Personal Productivity: A Primer

In the 1950s, work shifted from being labour-intensive towards being mind-intensive and eventually started to overload people’s cognitive abilities.

This led to the personal productivity boom, and books like ‘Getting Things Done’ and many others were hugely successful, as managers, professionals and knowledge workers tried to be productive while juggling their work and personal life.

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Various organizational tools, production methods and other ways towards efficiency appealed to the logical mind, but slowly it dawned to many that the basic concept of these systems were the industrial processes themselves, and just a reusing of repetitive, mechanical motions, repackaged for knowledge workers.

These systems, however logical and appealing they looked, were not aiding productivity even though it seemed like that on the surface.

A productivity method called ‘Inbox Zero’ by Merlin Mann, a productivity hacker and creator of many other productivity tools like 43 folders, became a rage in 2007. It was based on the fact that all email should be answered or categorized until the inbox has zero emails left.

While sounding great, this personal productivity method actually increased a person’s email, leading to a circular path of pseudo-work: replying to the endless email.

Most productivity methods do not address a fundamental problem: How work actually unfolds in an organization.

They essentially limit themselves by seemingly providing a great organizational tool to an individual, not taking into account the cumulative negative effect it has on the entire group, and the additional work it creates for the other individuals.

  • Our productivity is actually connected to the productivity of other people in our organization, our clients and even end-users.
  • Management has to intervene in order to ensure that there is productivity across the company, making this a top-down approach.
  • A factory style routinization of work using flowcharts or other processes is not appealing to expert knowledge workers, who prefer an organic approach tailored to their unique ways of working and their lifestyle.

As offices got shut down all around the world, all the inefficiencies in the present systems and the haphazard work models got amplified.

The humble inbox became a repository of everything that is pending, with many not even knowing what all needs to be done, leading to overload and chaos.

What organizations need to develop is a system that externalizes tasks, with virtual task boards that specify who is working on what at any time, along with the current status.

Optimization on a large scale only becomes possible when transparent data is there for each team member's workload.

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