In the red tooth world, productivity is a life and death proposition. From squirrels to birds, mates are chosen for two reasons: good genes and work ethic. Slackers need not apply. Good hunters will hunt until they drop to provide food for the family. There are no excuses, no mitigating circumstances, no bad luck. You succeed or you and they will die. This is the part of productivity that we should always raise to consciousness. As our life has gotten softer, we have softened as well. But nature insists we all do our part; without social safety nets, slacking begets nature’s ultimate penalty – premature loss of life.
Increasing productivity means doing more with less. With a new machine, two people now do the work that used to take five. This is good for the company in less payroll, and good for the remaining workers, who will make more income.
The world is always trying to increase productivity faster than population, so each generation can fare better than the last. But that becomes iffy in the very long term. We are currently in a lull of more than two decades, and haven’t figured a way out of it yet. The elephant in the room is population, which exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment and the world economy. Productivity increases can no longer match population increases. The rich will still get richer, but the numbers are stacked against the rest of us. Unless of course one is a great believer in trickle-down.
Here is where the rubber meets the road. Putting aside the depressing and often deliberately misleading abstractions of macroeconomics, the individual’s only hope is to solve the problem locally, in their own life. How can each creative individual increase their own productivity, to create more in their life?
Life is short. We look back at great master’s and wonder how much richer our lives would be now if they had not died young. So we plan to make best use of what time we have. Living longer is not an option; we get what we get, unless we screw up, in which case we get less. So working smarter, starting earlier, and working longer seem the ways open to maximizing lifetime output.
Working smarter in creative endeavors likely means developing thought and work patterns that are effective for the individual, and avoiding pitfalls such as writer’s block or physical impairment. Most find the tasks that require most energy are best done first in the day, when we are freshest, and best done in the most productive environment, likely requiring quiet conditions with no interruption.
Focus and concentration are often key to productivity. Yet to save money, and to better socialize different segments of the workforce, large open bays filled with cubicles have been sold as productivity enhancers. In an environment where fast-paced action is the key to success and little thought is required, sure, go for it. But when concentration is key to productivity, the costs to the enterprise of lost and ineffective labor are undoubtedly high.
We all work differently. There is no universal answer to individual productivity. But we are all humans, so I venture that what works for me will work for many. I have found it best to always get a start on tomorrow’s work at the end of today, while my brain is actively involved in the work and I can most easily look ahead and sketch my thoughts on what should happen next. Whether software programming, musical composition, mathematical problem solving, or expository writing, starting cold at the beginning of a day is difficult and involves wheel-spinning and inability to muster adequate concentration. It’s a much easier ramp up if one can leverage yesterday’s cues.
I like to have several avenues of progress open at the same time. Sometimes we get stuck in one path and need a break. Or we begin to suffer burn-out and need some variety. In such cases, shift to another path, picking up on the cues left from a prior time for that path. Often, time away from a sticking point will change our perspective enough that the stickiness vanishes. Or sometimes it is banished by serendipity. Love those times.
Sometimes we get stuck. I have seen people stuck for weeks, but are afraid to seek help for it might make them look ineffective. Schedules slip. Panic sets in and we get more stuck. So let’s formulate a rule. Never remain stuck for more than a half day. Then it is one’s duty to call in help. Help can be talking it through with someone. Often times it doesn’t even need to be someone who can understand. Talking to a person is always better than talking to the wall.
If talking doesn’t move the progress meter, escalate. Talk to a guru. One is not searching for answers necessarily, but for different approaches, different views. If enough brains get involved, the problem rock will crumble. In general, problem-solving group sessions are a great thing. Have a group meeting to begin each day, where everyone shares their immediate contribution to the effort, and any can bring up problems for which group-think might be effective. It makes for a great running start to the work day.
Time management techniques are a useful tool. Prioritize tasks. Do some easy ones up front to get them out of the in box and establish momentum. But save some to sprinkle among the difficult tasks. Then, when the work is weighing you down, up pops a simple task and one’s outlook brightens.
Prioritizing also helps eliminate schedule risk for a large work effort, by a type of schedule triage. If you do the important tasks first and then run out of time, you can still make a delivery that satisfies most of the requirements, to keep the project moving ahead, and the remainder can be rescheduled with no loss of overall project momentum. Here, personal productivity did not match expectations. It happens all the time, due to basic human optimism and the lack of a functional crystal ball. But by working smart, one’s personal slip need not have a measurable effect on overall progress.
In the creative arts, one needs to conjure an idea or concept or story line or hypothesis or motif and then develop it. But experience suggests a minimal germination period before such seeds can sprout within the mind. So back off and let it come to you. Here is how Brahms described it: “A musical idea is a gift, an inspiration which I cannot further or encourage in any way. At the time I must disregard this ‘gift’ as completely as possible, but ultimately I have to make it my own inalienable property by incessant labor. And that will not be quickly accomplished. The idea is like the seed-corn; it grows imperceptibly in secret. I shut up the book and go for a walk or take up something else; I think no more of it for perhaps half a year. Nothing is lost, though. When I come back to it again, it has unconsciously taken a new shape, and is ready for me to begin working at it.”
Beyond the tips for keeping the progress meter in the green, there is attitude, the elephant, key to productivity. The most productive among us keep the primordial productivity tenets close to mind: Life is short and hard, but without a solid work ethic, we can always make it shorter and harder. We recognize slackers: waiting around for their paycheck or for a bluebird to fly in their window; lost in daydreaming; checking their mobile device hundreds of times a day; showing up late, taking three hour lunches, leaving early; secretively playing video games; chit-chatting/flirting endlessly. Such are the bane of any organization, and are also individually self-destructive. Worse, poor attitude is infectious. If the organization lets it happen, productivity will go in the toilet. It’s best to nurture a good attitude as one’s infectious agent.
Attitude is a function of excitement about the task ahead. The unproductive lot are frequently just in the wrong jobs. Those who are excited about their work are much more likely to be productive. As for that large lot that can’t get excited about anything beyond themselves, learn to get excited about something productive, or a shorter, harder life awaits.
Productivity and resulting satisfaction is the real happiness. Just-having-fun happiness doesn’t compare.