Why Productivity is Such a Big Deal

Energy and cultureEveryone wants to be more productive. The idea that you can get a lot done in less time and in a way that minimizes waste is compelling. Even better is the appeal that we can work better and produce higher quality.

But often we mistake busyness for productivity. We pile on lists of tasks and keep trying to punch above our weight. Tim Kreider writes about The 'Busy' Trap for the NYT:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

This is an obvious busy. You can catch yourself, if you pay attention to the right thingswhat many call the signal in the noise. There's another kind of busy that is harder to detect—confusing reporting, reading, and sharing the news with getting things done.


How do you operate at a higher level?

You start with a productive mind, because that can do a lot of heavy lifting for you. There are several methods on hand, like building better habits, telling apart important from urgent. I call these point solutions.

    Like in software, they help you do one thing fairly well. And even then, you can (or want to) go only so far with it. If you've even used only 1/10th of any program's features you'll know what I'm talking about.

    But I've become most interested in figuring out how I could master the art of learning once I know my priorities. In other words, to train myself to work at operating system level, not just apps or point solutions.

    Because it's fairly easy to get distracted and pulled into unproductive thinking and behavior when there's a lot going on. Especially when external circumstances change. And you can count on change being constant.

    Willpower can only go so far. You need to build the muscle. This is especially helpful in knowledge work where you want to work on the right things, the right ways. It's critical when operating at  a time of great uncertainty, when you have no idea what your competitor's move is going to be, or where the market will shift.

    Chess and then martial arts world champion Josh Waitzkin believes that achievement, even at the championship level, is a function of a lifestyle that fuels a creative, resilient growth process. Like many high performing professionals, Waitzkin trained in the art of full engagement.

    Part of the method is constantly asking, “How should I spend my energy in a way that is consistent with my deepest values?” and observing, “How am I spending my energy now?” The gap is the opportunity.


Energy is tightly related to culture

In 1943, American Anthropologist published a paper by Leslie A. White titled: Energy and the Evolution of Culture.# White's thesis is that humankind tapped into different sources of energy throughout history to live and build culture.

    People and their bodies were the original source. But increasingly, we found more advanced ways to generate energy. Culture develops as productivity increases, says White.

    To understand cultural development, you also need to understand the social system within which you harness energy and put it to work. Notice how culture influences how you make decisions, and we come full circle.

    Within the process of cultural development, social evolution is a consequence of technological evolution. Limit technology development and you limit social development. By technology, White and her generation meant human progress in innovation.

    Matt Ridley's thesis on How Innovation Works fits with this idea that to expand capabilities, we need more energy. Say you want to build a castle. You need lots of energy: the masons use their muscle, but also their mental energy and experience. They in turn need energy via bread and cheese made from wheat and grass grown in sunlight and chewed by cows.

    But I was most intrigued by another statement about the need to reduce entropy to have these ordered systems that operate to deliver products and sources of energy. Ridley ties the reasoning back to John Constable:

“In this universe it is compulsory, under the second law of thermodynamics, that entropy cannot be reversed, locally, unless there is a source of energy—which is necessarily supplied by making something else even less ordered somewhere else, so the entropy of the whole system increases.

The power of the improbability drive is therefore limited only by the supply of energy. So long as human beings apply energy to the world in careful ways, they can create even more ingenious and improbable structures.”

Visualize a balloon. To get hold of one side firmly, you push the air into the rest of the membrane. Your attempt to change culture by squeezing or controlling it in some fashion, unleashes chaos to the organization. It's like willpower. It can hold only so far.

Culture is tied to energy, and so are capabilities.


Controlling behavior

Understanding your audience and customers or clients is one of the pillars of strategy. There are hundreds of ways to go about it—data analysis, qualitative feedback, in person or video-recorded observation, experience, etc. Despite all the tools at hand, we still manage to get it wrong in significant ways.

    Think about how minimalism is often confused as a way to downsize rather than a method of prioritizing what's important. An early proponent of the movement, Leo Babauta, explained that, “Killing time isn’t a sin — it’s a misnomer. We’ve framed the question entirely wrong. It’s not a matter of 'killing' time, but of enjoying it.”#

    Or take for example the group of people who believe in financial independence to retire early (FIRE). The point is not about sacrifice or reducing consumption. “I like a simple life,” say many. Hence there's often a gap between what you think your company does and what your prospective customers do.

    Many companies I've worked with on a first blush don't consider doing nothing and inertia as two likely competitors. Yet they are often the strongest ones. I hope I've demonstrated do far that technology in its broader meaning of innovation is the good part.

    Where we go wrong is by trying to apply the same criteria we use to dominate our environment (with mixed results) to people—customers, employees, citizens, spouses, etc. Trying to make people want things or do things creates a pressure cooker situation. Sooner or later, it will blow up in your face.

    Yes, even making people want things through carefully engineered prompts as social media has been doing. Those activities mostly of busyness have spun discord and disharmony. Someone somewhere benefits, but eventually we figure it out.

    Instead, culture as manifested in intrinsic motivation and energy in autonomy have spun civilizations. It's easier to see the difference between technology and techne (Greek), a philosophical term that refers to making or doing—a concrete, variable, and context-dependent activity.

    Philosopher Umberto Galimberti explains the difference in a recent interview (I'm keeping the Italian for techne):

“I have nothing against technology. I do not warn humanity of technology, but of tecnica. Tecnica is a principle that consists in reaching the maximum of the purpose with the minimum use of means. Its values ​​are only two: efficiency and functionality. Anything that does not fit into this categorical framework is progressively put aside.

The market still suffers from a humanistic passion, that of money, from which tecnica is completely exempt: the rationality of tecnica is pure. Except that man is irrational: pain, love, imagination, fantasy, ideation, dreams are irrational. Where does all this irrational dimension go?

A simple example: A father comes home and doesn't even have time to caress his children because work continues thanks to email, or he gets up at night because he has become addicted to emails. Do you understand where I see the danger? The irrational dimension is resolved in private life, but if I am educated for five days by functionality and efficiency, how can I recover all the other dimensions related to the irrational just in a weekend?”#

The chaos we squeeze out of efficiency includes human feelings and questions. They're the fuel of creativity and innovation. Results do vary. Techne is also a part of communication, and affects how human cultures interact, and another way of looking at differences.


Productivity is a motive force

As White explains:

the human organism, domesticated animals, cultivated plants, water wheels, windmills, steam engines, etc., are motive forces (or the means of harnessing energy). What we have done is to reduce all specific, concrete motive forces in cultural development to a single, abstract, common term: energy.

Productivity is a means of harnessing energy toward a specific goal. Josh Waitzkin focused his early life on mental productivity and then transferred his experience and skill to physical productivityfrom chess to martial arts.

    In The Art of Learning, Waitzkin explains how by engaging deeply with both disciplines, he found that some methods transferred from one to the other. Here I'm building on his points (bolded) and story.

  • Endgame before opening start in conditions of reduced complexity. A few pieces on the chessboard, a few final competitors on the mat. How many strong moves can you devise?

It's how you know you can get to the last mile in your pursuits. Can you get into it by knowing the end combinations? Can you find energy in small plays to take to more complex ones?

  • Making smaller circles — take one small idea and practice it until you feel its essence. Know the core principle. Can you gradually condense your movements while maintaining their power?

This is were Picasso operated. Years of drawing and painting where behind it. Can you pare down your process or idea to the thesis or essence? Do you know which parts are superfluous (busyness)?


  • Slowing down time — pick a select group of techniques and internalize them until your perceive them in tremendous detail. Can you see more frames in the same amount of time?

It's not a hack, it's a real ability you practice by observing, focusing with attention and intention. Do you have a high resolution appreciation for a thing?

  • Illusion of the mystical — combine making smaller circles with slowing down time and you learn to control the intention of your opponent.

This is the profound awareness of your unique strengths. It's how you pick up details at the edges. Can you zoom into details others don't see or overlook? Can you be a beacon of quality?

    By this definition, productivity is both science and art. You can find ways to recharge it with tools and technology, but it's the art in the human dimension that allows you to deliver value from itas in the ability to create positive change.


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