Too Busy Being Unproductive to Learn to Be Productive

One of the paradoxes of modern life is we’re too busy to learn to do things that would make us less busy and more productive. Many organizations provide their employees with all kinds of productivity aids:

  • Bookmarks, portals, ‘best sites’ lists and other destinations where the most-sought information can be found.
  • Tips such as keystroke shortcuts (e.g. f1, right-click, alt-left arrow), mouse management, boolean and other search techniques, file-naming hints, and unique features and quirks of specific firm-supplied software.
  • Productivity tools such as desktop search, mind-mapping, Getting Things Done tools, and templates.

But most people don’t learn to use these aids unless they either stumble on them themselves, or they are shown by someone how to use them (and write them down so they’ll remember how later). And most of the time we’re just too busy being unproductive to do either. If you’re skeptical, spend a half hour observing a co-worker at his/her PC and you’ll be astonished: It’s like watching someone being tortured — awkward workarounds, unnecessary steps, time wasted searching in the wrong places the wrong way. The cost to every enterprise, and our economy as a whole, must be gargantuan.

I’ve argued before that the best way to get people past this painful and unnecessary ‘unproductivity’ is through a program of Personal Productivity Improvement, which entails providing hands-on assistance to front-line employees — helping them make effective use of technology and knowledge, one-on-one, in the context of their individual roles. Not training, not wait-for-the-phone-to-ring help desk service — face to face, scheduled sessions where individuals can show what they do and what they know, and experts can show them how to do it better, faster, and take the intelligence of what else is needed back to head office so developers can improve effectiveness even more.

A number of organizations are starting to take this advice to heart. While some of the productivity ideas they have gathered and shown to employees are company- and application-specific (like using the calendar and group scheduling feature of Outlook to organize meetings and book space for them), some of them could be used by any organization, and could improve productivity of almost everyone, if we were to show them rather than just tell them, and help them make it part of how they work every day. Here are a few examples from several of my KM colleagues:

  • Make sure the problem you’re trying to solve is clearly defined. Too often research is attempting to grapple as much with articulating or discovering the real problem as with finding possible solutions to it, so that the solution ends up being defined — and limited — by the research. Many errors and wasted time in decision-making comes from not knowing the problem your decision is addressing.
  • Take time to rest and think problems and tasks through. We tend to rush too quickly to tools and information at our disposal, and see every problem as an information problem. Sometimes taking a few moments to step back, get a fresh perspective, and use our own brain cells to come up with ideas and approaches can be more productive than looking for more data and recycled information from others.
  • Favour primary over secondary information. We have so much secondary (online and textbook) information at our disposal that we may over-rely on it, rather than using primary (conversation and interview) information that is fresher, richer and more context-relevant. Introverts especially have a propensity for doing this because getting secondary information is less socially demanding — but it usually takes longer and produces less insight.
  • Ask the question: Whether you’re quizzing a co-worker or expert, or just typing words into a search bar, articulating the full question clearly and up front will usually prompt a clearer understanding of the issue (by all parties) and hence a better response, both from humans and from search tools.
  • Answer three critical questions before you begin: (1) does this work need to be done at all, (2) should I be the one doing it, and (3) is there a better way to do it than the usual or prescribed way? The right answer to all three questions can save you a lot of time.
  • Talk to the horse: Often we get inquiries and answers from intermediaries rather than “from the horse’s mouth”. The result is often garbled messages and wasted time. Before you start to answer a question, double-check briefly with the original questioner to ensure you understand it and to make sure your approach will produce the best result for him/her. And if you receive an answer second-hand, go back to the original answerer and confirm that the answer didn’t get lost in translation. In doing so, respect the intermediary (it’s their job to save senior people’s time) and the ‘horse’: Be polite and brief and reassure them that you’re just double-checking, not circumventing.
  • Use narrative rather than analysis: We all want the answer to questions and problems reduced to a few bullet points, but such reduction often strips away a lot of context and learning. Narratives are longer and wordier, but they can be faster to write than synopses, easier and faster for the listener or reader to internalize and learn from, and richer in the understanding they convey.
  • Get the title right: When you’re trying to convey something important, a well-worded title will go a long way to engaging the listeners or readers, and preparing them to learn what you have to say. And the right title can also help you organize and focus your writing and speaking, keeping you on track and on message.
  • Use visualizations: A picture or chart is worth a thousand words, sometimes more. And it can convey concepts and relationships that no amount of verbiage can, economically.
  • Think how your audience will receive your message: When you write, put yourself in the shoes of your readers or listeners, and think about whether they will understand, appreciate and get value from what you are saying. Take the other stuff (supporting references, background, tangential material) out, or at least put it in appendices). You’ll find you save yourself time, as well as your audience’s, and there will be less need for time-consuming clarifications, follow-ups and restatements.
  • Make it shorter: Except for stories, less is more. Although like Pascal you may argue that you “didn’t have time to make it shorter”, if you take the time there will be less need for you to say it again, and again, more briefly, later, when you find your audience gave up wading through the longer version.
  • Sometimes it’s easier to build a new house than renovate an old one: While we’re all encouraged to find ways to re-use documents produced by others, this may sometimes be a false economy: By the time you’ve found the appropriate document to re-use, and made all the changes, you might have been able to craft a tighter and more articulate document from scratch. 
  • Do it right away: Leaving things to the last minute is certainly motivating, but it usually produces less valuable and less informed results. Not only is there insufficient time to think, the time lag will allow your memory of exactly what was required to dim. 
  • Settle, usually, for 85%: In most of our work, getting the last 15% of the information, the formatting and layout, the feedback etc. takes a lot more than 15% of the effort, delays the result, and doesn’t add commensurately to the quality of the answer or decision. Obviously high-risk situations are the exception, but they are relatively rare. We tend to spend too much time polishing when, a month or a year from now, all that will be remembered is the final outcome that that polishing didn’t affect.
  • Do the right thing: In large organizations politics pervades everything, and there’s often a temptation to do what you’re told, to do things the way you’re told, to say you understand when you don’t, when you know there’s a better way. In the long run, doing the right thing will garner more respect, with less flak than you might expect. If you’re going to get fired for doing the right thing, even though it produces a better result, and better decisions, is fairer, and saves time, why would you want to keep working there — and how long before you get fired anyway?

All of these things are easy to say, but hard to make part of the way you do your job. But if your job is personal productivity improvement, you will find it is surprisingly easy to show other people, with a little observation and practice, how to apply these time-saving ideas in their daily work. There’s no point just giving them this list, but show them in the context of the work they’re doing at a particular moment and they’ll remember and apply the lessons from then on. They might evenask you how you got to be so smart.

Thanks to my fellow Toronto KM gurus Howard Deane, Gordon Vala-Webb and Greg Turko for the collective work above.

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9 Responses to Too Busy Being Unproductive to Learn to Be Productive

  1. Frank says:

    This is an excellent article, thanks for sharing.I was wondering what are your thought on how to include this process in a GTD like approach?Would you treat each possibility as an action or simply include it in a weekly review?Thank you, Frank

  2. Wow! Alot of these are golden. Good work.

  3. Jon Husband says:

    delicious, stuff, dave and friends .. the dirty little secret, of course, is that many people don’t like what they do enough to do anything other than learn the basics, carry that out as best they can, and spend lots of time daydreaming about all the other things they would rather be doing, or will do just as damn soon as they get away from work.Basically, they don’t CARE about being more productive .. and minimal efforts at improving why they might care more, or even better, start being proud about what they do and (more importantly) why, would lead many people to start wondering about, and seeking for, ways to improve their contrbutions .. not necessarily their productivityGoing and talking to people about improving productivity, or even starting a “program” to enhance personal productivity, is (at best like telling people they should go to the dentist every two months on the dot so as to maintain healthy, white, even, non-decaying teeth … unpleasant from their perspective.Even when people are paid reasonably well, you can’t make them want to be productive. Charles Handy once wrote some stuff on motivational calculus .. might be interesting to look at prior to announcing a quest or creating a program for improving personal productivity.

  4. so why dont you show us rather than telling us? time to start videocasting?

  5. cindy says:

    One of my longing is to have life back to the 70s where there is clerk to take care of photo-copying, data-entry typist to enter data, secretary to take care of major correspondence or make travelling arrangement, any function that is not an engineer’s job descriptions. For example. As an engineer (was) I had to deal with shipping, faxing, photo-copying, meetings, data-entry, preparing powerpoing (but the CEO or director would have secretary to do for them !!) meeting notes,… we become generalist and therefore no longer have enough time to take care of our main function as an engineer. Then we put in more and more hours to catch-up, then management gives us more and more tools to ease our load. Well, giving us tools is nice, but then we need to have more and more time to learn how to use those tools to be effective … so the circle keeps going round and round. YES. Some people are a lot more proficient in dealing with software and tools, BUT not all of us are. I am a hardware person but NOT too good dealing with software. One of my deficiencies is memory. I can do most thing that are logical, but useless when I have to commit to memories such as which pull-down window would contain what to do such … There are certain functions are only effective if a person is doing it day-in-and-out. There are functions should be centralized such as certain kind of data-entry, photo-copying, shipping etc. Take shipping. If an engineer ship something only once in a while, this would mean when the time comes to ship again, this engineer would have to spend time doing something that has very little image left in his/her brain therefore need to put in time to find out what to do. It would be much more effective, for the individual and the organization, to have this function taken away from the engineer and give it to a clerk or secretary. If we think about this in money term, I am sure it is an expensive way to use an enginner for unskilled function such as shipping aparcel. We seems to think if we give them the databases full of resources, good search engine, plenty of tools to help them organize themselves, that should be sufficient, they can all become effective knowledge workers. You are still dealing with human being. And each individual is different. You cannot cookie-cutting all of us. Some of us happen to end up as a knowledge worker (I still wonder what constitute the term knowledge worker) that don’t mean we should be someone that enjoy keeping a blog, tagging things, active with e-collaboration, no problem with e-learning etc. That is perhaps one of the biggiest mistake all these ideas of KM, KW, KS, PKM we are looking at. We forget we are each an individual that are born different.

  6. Great article! I think in the work world today there are often so many levels of management that the upper levels don’t even know what’s really happening, let alone understand they sometimes need to give the people doing the work a little breathing space. They consider that unproductive, thus they think it will lose them money. When, in fact, if they allowed a little learning time, a little distancing time for communication and learning the new technology or software out there that could benefit the organization, they might find it profitable. Too short-sighted and too removed from the action equals inefficient. So does too close a perspective. This is true in our personal lives as well, where too often we overschedule our time and think something new must start earning its keep right away, or we never raise our heads to notice it’s there. It’s sort of like having a stream run through your property while your garden dies of thirst, just because you’re too busy hoeing to bother to work out an irrigation system. Up close you see yourself with too much work to do to look elsewhere. From a little distance the solution is obvious.

  7. stephen says:

    Really useful tips. Fodder for some excellent training material I think – could imagine a series of 2 minute “life hacks” around how to do things better. Something for us in e-learning to think abo. Agree with a previous commenter you need some video or context to see the right/wrong way to apply these points. But excellent stuff, thanks.

  8. says:

    Awesome. Define The Problem is my mantra! Defining The Problem To Continuous Invention. Free books and newsletters.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Frank: Excellent point — I’ll have to give that more thought. Jon: You know what they say — people will listen when they’re ready and not before. James: Yes, but I need to make the time to learn to do that properly.

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