My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.
In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.
In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”
This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.
Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.
We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”
If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.