Productivity Lost Reaches a Conclusion

At the beginning of the yearI made the decision to publish Productivity Lost, originally intended as a book and then pitched as a series of contributed op-eds, as a standalone blog.

It wasn’t a decision I took likely as there were a number of other options available. In fact, I knew I was actively swimming against the tide to some extent, since blogs have largely gone by the wayside as publishers choose either to remain solely on social media or distribute new content as an email newsletter. But I was positive that a blog was the best idea and so I moved forward.

While I’m still happy with having taken this route – mostly because I still feel blogs are the best platform in that they contribute to the long-term health and viability of the open web, something that’s in grave danger – it hasn’t all been sunshine and roses.

In fact, from an objective point of view it’s been a resounding failure. The stats have been less than great in terms visitors to the Productivity Lost site.

That may be because of some factor like links not getting traction on social media.

That may be because the site is still too new for search engines to have assigned any value to.

That may be because my contrarian takes on topics that usually get much more peppy, self-help type coverage in other media just weren’t resonating with anyone.

Whatever the case, Productivity Lost is now complete. In total it came to 98 posts and 72,380 words. Not a bad effort, if I do say so myself.

If you were waiting until it was finished to jump in, I’ve updated the table of contents to make navigation as intuitive as possible, so you can read it all in order.

Though this didn’t turn out quite like I expected, I regret nothing. It’s better that it stands on its own instead of becoming a series on this blog. And I *still* believe links on the web are good for everyone, though in 2020 that may sound a tad naive. While the stats and metrics are such that, if I were my own client, I would be sounding a different tune, I’m just stubborn enough to believe that this was a good idea that just hasn’t been discovered yet.

I hope you agree.

Music As Productivity Help or Hinderance

Walk through an office and you might see some people sitting at the desks working while they have headphones of some kind in or on their ears. Some companies don’t allow this kind of activity, restricting employees from listening to music or anything else, or they might have something playing over speakers in the office for everyone to listen to. Different workplaces will have different rules for different reasons.

The science behind those policies as well as people’s desire to do so varies. Some studies say listening to music hampers creativity while others say it enhances productivity. Still others say it may feel like music is helping you be more productive, but it’s actually an illusion because you’re just in a better mood.

As with most things, the reality of the situation varies greatly from one person to another.

The structure of music is calming to otherwise overactive brains, it fires synapses that inspire creativity and otherwise helps keeps our attention where it should be, which is on the work at hand. That’s largely because listening to music releases dopamine, which is short supply for some people. It’s almost as effective as medication for people with ADHD and so may help them be more genuinely productive because it helps them focus.

For other people music will be a distraction and hinder their work. A writer friend of mine has said he can’t have anything with lyrics on while he’s writing since the words literally get in the way. I’m different and find having music on while writing to be a great help.

The only reason this is an issue for employers is that having a central office is still the default situation and they need to consider the environment being created for everyone, not a subset of workers. Office policies are often written to reflect the attitude of executives and owners, so if they have a problem with someone doing their work with headphones in then no one will be allowed to do so.

It’s an area where more flexibility – or at least the recognition that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to something as individualistic as listening to music – would be good for everyone. There are so many different conclusions about the impact music has on productivity and creativity because the responses one group of 100 people has may be different than the responses you get from another group of 100 people.

As with most things, the one rule should be that as long as someone’s preference doesn’t interfere with that of their coworkers it should be fine. Listening to music can be allowed so long as headphones are in and the volume isn’t so high that the next person over can hear and be distracted by it. Someone who doesn’t like music being played shouldn’t be able to deny others the ability to do so if it helps them.

That’s the same standard most workplace behavior should be judged by. Everyone has their own methods of enhancing their productivity, so workplaces should practice a “stay out of people’s way” approach, allowing individuals to do what works for them, including choosing to listen to music while at work or choosing not to.

Super Bowl-Induced Productivity Loss Is Nothing

Last week Captivate released a study similar to the kind that come out in advance of every Super Bowl as well as during March Madness, around the time of events like a solar eclipse and so on. The company predicted the number of people who would be calling in sick or who would be dragging a bit the Monday after the Big Game and pegged the lost productivity due to that sluggishness or absenteeism at around $484 million.

That seems like a big number. The implication behind it is that those employees are essentially stealing from their employers, denying businesses of almost $500 million in work that’s rightfully theirs.

Fair enough. The day after the Super Bowl isn’t a national holiday and is a normal work day that people are expected to show up to ready and willing to do their jobs. But the impact on productivity of a day where many people are operating at suboptimal levels is nothing compared to how many self-inflicted wounds businesses have subjected themselves to.

Consider these points:

  • A 2018 study by by workplace technology company Samanage identified $1.8 trillion in lost productivity due to outdated tech solutions still being in place. That works out to $4.9 billion dollars a day across the entire economy.
  • Gallup in 2013 reported poor management and other issues resulting in unhappy or disgruntled employees shaved off about $500 billion in productivity, or about $1.4 billion a day.

Put those two issues – just those two, without additionally considering how sexism, microaggressions toward minorities, office temperature and other factors also have an impact – and it comes to $6.3 billion *a day.* So that $500 million lost due to people being a bit hungover or with sick stomachs from eating some sketchy queso is just 7 percent of the productivity unrealized by not offering workers more efficient equipment or doing anything to make sure they are relatively happy in their jobs and working environment.

It’s another example of how much of the conversation around productivity seems designed to place the guilt for stealing from corporate employers on the workers as individuals. They, in the numbers about how much they’re not working after the Super Bowl, are being shamed into getting their act together and stop being so self-indulgent.

Again, the day after the Super Bowl isn’t a day off where no one is expected to come into the office and there’s no requirement to get work done. That’s just reality. But the economic impact of a few people playing hooky or not getting everything on their list of assignments done pales in comparison to how much is being lost because management isn’t trained to effectively motivate and energize their staff or because the company has decided stock buybacks are more important than upgrading equipment.

Let’s stop covering how much productivity is lost following the Super Bowl or other cultural event. At the very least, if we’re going to mention that let’s put it in the context of what else is causing shortfalls in productivity and who’s responsible.

Writing Things Down Is Essential For Many

In a single day there were blog posts in my feed about how lists of writing ideas was counterproductive and how successful people don’t use to do lists.

Cool. Way to shame those who need to create and work from such lists in order to maintain their focus and productivity.

Everyone has their own system. You might use Wunderlist, or Evernote or some other app to manage your ideas, list of action items or other reminders. You might use a bullet journal or other paper-based system.

Or you might not need anything.

It depends on what works for you.

My problem is not with the advice on how to do or not do something. It’s in the framing, that if you aspire to emulate someone who’s held up as being “successful” you must not do this one thing.

It’s just as dangerous and damaging to people as the various posts and lists of things you must do in order to be like some successful person.

There’s a chance such advice inspires them and unlocks something in them that helps them achieve greatness in some respect. On the other hand, it could damage their productivity because it’s so unnatural to them that it never had a chance of working.

Most all these articles assume all readers are free of issues that sometimes get in the way of what they want to do. They assume the reader doesn’t have any sort of attention deficit, anxiety or other issue that makes some tactics like list making, idea recording or other memory/productivity hack an essential part of their day.

Don’t get bogged down by these lists. When something clearly doesn’t speak to you or your situation, put it out of your mind.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

People Want to Stay in Their Jobs, Companies Should Encourage That

A new study shared here reveals 86% those aged 25-35 – roughly “Millennials” – would prefer to remain in their current job if given the chance. They’d like to move up in the organization but also value the development of skills and abilities that, unfortunately, their employers just aren’t providing them.

Many companies frequently encourage employees to continue their education in some manner or another. That might be through in-person classes, seminar/conference attendance, online courses or some other means. They may even offer benefits that will pay for those classes in full or partially to help make that happen. If the employee hasn’t acted on that, they may be penalized on their next performance review.

(Side note: The very idea of “education” also needs to be slightly expanded. You know that one person in the office who’s an RSS junkie, subscribes to a dozen industry email newsletters and is always sharing articles of note with the office? They may not be taking three classes every quarter, but that two hours they spend reading, processing, distilling and sharing is absolutely a form of continued learning. Yes, I speak from experience.)

It’s often expected, though, that such learning and continued education will happen outside of work hours. The employee has to take time out of their personal life to do so.

There’s no doubt that additional learning is a good thing for the individual, who gets to increase their own knowledge and skill set. It’s in their best interest to stay up to date on new topics and so on. And it of course benefits the company, who gets to market and utilize that expanded skill set.

So why is “Education and Learning” not an actual part of the standard work day?

When Google was still in its early days, one of the workplace innovations the public and press gawked and marveled at was its “20% time” idea. In short, it allowed employees to spend as much as 20% of their day on personal side projects. Sometimes those turned into new Google projects, sometimes it lead to a new company being founded when the person left Google, sometimes it was just a lark they were indulging.

Google could, of course, afford to do that because their revenues were so massive that cutting 20% off people’s time and productivity didn’t result in much of a hit. The idea didn’t spread across Corporate America because other companies can’t absorb 20% reduced productivity.

What if, though, the idea were tweaked a little. What if companies said “Everyone is allowed to spend up to X% of their work day on continued education. That can be an online course you do at your desk, an outside class that means you leave at 1pm every Tuesday or whatever else works and is appropriate.”

Fostering that kind of education and not expecting people to take time out of their other lives seems like an investment worth making.

There’s a conversation that comes up all the time in the press when hiring and HR people are asked about staff training and retention: “What if we invest in our people and they leave?” The common retort is “What if you don’t and they don’t?” It illustrates how companies don’t want to expend precious resources on helping employers improve their skills because they’re afraid it will only make those people more attractive to a competitor or other company.

The survey results linked to above, though, show that the vast majority of employees *want* to stay where they are. They want the kind of long-term job stability their parents or grandparents had. Some are always going to be moving around, driven by a natural wanderlust or other reason. Employers will never see full retention and likely don’t want it.

Not everyone is going to take advantage of this kind of learning time for whatever reason. I would be willing to bet, though, that there’s a lot of value that could be unlocked among those who doe, especially when combined with other preferences like meaningful work, flexible work arrangements and additional benefits.

An emphasis on continued education could be a key element of increasing productivity, which has remained stagnant in recent years. It’s the human equivalent of making sure your IT systems are running the latest software, that you’re replacing the gears on your industrial equipment regularly and other standard maintenance.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

The One Key To Productive Meetings: A Desired Result

As always, there are lots of places where you can find all the 17 things you need to run a successful meeting. They’ll offer you tips on how to make sure everyone remains involved and engaged and how to keep the conversation on track. Maybe you’ll read about how walking meetings were one of the keys to Steve Jobs’ success or how 28 entrepreneurs have created great environments because they have a sand timer – salvaged from the game box they found in their parents’ attic – on the table to limit how long one person can talk.

While some of these may indeed be applicable to your situation, many won’t be. They all tend to be coming at the problem from the mindset that the setting for the meeting is a startup of some sort, or at least the “innovation” division the CEO just established to fend off competition.

Over the last 20 years I’ve been part of countless meetings and, in that time, I’ve found there’s really only one thing that determines how successful and productive that gathering will be:

Agreement at the outset on the desired outcome

I’m not saying that participants are deciding what the conclusion should be in advance of the meeting beginning. The conversation should go where it needs to go.

I mean that everyone needs to be on the same page in terms of what the next step after the meeting should be before it starts. “We’re coming out of this meeting with X.”

That kind of goal needs to be written at the top of the whiteboard in the room. If anyone diverges from that, the facilitator or organizer should (politely) head them off and ask if what they’re about to share is pertinent to arriving at X. If not, let’s table it for another time.

Time limits and other tricks aren’t bad ideas. Keeping meetings to 45 minutes is a solid one I’ve recently come into contact with and love it because it saves the inevitable “Sorry I’m late, the last meeting ran long” excuse.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s alright to be “that person” even if you’re not the leader of the meeting. Be the jerk who, 20 minutes in, says “Wait, what is it we want to come away with?” Get everyone’s attention and honk other people off, but get the meeting on track to actually be worth the time everyone is spending in the room. If someone wants to push back on you taking the initiative, let them. Ask them, though, how what you did took away from the value anyone derived? If the offense was more to their own ego and power ranking, you know what the real problem is.

A single meeting is usually just one small mile marker in a larger project timeline. Each one of those is a domino that needs to fall in order for the next one to do likewise. If you leave a meeting not sure if the domino has fallen, it probably hasn’t, and that could have implications for everything that comes later. It’s essential that someone – the leader or any random attendee – do what they can to make sure everyone in the room knows what the expectation is. Otherwise it really is just wasted, ineffective time.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It’s Not Organization, It’s Productivity

It’s sometimes a struggle to refrain from audibly gasping when, either in person or via a screenshare, I get a look at the desktop of someone’s screen and see it crowded by a mix of folders and individual files. I don’t understand how that isn’t impossibly distracting and frustrating for someone, having all those files just sitting there.

So this piece about how “desktop zero” is apparently the latest aspirational workplace goal was both alien and relatable to me. The author has some good thinking about how to manage what winds up on your desktop and not let it get overwhelming, but that assumes you’ve let it get to the verge of being just that in the first place.

There’s a long-lived philosophy that equates cluttered physical spaces with cluttered mental spaces and clean, organized physical spaces with clean, organized mental spaces. In my experience, that’s sometimes true and sometimes not. There are people I’ve known who never miss a beat whose workspaces make me want to cry and those with physical spaces a Spartan would envy who can’t concentrate on a thought for more than two minutes.

Basically, everyone has their own productivity best practices. There are endless lists online on how to do more in less time, stay on task when confronted with differing and shifting priorities and so on. But it comes down to doing what works for you and making it a consistent routine you follow.

If adding files to your desktop is done intentionally and with a plan for review and removal, that’s great. That’s part of the “desktop zero” philosophy, it seems. That’s no different from any other system. I’m using bullet journaling right now, moving away from using my inbox as a To Do list. That was a major improvement in my professional organization and productivity. There are other systems that have been utilized for different things. Some people may prefer to add files they need to review to the folders they actually belong to and use a bullet journal or online productivity tool to create reminders to pull their attention back to them.

Despite my headline, there is certainly an organizational bent to this in addition to a productivity-based perspective. If you know where something is you can find it easier when someone comes asking for it or you need to retrieve it at a later date. Recently I went through a huge batch of files and redid the file folder structure almost from scratch because I realized the system I had in place was dumb. Might have made sense at the time, but it didn’t now.

Don’t get hung up on “desktop zero” or “inbox zero” or any other more or less arbitrary goal or system. Just put a system in place that works for you and results in you getting everything done in the time it’s expected and you’ll be fine. In the meantime, try to ignore the gasps from coworkers who can’t believe you’d ever allow your desktop to become that cluttered.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Need to Break Out of a Rut? Do Something Deliberate

I couldn’t find anything good to listen to.

That’s quite a statement considering Spotify offers access to nearly limitless array of music in all genres, not to mention how my own substantial music collection is…well…exactly the kind of sampling I would curate if given the chance. Radio wasn’t working for me and neither were podcasts.

This was a problem because I like to have something going in my ears when I’m working. It helps to focus my mind and keep me plugged-in on the task at hand. I listened to a few newer albums discovered either via WXRT or MusicREDEF but needed the kind of “settle in/lean back” experience that lets me not think about it for a good chunk of time.

Over the last few years I’ve saved several dozen playlists on Spotify, but even looking at these wasn’t doing anything for me. I tried a few but nah. They were turned off only a few songs in most cases. Also, I kept coming back to the same handful, effectively ignoring or discounting 80% or more of the options I myself had put in front of me.

Finally I decided on a course of action: Instead of choosing what to listen to each day, going through the usual “What sounds good, what do I feel like?” process, I would start at the top of my list of saved Spotify playlists and work my way down. The way have the organized is alphabetically by artist name, so the first one was devoted to 10,000 Maniacs. Then AC/DC. Skip down a few and you get to Count Basie followed by The Beatles. Scan down toward the end and you’ll see Wilco followed by The Who.

This whole thing reminded me how much brain power we devote to small decisions. There have been whole studies devoted to this, showing our brains are really only capable of making so many decisions per day, after which we’re essentially useless. So why expend a good chunk of that finite resource bouncing around between something as inessential as music playlists.

Even more than that, it reminded me that the best way to get yourself out of a rut is often to take a deliberate action. By choosing something structured and rigid, I was removing uncertainty. I knew what I’d be listening to next because it was next, not because that’s what I thought I’d dig that day, only to find it was annoying me. This allowed me to free that brain power up to do other things.

It’s similar in a way to how some people have found limiting their wardrobe to be freeing. They no longer hemmed and hawed over what would be the best thing to wear that day. If it’s Tuesday, it’s this shirt. Or maybe the entire wardrobe had been overhauled to include a few of one item like a simple black shirt, with just enough to keep one or two clean at any given time.

Minimalism, in its most broad (and sometimes inaccurate) definition, is about owning less stuff. That’s a worthwhile goal from a consumption point of view since you’re more likely to value what you still have and take care of it as opposed to being ready to just toss it and buy something to replace it, at which time you’ll probably buy five other things you don’t really need as well.

What I’m talking about is more along the lines of minimalist decision making. There’s ready proof that when confronted with too many options we experience decision paralysis, overwhelmed and unable to make a call. If you’re counting on that one decision to be the right one to set the tone for the day and have ripple effects through your productivity, getting stuck in a state of paralysis can be detrimental, to say the least.

So take it, or something like it, out of the equation. Make a single deliberate and firm choice that frees you from the bonds of making 17 tiny decisions because you made one big one. It can’t hurt and it could help immeasurably. And as an additional bonus, I’m listening to some music I hadn’t heard in a while, which is always a good thing.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

It Doesn’t Matter What You Call It. How It Feels Does

It used to be called “the groove” or “the zone.”

Coming from a family full of gearheads and car enthusiasts we used the phrase “running on all eight cylinders.”

They all mean the same thing: That feeling that comes when you just can’t do any wrong. Hours pass in the blink of an eye while you’re working on something you’re deeply passionate about or interested in.

For me, running on all eight cylinders means there’s nothing that can stop me. The words (it’s usually when I’m writing) are flowing like water from a spring as the winter snowpack melts. It’s organic and meaningful. Whatever time I have is too short.

Recently I’ve encountered a number of sources that refer to it as “the flow” or simply “flow.” The key to productivity, to self-actualization, is finding flow. It is our optimal functional state. We’re more efficient and passionate, bringing all our attention and skills to bear on something important.

If you do even a small bit of searching or subscribe to entrepreneurial or productivity news sites for a short while you’ll encounter no end of tips and advice on how to get into the flow or maintain the flow while working. As with most tips and advice, there’s some good stuff in there, but your mileage may vary.

You Do You

If creating an environment of complete silence and tranquility works, great. I work better with Rush or Van Halen or Bob Dylan or Huey Lewis & The News playing at a wholly unhealthy volume.

If turning off the internet connection to minimize distractions works, great. Jumping over to Twitter every now and again actually helps take my mind off something I might be stuck on and free up new ideas.

If scheduled breaks where you turn away completely works, great. I prefer to just keep going and rest when the day is done and I’ve accomplished as much as possible.

You Might Not Know What Works

For years I didn’t know what the right combination of activities, stimuli and other factors was. When I felt it, I felt it. But I couldn’t put my finger on how to recreate it. Eventually it came together when I realized there was no magic formula.

Flow is art, not science in my experience. One day I’m running on all eight when I’ve got The Grateful Dead going and I’m working down a list of writing projects and topics. The next it’s when I’m listening to St. Vincent and organizing files on a hard drive.

It doesn’t matter what you call it. It doesn’t matter how you get there. What matters is that you feel it. Find your groove. Find your flow. Fire up all eight cylinders. Make it happen.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

What I Can Learn From a Rejected Pitch

I’d sent the pitch several months ago. So long ago I had to search my memory for what it was that I had contacted the site about when I saw a response email land in my inbox. I’d pitched a popular entertainment news and culture site with an idea for a new regular feature that I thought was pretty cool.

When I finally opened it up it was exactly what I expected. The message said something like the following:

Interesting idea, but it’s not original enough so we’re going to pass.

There were a few moments of depression that followed. Being rejected never feels good, though you’d think with all the experience I’ve had over the course of the last year and a half I’d be more used to it. Certainly seems as if I’ve gotten Malcolm Gladwell’s required 10,000 hours of practice in.

After a bit I started thinking about the situation differently and came away with a few thoughts and realizations.

It’s Not Personal

It’s not me that’s been rejected, it’s just this particular idea. I’m still a good and talented person, this idea just didn’t fit with what that site was looking for.

This is perhaps the toughest for me to remember, but I get there eventually. I get emotionally invested in things and begin to believe they represent part of who I am as a person. Disconnecting my identity from my work is a process I’ve been engaged in ever since I got laid off last year. For too long what I did *was* who I was as a person, which wasn’t healthy.

That’s an artifact not only of the generation that raised mine, before concepts like “work-life balance” came into vogue, when there was still a middle-class and when you could reasonably expect to have a full-time job with the same company for decades. It’s also a result of the “rugged individualism” that’s still persistent, where you are measured by your measurable contributions to society.

So it takes a little work for me to eventually remember that this isn’t me being turned down, it’s just this idea, or the collection of skills I have. God still loves me, as does my family, and I can still take pride in the work I can do, it’s just I won’t be doing any of that work for X Company.

“No” Can’t Stop Me

OK, so that particular site didn’t like the idea and didn’t think it was original enough for them and their audience. Got it.

I still like the idea, though, and think it has merit. I don’t think the site sending me the rejection considered it fully enough. That might be my fault in that I might not have framed the pitch accurately and so didn’t give them the full picture of what it could be. If so, that’s on me. There are two options then available to me:

First: I can always look for other sites that might be interested. There are plenty of options available so it’s worth the time to investigate. I’m not going to do so immediately but will subscribe to the emails/RSS feeds for those sites, learn what they write about, how they approach material, discern who they believe their audience to be and then find out if they’re accepting pitches and how to do so effectively. I’ll make whatever tweaks to the concept I feel are appropriate – either based on the feedback I got or just opportunities I didn’t notice initially – and then make the pitch.

Second: I can just do it my own damn self. Like most all freelancers, I have access to not just one but multiple self-publishing platforms. So if it’s an idea that I still think is interesting and worth executing but, say, I’ve pitched it repeatedly with no pick up I can just put it on one my blogs.

A New Approach

Back when I was doing content strategy for a living one of the things I’d tell clients wanting to spin up a corporate blog is that they need to plan editorial six months out from launch. If you can’t identify what you’ll still be talking about six months from now, you need to reevaluate if a blog is needed.

Not only that, but start writing posts two months before it launches. Just open a Word or Google Doc and call it “Blog Post Drafts” and start writing the kinds of things you have in mind for the blog. Do that regularly so that writing for the blog becomes part of a routine, something you don’t have to “fit in” but which you take specific time to do. This helps you refine your voice as well. Those drafts can either be kept private or published so the blog has an archive as soon as it goes public, it doesn’t really matter. The point is to practice in private before opening day.

That’s more or less the approach I’m going to begin taking with ideas I have that I want to pitch. Instead of basing the pitch on an idea and maybe one executed example, I’m going to do two months of practice. Doing so will help me test the validity of the idea and make adjustments that would be awkward to do post-debut and hopefully strengthen the quality of the pitch.

Don’t Get Discouraged

No one likes being rejected. But it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not a necessary stamp of approval on my worth as an individual. Tomorrow brings with it the opportunity to achieve different things. Some will work out, some won’t, and some I’ll have to just do myself. The key to success is showing up, so that’s what I’ll do.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.