Another holiday season has come and gone, and the latest electronic gadgets have found their way into our hands, briefcases and pocketbooks. Most offer a blend of useful functions and obvious distractions; still, most of us don’t know the net impact they’ll have on our personal productivity in 2013.
Sure, they do allow us to do some new things in exotic places and situations. We now watch TV while mowing the lawn. The bathroom has become an extension of the office as we multitask. Now, when you try to hold a conversation with me, I pretend to listen as I check out the latest score in the fourth quarter of the Giants’ game.
These are worthy gains for some who marvel at mankind’s capacity to generate amazing technology. The rest of us? We might join in saying – “I’m more productive because I can talk to the accounting department in the middle of flight AA993.” But when everyone clutters the cabin with conversation, we wistfully wish for the good old gadget-free days.
I suggest a new standard: don’t consider a productivity gain to be genuine if everyone else can replicate it with the simple purchase of a gadget. Real productivity gains come from lasting changes in habits, practices and rituals.
Is that a true standard? Consider the following observations. Do we, as professionals, make these mistakes? Can we choose not to?
Mistake 1. We buy a new gadget and then proceed to fashion our habits around it.
The cart travels long before the horse; instead of using products to fix known flaws in our habits, we get things backward. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves. Witness the worst offense – texting while driving. No one at RIM, Apple or Nokia ever imagined that dangerous habits and new laws would arise from the use of their devices. They were simply engineers trying to put out good products to meet people’s needs. We are the ones who blindly applied their smartphones in addictive, dangerous ways and justified our new habits as “time-savers.”
Mistake 2. We buy gadgets for convenience, not productivity.
As our lives move faster and we’re blinded by flashy new ads , we forget the difference: convenience is doing the same old thing in a new and different place; productivity is doing it better. We fool ourselves into thinking that we are engaging in some sort of modern-day kaizen, just because the location of an activity is new. The “improvement” requires no real work on our part, only a few dollars spent. Here’s a tip: when we rush to get the latest purchase in order to stay ahead of the Joneses, we aren’t really concerned about productivity.
Mistake 3. We have stopped analyzing our true needs.
Most companies are smart enough to know that a needs-analysis always comes before the purchase of major software or hardware. They establish committees to prevent solo executives from running off to spend millions of dollars based on a single, slick PowerPoint presentation. Unfortunately, we don’t apply that rigorous common sense in our lives. We see smartphones the way we see cars: it’s nice to have the latest model, but we really need to conduct a personal needs-analysis to determine whether or not an upgrade is truly required (or even a downgrade). Only afterwards should we go looking for a solution.
Mistake 4. We aren’t aware that new devices added to our personal productivity systems can mean dramatic gains AND losses at the same time.
For example, the smartphone revolution means that our email access travels with us. That’s a gain. But what about tweeting in the middle of every church service we attend for the rest of our lives? Without a needs analysis, we are unaware of these trade-offs.
Mistake 5. We overestimate our willpower.
Think back to when you bought your first smartphone. You remember others interrupting your meetings to answer every buzz, beep, ring, vibration and flashing light. You swore you wouldn’t ever do the same. Now, look at you. Some executives have been forced to swap their smartphones for plain cell-phones in order to break bad habits. A few companies have banned mobile devices from board meetings because their high-powered advisers lack self-control. Imagine multi-million dollar decisions being interrupted by a friend’s Facebook update.
These choices ARE important, and maybe adopting the new standard I suggest would help us focus on real productivity gains rather than the latest advertising.
Recently, I translated the contents of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi into a scaled set of individual skills in order to deepen my practice of this important concept. You can do the same by finding the best personal productivity practices and evaluating your skills against them. Then, do a personal needs-analysis to discover what combination of habit changes and technology improvements can help to fill the gaps. Be aware, however, that repeating this exercise every six months or so may make you do some strange things (like downgrade your smartphone, disable half the functions on your iPad, or delete programs from your laptop.)
The point is to take charge of the continued evolution of your personal productivity system, treating it as the nerve center for every dollar you make, every conversation you have, and every decision that you execute. Maybe it’s that important.
P.S. An article in the Wall Street Journal by Sue Schellenbarger – How Productivity Tools Can Waste Your Time – prompted me to post this article. It’s been in hibernation since the end of 2012, a bit longer than I intended.