Getting it done: turning productivity into creativity

October 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’m ‘busy as’ right now  – and that’s a good thing.

Everyone’s different when it comes to productivity: some people I know love it when things are calm and they have time to think about those projects they’ve been circling around for a while. But I’m one of those people who struggle to build momentum when there’s not much going on. For me, busy is generally better, provided it is the right kind of busy.

Research is a good kind of busy. Sketching is another good kind. Talking with someone really smart, like a papaya, is also pretty good. Tinkering and building and experimenting are also heaps good, until your ambition outruns your abilities and you feel like the kid who’s too short to be on the rollercoaster. This is something I’m (increasingly) familiar with.

Evidence of industry can reveal a lack of thinking

Busy-work, busy for busy’s sake and making a good show of being busy are all incredibly stupid forms of busy. They suck time, in and of themselves, but I find the mental energy it takes to stop myself from choking the living shit out of whomever is causing this kind of busyness leaves me drained of all motivation, I can’t even be bothered to look at the stuff I want to be busy with.

If I were forced to rank them, the absolute worst kind of busyness is ‘presenteeism‘, where your workload or output is measured by how often, and how long, you are perceived (but not measured) to be physically present in your assigned office chair. The worst manifestation of this, the worst kind of busyness, are the people who make the mock-jovial “Half-day today, is it?” comment as you leave the office at a reasonable time. No matter that you’re leaving to go to a meeting / wedding / funeral / surgery / cage fight / someplace you can actually get some fucking work done.
I’ve had this line recently from a couple of different people who really should know a lot better and I think it betrays a hopelessly outmoded, industrial-era view of productivity. In the absence of an appropriately thought-out measure of creative output (Quantity? Impact? Happiness? Empty Red Bull cans?), the lazy manager falls back to the punch-card and the time clock as a way of estimating value.

In the era of mobiles, laptops and wi-fi balloons over the desert, the notion that you can walk out of your office and simultaneously walk away from ‘work’ is faintly ridiculous.

Smarter people than me

The relationship between time and productivity has always had its critics – in the field of Software Engineering, Fred Brooks famously concluded that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. In the realm of time and creativity, Google built its reputation for relentless innovation on the ’20 per cent time’ policy, an idea it actually borrowed from 3M (and added 5%).

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focus, busy, creativity

Some minds require action to achieve focus.

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Even in the valley, times may be changing, back to the future. As companies mature and the pre-IPO frenzy gives way to shareholder demands, Google appears to have killed its ’20 per cent time’ policy (although some believe it will always live). Less open to interpretation is Yahoo’s ban on working from home as it tries to engineer its way back to internet dominance, a move recently copied by HP, another tech giant looking to recapture former glory.

If you can’t beat them

Realising that the demand for commercial and creative productivity (however you care to measure it) is likely to follow me for the rest of my career, I sought help from the self-help section of the bookshop. Surely someone has worked out how I can spend less time on ‘busy work’ and more time getting busy on the work I want to do?

Turns out, plenty of people have. The two volumes that have proved to be most useful for me, however, are at the opposite ends of the practical / philosophical spectrum.

First up: Practicality

I thought I might benefit from having some sort of day-to-day system. Truth be told, I thought I might benefit if I could convince my wife to adopt a day-to-day system: she has 4 to do lists, 3 calendars (that I know of), several contact books and organisers and a snowdrift’s worth of scraps of paper with important things on them. I know she also operates better when busy, but this is going too far.

From where I sit, most of her busyness is caused by having to look for the right book / list / calendar / organiser / snowdrift and that’s where Dave Allen’s ‘Getting it Done’ really shines. It’s a pretty simple and effective way of building a daily ‘system you can trust’ so you can empty all the busy work out of your brain and onto the right list. Once you stop trying to remember all the things you know you shouldn’t forget, it’s remarkable how less ‘busy’ your brain seems to be. It’s working a treat for her and it’s helping me refine the way I use some of my organising tools, like Evernote and bit.ly

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productivity, tools, technology, coach

If I could pay someone to plug it all in and make it work, I probably would.

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Seeing the proliferation of organisational systems and services and sites, I’m convinced there has to be a business in being a ‘personal productivity coach‘ – someone who helps you select and get set up (who has time to read the manual?) on the tools and systems to organise and streamline your work and life, then makes sure they all talk to each other and that they are working for you, rather than the other way around. If you are already this sort of coach, please call me.

In the meantime, if you feel like you could do with a bit of a system, I recommend Getting Things Done, by David Allen.

Next: thinking about doing

Right now, I’ve got: a couple of major work projects; a constant stream of approvals, advice, collaboration and FYIs from offices as far afield as Bangalore, Mexico City, Dubai and Budapest; we’re assisting on some global briefs; I also have a couple of web-based passion projects, a major writing project and I’m taking a couple of courses that, predictably, overlapped a bit. I’m also taking a cue from my eldest daughter & trying to re-learn the habit long-form fictional reading (yes, books). It’s getting busy, but mostly in a good way.

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busy, creativity, productivity

It’s important to dial in the right level of activity. (see what I did there?)

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What’s helping me stay mentally engaged and productive through all of this is a small, very well-written book I discovered, ironically, a couple of months ago during some very non-busy time (caused by major but planned surgery and the resulting recovery period). Steven Pressfield was, at one point a copywriter, but he’s since gone on to write novels and screenplays and this: Do the Work. It’s published by The Domino Project, a new approach to publishing backed by Seth Godin and Amazon.

Do the work, pressfield

Beautiful book, ugly cover.

I wouldn’t have bought this one on the cover alone (it’s a drawing of some significance to the author, but it is hella fugly) and I won’t try to summarise it except to say it does a great job of explaining to you what is probably going on inside your head during all the major stages of a major project. His advice is to not listen too much to what’s going on inside your head, get out of your own way and start before you are ready.

My advice is: if you want to do the work (not the busy work, the real work), read ‘Do The Work‘.

What’s your advice?

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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