I'm back on my soapbox about personal productivity. For some reason it seems like a lot of what I think about runs against conventional wisdom. For example, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be productive. Most of us would say that it means getting something done quickly and effectively, with less time and less resource that otherwise possible. At least that's my going in position.
OK, but here's the conundrum: There are already fewer people in most organizations than ever before, and most of us have more work heaped on us that before. It is harder to delegate work to other people, and the drumbeat of most businesses is not slowing down - it's increasing. It can be hard just to keep pace with the momentum of business - much less work more quickly than the speed of the business you are in - otherwise you can't be more productive than the folks around you. In other words, your productivity is not measured in isolation, but in comparison to the speed of the work around you and in your organization. If you can't keep pace with the speed of the work in your organization - forget productivity, you'll never get your head above water.
Also, productivity isn't just about getting through a task - it should be about completing the task to some minimal level of quality. Rushing through a task quickly to declare it's "complete" while generating a low quality deliverable isn't productivity, since someone will have to clean up the mess later.
So, while the pace of business is not slowing down, and the level of work product isn't diminishing, at least you've got fewer distractions at work - right? I mean, it's not like we've all got cell phones, BlackBerrys, email, instant messaging and voice mail. How can anyone get anything done?
My recommendation - as much as possible, focus on one thing at a time. I know all of us have "to do" lists as long as your arm, but I'm convinced that all the bravado one sees in most organizations about multi-tasking is just hiding the fact that most people aren't getting much done - especially not with any quality or thought. Sorry, but the human brain just isn't meant to take on more than one or two tasks at a time, and the level of attentiveness to quality breaks down quickly as more distractions pile up.
I know it's impossible to do only one thing every day, but as much as possible focus on just one task at a time, and do as much of that task as you can. Some tasks - like writing a position paper or developing an especially complex financial analysis - will take several days, and by their nature require you to dive into the work and then leave the work unfinished. It is mentally taxing to work on a spreadsheet 8 or 9 hours a day. But my recommendation is still - do as much as you can, as long as you can, focused on one task.
How? Turn off the cell phone, close the door, turn off the email notification sounds on the PC. Yes, you'll run into opposition from some that you work with, especially those who want you to come put out their fires. However, your work product will improve, you'll generate better quality work, and you'll get your stuff done more effectively and efficiently.
I know the current image of the corporate hero is a guy (or gal) who walks around with eight different active projects, constantly speaking into a cell phone while answering text messages on his BlackBerry. These folks definitely put up an image that they are very busy. That does not mean they are very effective! The only way to manage a lot of projects or tasks simultaneously in that manner is to delegate all the work and act as some time of a project manager. Even then, if the people underneath you who are actually doing the work don't appreciate the level of quality you expect in your work, you're doomed no matter how strong a project manager you may be.
Buck the conventional wisdom. Ditch the BlackBerry, shut down instant messaging, dodge the folks in the hall for a while. Carry around one folder and put your whole attention into that project. You'll be the most productive person in the office.