I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so relieved that one month is over and another beginning. Maynia has been by far the hardest month of my 2013 Productivity Experiments.
It marked a change of emphasis: up until that point, all of the previous months had played around with extreme scenarios, but each scenario suggested a positive extremity. It could be great to get by working an hour a day, great to only check emails on fridays, great to meditate in the office regularly… it could even be great to make decisions by the throw of a dice. But this month, very few readers will have been reading this thinking “wouldn’t it be great to live with NO systems whatsoever, and just fly by the seat of your pants?”. There might be one or two of you, but I suggest you’re probably reading the wrong blog!
What did I experience?
I predicted it would be tough. It was tougher than I possibly imagined. By week two, I was losing sleep. I was waking up writing things down. I was beating myself up at things not getting done. More people were nagging me for things that were overdue than I can remember in a long while. Elena in our office stopped nagging me for stuff, because she just thought it was futile. She’s tracking it all on her ‘Waiting List’ and no doubt I’ll be having a long conversation with her about that list next week.
I will admit that after four and a half years of teaching about productivity – and therefore, four and a half years learning about and obsessively thinking about productivity – I may have been starting to feel a little jaded by it. I’ll admit that I was wondering how much this stuff actually makes a difference to peoples’ lives. I mean, I see the results of it all the time and those emails from people who’ve read my book or the comments on workshop evaluation forms never fail to give me a little flutter of the heart, but when you live in that world, you start to forget that not everyone does. Your reality becomes distorted, particularly when your own colleagues and company all work really productively too. You forget how much lazy thinking and unproductive behaviour actually exists. So this month put me in the shoes of people who really need our workshops. And they really need our workshops.
Also, stress breeds more stress. I had forgotten the kind of cyclical momentum involved: thing are in chaos, so things go wrong, so you’re stressed, so you make bad decisions, so more things are in chaos, so you’re more stressed.
I had forgotten what that kind of stress feels like. And my experience has given me a renewed vigour for the work – and renewed motivation to take it further. Starting with – really excitingly – rebuilding my own productivity next week. Let me at it!
What did I learn?
I certainly confirmed my feeling that good habits are as difficult to break down as bad ones. Every time I was reading emails, I had this compulsion to sweep the inbox back to zero. And as the pile reached 500 – and I knew that I was neglecting and forgetting things that were in there – this compulsion grew and grew. It was pretty terrifying, particularly knowing that I had deliberately chosen not to add any kind of ‘managing expectations’ out of office reply (“I’m sorry, I am doing a ridiculous experiment, so I am now about to neglect the email you just sent me”… doesn’t have much of a ring to it, does it?).
This is also good news though – if you develop new habits and practice them well, they will become so effortless in their articulation, that you will find it difficult to go back to bad ones. This is the move from conscious competence to unconscious competence. Making things unconscious means you have more mental energy to spend on the content of your work as less is needed for the process of your work. But the only way to reach this point is through spending more of your effort and energy and attention on the process stuff until it becomes effortless.
I also noticed something about attention this month. I am calling this “the pointlessly purposeful and the purposefully pointless”. The more stressed you are, and the further you are away from breaking out of this spiral of negative momentum, the more you look for the easy way out. That easy way out comes from things that seem like they have a purpose: news coverage, Facebook updates, emails, twitter, certain meetings, small talk, fighting someone else’s fire… all of these serve to artificially put your mind at rest. You think “well, I’ll just finish this” or “but this is useful” or “I must be up to date” when in reality you’re doing your attention a complete disservice. Karl Marx once said religion was the “opium of the masses”. I wonder how he would view social media, digital distraction or information overload. Probably in much the same way as Adam Smith or Henry Ford.
This distraction behaviour was something I noticed much more in myself this last month as it was easier to justify without such a clear sense of direction. And because I became conscious of it in myself, I started noticing it everywhere. Walking through a London train station, it’s astonishing how few people seem to have any sense of being present with their own thoughts. Everyone consumes the free newspapers they’re given, taps away at little games, walks around with a phone strapped to their ear and so on and so on. The zombie apocalypse is indeed here and without getting melodramatic, it could have dire consequences for the entire planet, let alone for our productivity.
What did I not miss?
One of the things I thought was going to be really interesting about the experiment was the possibility that there might be elements of what I practised that I wouldn’t miss. Sure, there’d be lots of things I’d be missing and craving, but if there were things that I didn’t miss, surely that meant that my systems could be simpler.
The Good Ideas Park – I had no access to my Toodledo app, my “second brain”. I missed most of what’s usually in there, particularly my lists of projects and actions. But I didn’t have much of a use for my Good Ideas Park list. This could possibly be because I would generally use this during either daily or weekly reviews, and not having the ability to review, I didn’t think too much ahead.
Weekly Reviews – I actually really enjoyed not having to review! I know… sacrilege… but hear me out. I tend to do, as a regular pattern, a ‘big’ review every 2 weeks, and then I fit in a shorter/smaller review on the weeks in between. On a normal month, I’d get to Thursday or Friday and be mentally scanning my schedule to look for the time to get my review ‘fix’. And in the weeks where that doesn’t go according to plan or I only manage the ‘shorter’ version, I’d feel bad about it. During this month, it was nice to have permission to be kinder to myself. I had no expectation to review, and hence I had no expectation that I wouldn’t be able to meet.
Of course there’s a consequence here. My work suffered badly. I didn’t at any time in the month gain a perspective or have a strong idea of my direction. In fact, that’s something that’s been happening to me, almost as a bi-product of spending each month throwing my working patterns up in the air, that this whole year has lacked some of the direction and motivation that I usually find in myself and take pretty much for granted will be there. But this month especially.
I’ve also realised that I rely on my review time as my quality ‘boss time’, and to see the ‘bigger picture’ of my work far too much. I am a grown adult. I should be able to prioritise without a checklist. Shouldn’t I? I should be able to see the bigger picture all the time, right? So perhaps this sense of having my backbone removed should tell me that reviews are in one sense a rod for your own back: you learn that the bigger picture and quality thinking is done at a set time, during a set process and you quite reasonably assume that means you don’t need to worry about it at other times. I think this is potentially quite dangerous and damaging. I mean, of course usually when you need to do this kind of thinking, you can usually just do a review, but I guess what I’m saying is that a daily and weekly review process isn’t a panacea. Other ways to ‘anchor’ yourself back to what’s strategically important are equally as valuable. For example, in our office, we practice a Daily Huddle, focussing on the key numbers from the business. And in doing so, we get this little daily reminder of one important strategic element. Perhaps there’s places that we can take this idea further.
Paperwork – It’s honestly been a joy to let paperwork pile up and get messy again. I hate dealing with it. It’s detail. It’s annoying. It’s rarely the thing that adds value. Sure, my gas and electricity nearly got cut off this month (we’ve just moved house and I wasn’t opening the letters), but I think I could be a lot less anal about the paper to the detriment of very little. So I’m looking forward to adopting a slightly more ‘me’ approach to paperwork. A bit less organised freak and a bit more 80-20, ruthless and comfortable with imperfection.
Would I do it again?
Hell no! It’s been the longest month I can remember in a long time.
Am I glad I did it?
Absolutely. It’s been a huge learning experience. It’s also reconnected me to the work, to the people who need it, to the reasons this stuff matters and why it’s important to keep spreading the gospel of the Productivity Ninja. Because we all need all the help we can get in finding sanity, in this manic and crazy world.