Some of my highest impact learnings as a graduate student have been around productivity. One of my professors in the first couple of weeks described it as a 2 year course in decision making and trade-offs. I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written about what my process has looked like. And, today, I thought I’d attempt to pull out 3 productivity principles that have become apparent to me in the past year.
1. There is no productivity without a goal. We are either active or productive. The difference is whether we’re making progress towards a goal. This goal has to be necessarily overarching. For example, if your goal is to become CEO and CEO alone, talking to family becomes unimportant activity.
So, the first principle of productivity is to decide what matters.
2. Strategic decisions cannot be taken in isolation / You can’t optimize sub systems. If you’re trying to figure out how to live a good life, you can’t work toward optimizing a “sub system” or part of your life. This means you can’t make a good decision on your career if you don’t consider the impact on the other parts of your life. For example, what is the impact of you accepting a new role? Does that compromise on your desire to be healthy?
The latin root of decision comes from ‘cis’ or ‘cid’ which literally means “to kill.” Good strategy involves good decisions which, in turn, involve killing options. And, such decisions need to be taken with a view of the whole picture.
A quick additional plug – making decisions keeping the whole picture in mind helps us be consistent and “walk our talk.” The one word that describes that well is integrity. Integrity is derived from integer which, as you probably know from 3rd grade math, means whole. It all ties together.
3. The key goal – to keep the main thing the main thing. There’s a story that a productivity coach in the 1920s once gave millionaire Charles Schwab a simple piece of advice – write down the 3 most important things at the start of the day and don’t move to item 2 till you finish item 1. He received a check for $25,000 (a big amount in those days) a few weeks later.
Once you understand what you are optimizing for and make decisions that ensure you’re optimizing for the right thing, the next step is getting things done. And, the first step to getting things done is to constantly keep the main thing the main thing. This isn’t easy to do. But, I’ve found that the Charles Schwab technique of being consistently mindful is one of those that works very well. To each their own though.
I find it unfortunate that discussions around productivity often revolve around tactics – how to keep inbox zero, write things down as you think of them, etc. There is a lot of merit to tactics and maybe I’ll attempt to pull together what I’ve learnt on them, someday. But, they are secondary to strategy.
It is also telling that 2 out of the 3 principles I’ve pulled out were thanks to that fantastic book on Operations Strategy – The Goal by Eliyahu M Goldratt. As we learnt on day 1 of our course on Operations, good operations supports strategy. After all, if it isn’t contributing towards the goal, it is just activity, not productivity.