Hello, I am David Amerland, your host, and this is the Stolen Fire podcast episode one, would you believe? This is where we talk business and life and the place where one meets the other. But really what we’re talking about are shortcuts.
If you think life’s too short to take the long way to doing anything then this podcast is for you. In each podcast I shall tackle a thorny issue that afflicts business and life or, maybe the life of business and I shall provide some solutions that are actionable and sustainable.
In this first podcast of the year we shall talk about productivity. What is surprising perhaps is that we have been talking about productivity since there has ever been some kind of formal business, producing some kind of work. Which means that we have always been talking about it. As a matter of fact 2,000 year ago the Roman Stoic and Statesman, Seneca, was going on about productivity and time when he wrote: “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” And Socrates, before him, said: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
Both great men, as a matter of fact, go to some length to highlight a distinction that usually escapes us. Productivity is not really about output, or work or being busy or getting things done. It is about the use we make of time. And time happens to be the one truly finite, irreversible resource. Everything our skills and technology allow us to do only affect the amount and quality of work we can squeeze in the same frame of time that anyone living 2,000 years ago, or more, would have available to them.
So while we are talking about productivity what we are really discussing is time management. And we cannot truly discuss time management without talking about prioritization. And here’s the thing, we can only prioritize what is either urgent or important and usually these tend to be synonymous. To prioritize something we need to pay attention to it. Attention uses up mental resources so it actually comes at a cost. This is why we have no problem focusing on an issue that has become critical, maybe even, existential but we can’t focus on something we know we have to do regardless of its importance until the deadline approaches and it becomes a little bit critical for us.
What are we to do then? How can productivity truly be solved? At a personal and even an organizational level it comes down to the simple issue of recognizing what is important to us. To do that though we need to also recognize why it is important and we cannot truly identity the “what” and the “why” without knowing what it is we want and why we want it.
Look at that! We managed to get to core identity as the truly key issue for our lack of productivity. Or, to be more precise we’ve managed to drill down to the fact that we don’t spend a lot of time digging into who we truly are and what we really want. We are content, most of the time, to go with the flow picking up skills and expertise, acquiring experience and using all that we know to deal with work and life on a moment-by-moment basis.
As they say, with some irony: it doesn’t work like that. None of it works like that. The reason it doesn’t lies in today’s complex world. We are not just facing the relatively siloed problems of the past. Nor are we dealing with issues that are clearly bounded. Whether we are talking about business or life there is an entire subtext of background information against which everything plays out.
That background information may appear to be inert, especially when it doesn’t directly impact upon the context of any particular moment. But this is patently not so. The background of our lives sets the tone of our conduct and the quality of our thinking by either tying up or freeing mental resources. A general level of anxiety, for example, will surface in our task prioritization by making it hard to accurately allocate the mental bandwidth required to make the right decisions.
We may feel tired, or harassed, or distracted. How this background anxiety we perceive will manifest itself will depend on how long it has been going on for, how important it is becoming to us and what else we are actually doing.
The thing to remember is that we have limited cognitive and emotional resources to help us deal with things. The brain survives the noise generated by the world around us by filtering what it perceives to be important and what it perceives to be unimportant. Mental filters take energy to maintain. You know the feeling when you are tired or are waking up after a really late night partying and you’re sensitive to small fluctuations in room temperature, relatively small noises or bright lights? That sensitivity doesn’t mean that your skin, ears or eyes have changed. Their ability to perceive the environment is the same as ever. What has changed is the brain’s capacity to maintain the many filters that single out some environmental stimuli, some data if you like, and let it pass while blocking other data.
In a very similar way to the feeling of the day after the party of the night before, background levels of anxiety have a way of depleting our mental resources to the point that we then find it very hard to operate. Our cognitive skills suffer because the available energy for them is simply not there.
If you let it, the world will always intrude into your head and your life in ways that will affect the quality of pretty much everything you do. Filtering it out however requires self-knowledge. A sense of purpose which then helps the brain to focus.
If you ever wondered whether talks and presentations that linked motivation, purpose and values with work were a little bit overblown, companies going over the top about what is just work, now you will hopefully understand that no one can truly be productive without proper focus. And focus cannot happen without true motivation.
None of this is even remotely possible without a sense of who you are and why you do what you do. And that is where you should start if you want to get things done. That is your shortcut to perpetual productivity. A core identity that will evolve as you evolve and the world around you changes. A core identity that gives you a sense of purpose that defines your mission in life.
It all starts from there.