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Productivity is Dead. Long Live Productivity!

Work, Meta-Work, and Why We Fail to Recognize the Most Valuable Things We Should be Managing

I would never be so bold as to say that we’ve been looking at productivity all wrong, but I’m going to come close to saying that. I’m doing that because over the past few years, I’ve begun to realize something important about being productive. I’ve come to realize that being productive is a trivial goal.

I recognize that checking items off of a list you’ve made for yourself feels great. I do it every day (or try to). But my worry is that like many things that makes us feel good, managing our tasks as we do in the productivity community can have downsides. And I think that productivity — viewed as project and task management — does have a downside: it makes us look at the wrong things, which serves to make us productive at the cost of being effective.

So first, I want to make a distinction between productivity and effectiveness. Then, I will explain what we should do instead of focusing on tasks & projects in order to become effective.

Productivity vs. Effectiveness

I still use the word productivity to describe what I write about. But ultimately, that’s just for the sake of convenience; it’s what people generally talk about when they mean what I’m really concerned with — which is effectiveness.

What’s the difference? Well, someone can be productive — in that they get a lot of things done, but they still may not be effective — insomuch as the things they get done don’t add up to created value.

A post on PlanPlusOnline lays it out quite well:

Productivity is generally regarded as a measure of outputs divided by inputs. All of the activities that you get done in a day may be considered your output and the time you put into them are your inputs.
Efficiency is a measure of how well you do those things. If you are able to get more outputs from the same inputs, you are said to have increased efficiency.
Effectiveness is a measure of doing the “right things.” Highly effective individuals and companies act in ways that move their highest priorities forward on a regular basis.
Productivity = Output / Input
Efficiency = Doing things right
Effectiveness = Doing the right things

So while productivity — getting the most output compared to input — is a worthwhile pursuit because it can lead to getting the right things done, that is not always the case. In fact, many times, periods of high productivity can be much less effective periods of time. Why is this?

Well, paradoxically, effectiveness relies heavily on meta-work — the work of coming to understand and make decisions about what work one is gong to do. For instance, if you receive 100 emails today, you must know in the back of your head that not all of it is work you need to do. However, in order to really know what is work worth doing and what is not, you will need to engage in the meta-work of thinking about that stuff.

But there’s a problem with that meta-work: it doesn’t tend to look or feel like work. It feels too slow, it lacks physical movement, and it’s not reactive. As such, many people — even executives — don’t recognize it as work. And when we think something isn’t work, we don’t tend to prioritize it over stuff that we clearly recognize as work (like feverishly typing out a reply to an email).

The 2 Components of Effectiveness

I believe that Effectiveness has 2 major components. The first one has priority over the second:

  1. Understanding & managing key relationships
  2. Understanding & managing work

Really, if you are good at doing part 1, part 2 tends to flow naturally. That is to say, if you understand and manage your relationships well, you will understand and manage your work well as a result. That is because almost all of your work comes from or serves a person — whether others or yourself.

While we think of work in terms of tasks and projects, we rarely address the source of that work. But if you think about it work is simply this:

work is the activity involved in meeting or managing commitments, desires, and expectations that exist between you and others.

Whatever you are doing, have done, or think you need to do — it is because there is some desire, expectation, or commitment that needs to be met or managed. That’s it.

So, if we define being effective as doing the right work, and doing little or no wrong work, we can further reduce it to simply managing relationships. Managing relationships comes down to doing two things very well:

  1. Understanding what type of relationship you’re in with each person
  2. Understanding and managing the 3 components of each relationship: desires, expectations, and commitments.

Notice the trend here? I’m using the word “understanding” quite a bit. That’s intentional. Understanding things is key to being effective. But again, understanding takes meta-work — it takes sitting, thinking, questioning, and consulting — all stuff that many people don’t include in their definition of work.

The 6 Relationships

There is a passage in the Sigālaka Sutta —part of the Buddhist scriptures — that talks about something called “the six directions” . They are the six different kinds of relationships that we have in our lives — whether we know it or not. Turning to face each direction — that is, realizing each relationship — is key to living well. Here’s the passage:

27. ‘And how, householder’s son, does the Ariyan disciple protect the six directions? These six things are to be regarded as the six directions. The east denotes mother and father. The south denotes teachers. The west denotes wife and children. The north denotes friends and companions. The nadir denotes servants, workers and helpers. The zenith denotes ascetics and Brahmins.

The East: Parents & Guardians: Those Who Raised You

No one in this world came up on their own. Someone older than them took them across the bridge of childhood and adolescence. Now, that crossing may have been a rough one. There may be hard feelings between you and those who were supposed to provide for you and guide you as a young person. But those relationships existed, and can’t be ignored.

Teachers and Mentors: Those Who Taught You

Keeping in touch with teachers and mentors is important — even when they no longer actively teach or mentor you. Those relationships never really go away — they just change. But the things you do with and for these people — and the things they do for you — can be some of the most valuable work you’re involved in.

Partners and Children: Those Intertwined Most Tightly With You

It should go without saying that a whole host of important work you’re doing (and neglecting) involves your partners and dependents. Making sure you understand the desires and expectations of these people, and aligning them with what you’re committed to — is key to a peaceful personal life.

Friends and Companions: Those Who Fight the Fight With You

Friends are important, but they can take work to keep from going stale. Personally, I’ve done poorly on this over the past few years, and I intend to remedy it. But I understand that it will take work, and I will need to be prepared to do it.

Those “Below” You

There are people in your professional life that many might consider “below” you. If you work at a company with a hierarchy, they would be those at levels below you in the org chart — whether they report to you or not. If you work on your own, they would be those who are just starting out, or not as well-known or accomplished as you are. They might come to you for help, advice, or just to talk. It’s important to manage these relationships because you want to make sure you help those who may have nothing to offer, but you also want to make sure that your boundaries are clear. You don’t want to sacrifice time on other valuable relationships for the benefit of others. Sometimes, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

As someone who has managed people for years, I find that in so many cases, taking time to help someone talk themselves through challenges allows them to figure out that they can do the work themselves. This has the added bonus of helping enrich those people, and help them progress in their careers. They feel more competent, are more grateful, and you get less work to do as a result. It’s the winniest of win-wins.

Those “Above” You

Whether you’ve got managers, executives, or simply more accomplished people that you interface with, it’s important to understand how you relate to those people. In a company, you’re most likely to get a lot of expectations and desires flowing from this level to you.

This may be the case for those doing freelance work, as well — because clients and customers are those “above” you. You have to make sure you show the proper deference, while also creating and enforcing boundaries, and ensuring that you are not a dumping ground for non value-add tasks and projects. That involves getting clear on expectations and commitments.

With executives, you often have to spend time teasing out the desires they have that they’ve turned into expectations of you — and then making it clear that they shouldn’t have those expectations of you, because you haven’t committed to them. It is delicate and tricky work, but if you don’t do it, you’ll be up to your eyeballs in work that — even if you complete it on time — gets you nowhere.