First Principles of Productivity

I’m back from vacation, and ready to be productive. But I’ve forgotten what that means, and I suspect it’s something philosophical. So it’s back to first principles.

Goal: The most basic, unambiguous measure of success. Examples: Delivering a competitive software product that can generate revenue. Writing a story I’d want to read.

Work: Activity that demonstrably brings me closer to the goal. Examples: Designing a software architecture. Writing code. Imagining character motivation. Writing a scene.

Para-Work: Activities that surround productive work, sometimes useful, sometimes not, sometimes serving secondary or unstated goals. Examples: Attending meetings. Processing email. Checking story submission status. Scanning writer chat boards.

Traction: An active state of making progress toward the goal. Traction is, by definition, work. Traction can be para-work if the result of the para-work enables work, for example, planning (see below).

Distraction: An active state of not making progress toward the goal. Work, by definition, is never a distraction. Para-work can be a distraction when it does not enable work, for example, manually filing email by topic.

Time Slice: The longest period of uninterrupted time during which work or para-work can be performed. Examples: A 1-hour management update meeting. An afternoon blocked-off for heads-down work.

Prioritization: An evaluation function that buckets activities in a hierarchy: as work, para-work likely to gain traction, and para-work likely to distract.

Planning: A type of para-work that breaks down the day into time slices and allocates work and para-work to those time slices. Planning accounts for expected interruptions and distractions that cannot be avoided. In general, smaller time slices (30 minutes, 1 hour) lend themselves to para-work. Work, which involves shifting to a focused mental state and blocking out distractions, takes more time, on the order of hours.

Multi-Tasking: A decision to fill a time slice with mutually distracting activities, under the misapprehension that being busy is the same as being productive. In truth, multi-tasking is merely creating many, thin time slices, filling them with activities on-the-fly, and hoping that by the end of the total block, something will have been accomplished.

Middle Management: A career where one’s day comes pre-fragmented into 30-minute to 1-hour time slices and all one’s work is para-work. Middle managers are not strictly necessary to achieve goals, but corporate culture manufactures a need for them based on the notion of accountability as less a work ethic than a power structure. At best, middle managers are facilitators and procurers of resources; at worst they are the friction that slows the performance of work.

Wisdom: The realization that fulfilling work, be it in a profession or hobby, is overwhelmingly reliant on the ownership of one’s time. Thoughtful, deep, productive work requires long, undistracted slices of time. The ability to clearly understand the goal, and to discriminate between traction and distraction, are absolutely necessary, but until one can take that planning and perform the necessary work in the time it requires, it will be an exercise in futility and frustration. Guard your time as your most precious resource.

2 thoughts on “First Principles of Productivity

  1. Hey Rajiv, I’m sure this isn’t the first time you’ve heard this, but I had to comment to say I love the name of your blog. Absolutely awesome. Brought a big smile to my face!

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