blog. Though the word counts might be the same, the difficulty of writing a good pillar post is simply far greater than writing the catch-up email.
Distractions: Distractions are different from focus because focus has to do with what's going on inside our heads, whereas distractions have to do with what's going on outside our heads. Of course, what's going on outside our heads has a tendency to creep inside our heads, but usually removing distractions requires you to cut yourself off from something else. Increasing our focus requires us to quiet the noise inside of our heads. Understanding the difference between the two is critical for decreasing distractions requires different methods than increasing focus, although the two dimensions are heavily interrelated.
1. The productivity detractors are external
We can't control when our children need attention or when our loved ones are having bad days. We, also, can't really control the fact that some tasks are more difficult than others. Our ability to influence these dimensions requires us to handle things outside of ourselves. Minimizing the detractors consists of (a) minimizing distractions, and (b) simplifying difficult tasks. Some resources for each component:
Simplifying difficult tasks
2. The productivity detractors are interconnected
I've covered this above, but observe that the detractors have the same feature. Given that difficult tasks require more productivity enablers, we're all too prone to look to outside sources to make them easier, so we wind up distracted. And being distracted makes difficult tasks that much harder.
The Take-Away Value of the Theory
General theories are nice and fun, but what we really care about are the ways in which a new framework helps us make the types of changes we want to see. That said, here are some of the takeaways from this post:
We can create habits that increase the enablers. Every one of the enablers is within our control to foster, despite the common myth that we're born creative, focused, and motivated. That myth is rubbish and doesn't address the reality that creative people are creative through habit, focused people are focused through habit, motivated people choose to do things that motivate them, and experts train and hone their skills routinely.
We can examine the tasks that we do and plan ideal times to work; and
We can plan around or minimize distractions. We can't help the fact that kids returning from school require attention. But we can plan our tasks around them (and we can recognize that time spent with them is itself a valuable goal). We, also, can't help that someone has to make food and we have to eat. Yet, we can turn email, IM, IRC, Twitter, Growl, and the myriad other technological time-wasters off and do our work.
We can simplify complex tasks. Some tasks are just hard. But even hard tasks can be simplified if you break them down into more manageable pieces.
It helps us figure out why we're productive at "weird" times. I've been trying to figure out why most of my ideas come up in the shower and on Sunday afternoons. Answer: few distractions (in shower and off work) and high creative energy (batteries recharged since I'm not at work and I've had time to play). Apparently, Dave Seah has the shower problem, too.
Of course, not a single bit of this is new information, as the links attest. But there comes a point when we need to step outside of hacks and look at general trends. In the next few days, I'll be covering a Special Theory of Productivity that focuses more on time management.