About a year ago I tried to regain control of my schedule, my work, my life by fully implementing Getting Things Done. Perhaps unsurprisingly I fell off the bandwagon pretty quickly. I think this is the experience of many people trying to change the way they organize their lives, and I’m planning a reboot soon. Nonetheless, many of the core GTD principles have been incubating in my mind and I’m trying to incorporate them into my day-to-day life even without the overarching organizational system.
One of the most profound of these concepts was the idea of redefining “productivity”. I think too often productivity is conflated with busyness; if we’re busy doing something then we must be being productive. In a great series of podcasts about life as a modern academic, however, MIT Physics Prof. Peter Fisher warns against activities which keep you busy without actually being productive — which raises the question, “What is productivity?”
I’ve come to the view that “productivity” is anything which increases the awesomeness in the world. You can define awesome any way you want, really, but when you do something awesome you’ll know it. In science this encompasses sitting around thinking about a new idea, writing some code, doing an experiment in the lab, staring at some new data, or writing a paper. More broadly I think it’s productive to plan your vacation, buy chocolates for your spouse, read a good book or practice the piano. Put another way, being productive is doing anything that gets the world closer to the way you want it to be.
Non-productive busyness, by contrast, is generally not creating awesomeness (or at least only very indirectly). Note that I’m not talking about true time wasting (facebook, twitter, checking the BBC news every 30 seconds, etc.). Instead I mean things like dealing with administrative paperwork, responding to banal emails, or sitting in meetings with ill-defined agendas. We have to do these things to a certain extent — they are part of how the world functions — but they’re not satisfying or fulfilling. Nobody smiles while filling in their EU grant reporting paperwork.
So where does GTD come into this? Part of the goal of improving your organization is to spend the minimum amount of time being busy and the maximum amount of time being awesome. It sounds simple, but the problem is that busyness is so much easier than productivity. It lets you abdicate the responsibility of choosing what to do with your time: “Oh well, I’m stuck in this meeting so it’s OK for me to mindlessly check my iPhone.” It’s the intellectual equivalent of flicking around the channels on TV to see what’s on rather than choosing to do the dishes or do your homework.
So the next time you’re sitting in a meeting, remember this: when it’s over you’ll be an hour closer to dying; will the world be more awesome?