I discussed recently what to do in period of extreme busyness, in the following two posts:
Theses posts discussed improving productivity.
I noted in some responses that habit of always simplifying improving productivity down to a system issue. It is more than a habit, it feels like just a reflex. Sometimes, it is also a productivity religion, and at the same time a taboo subject to discuss regarding productivity. When we just repeat a concept and stop analysis, it is often not a good thing. It is not because an idea is common that it is accurate.
It is good to periodically step back, have some perspectives, and reflect on the subject.
I will dare to challenge some common productivity ideas in this post .
To improve productivity, I read often comments that can all be group under this label: improve your system. Among other things, these comments include:
- Build task lists
- prioritization system
- implement GTD
- plan better
If you read these suggestions, you get a feeling that the root cause of everything is a deficiency in the system, and therefore the solution to all problems is to fix the system.
And for some, the system is almost a religion. Once you will be fully converted to the perfect system, your productivity will be at the awesome level and you will never have any problem in your life. If you still have problem, it is your fault and must be because you have not properly implemented the system. So take a deep breath, read the book on the system again, and this time implement it correctly and all problems will disappear.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if it was the case?
Improving productivity beyond the system
The benefit of a system
While sometimes the system is the problem, I challenge this simplification. Unless you are managing only simple activities that are all very defined and task-based, the system cannot fix everything. Even if the system is well-known, published in a best-seller book, the system can only fix problem relating to a lack of (or deficiencies) in the system.
I am not suggesting here that no system should be implemented. I am saying that it is important to assess correctly the situation first, and use the most appropriate approach.
A system is important for efficiency. Task lists are often useful, just like having a good information management system.
They effectively support me in successfully achieving my goals and my projects. Or my tasks. Because actually that is where the system is most useful: to plan and execute tasks that are:
- low level of uncertainties
- low level of design
- low level of analysis
To be a good task manager, you need a system. It is important for efficiency. It let you perform efficiently tasks such as buy a flight, calling client, pay invoices, reserve, conference room, do bank reconciliation, etc. Anything that is well-defined. You will also note that these tasks are easy to delegate, and time required to complete them is easy to estimate. You put them on a list, stop thinking about them, and then check them off the list one by one. It is as simple as that.
If you have tactical tasks and a good system, you are fine.
Knowing how to develop and implement a good system for your task is important. Otherwise, you are very likely to be inefficient. Without a good system, you may be very busy but producing limited results.
The limit of the system
The danger appears when someone is trying to solve all problems with the system. As we often say, if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
For many, life is not as simple, and not all tasks are tactical and well-defined. Complexity has an impact on how we should plan and manage our workload. The idea that if planning more and more until complexity is removed is dangerous. First, it is dangerous because it is denying reality. It is also dangerous because it encourages using the wrong skills.
Complexity can be found in
- Defining a strategy: numerous options exist and it is impossible to make the perfect decision. We can even say that often there is no perfect strategy
- Decision-making: tactical decisions are simple to make, just get the fact and be logical. strategic decisions are more complex must be made with some combination of logic and intuition. Leadership requires courage.
- Timeline: a fast timeline will bring a high level of complexity to a project, forcing us to decide and act with limited planning
- Design and creativity: Design is more complex than a repetitive task. In design, the answer is not known in advance. A well-defined tasks can be reduced to a checklist of procedure.
- Analysis: Analytical work is much more complex and harder to predict than pure execution of a well-defined task
- Uncertainties: Any activities with a lot of uncertainties should be handled differently that a well-defined task.
Complexity also has an impact on our mind. For well-defined task, making a list will ease the burden on our mind. For strategic, complex, or high-uncertainties task, putting it in writing on a list won’t remove it from our mind. Actually, if you want to clear your mind, meditation is much more powerful than writing a list. We are not robots or computers. Treating our mind like a RAM chip is a very incomplete approach. A more comprehensive solution to clear your mind is meditation. Headspace provides an excellent program. Meditation is not the classic productivity approach. Our world values too much busyness. Slowing down to clear the mind, in order to do more, is a bit counter-intuitive for many in the Western World.
Productivity beyond the system
There is a time and a place for anything. Just like in chess, you must balance strategic and tactical analysis. In productivity, and in managing your workload and performance, it is the same. Let’s not try to be just Taskmaster. A system will bring benefits, but let’s not try to solve everything with the system.
Let’s also learn to be strategic when required. Let’s handle complexity as it should be. Let’s not simplify everything to a tactical task. Let’s face the complexity of some activity, along with their high level of uncertainties.
Let’s be strategic.
This is important for project managers. They are not just hired to be task manager. Unless the project is very simple, the sponsor probably has strategic view on the project and strategic challenge in his workload. As project manager, we must be able to also think at the strategic level. Sometimes, the core issues relate to complexity and uncertainty. Let’s not try to solve complexity and uncertainty with a fix to the system. Let’s face complexity and uncertainty and properly addressed the challenges they bring.
I am sure this post a bit thought-provoking. Hopefully, I was able to make you think about the kind of activities you are doing. It should help you improve your productivity beyond the system.
Michel Dion, PMP, CPA
Founder and Developer of Project-Aria
Discover my book:
Leadership Toolbox for Project Managers: Achieve Better Results in a Dynamic World