Culture & Competency

My Productivity Equation is C – I + R = P. What's Yours?

When I’m peeling the potatoes for dinner, the peeling instrument I use plays a huge role in the productivity of the task, whether the job is done quick or slow. We currently have two red peelers: one peels a 5mm stroke at a time, the other a 12mm stroke. With the second, I get the job done in less than half the time for the same amount of input. That is, I’m more than twice as productive compared to the 5mm one.

How about a farmer? For a farmer who plants fields in crops, the size of his tractor and pull-behind implements has a huge and immediate effect on his productivity. One tractor costs $90K, can pull a ploughing implement that is 5 meters wide and travels at 3 meters a second; a second costs $130K, can pull an implement 10m wide and can travel at 4 meters a second. The second will consume more diesel per ploughing hour, but does twice as much work as the first model. Which one to buy? It depends on the size of your fields.

What is the productivity framework for a knowledge or information worker, ie, people like me? In reflecting on my own experience, I see interlinked keys to productivity:

  1. Having a clear picture of what I want to achieve (clarity).
  2. Removing irritations and interruptions that break flow (interruptions).
  3. Having a brain that is rested, energized and active (rested).

As an equation then: C – I + R = P

(this is a long post, hence the split)

Having a Clear Picture of What I Want to Achieve (C = Clarity)
When I know what has to be done I can marshall my resources to get it done. To borrow Chris’s current phrase, I can be an “accomplishment superhero”. Low priority things are pushed away. Email is shut down. The world is held back. Focus happens. The task is done. But when I’m stuck in a fog on direction, intentions and end-objectives it is very difficult to make any forward movement. Time happens, but work doesn’t. At least not the kind of work that I’ve been trained to do, know that I can do, and that my clients (and employer) expect me to be able to do.

David Allen saved my bacon in this regard. I was introduced to his Managing Action and Projects (MAP) work by Eric Mack back in 1998, and since I couldn’t attend one of David’s two-day MAP seminars, I laid out the money for the tape series instead. It was money very well spent (much like I’m expecting my subscription to GTD Connect to be)! MAP has since been renamed Getting Things Done (GTD), but the two fundamental concepts that changed my life in 1998 remain consistent in the framework today: for everything you have on your mind (and more broadly, for everything you have to get done, or could get done), ask:

  1. What is the successful outcome of this project or action? That is, if I am going to commit my time and resources to it, why would I do that? What do I want to achieve for myself and others as a result? How do I want to make the world a better place as a result of acting?
  2. What’s the next action? Or more fully, what is the absolutely next physical thing I have to do move it forward? Call someone to ask about it? Email someone? Draw a mindmap?

Once I’ve asked these questions about everything and put that thinking into a trusted system (something that I know I will go back to and review regularly) then my mind is freed from the constant job of trying to remember everything. Mental fog lifts. Lists are reviewed. Clarity enters. Energy is mustered. Good work happens.

On the MAP tape series, David says this wonderful thing: “Senior professionals drive most of their activity off a hard-nosed focus on what’s important, almost despite the work coming at them.” I aspire to living like that, because in order to retain a “hard-nosed focus on what’s important”, you have to know what that is. You have to have done the thinking and planning necessary to develop a hard-nosed focus and then have the clarity of mind to judge new opportunities as more or less important on a moment-by-moment basis.

There are other approaches and frameworks for getting clarity on what you want to do and achieve, such as Covey’s Four Quadrants and First-Things First ideas. It is less important what framework you embrace to get you to having a clear picture of what you want to achieve than actually choosing one and getting there. The end is vital, the means up for negotiation within your context.

Removing Irritations and Interruptions that Break Flow (I = Interruptions)
Removing irritations and interruptions that break flow on the important things is the second key to productivity for me. Once I’ve decided what needs to be done within a certain window of time, stuff that shows up and breaks the concentration I’ve built is extremely damaging. A ringing phone. A shouting or crying child (yes, I work from home). The ding of a new email. The arrival of an unexpected visitor. Anything that brings unexpected sounds to my ears or sights to my eyes breaks mental focus and concentration. And since I work on one or more computers most of the day, any time the computer puts its hand up and asks for attention or makes its presence felt introduces new distractions. I have to work very hard to keep focused when irritations and interruptions emerge, and find that where possible it is better to eliminate them at their source rather than constantly having to fight against them.

(Even now as I’m writing this, I’ve just had an interruption. It’s 5.45am, I’ve been writing for 40 minutes, and my 2-year old daughter comes into my office. I give her a good morning cuddle, get her bundled up, and leave her with one of the older boys. 10 minutes passes. But now as I sit down to write again, my train of thought is broken, and I can’t quickly bring back the strands that I was holding in my head. I feel like I have to start again. Flow is broken.)

It’s not the time that the interruption takes that’s the problem; rather, it’s the time to recover that it causes. When I’m writing, for example, I consciously work up to having my thoughts held in a mental map and a clear line of analysis that I intend to pursue over the next few minutes. I mount a writing ridge. Words pump out rapidly that are written up. It’s like assembling a vertical jigsaw … it takes a while to get the base built properly, and then the next layer, and then the next. Finally, you have a completed picture. An interruption, however, shatters the jigsaw. Someone speaks loudly in the background. Someone comes into the office. That new email beep beeps (yes, I should turn it off). The phone rings. While each interruption many only take 10-15 seconds, it’s enough to make the jigsaw collapse. The mental map turns cloudy. I fall off the ridge. Words stops flowing. After the interruption is appropriately dealt with, you can’t just turn around and keep going where you were at. Flow has been kicked in the teeth. The jigsaw has to be rebuilt from the bottom up, and that takes a lot more time than the 10-15 seconds of the interruption.

Another useful analogy is climbing a vertical ladder. Once I know what ladder I want to climb (C = Clarity), I go ahead and climb the 20 rungs to get to the top. I’ve got a great view. I can see what’s happening. And then suddenly the wind blows hard, I lose my grip and slide down 10 rungs. Sliding down took only a moment, climbing back up takes 10 deliberate steps, and once I’m at the top, I have to remember what I was looking at before the wind blew. Alternatively there’s an earthquake, and I fall off all together. I can either re-mount the ladder and climb the 20 steps, or dust myself off and go off in search of another ladder to climb.

Here’s a list of some specific things I’ve done to date in my career to minimize irritations and interruptions:

  • Refresh computer hardware regularly. Any time I’ve become regularly aware of my computer taking too long to save a file, open an application or perform a requested operation, I buy a newer-better-faster one. There was a time when I was purchasing a new Toshiba laptop every 6 months! A faster processor, a better screen and more memory generally pushed the computer-as-disruptor down below the radar level. This is also why I ultimately gave up on Windows-based machines as my primary productivity environment in mid-2003 and shifted across to Apple Mac. I was experiencing daily interruptions from Windows-as-operating system (rather than the Toshiba hardware) in the form of virus vulnerability alerts and “new security problems” from Microsoft; I threw my hands up in despair and dropped US$4000 on new Apple hardware (including a 23″ monitor!) Although I still have 4 Windows-based computers in the office, I don’t see myself going back to Windows as my primary productivity environment.
  • Minimize visual distractions. I absolutely love buying and owning books, and sometimes I get the opportunity to read them. But I have to be careful where my books are located in the office in comparison with my working areas. If I could see them from where I sit and look, it would distract me immensely. It’s like the books call out to me for attention. That’s mighty distracting when a couple of hundred voices start singing in unison! Hence there’s off to the side where I can’t see them unless I intentionally look. Another visual distraction that I’ve sought to minimize is the number and variety of icons on my computer desktop. If there’s a lot of things stored temporarily there, again each calls out for attention. It is much better if they are put into a folder on the desktop, or in a folder somewhere else all together. The key idea is that anything that can introduce new visual cues that will break concentration should be intentionally minimized.
  • Large screen monitor. Buying a larger monitor is one of the most incredibly rewarding computer investments I’ve ever made. A few years ago they were horrendously expensive, but the larger monitors are much more reasonably priced now. They’re not free, but they’re definitely cheaper. And they’re tremendously good / helpful for this reason: you don’t have to scroll as much nor shift different applications around the screen. I purchased my first 20″ monitor back in March 2003 when I was at Ferris Research. The driver to do so was the development of a 6-year market growth projection model for the instant messaging market. Given the size of the numbers and the number of columns, I found that I was constantly scrolling up-and-down, and left-and-right to see the various cells in my huge Excel spreadsheet, and to examine the implications of various growth assumptions. It was annoying. It broke concentration. I hated it. The 20″ monitor fixed it. A couple of months later I purchased a second 20″ monitor and ran both side-by-side for 40″ of screen real-estate. For another project I was working on, it meant that I could design software on one monitor, and immediately see the impact and implication on the other. This removed the need to Alt-TAB between the design view and run-time view constantly. It was incredibly helpful. I currently run 23″ monitors at a resolution of 1920×1200 on two of my machines … one vertical (so 1200×1920) and one horizontal. The horizontal one is connected to a 20″ iMac, giving 43″ of screen space. It’s truly awesome.
  • Good filing system. A good filing system is essential to minimize irritations and interruptions. When I’m engaged on a project and need some that’s in my files, I want it quickly and with a minimum of fuss. I don’t want to have the search devolve into a frantic 15 minutes of stress and worry. David Allen coaches a way of doing reference filing that I’ve embraced, and although my implementation of it doesn’t always provide stress-free filing, it is much better than what I had before. I know where things should be, and what is filed is limited to reference material only. Next actions, projects, etc, are captured and stored elsewhere.
  • Minimize noise distractions. When we built our new house a couple of years back, I spared all but one expense in making my office sound proof … I put in special gib to minimize noise, I had sound batts put in the walls, I put in a solid core door. The one expense I spared has proven to be a thorn in my side, however, and that is that the solid core door still lets through a lot of noise. I’m thinking seriously about getting that taken out and putting in a high rated noise cancelling door. Unwanted noise from people shouting or slamming doors frequently breaks my concentration, and so I’m keen on removing as much of that as possible.

What have you done to minimize irritations and interruptions in your life?

Healthy and Active Brain (R = Rested)
The final essential key to productivity for me is being sufficiently rested to do great work and make great contributions. Sufficient sleep, enough quiet time to think and plan, limiting daily work to a sustainable amount per day, and doing exercise that gets the blood pumping through the body are all aspects thereof.

Sufficient Sleep
When I get a good night of non-broken sleep (that describes about 1 out of 10 nights in our house) I invariably have a much better work day. If I haven’t slept long enough, or if my night has been punctuated with wakeful children, brain fog ensues. It’s hard to make decisions. It’s hard to think straight. It’s hard to be motivated to do great work. It’s hard to be gracious with family, colleagues, projects and next actions when I’m exhausted. I have a simple test to gauge whether I’ve had sufficient sleep. If I shut my eyes and immediately start transitioning into sleep mode, I know I’m in trouble. If not, I’m good to go.

The first two days of this week again bore out this dynamic. I had 8 hours sleep on Sunday night, and woke refreshed at 6am on Monday. I felt great all day … my brain was firing on all cyclinders, I cleared through a tremendous backlog of stuff, and I still had sufficient energy to be funny and engaged with my family after work time. On Monday night I only got 6 hours of sleep, due to Jonathan (3 mo) waking me at 4am, and then I didn’t get back to sleep before rising to write at 5am. I felt tired during the day, I had to be more conscious about focusing on work, I suffered brain fog, and I absolutely had to have a nap in the early afternoon. And I was still exhausted during family time after work.

Enough Quiet Time to Think and Plan
The Myers-Briggs people classify me as an introvert, which in their language means that I get my energy from the world of ideas, possibilities and thinking rather than through being with and talking with people. If I don’t have sufficient “Mike time” during a day … time to read, to think, to write, to plan, to dream … then I’m really really bad at much of what I am expected to do. However if I’m conscious about carving out some quiet time to get to a place of inner strength, then I can be good about working on my key projects, on engaging with people, on getting stuff done.

I struggle daily with the conflict between (a) getting sufficient sleep and (b) carving out “Mike time”. For me it is often one or the other. With 7 young children that we homeschool, my household is full-on from about 6.20am until 9pm, and once a full-time job at a great place is added into the mix, there isn’t any spare time during the day to have introvert renewal time. And so I get up early and hope for an hour or so of quietness until the demands of the day rush in again.

Limiting Daily Work to a Sustainable Amount
I have a distinct re-collection of an economics school class at age 14 or 15 where the concept of the “S curve” for people’s work time vs. money was plotted. As I recall it, the theory stated that up to a certain amount of time people would trade more work time for more money, but there was a point in hours per week or alternatively total money earned where the line turned back on itself and people preferred to work less. My re-collection as an energy-full and money-less 14 or 15-year old was “I’ll never turn back on that line”. Mmmm. It didn’t take long in the work force to realize that energy is limited, that it’s not hard to earn enough money to make do, and that there are much more important endeavours in which to engage time and effort than merely doing more work. Building a wonderful marriage with my wonderful wife is one example. Creating a family life that is full of learning, development and love is another.

I’ve found that I have the energy to offer 40 hours of good-to-great work each week. I can’t do much more without seeing a drastic reduction in quality and productivity. There have been weeks when I’ve managed to jam in 54 hours of work, but my weekend is then a write-off due to exhaustion (which isn’t honoring to my wife and family) and the clarity of thought and insight that I bring during those hours decreases over time (which isn’t honoring to my clients or employer). I just can’t figure out how people work more than 50 hours a week on an ongoing basis, and don’t have the understanding to state whether they bring sufficient extra productivity to the table to justify it. Some of the books and articles I’ve read by more knowledgeable people than me suggest that productivity declines after the 40-45 hour number is hit, and that’s what I’ve experienced myself, but hey, perhaps others have methods of working that I haven’t been privy too yet. I’m opening to learning more if so.

Blood-Pumping Exercise
The final aspect of having a healthy and active brain is exercise that gets the blood pumping through my veins. Running. Skipping. Press-ups (or push-ups depending on your locale!). Swimming. Hard cycling. There is something extremely invigorating about those forms of exercise get helps with mental concentration and focus for the rest of the day. I know there are proper terms to use to describe these effects, but without going there I can attest to the benefits. When I take 20 minutes in the morning to run down the road and skip to 100 a couple of times, I feel much better.

Well that’s me. At least, that’s how I can best articulate where I’m at today. Without a doubt there is much that I can learn from you to either reinforce or challenge my thinking. So what’s your productivity equation? What’s your thinking in this area? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Categories: Culture & Competency

5 replies »

  1. It took me several days to get the various parts of the equation, though it’s not exactly complex. I think all the demonstrative text scared me away a few times.
    I wonder if there’s a requirement in the equation for resources. I say this because I went several days recently with a problem at work. I wasn’t skilled enough to handle the problem directly, and my resources (people who knew about Oracle) weren’t at hand. The resulting experience was that I had to wait, even though I had clarity of mind, and could have gone without interruptions.
    I’m just noodling with the equation. I think it’s good. I’m grumbling about the +R. I swear you put that in for me. I doubt that most folk think about rest in the course of their day. Then again, as I typed that, I thought: more people SHOULD.
    You’re a clever man, Michael. And it scales well, as evidenced by the letter from the “scientists.”

  2. Chris, thanks for sharing your reaction. I’ve been thinking about some of the other things that are needed for productivity … definitely appropriate resources is helpful. I may post an update in the near future.
    The +R was for me, not for you … although I haven’t been quiet in our email conversations to bring up its applicability to you! It is something that I struggle with on a daily basis.
    Great to have you as a friend,

  3. Hi Michael,
    I printed out this entry and read it today on the train home. Some things really reasonated with me, so I wanted to see thanks!

  4. Thanks for an excellant article. You have articulated very effectively not only productivity of “Work” but also of life in genernal. The balance between what we owe to clients/ employers/office and to family and friends is important and this balance brings richness and fullness to life.
    I agree and like your suggestions on limiting interruptions.
    Thanks, SS

  5. Fokke … glad to hear that aspects resonated with you. Thanks for letting me know.
    Sri … productivity of life vs. merely work … that’s an interesting spin. Indeed “richness and fullness” come when we find the right balance. Thanks for sharing.