First, let me clarify something: yes, I do appreciate the awful irony in scouring a new biography of Karl Marx for productivity tips, as I found myself doing the other day. That's how entrenched my false consciousness is. Looking to Marx for advice on becoming a more efficient worker is roughly as absurd as seeking advice on running a profitable business from Jesus (radical socialist) or on people skills from Genghis Khan (genocidal warlord). Which is to say that someone will probably write a self-help treatise along those lines soon, since they've already done so with Jesus and Genghis Khan. In the meantime, we have Jonathan Sperber's Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life, just published by Norton – which, as part of its attempt to portray Marx as a real human, lets us peer round the study door to watch him work. So do you want to know How To Be Productive And Creative, The Karl Marx Way? Are you sure? Because it's not pretty.
It's entirely possible that you've never heard of strategic incompetence and yet that you are, at the same time, a lifelong expert at it. If you aren't, you know someone who is. Strategic incompetence is the art of avoiding undesirable tasks by pretending to be unable to do them, and though the phrase was apparently only recently coined in a Wall Street Journal article, the concept is surely as old as humanity. Modern-day exemplars include the office colleague who responds to the photocopier message "clear paper jam" by freezing in melodramatic pseudo-panic until someone else steps forward to help; you're equally guilty if you've ever evaded a household task or DIY project by claiming you might screw things up. ("I'd do the laundry - I'm just worried I'll damage your clothes.") The Journal interviewed one executive who'd managed to avoid organising the office picnic for several years running. "You'd be amazed," he noted, "at how much I don't know about picnics."
A quick post I wrote for the Guardian about how calls for new kinds of "digital etiquette" are really about something else…
it's a good general rule that when people get so heated about other people not following some alleged "best" way of doing things, there's something else going on – and it's worth asking what.
The whole post is here.
I've written fairly frequently in the past about managing email and the psychology of information overload, and I try not to be too strident or hectoring when I do; after all, different approaches work for different people. But from time to time, I run into people who point out, quite reasonably, that they're not tragic and pitiful productivity geeks like me; on the contrary, they actually have lives, and they just want to be told what steps to follow in order to triumph over their stress-inducing inboxes, so they can get on with more important matters. And so, despite being sceptical about New Year's resolutions in general, let me seize the calendrical opportunity to tell you – tell you, not suggest to you – how to head into 2013 feeling as odiously smug about your inbox as I do about mine, which, at time of writing, contains five emails. Here's what you need to do. And no back-talk!
For as long as I can recall, I've been unreasonably fascinated by other people's daily schedules. It thrills me to learn, for instance, that Karl Lagerfeld always sleeps for exactly seven hours, no matter when he goes to bed; that he drinks only Diet Coke, and rarely exercises "because my doctor said it's not necessary". My bursting mental library of similar trivia includes, naturally, Churchill's daily 90-minute siesta, but also the fact that Paula Radcliffe is usually in bed by 10ish and that Will Self keeps a stove on his desk to brew "strange infusions" of tea while he writes. These days, I encounter such nuggets most frequently in media profiles of web entrepreneurs, presumably because they're our era's most envied role models. Thus I've discovered that Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey divides his week thematically: Tuesdays for product development, Wednesdays for marketing, etc. Maria Popova, who runs the popular Brainpicker account on Twitter, gets so much reading done by taking her Kindle to the gym. And Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, leaves the office at 5.30pm daily, for dinner with her children at 6pm. At any hour of the day, I can tell you what four or five famous people are probably doing, should you wish to know. Which, I appreciate, you maybe don't.
It's a fair bet that no nine-year-old, asked what job they want to do as a grown-up, ever mentions "operations management". The term seems so wilfully dull that you half-suspect it might be a stratagem, on the part of operations managers, to hide a life full of debauched parties and cocaine-fuelled games of laser tag. But it isn't. It refers to designing the unglamorous but essential systems that keep industry moving: scheduling the lorries to pick up the parts to deliver to the factories that assemble the widgets that… You get the picture. "The term 'operations'," reads a suitably uninspiring definition from an Open University course, "embraces all the activities required to create and deliver an organisation's goods or services to its customers or clients." Operations management means managing them. All of which prompts one overriding question: have you fallen asleep yet?
Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan — to a problematic degree, some might argue — of productivity tips and tricks like the Pomodoro Technique, Mark Forster’s Autofocus system, and the geeky godfather of them all, David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I enjoy few things so much as spending a Sunday afternoon restructuring my to-do lists, because I am tragic like that. And I’m generally as distrustful as anyone of “quick fixes”. All that said, I ought to admit that one single-sentence piece of fridge-magnet advice has helped vastly more, when it comes to getting over roadblocks in work (and not just in work), than everything else combined:
Don’t wait until you feel like doing something.
Regular visitors know I’m pretty weird about my kitchen timer, crucial for everything from implementing the Pomodoro Technique to minimising time spent on housework. (Because when you time yourself, or at least when I time myself, it has the effect of gamifying the undertaking — sad but true.) But I keep discovering further applications. Favourite at the moment is to combat the time-sucking effects of too much time spent online without a specific goal. Like many people, I suspect, I’m not sufficiently strong-willed to resist checking email/Twitter/blogs repeatedly when working on, say, a book chapter. But it turns out that I am sufficiently strong-willed to remember, as I click on Firefox and get stuck in, to set the countdown timer for 10 or 20 minutes and set it going. Ten or 20 minutes later, I’m roused from my absorption and there’s at least a chance that I’ll seize the opportunity to return to what I planned to be doing. It’s the extended will in action! Now stop reading this and get back to work.
In the midst of last week's hoopla over the launch of the Kindle Fire, Reuters social media editor Anthony de Rosa tweeted:
The beauty of the Amazon Kindle is that I am not a click away from other distractions, that all changes with Fire.
I couldn't agree more. I love my Kindle with a troubling intensity, but the reason I love it is that it helps me focus my attention, instead of dissipating it.
Like the war on terror — though I don't have high hopes for this analogy making it beyond the opening sentence of today's column — the war on email is now about a decade old. Recently, I've noticed a hard-headedness creeping in: gone are the ingenious tricks for staying on top of it all, replaced by the frank acknowledgment that sometimes you can't. The website five.sentenc.es, for example, urges you to announce "a personal policy that all email responses... will be five sentences or less", and earlier this year Chris Anderson, organiser of the TED conferences, proposed several new rules for email, including the use of "NNTR" — "no need to respond" — as an act of generosity towards overburdened recipients. These are welcome developments, since the curse of most productivity advice is the assumption that, given the right techniques, you can fit it all in, when to be honest, who knows? But my unscientific surveys of email-deluged friends suggest this isn't the whole story. On the rare occasions I'm permitted to inspect these bursting inboxes, one thing’s clear: half of what's in them shouldn't be there at all.