You’re probably tired of hearing it, but we are in the middle of an important moment in human history.
It may seem strange to jump from that statement into a discussion about human productivity, but hear me out.
Most of us hear ‘productivity’ and think about how to get a few more items crossed off our daily to-do lists. Productivity seems more nuts-and-bolts than the big picture.
But at its heart, human productivity means whether or not we are doing a good job–a good job at being humans. If we aren’t productive, we aren’t doing the thing we are supposed to be doing. We aren’t producing value.
How we’ve defined that value has changed significantly over human history. Let’s look back and see how we’ve measured and defined as being productive in different eras.
Productivity over the eons
While humans were hunter-gatherers (for the first 90 percent or more of our existence), we relied on our ability to understand nature and adapt. Being productive meant finding enough food to survive and protecting the community from dangers.
Roughly 12,000 years ago, many human societies shifted to agriculture. Humans relied on our ability to do physical work, plan, and get more land. Productivity changed and was now measured by how much food we could cultivate in a given area.
About 250 years ago, the Industrial Revolution started. Humans relied on their ability to do repeated tasks which were hard for machines to do. Productivity turned into how many items we could manufacture in a given unit of time.
We entered the Information Age about 50 years ago, which was the first time we could depend solely on our cognitive abilities instead of our physical ones. However, we continued to define productivity-based units processed per time period.
Oh yeah, there’s that too
Then there’s the metric of productivity that hasn’t changed much in 12,000 years, which we don’t like to talk about: wealth (aka power, money, or land). The productivity metrics mentioned earlier still apply to human workers, but ultimately, we’ve always judged those with more wealth to be “doing a better job at life”. In some industrialized cultures, the poor are seen as “lazy”, or “unproductive”.
The robots are here for your productivity
Relatively soon, if not already, we will enter an Age of Automation. Machines, robots, and algorithms will take over common tasks of humans, things we’ve based our productivity on for a long time.
As that happens, we’ll need to rely on different abilities and create new metrics. Judging human productivity based on the number of units processed in a given amount of time will make everyone seem worthless. A human’s ability to memorize, process information, and make rational decisions will be about as useful as a pair of oxen on a modern farm.
…and maybe your money too
An Age of Automation not only means an end to human labor as we know it but something much broader.
Automation will generate an even greater amount of wealth, resulting in two possible outcomes. Either global wealth continues to concentrate in the hands of a few, or it gets distributed out to everyone else.
Money is a unit of scarcity. Automation can usher in a post-scarcity world where humans no longer need to work in exchange for money. They can still work at tasks and projects they feel important, but don’t have to choose a job just to support their livelihood.
This would completely change what human productivity means and how we define it.
Back to the present
This ebook tries to straddle both the futuristic and daily nature of productivity. The change from the old way of measuring productivity to the new won’t be easy or quick. Our current habits and standards were built for the past, not the future. Moving to a new model will feel strange, but it is essential if we are going to build the future we want.
Like other areas of work, we have to imagine where the future is going and build the road to get there. As you read this, we hope you are inspired to play your part in laying the groundwork.
The new human productivity
How do we define productivity in a world where machines are doing all the work we used to do?
Certain human abilities will become less useful as machines take over. But just like other major shifts in history, humans still have other skills they can rely on.
These kinds of skills can survive through the Age of Automation.
If we also imagine a post-scarcity world where everyone’s needs are met and we aren’t choosing our work based on the money we make, that really opens up the possibilities for productivity.
If we believe that the core of productivity is doing a good job at being human, or producing real value, what are the ways we will judge productivity in the future?
Here are some ideas.
Boldly going where no one has gone before. Exploration will be a great task of the Age of Automation. With time to spare, we can gather more knowledge about the depths of the seas and the far corners of the universe. A productive day becomes one where we travel to a new place and gain knowledge.
Building less oppressive systems. If we build a greater understanding of our connection as humans, we can move beyond tribalism, racism, sexism, classism, and many other forms of oppression. There will be a lot to correct in our world, and a productive day becomes one where we do less harm to each other.
Finding greater sustainability. If the Age of Automation turns out to be great for humans, we will be motivated to make it last as long as possible. Unfortunately, our current never-ending race towards more wealth has led us to strip out all the resources in the world. So, productivity in the future would find ways to reverse those effects and keep things running smoothly.
Learning and skill building. For all the time we’ve been on the earth, there’s a lot we don’t understand. If aliens asked us, “Why do you guys dream at night?”, our best answer would be, “I dunno, we were too busy working to think about that.” Similarly, there’s a lot of skills that we’ve lost over the years because our time has gone to work (and making money). Productivity in the Age of Automation means we’ll actually have time to study and understand our world better.
Establishing new connections. Humans have always been good at finding new patterns and connections. In the future, a productive day is one where we meet someone new or build on the discoveries of others.
When you give humans access to what they need and as much time as they want, productivity takes on a whole new meaning. Doing a good job at being human will not mean how quickly we can do the same thing over and over in an hour, but will be much more grounded in these newly prioritized skills of humans.
Suddenly, spending a few hours in a coffee shop talking through new understanding of history becomes productive. Leading a group of kids on a trek to discover the start of a creek, or crafting that insightful comedy routine is extremely productive. Mastering an instrument or a language on the verge of extinction might be the most productive thing you can do.
Imagining what the future metrics of productivity might be can help us start to build that future now.
The modern barriers (and answers) to the new productivity
Let’s come back to the present for a while.
Over the last several hundred years, humans have relied more and more on cognitive functions to be productive at work. However, we haven’t done a good job at learning how to optimize our lives to be more productive at knowledge work. We still think that we can push our brains harder to get more out of them, just like we can do to machines.
Study after study shows that our brains work best when they are not stressed, well-rested, and able to focus on the task at hand. But it is still countercultural to arrange our lives and workplaces around promoting these things.
Four things we are horrible at
When it comes to productivity with knowledge work, there are four things that our present society is really, really bad at:
Remembering all the things we need to do
Actually doing the most important things
Creating time for doing important work
Staying focused despite distractions around us
If productivity in the future will be based on even more specialized cognitive functioning, we need to start learning how to be more productive with our brains now.
David Allen says, “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.” To achieve great productivity, humans need a way to collect and organize the tasks they want to accomplish to achieve a bigger goal. We have ideas all the time, but if we do not capture them, we cannot consider ourselves very productive.
One of the reasons for low productivity among knowledge workers is not that they aren’t working, but they aren’t doing the right things. Humans are innately good at prioritizing tasks when they are forced to sit down and rank them, but we do it very sparingly. Productivity in the 21st century will be dependent on our ability to figure out what tasks are better delegated to machines, and what is the best use of our time.
Our modern work schedules have taken our days and split them up into small blocks of time here and there. We don’t have a lot of long dedicated chunks to focus on deep work where we really get important things done. The hours in our work day seem to belong to other people, and even when we get the chance to schedule it, we often don’t do it wisely.
The most productive work in the future cannot be done in bits and pieces, but needs large swaths of uninterrupted time. Reducing the amount of time we are required to work can help with that, but there’s still a lot to learn. We have yet to build effective systems that reward people who take time to rest and recharge.
Paying attention to the energy we have at different times of the day is one of those under-researched areas which can also yield a lot of new productivity.
One evolutionary holdover from our hunter-gatherer days that won’t help us in the future is our tendency to focus on the urgent and be distracted by potential threats. We need to start with removing all the harmful external distractions that we’ve recently introduced into our lives in the form of notifications, instant messages, and pings.
What would they do to get the most out of their investment?
I imagine they would make sure that their humans had:
Plenty of sleep and rest
Adequate time for leisure activities
Minimal levels of bad stress and anxiety
Minimal distractions when performing core work
Prodding to continuously evaluate the importance of their tasks
Long blocks of time to do work when energy levels are highest
If the machines would do it, why don’t we?
Building a futuristic productive team culture, today
It’s time to focus on what we can do today that will help us get to a more idealized future when it comes to human productivity.
The Age of Automation is not a maybe thing. Many tasks humans have been doing for centuries or more are quickly shifting to machines, and it’s not going to stop or slow down.
Therefore, as a leader in the workforce, you have the option to either squeeze as much old-style productivity as you can out of the people around you, or become an early adopter and acceptor of the new productivity.
Here are several practical things you can do to start.
Banish the idea that more time in office equals more work
We need to break the strong connection between work and time. It’s still deeply ingrained in our minds that human workers should be paid per hour or that their pay is tied to sitting at a desk (or logging in from home) for a particular number of hours a day.
This should strike us as ridiculous.
In addition to commoditizing time (the only truly limited resource we have), it says that to do more work, you need to put in more time. It’s rare to hear someone way, “Gosh I have some really important things to do this week. I better make sure to get some extra sleep and work out regularly.” Instead, we default to cutting corners in our health and personal lives.
As a leader, you must make sure your teams know what you really value as productive work, and that you don’t value them just being present.
Remove stress and anxiety
One of the greatest threats that damages our health and productivity is stress. When our work lives are stressful, it seeps over to our personal lives and health.
Work shouldn’t be a place where you come to get stressed. It should be a place where you come to be creative, explore, and make a difference.
When was the last time that stress was actually positively productive at your office? Did you work late nights to release a new feature? Was it really worth all the stress looking back on it?
Business leaders of the next era of productivity will find ways to remove as much stress as possible from their human workers. What can you do now?
Pay a comfortable wage
One of the most practical ways to reduce the stress of your team is to make sure they have enough money to live with some margin. If there are people on your team that struggle to make ends meet and work second or third jobs on the side out of necessity, you are not getting the best out of them.
We’ve already mentioned the possibility of decoupling work and money. While we aren’t ready to move there entirely, that doesn’t mean we can’t take some small steps to get there. Having a set “minimum basic income” for people working at your company allows them to not live in fear.
Reward with more time off rather than more money
Speaking of money, instead of only using salary hikes as a reward for yearly appraisals, why not offer more time off in lieu of higher pay? One common complaint of workers is that they must either work a 40+ hour work week, or not at all. There isn’t much in between. Holding workers’ salaries steady while asking them to come into the office less is a great way to show them that you want only their best work at the office.
Protect your team from distractions
We are currently in the middle of a tsunami of software vying for everyone’s attention. Many of those tools are engineered to get your team to spend as much time as possible in them. While you need to offer your team the proper tools to get their work done, one of your main considerations should be how often the tool distracts them.
To maximize productivity, modern workers will need long blocks of time to focus on their work without distractions. Yet, there are very few companies in the world that offer this. Most tacitly expect everyone to be on call, ready to be interrupted at any moment.
Establish a culture of focus and choose tools that are not invasive.
Promote and model the importance of rest and disconnecting
As much as you tell your team to take time off and get plenty of rest, if the leadership isn’t doing it, it won’t happen. If the boss never takes a vacation, it makes it feel like it’s not ok. Leadership needs to model taking breaks, vacations, family leave, getting good sleep, and not responding to messages after hours.
Offering financial benefits like money to spend on vacations, learning a new skill, sabbaticals, and monthly fitness goals are just the start of establishing a new culture of productivity.
Celebrate new metrics, not old ones
It’s common to hear leaders praise people who get to the office early, leave late, are always available, and put in lots of extra effort. But rarely do we hear praise for the woman who devised, wrote, and automated a successful marketing campaign by noon and then left for the day to volunteer at a conservation project.
Automation is often promoted as a job killer. Some see it as a way to reduce the bottom line and get rid of human workers.
However, we actually need to invest more into automation. The work that automated systems are capable of is the stuff that humans shouldn’t be getting good at anymore. When you bring automation into your company, you increase your organization’s ability to produce, and create more margin for humans to work on other things.
We aren’t going to solve the productivity challenge by running away from technology, but by learning how to work with it.
Expand who gets these new rewards
Creating a modern productive culture might sound like a great idea, but if we ignore the existing systems that are biased towards those who already have privilege, then we create a further divide between the haves and have nots.
Offering a well-paying job with plenty of margin and time off to someone who looks like you may mean that this person has more time to research and write books about Viking history. Offering it to a single mother might mean changing the course of an entire generation.
Rethink your growth strategy
David Heinemeier Hansson of Basecamp says that the biggest cause of all the negative parts of contemporary tech culture goes back to “unrealistic, outsized ambition”. When growth is the main thing on your mind, every decision gets filtered through it, no matter what those posters on the wall say about how awesome your culture is.
Instead of infinite growth, what if your company found a sustainable level to stay at? If you actually set a growth target you can reach instead of just “getting bigger”, then you have time to focus on other goals that are actually more important.
The way we’ve defined “doing a good job at work” has changed significantly over the history of humanity. Humans have relied on different skills and abilities to get that work done.
As we stand on the edge of the Age of Automation, we have a choice. If we drag the old rules of productivity into the future, we’ll end up in a world where humans are truly irrelevant because we won’t be able to compete against machines and systems that will be able to do all the things we used to do.
However, if we decide to change the metrics of productivity, we can focus on the unique skills we still have and optimize our work life for them.
It won’t be a fast change, but it will never happen unless we start to make small and big changes in our companies right now. How can you do your part to bring about a better world of productivity for humanity?
This seemingly innocuous message in Slack has cost me several hours of productive work.
The red dot is always flashing and 30 unread messages greet me every morning, most of which I don’t even care about. Quite often, particularly while doing deep work, I find myself coming out of my trance-like state because of Slack’s chime.
There’s a vibrant conversation going on and everyone’s chiming in with their opinions excitedly. Or, Dave brought donuts for everyone and I want to be the first one to know. Sometimes, there’s this long thread with people quibbling over Ruth bringing her corgi to work and I couldn’t go back to the article I’m writing without reading all 179 replies.
Slack (and its friends) is a pit that I find difficult to get out of and is killing my productivity.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a Slack-bashing piece. (This is.) I love Slack. I’ve used Slack for a while and it’s easy to collaborate and communicate with the whole team.
It’s stunningly designed and super slick. Its greatest strength is its simplicity. It’s as easy as falling into a pool filled with pudding.
Which is precisely why we all love it. It’s frickin’ easy and it gives me instant gratification.
But is it too easy? As we look around at each other swimming between graham crackers and banana slices, should we be concerned?
Slack killed email, or did it?
Slack set out to save us from the barrage of emails that inundate our inboxes, and boy did it. Hundreds of emails a day? Gone! With Slack, you don’t even need email.
My company stopped using email for work communication three years ago. I don’t even remember the last time I sent an internal email, all thanks to Slack. Now, I don’t waste time sitting in my email client, waiting for responses and sorting through email threads.
But actually, Slack didn’t kill email. It just made it cool again.
During the reign of email, my biggest gripe was being CC’d on irrelevant reply-all emails. Any message I have to go through that doesn’t concern me or impact my work is a time suck.
My inbox used to be a giant lasagna of marketing emails, layered on internal emails, layered on newsletters, and more, all topped with amazing pharmaceutical deals.
Taking a look at my Slack account, it looks pretty much the same. It’s a cooler UI, and I don’t get the spam from people I don’t know, but everything else is still there.
Slack is better than email, but it has the same foundational problems.
The sirens of Slack
My biggest problem with Slack and other chat-based collaboration tools is that it forces communication to be synchronous. I send a message and I expect a response in real-time. Some people start with a “Hey” or a “Good Morning”. They wait for a response before saying anything else. It’s great to digitally connect on a human level with my coworkers (sitting across the room), but it can be a brutal assault on my productivity.
Every message is screaming for my attention and it’s intrusive by nature. Since there’s no way to determine if a message is important, it’s quite easy to get sucked into a vortex of unimportant information. But, it just feels like I have to be continuously connected to keep up with conversations.
Sending a message takes less effort than thinking if a message needs to be sent and so channels are rife with bulky, low-quality threads. As a result, the important messages drown in the visual cacophony caused by irrelevant missives.
And the worst thing is that Slack wants you to spend even more time inside it–everything should come into the pudding pool. Integrate your storage! Integrate your calendar! Integrate your fitness tracking! And it’s all so easy.
After a while you get the feeling that you could run your whole business right from the pudding pool. Why would you ever need to leave?
It’s not Slack, it’s us
Part of the problem lies in our human nature and how we abuse the tool. You know how you just open the refrigerator, hoping that new food will automatically appear? That’s basically Slack. And, there’s new food almost every time you open it. So, there’s a constant pull to keep opening it from time to time. But unlike Facebook or Twitter, it’s guilt-free because you do it for work-related things, right? Checking Slack is the equivalent of hitting the refresh button on your email and just waiting for something to take away your attention.
Slack’s ubiquitous nature–it’s available on both laptops and smartphones–means I’m always connected to my work. There are times I turn on the DnD mode or the snooze option, but I still find myself checking the channels once in a while, even when I’m out on vacation. It’s addictive.
When I get an email from someone, they don’t expect an immediate response. It’s asynchronous communication. I can choose to read the message and move it to my low priority bucket if it’s not important.
This is not the case with Slack. If I’m online and I don’t reply within 10 minutes of getting a text, the other person gets restless. I’m guilty of it as well. I feel we’re being pressured into a permanently responsive state. It hurts my flow and lowers my productivity.
Yet we feel like we are being productive by blowing through more messages. Slack makes all these problems really blurry and helps you move through them fast. And, you can add a party parrot to your responses.
Your company is not helping
In many workplaces, if you’re working, you’re expected to be available on Slack. Always.
If you are not in a co-located space, Slack is the way remote workers prove that they are working. When your boss is halfway across the globe, you need to maintain an active Slack presence in case they think you just take a walk whenever you feel like it. *gasp*
The truth is those who’re actually productive do not have time to be on Slack the whole day. Because all we do on Slack is talk about getting work done, rather than actually doing it.
Giving Slack to your employees without some hygienic rules around it is like giving every child in a school an iPhone that shoots out candy when you use it, yelling at them when they don’t have the phone with them all the time, and then telling them to focus on their book reports. It’s a tad irresponsible.
What we need is a communication platform that’s human-centered, built with focus and productivity in mind, rather than just product engagement. Something that truly empowers teams to be productive without hijacking their focus.
The future of work, as I see it, is where successful companies don’t require their teams to be connected all the time. The companies making this shift see the value of deep work and the importance of setting time aside to fully disconnect.
Which of these scenarios would you pick as a leader?
A team that never misses assigning a task to be done
A team that always makes the right call on what tasks are the most important
A team that never gets distracted in their focus
A team that has balanced time for solo work and meetings
It may be hard to choose, but if my team always knows what is most important, I can deal with a lot of missed tasks, some distractions, and too many meetings.
Prioritization is one of the four pillars of productivity. You can’t do all the tasks or projects that are on your list on a given day–you have to pick. As Seth Godin says, “infinity is a trap”. And it’s the prioritization of your tasks that determines whether or not your team is successful.
Prioritization seems like such an easy thing. Most people can look at a list of tasks and determine which ones will make the most impact.
And yet, we consistently mess this up. When you look back on the last year, did your team spend the bulk of their time and money doing the most important thing? Or were there long stretches of time that are all now wasted now because they didn’t have any effect?
As we look to the future of work, teams that have a deep culture of prioritization will stand far apart from those that can’t. Teams that can’t prioritize their work will be stuck running around in circles–staying busy, but never either making an impact or learning.
If knowing how to prioritize is so intuitive, why are we so bad at it?
8 prioritization traps that teams fall into all the time
1. Making prioritization decisions too quickly
The Eisenhower matrix is a fantastic model for making prioritization decisions…as long as you take it slow. In the heat of the moment, everything that is urgent also seems important. When your team prioritizes things in a chaotic, fast-paced atmosphere, anything can be justified as important.
Priority must be given when the atmosphere is cool and low-pressure and when you can be ruthless about cutting down unimportant tasks.
2. Fighting fires feels good
We get a buzz from handling the urgent. It’s why we check our messages and notifications right before sitting down to do some serious work. It’s like we say, “Is there anything urgent that I can spend my time on first before I do this very important thing?”
Hell, sometimes we even light fires, or fan sparks into flames to justify the need to put on our firefighter gear.
Firefighters also get all the glory. We tend to give more praise to the quick fixer on our team than the one who planned and executed a six month long strategy.
3. Your don’t want people to think you are an asshole
When you are focused on prioritization, you’ve got to say “no” a lot. And not just to tasks, but to people. Many of those people will say, “What’s the problem? I just need you to do this one thing.” A team that prioritizes their work won’t be the most popular one in the office. If you are leading a highly-focused team, don’t expect to win any congeniality awards.
4. Doing easier things is easier
Without a clear view of what is important, your team will take the path of least resistance. There’s always this one big task that everyone knows is important, but no one wants to touch because it is so hard to get rolling.
Doing the easy things feels good because it’s great to end the day crossing 12 things off your list than one. But everytime we focus on the easy stuff first, we open ourselves up to distractions and new emergencies that further delay the important stuff.
5. You want to show nice charts
Important and innovative work doesn’t usually look great at quarterly business review meetings. You want to be able to show your peers that your team is rocking it, but doing the important work doesn’t mean you have good numbers to show.
The most important thing you can do might lead to significant failure, but no one wants to put that slide up.
6. No one asks why
Do you have that person on your team who you want to throw in a closet every time you start a planning meeting? You know they will immediately ask, “But why are we doing this?” and mess up the nice charts you had planned.
Most of your team assumes you have the vision and have already prioritized. But we all need that person who knows we are full of shit sometimes and need to be called out.
7. You send mixed signals
As the leader, you have a strategy meeting Friday afternoon and decide the most important things to work on next week. Then, on Monday, something comes up and you have to throw a new task or project at them. They think,
Should we do what we all decided was most important? Or this random new task that just came up?
You have not only thrown off their ability to get the important things done but also called into question how seriously you take what is actually important.
8. Blame it on the bandwidth
When you get to the end of the quarter and realize you’ve had very little impact, it’s tempting to say, “We just didn’t have the bandwidth.” A semi-good leader will hire more people to only work on the important stuff that didn’t happen. A great leader will say, “Why do we have all these people who aren’t doing priority stuff?”
Bad prioritization always comes back to the leader
When there’s a talented, well-bonded team that’s not having much impact in the organization, the leader should always be held accountable. You can’t blame it on anyone else. If your team struggles with this, it’s not something you can pass off to others.
…but good prioritization never stays with the leader
It would seem pretty horrible if a leader spent all of her day looking over all the tasks her team members were working on and constantly updating the priority.
Let’s take it back to easy for a minute.
We said that prioritizing work is actually pretty intuitive. It doesn’t take an abnormally brilliant person to be able to see what will have the most impact.
That means everyone else on your team is equally capable of assigning priority as you are.
So instead of micromanaging the priority of tasks for your team, you need to set up your team so that they can decide on the priority of their work without you.
A good leader won’t just back off and say, “Ok, you all decide everything now.” You have to make sure your team members have the information, tools, and culture set up so that they can do their best work.
10 ways to create a team that self-prioritizes work
Here are some prioritization techniques and principles that will help you make a team that can basically run itself.
1. Be clear on the vision, goal, and metric
When everyone knows without a doubt where you are headed, everyone can see how they can help get there best. As a leader, it’s your job to clarify what the vision of the team is, what metric you’ll use to judge your success, and realistic goals to measure your progress.
The leader doesn’t mandate these things, but clarifies them and makes sure that everyone is on the same page.
When everyone knows the metric and goal, it becomes much easier for others to see if what they are doing is having an impact.
2. Priority comes in many flavors
After setting the goal and metric, invite your team to make a list of all the ways you can get there. Then facilitate a conversation to help decide what you should try first.
Which idea is most challenging?
Which one has never been tried before?
Which one has the most upside?
Which one is guaranteed to work?
Which one do we know the best and can execute quickly?
When it comes time to choose which ideas to execute, there isn’t a single correct answer. Some options might be more exploratory and likely to fail, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some effort into them.
Whoever is working on that idea must believe that it is the most important thing they can do, whether it is exploring new options, or sticking to tried and true methods.
3. Prioritizing tasks vs. projects
A common trap that leaders fall into is to try to focus on prioritizing their team’s tasks. This dips quickly into micromanagement. Also, it’s exhausting for everyone to check in often and say, “What do I do next?”
Instead of prioritizing tasks, you should focus on prioritizing projects. A project is a collection of related tasks (known and unknown) that help get you to the goal.
Asking someone, “Did you do that SEO research I asked you about?” is focused on a specific task. Instead, saying, “I really think an SEO strategy is important to help us reach our goals. How is that project going on?” is a much better approach. Team members are in control of how the project gets done and is responsible for the outcome of the project, not just executing the tasks.
4. Create systems and processes, then automate them
Projects are great for when you aren’t sure the impact a strategy will have on your goal. But once you know that something is working, if it follows a predictable workflow, then creating an automated process is the best path.
Once you’ve found a system that works, your team should be able to create a process that runs on its own. You can identify lots of parts of the process where a machine or system would be more efficient or accurate than a human.
The goal of automation is to be able to get your team to start new projects. You want them to move on and ask, “What’s the next thing that might have a great impact for us?” If your team is stuck only on prioritizing tasks, they’ll never be able to move out of them and explore new imaginative areas.
5. Equip them with the right tools
If you want your team to self-prioritize work and manage their own projects and processes, you need to give them the tools to do it. Highly productive teams need to be able to quickly build, edit, and dismantle structures around their tasks, projects, and processes.
But this doesn’t mean that every person on your team needs to have three separate licenses to highly advanced task, project, and process management tools.
Instead, look for a digital workplace that gives team members the tools they need to organize any kind of work that comes their way.
6. Protect your team from the urgent
As soon as your team is working on their priorities, lots of urgent things will come up that seem like they need to be done. As a leader, your job is to create a protective shield around your team and clearly communicate to them and others that they are working on very important work and shouldn’t be distracted.
Don’t reward firefighting
Don’t be afraid to be seen as unhelpful
Don’t be a slave to whomever walks in the door
If you feel that your team is being distracted by others, ask very clearly why. If the overall company vision is no longer valid, you need to realign all of your priorities. Otherwise, fight hard to let your team focus on their priority work.
7. Say, “Don’t do that”
Highly productive teams are unique in what they don’t do, not what they do. Your job as the leader is to continuously remind your team what everyone has collectively decided is the most important. Help team members who seem to be stuck in a trap of doing things that only have moderate impact instead of the truly impactful items.
8. Stop doing things you don’t think are important (and see who notices)
If everything goes to hell and you’ve got people screaming at you, then that was probably an important task.
If no one says anything and it takes a few months to notice, then it’s possible that no one needed to do that task anyway. Burkus says, “You’d be amazed at how much work you do simply because it’s always been done even though no one really needs it.”
9. Bring up the unspoken
Another job that falls on the leader is to speak the unspoken. Name the elephants in the room. Stop and ask why. Mention the thing that everyone is thinking but not talking about.
It may be related to an underperforming team member, or a bad habit you’ve gotten into.
Denial is the enemy of prioritization. As soon as you ignore something, you can’t work on it anymore. The leader’s job is to find it and talk about it.
10. Celebrate important successes and failures
When your team does something that makes a huge positive impact on the vision, make sure to celebrate. Don’t just treat it as obvious and business as usual. Take time to recognize the work that people have done (and note the things they ignored to stay focused).
But not all prioritized tasks will end up in success. You may be exploring a task that failed to have an impact. Celebrate that as well and make sure to clearly document what you learned from the experience. Recognize that person an expert on the topic and thank them for boldly going where you hadn’t been before.
You can do this (and so can everyone else)
As we’ve said before, nearly everyone is pretty good at prioritizing work. As long as you know where you are going, finding the best route on the map isn’t that hard.
Being able to prioritize your work isn’t a significant advantage.
Actually doing it is. The biggest advantage to building a team that knows how to prioritize is that most teams don’t.
But teams that prioritize their work only for efficiency and productivity will become specialists in things that will soon be irrelevant. If you are only focused on doing what you already do, but faster and cheaper, you won’t have much of a future.
Instead, as you prioritize, keep your head up and recognize the importance of being flexible to what is coming down the road. Treat it as high priority to send out explorers who can find new patterns or come back with critical information to help you adapt to the future.
Bravely focus on the future and use your team to find the best way there!
Every superhero has recurring supervillains. Sometimes, they’re easily defeated by the hero, but as the story moves on, they become more aware of the hero’s weaknesses, and cleverly exploit them. The villains are never fully vanquished and nearly always find a way to resurface again and again.
In the same way, your productivity at work is usually attacked by the same villains over and over. You may have a completely unscheduled and distraction-free day, but still not accomplish much if your villains get the best of you.
Your unique set of supervillains are based on your personality, your physical workplace, your digital workplace, and many other factors.
Like the comics, you can never completely get rid of your productivity supervillains. They can only be respected, and managed, not solved, and you must always be on your guard. One small opening is enough for the supervillain to come in and take control over a whole season of work.
In my own life, since I can’t forever destroy my supervillains, I find it helpful to name and recognize them early on. Each bad guy takes a different approach; Batman has a very different strategy of fighting Two-Face than he does the Riddler. Naming your villains and talking openly about how to fight them goes a long way in taking back control over your productivity.
Here are the top five recurring supervillains that are most likely to destroy my productivity at work.
1. Doing the easy stuff first
When I sit down with my task management system to decide what to prioritize, I am always drawn to the quick and easy tasks first. This supervillain tells me that I should build up momentum and clear my schedule to do the bigger tasks later.
I fall for this one all the time, and *spoiler alert* I almost never end up finishing those big tasks later on in the day. If I don’t do them first, they don’t get done.
I have this one recurring task to do that takes about ten minutes. If I miss doing it, it’s not a big deal. But that ten minutes is too enticing, and I almost never miss doing that task while I push off bigger things.
On days when I lose to this villain, I feel like I’m just treading water and never moving forward. On the flip side, if I have a day when I get my big stuff done, but miss out on the small things, I never feel bad, because I know I’ll get the small stuff done tomorrow.
How I fight this villain: Recognize that I can make any task seem important, and consciously choose to do the hardest task first.
2. Checking communication too often
It’s a deep part of my personality to want to be helpful and have other people like me. One way I do this is by making sure I’m available to others. Turning off all my notifications seems rude and selfish sometimes. So, I keep checking messages and email frequently just to be sure that no one is waiting on me.
But once I open up those floodgates, it’s hard to stop. I get sucked into conversations that go on forever and end up losing a bunch of time just doing communication triage.
How I fight this villain: In the end, people are going to be more happy with me if I actually get big things done rather than just respond to immediate requests. Also, I have to recognize that I disappoint others more if I respond immediately and say I’ll do something, but then push that task off for several days. The longer I put off checking communication, the better I do.
3. Ignoring energy management
My productivity villains tend to strike hardest when my energy is down. If I’m feeling strong, I tend to be able to fight off their attacks pretty easy. But when I feel weak, then I’m much more likely to give in. When my energy is low, I can almost feel myself looking forward to being drawn into this villain’s web and clickbait all of a sudden looks really enticing.
I do a lot of editing for other writers. Editing a bad article not only takes time, but it completely drains me and makes me highly vulnerable to this attack.
My work day starts at 5:30am. My energy is usually lowest at about 1pm-2pm, or just after lunch. I find it really hard to concentrate at that time. I’m also a pretty munchy person in general and working at home means that I’m only 50 feet away from grabbing food any time I want.
How I fight this villain: I have to be very selective about the writers I work with so that I don’t end up doing much editing on their work. Since I know the afternoon is hard on me, I do best if I either take a break and do some physical activity, or push off my simple tasks until that time. Sometimes ending my day an hour early and then coming back for an hour in the evening works well as long as my schedule allows it. For the munchies, limiting quick snacks that are in the house, and eating full meals helps a bit.
4. Bad meetings
A great meeting gives me a lot of clarity on what tasks I need to do and their priority. A bad meeting drains the life out of me and makes me want to not talk to people ever again. Also, meetings take a different mindset than solo work, and it’s really hard to be productive when I’m constantly switching between them.
How I fight this villain: There are some bad meetings I can’t get out of, but I can control a lot of my meetings. I make sure there is a clear agenda, clear action items, and that we connect on a human level. I’ve also found that grouping all of my meetings on the same days helps to both prevent that mindset switching, and also provides me with some meeting-free days when I can focus on solo work.
5. Personal stuff
I keep all of my personal email separate from my work stuff, but when your workspace is digital, you are never more than a few keystrokes away from anything. The voice in my head reminds me of a personal task I need to get done, and convinces me that 1) I can do it quickly, and 2) I’ll forget it if I don’t do it now.
How I fight this villain: Similar to any other area of work, I need to use a separate task management system to keep all these thoughts when they pop up, and then block out time towards the end of the day to do them all at the same time.
Who are your supervillains?
In my experience, I’ve found that time management and productivity are extremely subjective. The supervillains I face aren’t the same as the ones you do. While I can pick up a few time management tips from other people, in the end I have to have my own unique plan.
Great time management is all about being intensely self-aware. Once you identify your supervillains and figure out how they affect you, you have a much better chance of defeating them. If they go unnamed, they become generic things like laziness or an inability to focus, which are much harder to fight.
Supervillains also never die. You can’t just kill off Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Magneto once and for all. They always find a way back. Similarly, whatever your productivity supervillains are, you will probably always struggle with them. They will win some days, but the more honest you are about them, the better you can do at recognizing their tricks and overcoming them.
Today, our guest is Terry Monaghan. She’s the CEO of Time Triage and this is Work Minus Overwhelm. Hi, Terry. How are you?
I’m great. How are you?
Excellent. Not feeling too overwhelmed at the moment, but hopefully we’ll stay that way. Terry, tell us a little bit about yourself. What was it like for your journey to become a time management expert?
It was a very interesting process actually. My background’s operations. So, I was in an operations position with a consulting firm that was growing rapidly. But like many companies, it had this predominant culture of everybody running around with their hair on fire. And I could never quite understand why were people so excited about whatever the drama of the day was when you could see it coming for about a year and a half. Until I realized, they couldn’t and I could because I was very good at putting out the fires. I was just also always putting in a structure underneath. Because same fire, different day is just boring and doesn’t show a lot of imagination. You could probably tell I also have a bit of a wicked sense of humor. But unfortunately, when you get sufficient structure in place, the culture shifts from everybody running around putting out today’s fire to everything working at a much higher level but smoothly and easily. And planning and maintenance didn’t look like work. So, they figured that things were running so smoothly they didn’t need me anymore. And said, “Thank you, you’ve obviously done an awesome job. But clearly we don’t need you anymore. So good luck. God bless. Off you go.” And I was shocked.
The second company… oh, six weeks later, I got a phone call from somebody there, saying, “Well, how do we do this?” And I said, “It’s in the operations manual that I left behind.” And she said, “Well, how do we do this other thing?” And I said, “Well, that’s also in the operations manual that I left behind.” And “Well, how do we do this?” “Well, also, it’s in the operations manual that I wrote and left behind.” At which point she just sort of cried and said, “You made it look so easy.” And the second company, obviously, I’d gotten the job very quickly, but it turns out if you don’t plan and maintain, things really do start falling apart in about six weeks. And the next company I managed to work myself out of in a similar situation but much quicker in 18 months. And the same kind of series of phone calls about six weeks later. And I remember thinking, wow, they don’t see what I see when I’m looking at something. That’s odd. And then the third and final company, I worked myself out of the position in 11 months flat. And I realized, oh, they don’t see what I see when I’m looking at something. So, what I do must be a skill set, which didn’t occur to me because, of course, it came so easily to me. It was automatic. And I figured if I was going to be working myself out, I was now going to be doing it on my terms. So, I just began consulting and coaching in producing results and it morphed into performance and productivity because I discovered people are just working way too hard.
And I’m glad you brought that up because productivity is a big theme for us on the show and recognizing that productivity is not just about how you measure machines and making sure that they’re always on and constantly working. But human productivity is much different than that.
Correct. And I heard a great quote, you could be very, very productive on all the wrong things.
That’s a good one.
Busy doesn’t mean productive.
Well, let’s just start with the start of the day, all of us get a certain amount of time to work, whether it be eight hours or more or less. But no matter what, that time period is usually significant. But a lot of times it feels like that time just flies away and we get to the end of the day, we’re, like, what did I actually do? So, what are the reasons that we feel like time slips away from us?
Well, for one thing, email is the bane of all existence rather than a really good tool to foster communication, performance, and productivity. The way people are using email as if it was some form of instant message is getting in the way of them being able to get anything done. And it adds to the one main thing, which is we haven’t been trained in how to really take control of our time, and specifically manage the interruptions that are an inevitable part of our lives. By default, we are going to be interrupted about once every three minutes. It used to be once every six minutes, and it’s gotten worse. And that could be a colleague stopping by our desk. It could be a phone call. It could be an email. It could be a Slack message, a pop up, a ding, a text. It could be anything but it’s going to happen about once every three minutes if we don’t take specific action. Now, if that were not bad enough, it takes us on average 23 and a half minutes to bring our focus back to what we were working on before we were interrupted. So, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that math is just not going to work. Because if you allow one interruption, more than likely, you’re going to be interrupted 7, 8, 9 times before you can bring your focus back. And this is why we can hit our desk at 9:00 in the morning, and at 5:00 o’clock have nothing to show for the day, except the sensation physically that we’ve been really crazy busy all day long. But we’ve been reacting, reacting, reacting, and didn’t get anything of substance done.
Exactly. And we had a conversation with Dr. Gloria Mark who actually created a lot of this research that we’re talking about. And with her, we talked about the difference between internal and external distractions. I find in my own life that even if I have a long period of time to work, even then I still will almost create distractions in my own mind every three minutes, every six minutes that come up.
Exactly. And we get that little bitty endorphin hit when we solve some little thing that was distracting us. So, sometimes that is the self distraction. Sometimes the internal distraction that was also related to the fact that we may be trying to work against our own energy cycles. We may be trying to do some really thoughtful, deep work at a point where we just don’t have the brain capacity anymore to do that kind of work.
That’s great and I actually want to get in deeper to the topic of energy management. It’s not something we’ve really talked about a lot on this show, but I think it’s very important. So, tell us what you know about energy management throughout the day.
Well, I like Tony Schwartz’ book, “The Way We’re Working Doesn’t Work,” where he talks about energy using the definition from physics, which is just the capacity to perform work. And he makes the distinction, as you mentioned earlier, human beings are not machines. We’re not designed to be on, working at a specific pace, hour after hour after hour. It doesn’t work that way. And we need to replenish our energy on a regular basis. And for a human being, we replenish our energy in four ways. One is we have to replenish physical energy. And we do that by eating, sleeping, moving, and resting. And then we have to replenish our mental energy. We have to replenish our emotional energy. And we have to replenish our spiritual energy. Now, the mental is our ability to focus. Our emotional energy is our ability to maintain a positive mental attitude or a positive attitude towards what we’re doing. And our spiritual energy is about knowing that what we’re doing at some level is actually making a bigger difference.
I find it interesting that the way we recharge energy is either through moving or by resting. Yet most of what we do in the work world is just sitting, which is like neither of those things.
Well, it also goes in cycles. The best of us can only focus on something for about 90 minutes at a time. Most of us right now, unfortunately, have an attention span that’s shorter than a goldfish. A goldfish can focus for about nine seconds. We can focus for about seven.
So, I’ve always wanted to ask somebody about this statistic about the goldfish because we have these things that say we can only focus for seven seconds. But then you said earlier that we can focus for up to 90 minutes. So, what’s the difference between the two, the short-term focus and the long-term focus?
Well, the seven second is where we’ve been trained for that little endorphin hit. Like the phone dings so you go look and see what’s the thing that just came in. The phone rings, depending on what generation, I know my nieces and nephews never answer the phone when it rings. But you go, you’re pulled by whatever the distraction is, right? So, because you get a little hit, and we’re addicted to that little hit of endorphin. And that’s why it’s so uncomfortable for some people to try to focus and when I’m working with my clients on getting them just to focus, sometimes we just start with five minutes, or 15 if we’re feeling particularly ambitious. And you have to just turn off and eliminate all other distractions to give yourself that 15 minutes. But then most people are shocked at how much they actually get done in that 15 uninterrupted minutes. I read another study several years ago where a number of Fortune 500 executives were interviewed, and they said they felt incredibly lucky if they actually had about 45 minutes in the course of a day to focus on the most important aspects of their job moving the company forward. Now the tragedy is that that 45 minutes was often scattered throughout the day like confetti, rather than in one 45-minute burst. And if you’re only going to have 45 minutes to focus, what do you think it would be like if you just took 45 minutes and focused, and then let the rest of the day go the way the rest of the day is going to go?
Well, let’s stick with CEOs for a little while. It seems like any person in organizations, people who are at the current top leadership levels, are always pulled into meetings and pulled into extra things and it seems like they don’t have the ability to manage their own time. So, what are ways that CEOs and other top level leaders can really take that time back and own it better?
Well, when they get very, very clear about what the priority really is, and I found it interesting, I heard one author talk about we say priorities as if there are multiples, but there can only be one priority at any given moment. So, what’s the priority? And then whatever the request for time is is either going to move you closer to accomplishing that particular goal or it’s going to be a distraction. And I believe it’s Warren Buffett, who said, you say no to more things than you say yes to. The most successful say no to far more things than they say yes to. And I would challenge your statement that they’re pulled into all of these meetings. Some of them are allowing themselves to be. Others are much more in control of where they let their focus go and where they don’t.
I like what you’re saying. But I feel like it’s very difficult to put into practice a lot of times, and especially for leaders who are really helpful by nature. If somebody on their team comes up and says, “I need help with this,” the first response that many people have is just, “Yeah, you can have my time.” They want to be available to other people that are there. Yet at the same time, that’s where a lot of the time goes because they get pulled into these kinds of meetings. So, what’s an effective way that a CEO can make sure that people know that, yes, I think what you’re doing is very valuable, but I don’t think that I’m necessary to pull into this conversation right now?
Well, you do something exactly like that, rather than I’m not needed for that, but here’s where you can get the resource you need. You just rather than being the one… look, a lot of people I work with are very, very smart. And very, very smart people often want to do it themselves. But that’s not the best use of their time. So, training yourself to point somebody in the direction of where they can find the information they need to do what they’re trying to do is far better because you’re training people to also begin to think for themselves and rely on resources that are available, rather than you being the one who has to provide everything. Because if you’re the one who has to provide everything, you are going to be the biggest bottleneck in your business.
So, let’s broaden this now to not just the leaders but leaders who want to create a culture of time management around them. What are some ways that people can create the culture where everyone is respectful of others’ times and also respectful of their own time?
Well, one thing is really looking at what are the roadblocks? What are the things getting in the way? What are the default ways of being that are detrimental to people being able to perform? So, some of that is a culture of meetings. You don’t need to be spending 90% of your time in meetings. What are the point of the meetings? Another is do you have protocols that are clearly stated for how email is handled? Or by default, is everybody thinking that everything that comes in has to be dealt with immediately? I work with organizations where we’ve set up protocols that you have an agreement to respond to emails within X amount of time, and it’s not five minutes, it may be 24 hours. And that instant message is kept for something that’s truly instant. But remember, instant message is also an interruption. And you never know what somebody else is working on, and where you’re going to be breaking their focus. So, setting some protocols for how business can operate, and what the rules are. If you’re leading by example, that is you’re not sending emails at 10:00 o’clock at night. Because let’s face it, people are going to be checking their email at 10:00 o’clock at night out of fear. And if they see an email from the boss, they think, well, if the boss sent it at this hour, they must need an answer at this hour, which is nonsense.
I find that to be a very powerful topic. Because if you have a leader who is sending out emails and notifications late at night, even if they say I don’t expect people to respond immediately, just reply back whenever it’s convenient for you. It doesn’t really work like that. It doesn’t matter because people still see if this is the leader, then we need to match up to that we need to go to that despite what’s been said.
Right. Because people pay far more attention to what you’re doing than they will to what you’re saying.
Great. I’m actually very interested in the protocols you talked about about different tools, especially with instant messaging. And we talked about email before and in a lot of ways email still there, but a lot of the problems with email just have been transferred onto these messaging platforms, like Slack and other tools like that. So, what are some of the ways that we can take back the time that we lose in those tools? What are some of the protocols you’ve set up for instant messaging platforms?
Don’t have it be on all the time. Seriously, what kinds of things? They’re very few. If you really look at all the communications that are coming across, there’s very few of them that require an answer right this second. And asynchronous communication may be even better because it’s going to give the recipient the opportunity to think rather than react, which I think most of communication right now is reacting back and forth and back and forth. People text me all the time. I just make it clear I’m not responding to text in real time. I’m working. I’ve turned off all the notifiers. I’m working during the periods that I’m focused, and I have times when I’ll stop and I’ll check my email, and I’ll check any voicemail, and I’ll check any text or WhatsApp or whatever other channel people are using to communicate with me. And I’ll see what needs to be responded to. And I’ll queue it up to be responded to. But it’s because these are tools that I’m using to enable me to get my work done. Which means it’s there for my convenience, not for anybody else’s. Now, you have to also discipline yourself to be very reliable about responding in the way and within the timeframe you’ve given your word to. But once you’ve demonstrated that you’re reliable, people sort of relax about it. And you don’t end up with five emails and four texts asking why didn’t you respond to the first email.
And I get the feeling that the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication is still being defined in most organizations, and even if people are willing to sit down and say, yes, we feel like in these situations, synchronicity is better and these we’re going to default more to asynchronous. In practice, it’s still hard. You have to be very vigilant about people posting things on to an instant messaging platform as opposed to a board where people can respond at their own leisure. These are tough decisions. And as you say, each culture is different. If my CEO or my boss says that if you send me an email, I’ll probably respond in 24 hours, but it might be later. And don’t send me a text message unless it’s extremely urgent, and who defines what’s urgent? So, these are things we haven’t really defined well, even within companies, let alone across the entire work world.
Yeah. It’s brilliant. I mean, it’s just really great. But they set out from the get go to work that way. And you can’t argue that it doesn’t work because they’re accomplishing what they’ve set out to accomplish. And they’ve created an environment within which that can be done. So, busyness is not a competitive sport, even though a lot of people operate like it is and talk like it is. It’s not getting things done.
Yeah. I love that book. We’re actually having David Heinemeier Hansson on the show soon. And what he and Jason Fried did at Basecamp was a lot of this they built into the culture from the very beginning, or are very early stages. A lot of these things that we’re talking about are not things you can just add into your culture later on. They have to be there from the start.
Well, you can. You can reverse engineer. It takes something. Another great book from years ago was, “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It,” which was about the implementation of a results only work environment inside Best Buy at the time. And they came up with I think 13 basic rules or principles and had to reverse engineer inside of a traditional culture. And rule number one I think was the employee can work whenever they want, wherever they want, however they want as long as the work is getting done. And the first pushback they got from management was, “Well, if they’re not here, how are we going to know that they’re getting anything done?” And it turned out management couldn’t actually answer the question, “How do you know they’re getting anything done when they are here?” Just because that’s a culture that rewards presenteeism, not performance. So, the results were really, really interesting. They discovered that just by giving people control of their time, that productivity increased anywhere between 35% and 300% in terms of the results being produced.
And I feel like that’s a good reminder that we’re not talking about little hacks, like little tweaks you can make to make you more productive. Like, we need to step back and really look at the entire relationship of work and time, and how to decouple that, how to not have it such a strong connection between the two and really make some big decisions about it.
Especially in an information economy. People are being hired to produce results. We’re not working… you’re not being hired to stand on the factory floor for eight hours and produce X number of widgets anymore. I love what somebody said. I’m not being paid for the 10 minutes it took me to complete this job. I’m being paid for the 10 years of education and training that allowed me to do the job in 10 minutes.
Terry, this has been great. I feel like we’ve hit all the major issues around modern productivity and what we need to think about in terms of the future of productivity, how we measure it, how we act as leaders, how we build teams around it. And we called this episode Work Minus Overwhelm because I think it goes back to even the Basecamp book where one of their themes is that you can be a calm company, you don’t have to be running around crazy all the time and squeezing every minute out of the day in order to be a nice, profitable place to work.
And have a life. What a concept.
Yeah. So, Terry, where can people go to stay in touch with you?
The four-day workweek is back in the news after Microsoft Japan announced the results of their experiment earlier this year. A four-day workweek has been a talking point for more than a decade, but this case is particularly interesting because:
It comes from Microsoft, a huge brand not known for its innovative work culture
But before you jump into thinking “If Microsoft…in Japan…can pull this off, we should too!”, let’s take a closer look.
A brief history of the workweek
The seven-day week is one of the few arbitrary time measurements humans use that isn’t connected to nature. Years, months, and days are all tightly coupled with cosmic phenomena. But the number of days in a week is manmade.
The seven day week (usually with one day off for either religious or market functions) started with either Jewish or Babylonian cultures close to the 6th century BC. It spread to as far as India, China, and Japan. By the 4th or 5th century BC in Christendom, Sundays became the standard day off.
During the turn of the 20th century was the first mention of expanding rest to more than a day. While he wasn’t the first to offer two full days off, Henry Ford made big news in 1926 when he shut down his factories on Saturdays and didn’t cut wages. Similar to how he doubled his workers salaries, he felt like offering additional time off was a way to look after the overall health of employees, while also creating a larger class of people who had the time and money to enjoy things like automobiles. It also ended up improving productivity at his plants.
It took a few decades for the five on/two off system to spread, but it soon became accepted across the US and other parts of the world.
Before Microsoft Japan, many companies have tried the pattern of four days on/three days off. Some, like governments in Utah and Slingshot SEO, have tried four ten-hour days. Others, like Jason Fried and DHH of Basecamp work a 32-hour week during the summer, and 40 hours the rest of the year.
Online education platform TreeHouse has a 32-hour week year-round. Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, has been one of the more vocal supporters of the 32-hour, four-day week. In fact, their founders, Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart started a separate community just to encourage other businesses to try it. The British Trade Union Congress has been advocating for a four day week for a few years now.
Lasse Rheingans, who runs a consulting firm in Germany has experimented with a 5 hour working day, reducing the workweek down to 20 hours.
Thinking about a 4 day workweek?
There are lots of obvious benefits of a shorter workweek:
Higher retention rates
Better employee morale
Smaller environmental impact
Fewer sick days
More time to care for children and elderly family members
Lower operating expenses
But what about productivity?
At the heart of the shorter workweek debate is if business owners can still get the same level of output on a shorter schedule.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands or contracts to the amount of time given. With advances in technology, it’s possible to get the same work done in less time, but very few have been willing to cut the hours. Jason Fried says, “When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.”
Lasse Rheingans, the guy with the five-hour workday likes the challenge of getting more done in less time. He said, “An an eight-hour day you can mask problems and cheat yourself. This simply isn’t possible within a five-hour day. It’s merciless. It highlights exactly which areas aren’t working and what to take care of—it’s like holding a magnifying glass to every flaw.”
Perpetual Guardian’s study noted equal productivity between a four and five day workweek. Microsoft Japan is talking about 40% increased productivity after reducing the work time by 20%!
But the answer to greater productivity is not just to slash the hours.
How to do the four day week right
If you tell everyone to stop showing up on Fridays, you may have some happy employees for a while, but you’ll likely run into trouble down the road if you haven’t planned for it. Here are four key areas that you need to think through.
1. Get your motivation straight
Why do you want to reduce hours? Are you hoping for better productivity? Do you want your employees to be happier? Are you trying to reduce congestion in the office or lower operating expenses?
Your motivation will lead to the metric that will help you gauge the success of your experiment.
Treehouse CFO Michael Watson said their motivation started from the thought, “We want to take care of our people.” In that case, strict measures of productivity may not be the right tool to use.
If you are serious, you may want to engage a consultant or local university to help you evaluate the effectiveness of the experiment.
2. Be employee-led
As with most cultural decisions, mandating things from the top down isn’t a good idea. You should talk with employees and get their insights and feedback. Do they want a four-day week, or would they rather continue to work five, but with fewer hours? How would it improve their lives? What other benefits might be there?
Employees should also think about solutions for how to overcome challenges. At Lassee Rheingans’s consulting company, they don’t allow mobile phones in the office and block social networks for their 5 hour workday in order to increase productivity. If you still need to meet customer’s needs throughout the week, can you work in teams to make sure all days are covered? Does it make more sense to use a seasonal approach like Basecamp?
Andrew Barnes of Perpetual Guardian says, “”The right attitude is a requirement to make it work–everyone has to be committed and take it seriously for us to create a viable long-term model for our business.” Employees must be involved in how it is implemented and monitored.
3. Four days on
Much like remote work, a four-day week is not something you can just try tomorrow. It should be the next logical step on a path your company is already on. If you have already built a culture around employee wellbeing, automation, digital workplaces, and productivity, then transitioning to a four-day week, or reducing hours makes sense. But if you haven’t done the work to prepare your team, then it’s not likely to succeed.
A four day workweek is not something you can just start. Think about the culture you have now.
How efficient are you?
How well do you use digital tools?
How often are decisions delayed because you are waiting on someone?
Where is the most friction in your daily interactions?
When’s the last time you stopped having a meeting because you didn’t need it?
How much busy work does your team do that could be automated?
How much time is wasted on social media tools?
Do you naturally praise people who get more done in less time? Or do you reward the workaholics?
Treehouse CEO Ryan Carson said two reasons that his company was able to make the move to four days was that they had already eliminated internal email and managers. They also had a strong culture about unnecessary meetings.
4. Think about the three days off
One very interesting aspect of Microsoft Japan’s approach was how they encouraged people to use their extra time off. They offered money to employees to do various things like:
Take a family trip
Learn a new skill
Visit another office and learn from it
You don’t want to put unnecessary parameters around how people can spend their free time, but you can encourage them to use it in a way that encourages rest, creativity, and service.
The goal is not for your employees to have time to take up a second job, but to enjoy life, take care of children or family members, and be better humans. If you care for the whole person, you want to make sure that the three days off are spent on things that revitalize the mind and body.
Take the next step
Ryan Carson gives this challenge, “Are you going to talk about how it would be nice to work less? Or are you actually going to do something about it?” The four day workweek may be the next loonshot–an idea everyone is crazy until it isn’t (ht Safi Bahcall).
Many thinkers expect the US to be the last country to adopt these kinds of changes because of an unhealthy obsession with work and getting more money for luxury rather than leisure.
But as a leader, you have the power to make a change. Why not start with experimenting with a lighter workweek?
Thinking about a four-day workweek should just be the start. Once you realize that you could slash off a day, you start to wonder if it’s not a better idea to decouple the idea of work and time altogether. Or you realize that the whole concept of a workweek is something you can rebuild from the ground up.
Bill Jensen of Simpler Work says, “The real shift isn’t four days or five. That’s using yesterday’s framework to build the future of work. The real shifts are in leadership mindsets and in building completely new metrics for, and new ways of thinking about, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. In an AI era, where so many tasks will be automated and run by algorithms, productivity must be completely reimagined to include how teammates leverage their humanness in completely new ways.”
It’s easy to look at history and find that the workweek has always been reducing, and it’s almost always been a good thing. You can either be a pioneer in leading the way for better worker rights and wellbeing, or stick to the old ways. We think it’s time for a little WorkMinus.
There are lots and lots of productivity books out there. To read them all would be…well…a waste of time.
The good news is that most of the books out there agree on the same principles. They are all preaching some form of the same message.
The best productivity book is the one that resonates with you and that you follow. But if you are like me, you sometimes need a shot in the arm once in a while. Or, sometimes it’s nice to use a different tool for the same job now and again.
Older books used to only focus on productivity in the context of work, but most modern books also include your non-working hours as well.
Task management: Your brain is for having ideas; use technology for managing and executing them.
Prioritization: Don’t waste your time doing stuff that doesn’t matter.
Focus: Every day is a fight against internal and external distractions.
Time/energy management: Your day and body has natural rhythms that you can use to your advantage.
Here are 10 of the best books on productivity.
1. Getting Things Done by David Allen
Productivity pillars: Task management and prioritization
David Allen is to productivity what Seth Godin is to marketing. It is possible to be productive/be a good marketer without reading their work, but do you really want to take that risk?
Most of David Allen’s work comes down to clarity. Most people have a foggy sense of what they need to be doing, and an even hazier sense of how to do it, and are in total darkness to know if they finished it.
Here are some of the basic principles of GTD:
Turn all the abstract goals into concrete tasks.
Break big tasks down into small tasks.
Define ‘done’ and ‘doing’.
Reduce the number of open loops and promises that leave you feeling anxious and stressed.
Your mind is for having ideas, not for holding them.
If you’ve ever been serious about productivity and time management in your life, you need to read this book. Only the most serious productivity geeks will implement the entire system, but there’s a lot of value in just being aware of the basics.
2. Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy
Productivity pillar: Prioritization
This is another classic. 2 hours reading quickly through this book is time well spent.
The book is based on a proverb that is likely misattributed to Mark Twain:
“If the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day long.”
Brian Tracy uses the metaphor of the frog being your biggest, most important task. Get it done first and then the rest of your day will be good. If you have to eat two frogs, go for the bigger/uglier one first.
At its heart, this book is about prioritization and starting at the top of the list. Tracy says, “Your ability to choose between the important and the unimportant is the key determinant of your success in life and work.”
3. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Productivity pillar: Focus
This book is geared toward those whose work is more creative (e.g. writing, art, design) but we all have a little bit of creative in us, don’t we?
Pressfield names a common enemy called the Resistance. The Resistance is the thing that accompanies any creative pursuit. It says you aren’t good enough, you can finish later, you don’t need to do anything today, you’ve done enough, etc. The Resistance includes all the internal and external distractions you face in life.
“You think the resistance isn’t real? The resistance will bury you.”
First, you must recognize that the Resistance is a sign that you are doing something good. To combat the Resistance, Pressfield says you must turn from being an amateur to a professional, and listen to the Muse. If it doesn’t make sense, read the book. It’s short.
4. Deep Work by Cal Newport
Productivity pillar: Focus, time management
This book makes a sharp distinction between deep work and shallow work. Deep work is cognitively demanding and requires a tremendous amount of focus. Shallow work can be done while you’ve got Netflix playing in the background.
Newport says that:
Very few people are good at deep work.
Being good at deep work is where the real value is.
The more you do shallow work, the worse you get at deep work.
He says that you need to structure your day so that you spend the most amount of time possible in a deep work state. When you jump back and forth between tasks, bits of residue follow you from one to the next. It takes time to settle into that other work without the distractions.
Newport has other books on Digital Minimalism and other similar topics. But the thing I like the most about Cal Newport is that he takes his own advice about not coming out of deep work so seriously that he gave a friendly denial to our invitation to come on the podcast until he finished his book, Digital Minimalism.
5. 168 Hours by Laura Vandercam
Productivity pillar: Time management
Laura Vandercam actually has several books about productivity: Off the Clock, I Know How She Does It, and Juliet’s School of Possibilities. They all focus on how you can get the most out of the time you have.
Everyone thinks they don’t have enough time to do the things they want to do, but Vandercam says we’ve got plenty of time. If you try to do everything, you’ll always feel behind. But if you can focus on your core work, you’ll have plenty of time to get it done.
Vandercam says most people have no idea how they spend their time. Similar to a food journal, she recommends keeping a time journal so that people can actually see where they have waste in their day and unnecessary activities.
I really like that this book focuses on weeks. Trying to be productive every day can be really hard, but if you look at an entire week, it’s short enough that you can start over fresh again, but long enough to give you some momentum, while also hiding a few bad days here and there.
6. The One Thing by Gary Keller
Productivity pillar: Prioritization
This book is a nice expansion on the adage, “Success is about doing the right thing, not doing everything right.”
Keller says that we need to focus on fewer things. Just do the one thing that really makes all the difference, and everything else will turn out ok.
While we can all agree, finding that one thing can be very challenging. We see many tasks as equal, we believe we have enough willpower to bulldoze through anything, and we can keep multiple things going at once.
Keller says all that is wrong and we need to choose the one thing that matters most and give it all the time it demands.
7. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
Productivity pillar: Time management and prioritization
This is a classic book that everyone entering the workplace should read. Drucker advises executives to be as accountable for their time as they are for their budgets. He says to consolidate your time into the largest possible units, and advocating for working from home one day a week. Drucker says meetings should be the exception rather than the rule and we should focus mostly on results.
Prioritization is also a key topic. He urges executives to answer this question to their managers, “What are the contributions for which this organization should hold you accountable?” Like others after him, Drucker says to focus on strengths and where you deliver top results.
8. 18 Minutes by Peter Bregman
Productivity pillar: Focus, time management
Peter Bregman has given us a lot of ways to be better leaders (like being emotionally courageous), but there’s no doubt that time management and focus is a big one.
Like others, Bregman advocates for doing fewer things and focusing on your strengths. He calls into question motivation, saying that you don’t really need that much, just enough to get you started. As long as you don’t spend a lot of time switching between tasks, you will be fine.
The formula for the title of his book is:
5 minutes at the start of the day to plan
1 minute every hour to pause and reset (8 minutes total)
5 minutes at the end of the day to reflect and make changes
I really like the idea of pauses and it’s easy to get distracted in the middle of something. Scheduling in a pause lets to keep in check if you are doing the right thing.
9. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett
Productivity pillar: Time management
This is the oldest book on the list, dating back to 1908. Bennett’s message is just as clear and apt now as it was then. We all get the same 24 hours and we can’t save it. You’ll never have more time than you do right now, so focus on the important stuff.
While the basic principles of the book sound very familiar, there are a few interesting warnings that he offers:
Don’t insist that other people follow your productivity program. Everyone has unique needs.
Don’t become a slave to your own program. Make sure it is strong enough to keep you accountable, but flexible enough to give you space to live.
Living from task to task isn’t really living. Don’t try to do everything. Be realistic in your limits.
Start any new system slow. Don’t overdo it at the start.
10. Indistractable by Nir Eyal
Productivity pillar: Focus and time management
This is one of the best books out there on learning about how to handle distractions.
Eyal says that the key to living a focused life is to learn to deal with discomfort. We get distracted because we get uncomfortable and go out seeking a fix.
Instead of indulging in distractions, or feeling guilty about them, Eyal says that we should observe them and allow them to dissolve. We should examine what lead up to the distraction and explore it curiously. Rather than saying, “No, you can’t check Facebook now,” allow yourself the permission to check it, but only after 10 minutes. Usually over that time, the need will dissipate.
He also focuses on the importance of identity and promises you make to yourself. Rather than saying, “I’m not going to look at my phone for the next hour,” Eyal suggests saying, “I’m not the kind of person who needs to check his phone every hour.” That’s a much more positive, aspirational statement and much more likely to help us.
Eyal says, “Time management is pain management.” If you can learn to be uncomfortable, you will be able to get a lot more done.
I usually read 1-2 productivity books a year to refresh my mind on what’s important. Most of the ideas in these books aren’t something you couldn’t figure out on your own, but the authors present the material in a way that encourages you to take a fresh start.
Everyone has their own favorite productivity book. What’s yours? Tag @WorkMinus on LinkedIn and we’ll add it to the list!