This is my annotated notes from a presentation I gave as part of the Spatial Stories series hosted by the Geospatial Centroid at Colorado State University. It is the combination of my thoughts on productivity as a geospatial professional.
If you are working, you are a productive person. Yet there are times when we all feel that there is to much work. At these times, we wish there was some way to be more productive. Increasing your productivity is possible and is something we can be achieved through the attentional practice of skills. Through this talk, I will provide some processes and structures that can help you create a productive environment for yourself moving forward.
In very simple systems, productivity can be view as the relationship between the inputs and outputs. The tree takes in this much energy, water, and nutrients and transforms it into this much organic matter. Yet, none of our work is that simple. We live and breath in complex systems. Measuring productivity in complex systems is hard. Things that are difficult to measure are often challenging to define; productivity is one of those things. Just because it is hard to define does not mean we can discuss it. A definition I found from the website psychology today states that productivity results from multiple factors Productivity ~ sum(motivation, talent, training, work environment, peer support, time management, luck)
The authors of the website go on to state that productivity in the workplace is highly reliant on the balance of mental energy, physical energy, and motivation from meaningful work.
The multiple factors that support the emergence of productivity can work as both positive and negative feedbacks. For example, it is impossible for me to be productive in specific work environments. Still, certain locations help me stay concentrated and focused.
The truth of the matter is that if you want to be productive, you need to be active in creating and maintaining an environment that will support the elements that allow productivity to emerge. While there is no formula for making this work, I will provide some ideas that will hopefully help you find how to create that productive environment for yourself.
A primary concept that I hope to make clear through this talk is that being busy is not the same thing as being productive. In fact, being busy often hurts productivity because busyness comes about from external motivators and deadlines. Cal Newport addresses busyness in his book Deep Work. Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
In the rest of the talk, I will discuss three generalized categories of work. I think it is essential to start here because each type of work requires a different set of environmental conditions to support productivity. These categories are generalizations I choose to use for this talk. It’s a conceptual framework for this discussion, not an encompassing truth about the types of work. I find the term knowledge work a bit disagreeable in general. All work pulls from knowledge. Yet knowledge work is fairly established in the books I’ve read on productivity, so I’m sticking with it for now. Being able to identify the type of work your team members do will allow you to support them in a way that helps them maintain a productive environment. I’ll end the talk on some tangible strategies for the support of a productive environment from the lens of a knowledge worker.
Labor is the foundation of all work. Unlike coordination or knowledge work, labor is inherently tied to a place. Often labor tasks are repetitive and generally do not require a lot of specialized training to perform. Productivity in labor work is the easiest to quantify.
If you perform a labor-related job for a while, you will develop a reasonable understanding of what limits your productivity. Due to the ability to quantify many elements of labor-related work, the manager usually determines the acceptable level of productivity. The individual worker may find it challenging to be more or less productive because of the top-down control present in these systems. When most elements of the work can be quantified, it leaves little room for the qualitative aspect. As such, in labor work, it can be difficult to motivation and meaning in the work itself. Staying productive means working on building your own personal motivation to do the job.
Coordination work involves the communication and distribution of information. These are the most highly valued positions in society partly because these positions generally come with the power to make decisions on a process. Coordinators are usually not focused on creating products or ideas but are looking to take in information that will allow them to make the best decision possible. Much of the work of a coordinator is built around interpersonal relationships.
To build an environment that supports productivity as a coordinator involves establishing and maintaining effective teams and guiding the direction of the group or project. Coordinators should be focused on the big picture ideas. The supportive nature of this role generally means that finding motivation and meaning from work is easy. The challenge becomes sustaining the mental and physical energy required to balance the various roles, ideas, and challenges that come with working with people.
Knowledge work is very specialized and can generally be accomplished alone. This work relies on the products and decisions of laborers and coordinators. It is often based around non-routine problem solving, usually of a technical matter.
The majority of this talk will be addressing specific structures and processes that allow knowledge workers to maintain an environment that supports productivity. Most of these structures and processes involve maintaining autonomy, direction, and focus. Knowledge work generally comes with a high level of autonomy. Therefore it is typically easy to find meaning and motivation from the work. With little physical requirements present in the work, sustaining your mental energy is the key to supporting productivity.
As I mentioned earlier, most everyone’s job requires them to do work from all of these categories at some point. Understanding what role your in allows you to adjust the structures and processes to help meet the specific needs for a productive environment with that particular type of work. Understanding the role and type of work your team members perform will help you understand how you can support them. To greatly generalize these groups we can say
- labor produces products
- coordination produces decisions
- knowledge produces ideas
Being productive can feel like being on a diet. You generally know what it is your suppose to do. Still, it is difficult to make those decisions because you can not control all elements of your environment. Weight loss requires that you expend more energy then you take in. Being productive as a knowledge work requires you to stay directed and focused. As we all know, this is easier said than done.
Much of my thoughts around productivity in knowledge can fit into two general categories; Goals and Scheduling. We all have goals, and we all use schedules, but creating a productive environment requires much intention and integration between these two aspects. For the remained of the talk, I will present many small ideas within each of these categories that together can form the biases for a supporting a productive environment.
While most people talk about productivity in a professional setting, I find it essential to acknowledge the connection between your professional, personal life, and physical well being. So when I set my goals, I include three categories. Professional, Personal, and Physical. This encompasses my work and home life because while they may not need to overlap directly, the actions and events present in one effect you in the other. Multiple sources have recommended limiting the number of goals you have to five. This is very difficult, but the process of thinning your goals makes you reflect on what are the most critical aspects of your life. It’s through that clear sense of direction that you can accomplish great things.
Your goals are meant to provide you vision and direction. They are used to keep your self focused on what’s most important to you. You need to start with big-picture ideas. I set yearly goals, but you can go longer if your feeling adventurous. Developing a clear set of goals for a year is difficult, and they will be revised, and you work toward them and learn from experience. Yet when you have them in place, you can then evaluate your decision on if they support your long term goals or not. From the high-level annual goals, I recommend developing more obtainable goals for both quarterly and monthly periods. These goals fit well within your annual goals and provide you a more tangible set of motivations because they are more easily reached. By the time you start looking at your weekly schedule, we flip from speaking about goals to setting priorities. These priorities are designated by your goals and are used to determine the importance of your daily tasks.
Loose goals will make it difficult to draw the line about what actions will support them or distract you from them. There is a big difference between “I want to learn R” and “I want to be able to perform 50% of my geoprocessing task in R before the start of the winter season.” I’ll be honest, my annual goals are pretty loose, but as I move down the nested structure, I start to make very clear and measurable goals. If you are struggling with creating specific goals, I recommend reading and applying the SMART goals system. https://www.smartsheet.com/blog/essential-guide-writing-smart-goals SMART Goals are
As a knowledge worker, you need to be able to say what your top propriety is. Just one, the top describes a singular thing. This goes against the grain of the modern workplace culture, where we all generally focus on lots of different jobs. Yet for a knowledge worker, you need to be able to get at the element of your work that is most important. My top priority is developing quantitative measures of the conservation of crop wild relatives. This will change when my funding source changes, but for now, I always try to spend my most productive time working to meet that priority. Your top priority should fit in well with your goals. When you start aligning your goals and your priorities, you will begin to find motivation for something other then stress of deadlines and fleeting presence of creative inspiration.
The nested goal structure helps you keep the big picture in mind each day. Aligning your work to meet your goals means that you think about your goals a lot. As you see yourself making measured progress to these goals, it creates a feedback structure that strengthens your respect and commitment to your goals. This mechanism will be your first defense for shielding yourself from the barrage of ideas, concepts, and obligations that we all face every day.
When these exciting options come up, you can ask yourself. Will doing this help me reach my goals? If your goals are clear and present in your mind, you can answer this question fairly quickly. If the activity does support your goals, it’s worth thinking about some more before making your commitment. If the action does not, it gives you a reason to say no.
Saying no can be hard, but it is also the best means of avoiding becoming busy. Saying no will help you strengthen your resolve and give more meaning to your goals. It can feel like your sacrificing something by saying no, but your acknowledging and evaluation the importance of a commitment to your future. The more you rely on setting your own goals, the easier say no respectfully will become. Remember, we are trying for five long term goals, so saying no is an inevitable cost of productivity.
Tasks come to us from all over. A person can swing by your desk and ask for something. A phone can ring. Emails are probably the largest source of tasks. As a knowledge worker, we have the autonomy to declare our tasks based on what we know about our goals and priorities. We’re mistakenly drawn to reactive tasks because they are generally easier to complete than our top priority project. Do I continue to troubleshoot this code as I have been working on for the last 3 hours or do I shift and make those changes to the table that so and so just emailed about? Sometimes that shift is significant, but often, it’s just a distraction. Tasks should support your goals, certainly the tasks that you are assigning yourself. That said, there are things that do not align with your goals that you need to do. Do them, just don’t let them take precedence over your top priorities. Do them after you’ve taken care of what’s most important from your perspective.
Using Notion to organize your goals and daily Tasks
I use the software Notion to keep track of my goals-priorities-daily schedule and a few other things. I found out about notion through a blog post by Nate Liason. I don’t follow the structure he uses exactly, but it captures much of what I use the platform for. If your interested in an example of this nested goal structure read through his content. The author was kind enough to share the template that he uses within Notion. https://www.nateliason.com/blog/notion-goals-productivity
The surest way to make sure I do something is to put it on my schedule. I expect we all put meetings and events on our calendars, but to take full advantage of this motivator, it’s best to start thinking about a daily schedule I first read about daily schedules in a Theodore Roosevelt biography. When campaigning as vice president for William McKinley, Roosevelt toured via train and give speeches to the crowds that had gathered at the station in towns along the rail line. I distinctly remember looking at the daily schedule written out in 30-minute segments and thinking, “Gosh, I hope I never have to do that.” Yet a few later, I am happy to admit that I schedule out my days in 30-minute segments.
I recommend making a daily schedule for a few reasons.
- We are very poor at estimating how long it takes to complete a specific task.
If you track your time, you can get better at estimates because you have some data to base your estimates on.
- Setting aside time to do something will help you accomplish these tasks, you don’t want to do.
You don’t want to rely on personal motivation for completing a task. Rely on the schedule. As you use it more and more, you will become better at simply doing the things you need to do.
- Knowing that you are going to check your email at 11:30 means that you don’t need to think about it now. This helps with focus
I write my daily schedule in a book. I use it as a guide, but I don’t think I’ve made it through a day without changing it. When I need to make a change in the schedule, I make the edits and reschedule out the remainder of the day.
- Schedules help you clear headspace because you know you will look at it later.
For example, I schedule the time that I look at my email. I feel comfortable doing this because I know from experience that it is doubtful that I receive an email that will change my weekly priorities. If it’s schedule, you can better keep it out of your head until it’s time to work on it.
Cal Newport’s book Deep Work is a quality resource for understanding productivity as a knowledge worker. The author claims that being able to stay focused is becoming a marketable skill set because most people can not. While there are a lot of tips for being focused, the most important take from the book for me was the notion of deep work. Deep work is a scheduled period of work where one takes deliberate steps to stay focused on a singular task for a set amount of time. I schedule at least two hours of deep work every day. This is the time I work on my highest priority task. This is alone time, and I shut off all forms of outward communication beside a call to my cell phone. I don’t cut it short and I don’t schedule something over it. Giving your self multiple hours of consistent and focused work allows you to get things done. It also is training for your capacity to stay focused. The idea of not being connected in the workplace does go against our cultural norms of omnipresent communication. But it’s a 1/4 of your day and you will find it is probably responsible for a half or more of what you produce. To me, it’s been worth the challenge of convincing others to let me do it.
Deep work is something you need to jump do entirely or not at all. A single task, two hours, no outside communication. Talk about it with your boss. Find a location outside of your regular desk and tell people what you are doing. They will likely respect the effort. While this time should be given to the tasks that support your top priority, you can use it for other tasks when the need arises. Keeping deep work for your top priority tasks is another commitment that feeds the positive feedback loop helping cement the importance of those tasks in connection to your goals.
The book rework is a series of short ideas about creating a technology-based busyness. While it is not strictly a productivity-based book, there are multiple sections on productivity. In one of these productivity-focused chapters, the authors express strong opinions regarding meetings. They suggest avoiding meetings, but if you have to go one, make sure you take the following efforts to ensure the meeting is productive.
An interesting perspective that came from this book was that you should meet in the place that the issue is occurring, not a meeting room. This is because if you only rely on descriptions of an issue it leaves the problem open for interpretation. If everyone is in a place where they can see the issue, everyone can know they are on the same page regarding the specifics of the problem.
I do not think meetings are that bad. Though I rarely spend over 5 hours a week in meetings. I often view meetings as social gatherings more than anything else. It’s a chance to engage with people. This is something I enjoy that I do not get to do a lot of. There are some obvious professional reasons for attending a meeting. Any meeting invite that comes your way is worth evaluating if you should go or not. The reality is that most meetings only ever produce more meetings.
Winifred Gallagher book Rapt presents a more balanced argument for why practicing focused attention is beneficial for everyone. The message of that book is that playing attention to what’s in front of you is the best way to get the most from work and life. To quote the author, “Paying attention is an individual effort, but it’s also a kind of social cement that holds groups together and helps them feel part of something greater than themselves.” So even if a meeting is not a productive place for your work, understand that being present at the meeting is a means of building social ties which those other people your work effects. This is just another argument for keeping in mind when evaluating the benefit of spending an hour in a room listening to others.
To expand on Gallaghers core idea we know that as a knowledge worker, productivity requires focus. One way to practice directed attention is by scheduling walks into your daily routine. Walks are great opportunities to get away from the screen and can be valuable times for organizing thoughts ideas. Sometimes these daily walks are just breaks, but often they are just another form of focused work.
In an excellent short book title How to Write a Lot Paul Siliva discusses many of the critical ideas surrounding productivity as a knowledge worker through the lens of academic writing. A point he hammers home consistently is the necessity of outlines. This is especially true in larger projects because they tend to take on a life of their own. You can outline the project, your code, and your daily schedule is a form of an outline as well.
Because you’ve scheduled your time, you know what it is your working on, and you know what you will think about later. With this structure in mind, think about if the task at hand requires that tab or paper if it does not, get rid of it. Close the tabs, exit the email, and keep only what you need to do the task.
As I started to implement these structures and practices in my everyday routine, I found an odd transition occurring. My least productivity days were when I felt busy. This is because the feeling of busyness is brought on by outward commitments and deadlines. While I don’t believe that you can escape being busy, trying to avoid the stress that comes from busyness is the most reliable way to keep your mental energy high. By organizing your work through goals, priorities, and daily schedules, you shift your focus away from deadlines and external factors as a means of motivation. You being producing consistently in incremental steps rather than binge efforts. You can produce a lot while avoiding the feeling of busyness.
The picture on the right is from me holding up my phone to a pair of binoculars to capture an image of a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs. I chose to end with this image because part of being productive should be the feeling that you can step away from work and turn the skills of focus and attention to one of the many other elements of this world that deserve your time and effort.