To blame the world or not to blame the world for your productivity? That is the question. (And I’d love your thoughts)

July 12, 2009 by Jared Goralnick

Jared Goralnick and the Bay Is it too much stuff, or a lack of focus and clarity that keeps us working late?  If you started over at a completely different job, would you have the same frustrations?

The question is one of nature vs. nurture in our productivity: are our delays or inefficiencies a product of our times or of ourselves?

Content is created at an ever increasing rate.  Keeping up with our fields and our own responsibilities is a growing challenge.  There are numerous studies that illustrate our “information overload” and “email overload” every week, and I’ve talked about many of them here.

While we may be surrounded with articles and electronic communication, it now takes less time to do many of our tasks.  Collaboration, communication, logistics, shopping… once timely and costly activities are now quick and often inexpensive.

Moreover, there are plenty of tools—hardware, software, and systems—that help to address the volume of information that surrounds us.

So all of this leads me to consider Cassius’ age-old line in Julius Caesar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves.”

That is, do we need better systems, better technologies, and fewer responsibilities…or do we simply need more focus and more clarity?

Once we understand a few techniques for processing email and eliminating interruptions, it seems to me that the responsibility resides in us.  That responsibility is knowing what to do (clarity) and finding the patience to stay on-task (focus).

I know the tools and systems quite well, but I don’t think my productivity is remarkable.  I have a good handle on clarity, but focus has always been my struggle.  If I had half as much on my plate I might be bored, but I don’t think I’d be magically productive.

What do you think: is it today’s world or our own distractibility that plagues our performance?  There’s certainly some of both, but do you blame yourself or the changing world you live in?  Or maybe you’re not as hard on yourself as I am…but I’d be interested in hearing about that, too.

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9 Responses to “To blame the world or not to blame the world for your productivity? That is the question. (And I’d love your thoughts)”

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  1. Victoria Pickering

    I think blaming oneself is always useful, because then it puts you in control, and more likely to look for solutions.
    And I also think that it is true that we are largely to blame.
    One useful comparison is what happened to levels of housework when households gained modern technologies that remarkably reduced effort (washing machines vs. wringers, vacuums, dishwashers, etc.) – housework time did not go down at all! (source: Vanek’s studies from 1920′s-1970′s). You want to scream at these people – you gained a washing machine and it didn’t cut down your time, what are you doing wrong?!? But then if we look at ourselves, we can see all the same things – we have amazing time-saving technologies that we have figured out how to interact with in ways that take up all of our time.

  2. Tony Wright

    As much as we try to be masters of our own behavior, we are slaves to dopamine. Just look at casinos and online gambling.

    Social software and news sites are getting in on the game too. They are getting downright scientific about providing a variable reinforcement schedule for emotional rewards. There’s a little emotional rush when we get an email that makes us feel important or find/share a cool story on Digg.

    Clearly some people are different– I can’t fathom why casinos are fun (though I still have distraction problems).

    So, short answer: I think we should hold ourselves responsible for our behavior rather than blame our wiring/plumbing– but I think we are at a huge disadvantage in terms of focus due to our wiring/plumbing and the barrage of things trying to get our attention.

  3. Nathan Zeldes

    The difficulty in answering this (for myself) is that everything is a moving target concurrently. Sure, I was far more focused 25 years ago when there were less technologies to distract me, but I was ALSO 25 years younger (not sure whether/how that affects the equation, but it might) and I ALSO had a different job type at different seniority… So is it the environment, the technology, the cultural milieu, or myself that has changed? Or all of the above?

  4. Dan Markovitz

    I’m inclined to agree with Cassius: I do think that it’s us. There’s a huge boulder of truth in Parkinson’s Law, and that predates IM, SMS, email, Twitter, etc.

  5. Art Jacoby

    Cassius is spot on. Its on us to make good choices for the 86,400 seconds/day we have available. Someone just sent me an advice list that recommended creating a “no” list – things you would stop doing to give yourself room to breathe. I like that. I’ll stop writing now :)

  6. Justine Lam

    Well, I was just taking a break from my work to read your blog. So, the fault must lie in myself. I’d rather read friend’s blogs!

    BTW, nice photo of you. :)

  7. Jared Goralnick

    So many great thoughts from you all.

    Victoria, interesting analogy to houseworking–though I think that technologies CAN reduce our time significantly in the relevant area. For instance, due to modern technologies I spend very little time on housework. I think I reap all of the benefits of those sorts of tools without now suddenly spending extra time on some other facet of housework . However, with most computer technologies that save me time there, I still find myself spending just as much time there…

    Tony & Nathan, I like your balanced perspectives. This stuff is a very wisely constructed timesuck. While there always were distractions, I don’t believe they were always so present, easy to get hooked on, and persistent.

    Dan, yes, good old Parkinson’s.

    Art, I wish I had your focus.

    Justine, thanks for chiming in…and more importantly, for the photo! I should’ve tagged you for taking it…let me go do that now : ).

  8. J.D. Meier

    It really is about boundaries, lack of limits, and filter failure.

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