Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Necessary Doesn't Mean Productive (and Vice Versa)

Yesterday's post was about down time. And I'll just repeat the main point because I think people overlook it in their quest for more efficiency and all that. It is necessary to have real down time -- not just time you get to pack full of other tasks. I mean time which has no good use except to be used as slack. Having slack is the key to efficiency. If you pack it full of secondary tasks, it can't do it's job of providing for a margin of error.

Today, though, I wanted to talk about the related matter of those secondary tasks. But I'm too exhausted to even make sense of my original notes for this post. But maybe that is an example of what I want to talk about. (And to paraphrase Mark Twain: I'm sorry I don't have the time to write you a short blog post, so you'll have to make do with a long one....)

Three groups of tasks we often get mixed up: productive tasks, necessary tasks and slack time.

I am very out of shape right now. Part of the reason is because, I made a lifestyle change a year ago that makes my working time much much more sedentary. This has helped one set of repetitive stress injuries, but prompted another.


I did something necessary. I converted my desk to a standing desk this week. This is at my day job -- where we don't have budget to go buying furniture. But I could spring for a $10 set of bed risers. All it required, then, was for me to pack up my office and disassemble my computer and then lift the table to put the risers under each of the legs... then reassemble everything.

This is not what I would call productive time. This is, actually, one form of "cat vacuuming," which you can use to look busy and fill up your time rather than doing the job at hand. And it's certainly not slack time. In order to get it done, though, I certainly did have to stop and lean on a shovel a few times.

What I was doing, though, was necessary. I can't do the job with an RSI, and without being reasonably energetic and healthy. There are a lot of similar tasks which are necessary but not productive: Creating to do lists, dealing with email, research, studying, learning, practice, eating, sleeping, reading, sharpening pencils, shopping, filling out paperwork.... these are all necessary things. Some of them very necessary, and even immediately relevant to the task at hand. But they are not the task itself.

Research is not writing. Thinking while doing dishes (or taking a bath, or driving or shopping) is not writing. Generating ideas is not writing. They may be necessary to writing, but they aren't writing.

Now my day job is not like writing: Mine is an on-duty service job. People come to me with questions and problems. So technically, I am not in control of the "productivity" aspect of my job -- if nobody has a question at the moment, I'm in slack time. Which is when I do the "necessary but not productive" parts of my job.

But for most jobs, and for writing, you usually have something to get done, and the "necessary but not productive" competes with the time you have to do your main job. Bad managers often think the key to better productivity is to cut back on the time for other tasks, and at the same time, employees fight back and use "necessary" to justify more slack time.

But it's not a good idea to blur the definition between these tasks. What's necessary is necessary. Leave enough room for it. And leave slack in both the necessary and the productive parts of your schedule so that you have elbow room to work.

The Chinese have a saying about a wise man who gives full attention to what he's doing at the moment -- if resting, he gives his full attention to rest, if traveling his full attention to travel, etc.

I think these three are your boulders and pebbles and sand. You need to manage them so that there is room for all of them.

Tomorrow I will talk on yet another closely related topic: The Difference Between Important and Urgent, and setting priorities accordingly.

See you in the funny papers.

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