Why We Feel Unproductive



“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do.” — Lucille Ball”

I was reading Scott Hanselman’s post on Productivity vs. Guilt and Self-Loathing.  In his post, Scott shares what he does when he feels unproductive.  If you know Scott, he’s the opposite of unproductive.  So the question then is …

Why do we sometimes feel unproductive?

I played with this question on my way to work, and then a few dots connected.

We See the Work

I connected the dots when I was surprised by a few people that said they didn’t really see all the work ahead.  They were working on a few things, but there was not an amazing forest of challenges and opportunities ahead of them.   Instead, it was just a tree here or there.  It baffled me, but then it clicked.  Not everybody looks to see the forest.

As a Program Manager, I’m constantly breaking work down.  I need to map out paths from A to B. I’m constantly sorting massive lists of work to be done.  I’m always looking at the system.  I need to find the bottlenecks in our system and ecosystem and unblock them.  I need to orchestrate people to bring out their best.  I need to foresee and anticipate humps and hurdles and have a game plan to get around them.

It’s not that the job of a Program Manager is never done (It isn’t BTW.)  It’s that some people see the task at hand, while others see the bigger map.

Any idea that comes my way, I have to start breaking it down into experiences, scenarios, features, requirements, timelines, milestones, etc. 

I always see the work.

Some people don’t “see the work.”  I’ve run into this pattern multiple times, where somebody looks like they have nothing to do.  In their mind they don’t.  Nobody told them to do anything.  They aren’t a self-starter.  If nothing is assigned to them, then there’s nothing to do.  For others, they are looking for work, but they can’t see the work.  They haven’t done work-breakdown-structures, or iteration planning, or any sort of planning, so they just aren’t familiar with how to look for work … and more importantly, they don’t know how to identify meaningful and game-changing work.

When you see the bigger map, it can feel like people are re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.  Your job then becomes to educate people on the why, the what, and the goals of the work, so people can put the deck chairs down, and re-focus their efforts.

So when I measure myself against the work to be done, I always fall short.  When I get to the top of the mountain, I see more mountains.

The solution?   Set milestones, identity tests for success, and stop to smell the roses.  Look back on achievements, to balance always looking ahead.

We Have Ideas

When you constantly flow ideas, you are brutally aware of missed opportunities, and worse, missed windows of opportunity.  The backlog of ideas just keeps growing, and, it’s not a shortage of good or even great ideas, there is a shortage of execution.

It’s OK for bad ideas or lesser ideas to die a slow death, but it’s a real shame when the game changers die due to lack of love.

It’s amazing how many ideas can flow when you know how to debottleneck your mind.  When I learned that Thomas Edison had an idea quota, I thought that was interesting. 

You get what you measure, and you get more of what you focus on. 

When I learned how to clear my head by dumping my state, and to capture ideas with a thought catcher, my speed of ideas outpaced my execution by a long shot.  As a Program Manager, I’m skilled in making things happen and going from idea to done … but my pace of ideas outpaced what was possible within time, resource, and budget constraints.

The solution? 

Focus on the whitelist of great ideas, versus the blacklist … Hit more windows of opportunity, ruthlessly prioritize, trade bad, good, or great for outstanding, and really focus on wins … three wins for the day, three wins for the week, three wins for the month, three wins for the year. 

We Feel the Impact

This one is tough.  When you know what’s possible from excellent execution, and when you know the power of productivity, it’s actually painful when opportunities slip through your fingers. 

When you can step into the future and you know how the world could be a better place, and yet at the same time, you know that without the right things happening, it’s not going to happen … it’s tough.

When you know that a lack of execution or lack of effective productivity will translate into businesses going under, or people losing their jobs, or evil winning the day, it’s tough to rest. 

On the flip side, when you know that giving a little more, and then a little more, can create powerful transformation, it’s tough not to fight the good fight, and march onward and updward.

Again, it can be tough to stop and smell the roses, and it can feel like the weight of the world on your shoulders.

We Don’t Always Keep Score

We learn in school to focus on what we got wrong, not what we got right.  We forget to ask the simple questions like:

  • What’s on my “Done” list?
  • What were my wins for the day?
  • What were my wins for the week?
  • What were my wins for the month?
  • What were my wins for the year?

One of the people I mentor asked me if it was important to keep her “Done” list.  (A “Done” list is simply a list of things you completed during the day.) 

I said, “Absolutely. 

It’s a reminder of what you achieved during the day.  And you can balance it against your three wins that you identified at the top of your list.”

The idea here is that, as simple as it sounds, a little progress can go a long way toward feeling productive, and feeling fulfilled.  Little lists help, even as simple as having a “Done” list for your day.

We Have to Trim the Tree

Periodically, we have to “Trim the Tree.”  We have to put the bags down, and start with a clean slate. 

We need a fresh look, and a fresh perspective. 

We need to recharge and renew.  We need to let our “mighty mounds of work-to-be-done”, crumble and fall, so we can build better, more meaningful mounds.  

The reality is that time changes what’s important, and if we keep carrying the weight forward, it holds up back or holds us down.  We have to cut the dead wood.

I like using a “Trim the Tree” metaphor because I think of trimming branches, beyond just leaves. 

My goal is always to get back to the essential that matters … here and now … and to shape what will matter … so that the way forward is sustainable, inspiring, and lifts us in ways we know are possible.

The goal – at the end of the day – is this …

You need to be who you want to be, and create the experiences you want to create.

Your best strategy for that is to follow your personal strategy for work and life, including your vision, mission, and values, and playing to your strengths, and differentiating through your unique experience, capabilities, and approach. 

We also know three paths of happiness you can follow:

  1. The Pleasant Life – Do more stuff that feels good now.
  2. The Good Life – Spend more time in your values.
  3. The Meaningful Life – Follow your personal path of fulfillment by doing great service for the greater good, giving your best where you have your best to give, and living your vision, mission, and values.

When you combine strategy with your productivity, you help not only life your meaningful life, but you help lift the life of others, by bringing your unique value to the world.  Or, to put it another way, it’s a great way to build skills to pay the bills and lead a better life.

I’ve baked many of these strategies and techniques from hard lessons learned in the most challenging scenarios into a simple system for meaningful results. 

It’s Agile Results, and it’s introduced in my book, Getting Results the Agile Way.

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