Productive, or Just Busy?

I have always believed that the answer to productivity and effectiveness lay in being ultra-organised; shaving off time where possible, multitasking and finding synergy among the tasks to be undertaken. Of course, I have always felt quite inadequate as a result. I have never managed to complete everything that gets thrown my way every day.

For many years this has been my lot in life, striving and failing to reach many targets; juggling work, children, home, health, leisure, personal growth, husband etc. and feeling guilty when I perceived that I had dropped a ball. I did not schedule fun, time for hugs, spontaneity, or to listen, really listen, to how my child’s day was. I was too busy answering the phone, checking homework and trying to cook dinner all at the same time, too busy to give you a hug right now, or to let you tickle me, and actually laugh.

I have slowly, without really noticing, driven the laughter out of my home in the quest for busy, perfect, clean, productive and, above all, finished. Ticking something off the list is everything.

Over time I have of course, tried a variety of methods, some with more success than others, but all with the average lasting power of a New Year’s resolution, that is, less than a month.

Tony Crabbe in his book “Busy”, quotes a number of studies; “Today you will consume the equivalent of 174 newspapers’ worth of content (five times as much as you would have in 1986). In the time it will take you to read this page, 300 million emails will be sent. In the last minute, three days’ worth of content has been uploaded to YouTube. In the last 10 seconds, one hundred people have discovered the internet and email for the first time, joining nearly three billion others, and are now adding to the noise.” The quantity of information, communication and demand are entirely beyond our control; there is too much to do and we can do nothing about it.

Crabbe divides what we do into two groups, input and output. Inputs are the things coming at us; emails, tasks, demands, and expectations. Output is what we produce, the things we actually do. If our output is determined always by the input we receive and reacting to what other people expect of us, we lose any focus on what we might hope to achieve. “How many times have you arrived at the office, full of ideas and good intentions to get your teeth into work that will make a real difference? How many times has your focus been dissipated, your intention battered into submission, through the simple act of opening your email? The contents of your inbox are setting the agenda, not because they’re the right things to focus on, but because they’re in your inbox.” Crabbe insists “Mastery is found in what we choose to do. The starting point, and primary driver for activity, should be internal: “What do I want to achieve?””

There is a lot more to it than that, and I would thoroughly recommend you read the book and put into practice what works best for you. Maggie Jackson, in her book “Distracted” states that our willingness and ability to think deeply, to ponder the complex rather than the superficial, to be focused rather than diffuse, are critical not only to our thinking but also to our morality, our happiness and our culture. She worries that, culturally, we are losing our powers of attention: that our lives of distraction are reducing our capacity to create and preserve wisdom.

In her TED talk, Laura Vanderkam says “We do not build the lives we want by saving time, we build the lives we want and then time saves itself.” She explains that time is highly elastic and will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it. Therefore we have to choose our priorities with great care, based on values that we have selected after much reflection, in order to ensure that we are basing our decisions and choices on the things that are really important to us.

Of course we have to react to some of the things in our email, and some of the expectations and demands that others have on us but as Crabbe reminds us, at some point we have to question the value of reading and responding to every email in our inbox, and doing everything that others expect of us. We need to learn to make tough choices and to say no without feeling or causing resentment. Ha! Read the book, let me know what you think.

“Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – Mary Oliver