Here’s something to think about: are the things that we all thought would make us more efficient actually slowing us down? We believe the advertisements that promise we’ll be always connected and always up to date. We’re constantly downloading the latest in productivity apps. But when it comes right down to it, are we really saving time? You might be surprised at how much of your day – not to mention your mental energy – is devoted to “enjoying” the benefits of modern technology. Someone who has focused all her mental energy on the best ways to cope with the 21st century is LJ Earnest. She’s got the tips you need on her website, Whole Life Productivity, and answers to our questions in a recent interview, below.
UV: This past summer you decided to go from “simple” to “whole life” productivity. What change in your approach and outlook led to this expanded website?
It really came from a recognition that too much of productivity is focused on the work life, and most people with their busy schedules need it in their personal lives as well. Work is now creeping into our personal time due to cell phones, virtual offices, and never really be “away” from work. With that onslaught of work, we have to have a way to manage life as a whole. Work no longer stops at the employer’s door – neither should our productivity system.
The decision also came because I realized that it is also no longer just about simplifying overly-complicated productivity systems or even simplifying your life to be more productive. I believe the time has come to acknowledge that we need a better way to deal with everything that comes at us.
UV: You’ve spent your professional life in the fields of information technology, software development, and math. Do you take an analytical approach to questions about productivity?
Absolutely. If something in a productivity system doesn’t produce results, there is no reason to continue doing it. This is true in every area of life.
We may believe that what we are doing produces results. It is only when you look at the quantitative data that you see the true results, and can judge whether or not something is working.
As an example, most productivity systems focus on time management. If the time you are spending managing the system is more than it takes you to do the task, this is not efficient, and the approach should be re-thought.
Likewise, we often add things to processes as “nice to haves” but really don’t add value to what we are doing. For example, we may be using a planner that has us figure out how long we spent on various tasks throughout the day. It seems like a good idea on the surface…you can see exactly how long you are spending in meetings every week/month/year. However, if you never look at that data again, there is no point in tracking it. You are expending efforts tracking something that is not ever going to be used. It would be better to leave that column blank and save the time.
UV: Most people tend to associate productivity with things that save time, such as the way being able to touch type shaves minutes off of every keyboarding task. Does it really boil down to time management (or micromanagement), or is there something else that’s fundamental to increased productivity?
Productivity is doing the effective things in the most efficient manner. So time management plays into it from the standpoint that to be efficient you can’t be wasting time. However, being efficient has more aspects to it than pure tricks, including minimizing time switching between tasks, and batching like items together. For instance, it makes more sense to run all your errands in one trip than to return home in between each one.
The second part of the productivity equation – effectiveness – is more subtle: we have to make sure we are doing the right things. This isn’t time management at all, but rather knowing what tasks are essential and what are not. There are no shortcuts for this, because it is not a concrete task. You can learn how to track everything that is going on, though, so you can make those effective decisions quickly and correctly.
UV: What are the “productivity forms” you offer to your newsletter subscribers?
I find that for me personally, if a tool is boring, I have an automatic resistance to using it. So I have created forms that are used for planning tasks that are fun. Each month features a different theme. The set includes a prioritized task/commitment list, numbered and checked task lists, and a notes page. These can be printed and put into booklets or into pre-existing planners. These forms are the same ones I use when I am figuring out what I need to do during a given day.
I realize this might not be enough planning forms for some people. So this year I have expanded the offering…I am also offering matching undated calendars and day planners. These are available in the shop on the blog.
UV: You emphasize that there are two areas where productivity matters: at the workplace, and away from the workplace. Why is it important to focus on both? Do you have to focus on them at the same time?
I believe that there are a lot of skills that we use at the workplace that could make things easier at home, and vice versa. If we have a top of the line filing system at work, and get home and spend hours looking for a document we need, that says to me that we have an opportunity to improve. Just because it is at home doesn’t mean we can’t leverage our work knowledge of processes and systems to make our obligations easier.
I think we have to be aware of what skills we have and use them when they are applicable, rather than just taking the same approach we have always done. This calls for an awareness of what we know, and the ability to abstract it so it is useful in other areas of life. It’s not really a matter of focus, but rather awareness.
Our skills and knowledge should be abstracted so that we can use them both at home and work. We can use our knowledge of SOP (standard operating procedures) at work to build some basic ones for home for tasks that don’t get done very often, but ones that we find ourselves researching every time we do them. We can use our home-based skills at work as well. We can use the skills we learned in planning and executing a birthday for 30 preschoolers to start a monthly potluck at work to boost morale.
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