Non Productivity

Balloons and Darts – Towards a Manifesto of Productivity

The concluding paragraph in Work as Talk? last week goes like this:

If we’re going to exit lockdown conditions stronger for it, it will only be because we’ve re-discovered what effective patterns of work look like. Not that we used Zoom or Teams to re-create the broken design of work we had at the office.

As I wrote those words, I was very aware that while it is simple to critique what isn’t working, being able to hold up a lantern towards the right path is much harder. And more important.

This is my attempt.

Balloons: What We Know About Being Productive

Being productive means getting the right stuff done. This calls for clarity of intent (what is the right stuff to do), an appropriate time-space in which to do it, and access to any required tools or resources. The picture in my head of what being productive looks like is all about balloons. Balloons offer the shell of something that needs to be filled – with breath or helium in the case of an actual balloon – and with ideas, focus and work with figurative balloons (the task you need to achieve). Balloons are also fragile and need to be protected. It’s hard to put an in-progress balloon down without losing what you’ve just put into it. It’s also hard to blow up an actual balloon via breath when there are lots of other things going on because the exhaling of so much breath can quickly cause light-headedness. You have to be present and in the moment.

Thinking about a balloon as a task, it benefits from:

  • The breath of clarity – on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and whom it serves / benefits as a consequence (frequently an internal/external customer, but it could also be yourself, as the standard-bearer of what you’re working on).
  • The breath of creativity – of seeing deeply into the task space to identify connections that aren’t immediately visible.
  • The breath of concentration – of being present, of focusing on the task at hand, and of only trying to blow up one balloon at a time.
  • The breath of appropriate engagement with others – with people who are aligned, invested and collaborating towards a common goal, and working together on their tasks that will join the resultant festival of balloons.

Darts: What We Know About Not Being Productive

Not being productive means not getting the right stuff done. Getting taken off task. Getting sidetracked on superfluous issues, queries and distractions. Getting lost down rabbit trails. Not being productive, as a picture in my head, is all about darts. And darts and balloons don’t mix.

The darts of not being productive are all derivations of the core theme of disruption. Disruption comes in many shapes and sizes:

  • The dart of unwanted noise that breaks concentration – the background hum in the office, the musak that plays all day long, the phone call that loud-mouthed Doug two desks over has just taken.
  • The dart of interruption, as someone asks you a question unrelated to your task at hand, or you happen to overhear a question to which you know the answer.
  • The dart of insufficient time-space in which to work on the task, due to having to snatch snippets here and there between back-to-back meetings and never being able to corral enough time quantum to invest into the work.
  • The dart of surveillance, of being watched, of knowing your keystrokes are being monitored due to some sick-minded belief that productivity is linear and can be tracked minute-by-minute.
  • The dart of surprise, such as a knock on the door or discovering that someone is watching over your shoulder after quietly walking up.
  • The dart of enforced stop time, such as an appointment at 3pm, that overshadows the day with awareness of an alternative commitment.
  • The dart of visual noise in your place of work – the unread magazines on your desk, the unprocessed expense receipts in line of sight, the folder of articles-I’m-going-to-read-any-day-now on your computer desktop, or your collection of books on the bookshelf that call to you to read them.
  • The dart of attempting to do more than one thing at a time.
  • The dart of pings and dings emanating from email, social media, text messages, WhatsApp, and the related cacophony of notification-driven apps that play roulette with your attention.
  • The dart of your phone ringing, or someone attempting to contact you by instant messaging for a “quick question.”

Balloons and darts don’t mix, and it only takes one dart to bring down the most amazing balloon. If the work requires balloons, it’s sheer madness to hand out darts to everyone.

What Now?

Irrespective of whether you normally work from home, are doing so under company or government orders due to the current pandemic, or usually work in an office space, the first and most essential question to ask about what happens next is this: how do you get your best work done? And the second is like it: what are the darts that stop you from doing so?

Informed by the types of tasks characterising your job role, what does “best” look like? The future of work should never be about migrating your work practices to the latest and greatest tool. It’s about answering these two questions, and then doing all in your power – individually in your own area of work, collectively in a team or group, and corporately as the designers of organisations – to optimise breath for the balloons and banning the darts.