What's next for personal productivity

What's next for personal productivity

Disclaimer: This post is more of a thought experiment on the evolution of productivity vs. a concrete answer on what's happening next. It's based off my observations over the last 10 years of studying productivity thinkers, systems, and tools and looking at current cultural trends.

I became aware of the personal productivity movement nearly a decade ago, and have been learning it seriously and honing my craft in it for around the last 5 years. Throughout this time, I've studied the movements history and noticed some patterns. There are a few particular breakpoints where major shifts in productivity thinking occurred, and, interestingly enough, I think we're nearing yet another one, which I'm calling Productivity v3.0.

Let's take a look at the historical periods of personal productivity and what its next inception may bring us.

Productivity v1.0 - Leadership

The first major inception of the personal productivity movement, version 1 so to say, is a focus on productivity to be a better leader. Major thought leaders in this period included Stephen Covey, Zig Ziglar, and John Maxwell to name a few.

This focus on leader effectiveness makes sense in that personal productivity and knowledge work are inherently tied together, and in the 1950s to the 1990s, the primary people dealing with an abundance of "stuff" to do were business managers and executives.

In this period, digital tools to manage productivity hardly existed (if any at all), email wasn't a factor in information management, and paper planners were the primary mode by which people managed their lives. The pace of collaboration was more synchronous, but slower in that ideas couldn't be communicated

Productivity v2.0 - Efficiency

The Internet changed the way we work, but let's be honest, it's really all email's fault. When email became more widely used in the late 1990s, the digital revolution broke down multitudes of barriers for sharing ideas and working together. It also did something unforseen – it allowed people to push work onto your plate in an instant. I'm not just talking about tasks or projects to accomplish, but ideas to think about, solutions to evaluate, and so much more. No longer did you have the list of items assigned by your boss to handle; you had the world's task list for you to manage, too.

Combining the rise of email with an explosion of web usage by the general public, we found ourselves with a near limitless amount of people to connect with, information to consume, and distractions to derail ourselves. As a result, the strategies of Productivity v1.0 no longer scaled well. David Allen's book, Getting Things Done, launched in 2001, and inspired a movement of efficiency nerds, productivity thinkers, and achievement-focused workers to handle the chaos unleashed by the digital age. This is Productivity v2, where knowledge workers of all types felt overwhelmed by the information workload of their jobs and sought a way to tame it.

In addition to Allen, Productivity v2.0 gave rise to a number of thinkers in the same vein, including Merlin Mann, Mike Vardy, David Sparks, and Cal Newport, to name just a few. The focus on efficiency also gave rise to a number of new productivity apps, and, really, an industry focused on checklists, tooling, and coaching you to reach your goals.

Some good things came out of this time, such as the ability of many to capture, organize, and act upon the varied kinds of information coming their way. But there were some downsides, too, like the fact that we didn't really address the cultural issues in the workplace that caused this overwhelm in the first place, that productivity culture tends to provide prescriptive, systemic solutions to raw, organic human problems, and overall tends to elevate work over everything else in life.

Cal Newport's recent piece in The New Yorker I think summarizes many thoughts I've had toward productivity well.

The Frustration with Productivity Culture
Why we’re so tired of optimizing our work lives, and what we should do about it.

Productivity v3.0 - Fulfillment

When there's frustration, there's room for change. When there's pain, there's motivation. When there's time, there's consideration. The COVID-19 pandemic gave us all three in relation to our lives and work, and resultingly I believe it's pushing us toward another change in how we view personal productivity, work, and our lives as whole.

Productivity v2.0 on some level has failed us. I think many of us associated with the productivity community feel that. There's something missing from the picture, but we haven't quite figured out what yet. During my content creation hiatus, I've been thinking about how we might be able to move forward and feel better about our lives, instead of feeling like we're hamsters stuck on a wheel churning out widgets for The Man day in and day out.

Where v2.0 focused on practically handling the overwhelming amount of stuff life started throwing at us in the 21st century, I think v3.0 will have a much more noble aim: fulfillment, not just how do we find fulfillment in our work, but how do we lead holistically fulfilled lives. We're finding success doesn't deliver the satisfaction we dreamed it would, so we're on the search for something that will.

Consequently, there are four main ideas I believe Productivity v3.0 will aim to correct and help us in our pursuit for feeling fulfilled in life.

Gaining a Big Picture Focus

One item I found heavily lacking in many of the productivity thought processes and methods from v2.0 is managing the big picture. Getting Things Done and most other v.20 methods use a bottom-up approach: gather all the minutia in your mind into a trusted system, then start to organize it from there. I think this works up to a point, as when you're first getting started organizing your life, it helps to get everything out and visible, much like when organizing a room it's useful to put everything on the floor.

At some point, there needs to be a shift toward the big picture. How do you intensely focus on the things that matter most to you when all the niggly little todos on your list are staring at you, begging to get checked off? It's really hard. Focusing on the big picture, a top-down perspective, allows us to much more easily remove the items from our lives that don't line up with what matters most. Otherwise put, when you're clear on the big picture, the little picture is infinitely easier to manage.

A Tool in the Toolbox

Productivity v2.0 focused heavily on mindset. If you think this way about work... If you do these 12 things... If you find the right system to conduct your life by... ...then you'll find success... satisfaction... perfection. As someone who was quite productive but still struggled to find this kind of pot o' perfection at the end of the proverbial rainbow, it became clear to me productivity was not the right way to think about these matters.

I believe Productivity v3.0 will correct this by relegating productivity to its proper place: as one of many tools in the toolbox we can use to manage the holistic picture of our lives. Life is bigger than work, every area of our lives is worth our attention, but productivity is not the right tool for each one. Do you really want to optimize and make your family relationships efficient? Your dating life? Your spiritual walk? We're not robots or machines, and you are not a factory. We must stop thinking about every aspect of life as such.

Defining the Future of Work

There's already been a radical revolution in the way we approach work, and that's how we've all been thrown into remote work as a result of the pandemic. But not everyone has experienced the best that this new future of work has to offer. Many companies tried to bring their office culture into a digital space, and this is why we have extremely weird features arriving in collaboration software like Microsoft Teams' room view.

This is too much, Microsoft.

Work doesn't have to look the way it has for the last 10 years, or even 50 years. Companies are starting to explore what a fully asynchronous, flexible, as-meetingless-as-possible culture can look like. Discourse does this (where I work), and it's made immeasurable changes to my overall health, well-being, and perspective. I have the freedom to work when, where, and how I want to, including being able to see my family during the day, take care of myself, or incorporate leisurely activities.  

The point here is we can start to see work as part of a bigger, more holistic picture of our lives, versus this compartmentalized, segmented place we go to make money. I believe Productivity v3.0 will aim to help businesses find a way to empower individual employees to live healthier holistic lives and work together well. A major ramification of this is the reduction of workplace burnout. I recently gave a conference talk about this exact subject, and I believe it's inherently beneficial to all knowledge workers if we change our work culture to be more flexible and asynchronous. People want to work, but let have their lives back in the process.

Knowledge Management

The last major pillar of Productivity v3.0 has to do with creative output. v2.0 primarily dealt with to-dos and how to manage them, but as the complexity, creativity, and competitiveness of knowledge work increases over time, we need systems and tools to help us not only manage actions, but develop ideas we can turn into reality.

The rise in tools like Roam Research and Obsidian over the last year or so is evidence of the demand for such systems. Many of our action items and goals are tied to big picture concepts, creative ideas, and plain ol' stuff we need to research. Traditional tooling and mindsets around task management and note taking haven't handled this big picture to day-to-day transition well, or they've focused too much on being useful to academia to be useful in a business setting.  In Productivity v3.0, I believe traditional systems and ideas like GTD will get subsumed by personal knowledge management processes on a personal level. At a business level, the future of remote, asynchronous work requires managing team knowledge so people can do their jobs without having others available at a moment's notice (which, consequently, prevents them from being productive by allowing non-stop interruptions).

The Next Phase

I'm curious – have you caught rumblings of similar feelings in the work and productivity world? What are you thinking about in relation to this? I'd love to hear – send me a note at desk@justindirose.com.

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