On productivity

Is the pandemic proving we can speed up by slowing down? It feels to me as though this period is full of paradoxes, and this is one of the more intersting ones – especially given my research in this area. 

We are always being implored to do more, faster, with less. 

What does this productivity challenge look like in practice?

More!

More work, more tasks, more activities, more organising, more events, more of what others used to do for us. ToDo lists rule the app store. Push stuff out. Tick! Next! Write a blog, never mind its relevance or quality. Push out content, connect with people. Shadow work means we now submit our own meter readings, scan and bag our own shopping, manage our own bank accounts. In the workplace we are all typists now, whether or not we can type*. It’s become ubiquitous such that we don’t even see it any more. 

Faster!

Doing it faster is the only route to ‘productivity gains’ if we are to do more work for the same amount of time and resources. Write the report in 5 days, never mind how long it might actually take to do a good job. Pump out that content quicker! A day to write a blog? Do it in two hours. We have 30-minute 1:1s before dashing to another meering, as opposed to allowing the time for the conversation to evolve to a good place. Read faster! A ten-minute Medium read? Too long! Whatever happend to quality? Quality can take time, and it’s ok for that to be the case. 

With less!

Then there’s having less resource as the third aspect of productivity. We downsize, don’t replace those staff that leave, cut budgets, absorb new demands. Yet we don’t reduce expectations on the work to be done. I am yet to see a cost reduction exercise that actually set out what wouldn’t be done for the lower price. 

I’ve never understood how national productivity figures make sense in a knowledge-economy. Sure, count hip replacement operations and their costs, but for those of us working in an ideas industry it makes no sense as such work can barely be quantified. Doing more with less? Should I have fewer ideas and insights? What about those that occur when I’m not ‘clocked on’ – do they count? It seems to me that we are losing a lot in this economists-driven drive for productivity, and not only by squeezing out the hidden value that is lost for good. To come up with great work or solve vexing challenges we need insights and ideas. We know that this only occurs when we engage our imagination, which in turn needs stimulation, provocation, time and space and serendipitous moments. We have to absorb, cogitate, reflect, incubate. This is our brain at work, and we can’t rush the process. It’s why I like to run part-way through the day, to enable this process to happen. Can I account for that time on my timesheet? 

Alternatives?

Let’s be clear this is not a simple case of ‘the world keeps getting faster’. The world – that physical and biological entity on which we live – is doing what it’s always done. We are the ones creating this false pressure and subjecting ourselves to it. It’s a heavy coat to wear, and we bear the cost in terms of our mental and physical health. Yet it’s a coat we could certainly decide to take off. 

As we are expected to do more and more, the need to stop doing things grows in importance.

As we demand of ourselves that we speed up, the need to slow down grows in importance.

As we have less resource at our disposal, the need to be creative grows in importance. 

As our attention spans shrink, the need for deep focus grows in importance. 

As our time demands are increasingly here and now the need to think long-term grows in importance.

As the pressures on us intensify, the need for time-outs and reflection grow in importance. 

As the challenges we face become more complex, the need to create time think grows in importance. 

It seems to me that the points on the right of those clauses are the ones that help define what it is to be human, yet we are crowding these out of our own experience. We need to be mindful and careful about where we put our attention and focus our energy. Don’t be dictated to by Silicon Valley. The ability to ‘go deep’ on a line of thinking, a challenge, some writing, will put you in a place that few will match as they mentally dart from dopamine fix to dopamine fix, fuelled by the latest, shortest, most immediate. Resisting that might just be a life’s endeavour, yet it will place you in rarified company. Therein lies your differentiator, because the world will need people who can do this more than ever and they will be in shorter and shorter supply.. 

*One of my suggested productivity gains in a previous role was to ensure everyone could touch type. So many people tap away painfully slowly with their index fingers rigid like sticks. Perhaps we will reach a point where we don’t need to type, but I can’t see that for a while yet. Typing is also part of the thinking process, especially for those of us who don’t think by talking.

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