Here are articles on productivity

Ignore that software upgrade notice … for now

Many programs check to find out if they have an available upgrade when you run them. If so, they have a little upgrade notice that pops up then and there to tell you. Helpfully. This is convenient, courteous, just-in-time behavior, right? Wrong.

When you start up a program, there’s a 99% chance that you’re starting it because you want to use it. You have some task that requires the program in order to accomplish. You’re in work mode, with a specific goal in mind.

That’s exactly the wrong time to distract you with a software upgrade notice that forces you to think about a choice: Not Now, Install, or Cancel (what does cancel even mean in this context?). If you should decide to install now—after all, who’s going to remember later—then you’re treated to six hours of debugging when this minor upgrade from v 5.62 to v5.63 accidentally wipes out your hard drive. Your original task gets lost.

As a user, don’t let upgrades hijack your mind! Adopt a simple, yet effective habit: when a piece of software offers to upgrade, immediately jot down at the very end of your to-do list, “Upgrade silly program” and choose Not Now. Then treat the upgrade as you would any other to-do item: do it only when it fits into your schedule. If it’s an urgent upgrade, fine, put it on your calendar for a free time block today or tomorrow. But keep your focus on the task and hand and don’t let upgrades hijack your mind!

(Author’s note: This blog post was inspired by an offer for me to upgrade that interrupted my train of thought for a blog post I was going to write. Sadly, I don’t recall what the original post was going to be. See how those offers can knock us off course?)

Are you overwhelmed?

There are two kinds of being overwhelmed. There’s the chaos that comes from having no systems, so everything is an emergency. That’s relatively easy to deal with. The more pernicious type of overwhelm happens when you actually commit to more than you can possibly do. Then, no matter what you try, you can never catch up.

My current Yahoo! HotJobs column discusses how to make sure you’re not fundamentally overcommitted. You can read my HotJobs column on how to stop overcommitting by clicking here.

Does email overload help us? You need to understand the costs and benefits.

Tim Sanders wrote a blog entry that references a Business Week article on information overload I commented on last week. The writer suggests that information overload might be good. There might be some valuable information, and besides, young people can handle it just fine.

Sure. In what universe? My Get-it-Done Guy podcast email and people’s reaction to my what is email costing you assessment, suggest many people of us feel our life force being regularly sucked from our bodies by information overload. It makes us jump from topic to topic. It interrupts us when we need to concentrate. And then we feel guilty that we still can’t keep up. Gee, that sounds like a resourceful emotional state for reaching our goals.

Yes, we’re getting more info. Yes, some of it’s useful. But that’s not the point! We need to ask: is it useful enough? Are the benefits—financial, social, or emotional—worth the cost?

For Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy (mentioned in the article), the answer is Yes. In email, they say things they would never say otherwise. Like that comment about the chocolate mousse, telephone pole, and garter belt. Who would ever say that out loud?

Of course, an anonymous suggestion box would fill the same function. Even better, the tipster could actually include the original garter belt. But apparently, those emails are amazing enough that Anne devotes a lot of time to her email. Since she’s gotten great results at Xerox, for her, the benefits might be worth the cost. (Assuming, of course, that her success is because of email, rather than in spite of it. Maybe a weekly suggestion box would be just as good.)

If you’re top dog, no one pays attention to how you use your time as long as you produce business results. The rest of us aren’t so lucky. Our pointy-haired boss gives us specific goals, and email can suck up a lot of time without moving us towards our real goals. That “Top 10 Reasons Working Here Sucks” email will only help you reach your goal if that goal is a new job at your major competitor’s firm.

When you’re deciding how much time to spend with your inbox, think long and hard about the benefits you’re getting. After all, there’s lots you could be doing with that time. Ask yourself if there is any other way to get those same benefits? If you hired a $50/hour assistant to read and answer your email every day, what would you tell him/her to process versus ignore? Are you following those same guidelines?

Being perfect in every way, I follow my own advice and am ultra careful with my email habits. Even so, I often get sucked in for up to 30 extra minutes a day. Since I’m perfect, that must be the perfect amount of time to waste. But there’s still a nagging feeling: that comes out to three weeks per year. If I’m going to spend three weeks a year blathering mindlessly, I’d rather do it wearing a bathing suit on a sunny Caribbean beach than sitting hunched over my computer in my basement office, looking like one of the Mole People. At least on the beach, I might get a tan.

So don’t take my word for it. Don’t take Tim Sanders’s word for it. And don’t take Business Week’s word for it. Your email time is productive to the extent it helps you get what you want out of life. Hold it to a high standard and if it isn’t performing, drop it from your life faster than that stalker you accidentally dated in college. With email, only you can take control; there’s no way to get a restraining order.

Productivity has limits!

Last night at my birthday party, a friend told me how his company insists he show up at work before 9 to make sure everyone’s productive. It seems we’re always trying to increase productivity. But this isn’t sustainable.

You see, productivity has its limits. Period. A woman can’t have a baby in six months by trying really hard. The process takes nine months. You can’t add a woman, hoping that two women working together can make one baby in four and a half months. The process takes one woman nine months.

Every task takes a certain amount of time to complete. If you’re manufacturing round metal paperweights, the metal has to be melted and then cooled. Those physical processes can only happen so fast without the metal breaking. We might be able to speed them up a little here and there, but at the end of the day, no amount of investment can speed the process beyond a certain point.

So it makes me wonder how we know when we’re as productive in an area as it’s possible to be? I have timed myself over and over, and I write about 400 words of finished draft per hour. My mood doesn’t affect it much, my typing speed isn’t the limit. That just seems to be how long it takes me to write a finished draft. Do I try to improve it, thus improving my productivity, or am I going as fast as possible already (since writing happens subconsciously), and I just relax and go with the flow?

It’s a question worth asking businesses, who often pour resources into misguided attempts at improvement, where the status quo is just fine on its own.

It’s also worth asking yourself. Some people look for their weaknesses and try to improve them. But your weaknesses may be just fine as they are. Maybe your time is best spent enjoying life, instead!