How to Have a More Productive Year

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In 1959, the same year in which the term “knowledge work” was coined, a chemical engineer turned consultant named James T. McCay published “The Management of Time,” one of the first professional-productivity guides. Early in the book, he lays out the fundamental challenge posed by this new type of work. “Almost without exception, executives have expressed in one form or another their keen and ever present awareness that they haven’t time to do all that should be done,” he writes. Sixty-five years later, modern knowledge workers are still frustrated by having too much to do. It’s a little surprising that we haven’t solved this problem. The bookcase in my study is filled with productivity guides, from vintage offerings such as “The Management of Time” to more modern titles, including my own contributions to the genre. Society has thought seriously about professional time management. Why haven’t we cracked the code?

It’s not until you look closely at these books that you identify the underlying issue: our struggle with work keeps changing. McCay’s 1959 book, for example, is mainly a reaction to the postwar expansion of managerial capitalism, with its emphasis on hierarchy and endless layers of middle management. As a result, it focusses on the novel psychological reality of working inside a big org chart, providing advice on how to make your brain more “alert” and ready to handle diverse streams of input. Peter F. Drucker’s “The Effective Executive,” from 1967, shifts toward a space-age confidence in optimization, with Drucker suggesting that his titular executives dutifully track every minute of their days, then scour the data in search of “time wasters.” The only nineteen-seventies book in my collection, Edwin C. Bliss’s “Getting Things Done: The ABCs of Time Management,” replaces Drucker’s optimism with a comparably bloodless survey of office topics, listed alphabetically from “Alcohol” and “Briefcase” to “Wastebasketry”—a tone-perfect complement to the economic malaise of that decade.

The eighties and nineties produced Stephen R. Covey’s mega-best-seller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” as well as its popular sequel, “First Things First.” Both books distill that period’s spirit of hyper-capitalism and individualism into a detailed system for organizing and prioritizing every action of your day in pursuit of self-actualization. Then the defining productivity guide of the early two-thousands, David Allen’s “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity,” pivots away from this ambition. Faced with the first waves of computer-induced digital overload, Allen abandons self-actualization in favor of a state he calls “mind like water,” characterized by small, Zen-like moments of cognitive peace. It’s no wonder that we’ve failed to produce a standard operating procedure for being productive. The times are always changing. The advice that resonates today will likely feel irrelevant tomorrow.

So what’s the advice that will speak to us right now, in 2024? Any reasonable answer has to acknowledge the effect of the pandemic on our relationships with our jobs. Widespread remote work has increased message and meeting overload, and has dissolved the boundaries between work and home, introducing a feeling of always-on ubiquity. The pandemic’s isolating disruptions also led many people to reassess the purpose of their jobs, asking what all of this busyness actually achieves. Productivity isn’t just a matter of what you accomplish; it’s about how you feel about what you do. The essential productivity tools for today should help us tame the sensation of drowning in our obligations, while also helping us regain a sense of intention and autonomy in our efforts.

For a long time, productivity experts have recommended to-do lists. But the fire hose of requests and commitments blasting toward the average knowledge worker in 2024 can’t be appeased so simply. An ordinary to-do list will quickly grow too crowded to serve as a useful planning tool. A more structured organizational scheme is required—one that reflects the actual complexity of work.

Creating such a system requires a kind of structural analysis: you have to start by recognizing that your job involves juggling multiple roles and competing priorities, and then make space for those in your system. A professor, for instance, might divide her responsibilities by role into “Teaching,” “Research,” and “Service”; an office manager might identify “Personnel Requests,” “Supplies,” and “Maintenance Issues.” In addition to recognizing your roles, you need to grapple with the fact that not all obligations are the same. You can categorize them by status. There might be generic status categories, such as “Back Burner” (for work you need to eventually accomplish), “To Clarify” (for vague commitments that still need to be fleshed out), “This Week” (for top priorities), or “Waiting to Hear Back.” But there might also be statuses specific to your job. A professor’s Service role, for example, might include a “Student Requests to Process” status, or an office manager’s Supplies role might include a collection of items “To Order.”

You don’t want to overdo it by creating a status for every possible type of task. But you do want to subdivide your obligations in a way that reflects the variety and rhythms of your professional life. Now, instead of asking yourself “What’s next?” before consulting a huge to-do list, you can choose a specific role, and then survey the various tasks associated with that role, organized by status. In this way, you can achieve a quick gestalt understanding of what’s on your plate at the moment, allowing you to make a smart decision about your next activity without feeling overwhelmed by all that you have to do.

It’s best to use digital tools to implement these structured task systems because they’re well suited for organizing and modifying large numbers of items grouped into levels and categories. Personally, I like virtual task-board software; the app and Web site Trello, for example, lets me create a virtual board for each role, with columns to represent statuses. To further streamline your efforts, you can then digitally attach relevant information to each task in your system. (If our hypothetical professor receives a request to write a recommendation for a student in her class, she can attach the student’s C.V. and submission instructions directly to the Trello card representing this obligation.) But even simple text files can work for implementing these systems. You can make a document for each role, and then divide it into sections for different statuses. However you implement it, the important thing is to have a system that allows you to map the landscape of your work at useful granularities.

Structured task systems can help tame the chaos of your commitments, but they can’t address the sense of meaningless busyness that haunts so many knowledge workers in our current moment. Ideally, we want to prevent our days from devolving into nihilistic walkabouts from one random task to another. But this requires intention—and that, in turn, requires planning.

What makes for an effective plan? One unconventional way to improve your plans is to create them on different timescales simultaneously. You can start with a seasonal plan, which describes your main objectives for the next three or four months. (A product manager, for example, might identify the completion of a new feature and the overhaul of his team’s promotion system.)

You can then refer to your seasonal plan each Monday, when you outline a weekly plan for the days ahead. This weekly planning process is more tactical than its seasonal counterpart; the idea is to survey your calendar for the week, see what you’ve already scheduled, and then figure out how you can make progress on the goals in your seasonal plan with the time that remains. In many cases, you’ll want to add the efforts identified in your weekly plan directly onto your calendar so that they’ll be protected like any other appointment. (Our product manager might see that Thursday is lightly scheduled, and so block off the entire morning for writing a report on the promotion system he’s trying to improve.) When you make your weekly plan, you can also review your structured collection of obligations, using your roles and statuses to identify a strategic set of tasks that will actually fit into your available time.

Finally, there’s the daily plan. Each morning, you can consult your weekly plan to quickly configure a plan for the current workday. Don’t simply write an abstract list of things you hope to accomplish. Instead, directly confront the time that’s actually available to you, assigning specific work to specific hours. This time-blocking approach forces you to be more realistic about how much time you really have. It’s hard to perfectly predict how long everything will take, so it’s likely that your efforts will deviate from your plan. That’s O.K. Every so often, you can step back and fix the plan for the remaining hours in your day. The goal isn’t to be prescient about your time but to be intentional with it.

People sometimes resist planning at this level of rigor, as it can seem constraining. The prospect might conjure images of a grim Frederick Winslow Taylor-style manager, measuring your movements with a stopwatch. But many workers who try these techniques find that their lived experience contradicts these fears. The real tyranny is being subjected to the whims of the most apparently urgent task, or of the loudest request in your in-box. With a strong scheduling methodology, you regain some say over how you spend your time.

Even the most capable task systems and careful plans, however, cannot save you from the attention-destroying distractions generated by communication overload. Any complete approach to productivity in 2024 must directly address non-stop messaging and calendars stuffed with calls and meetings—problems that were amplified to intolerable levels by the pandemic. The challenge here is that most of this communication is born from the reasonable need to interact with your colleagues in order to execute your job. This is why responses centered purely on abstention—Check your e-mail only twice a day! No meetings on Mondays and Fridays!—are doomed. The decisions discussed in those drawn-out e-mail exchanges or endless Zoom conferences actually do need to get made. This points us toward a more subtle solution: communication-control measures. These are simple rules that redirect your necessary interactions into systems that reduce their toll on your time and attention.

Imagine a data analyst at a large health-care company who’s constantly fielding requests from other people who need help making sense of their data. She can’t simply ignore these interactions, as helping her colleagues is the primary goal of her job. What she might do instead is confine these support efforts to the same two hours every afternoon. The first hour will serve as office hours, during which she promises that her door will be open, her phone will be turned on, and a Zoom conference room will be activated—anyone can stop by physically or virtually to discuss anything he or she wants. The second hour will be divided into ten-minute chunks for prescheduled one-on-one meetings. If you want to grab an upcoming slot, you can do so easily by using a Web-based scheduling tool such as Calendly. Now whenever someone pings our analyst and asks her to discuss some idea or question, she can answer, “Yes! Let’s talk whenever you’re ready,” and then point the individual to a Web page that describes her office hours and includes a link for scheduling the one-on-one meetings.

These communication-control measures might seem needlessly complicated, or even likely to produce collegial friction. But balance those costs against the benefits! Our data analyst now has multiple unbroken hours each day to actually work on projects. She can enjoy an in-box delightfully free of ongoing interactions that demand constant tending. Her new system could even make her seem more accessible; you might prefer knowing for sure that she can talk with you at a specific time this afternoon rather than sending an e-mail that you hope she eventually replies to. Our current status quo of endless and haphazardly scheduled communication doesn’t persist because it’s somehow the most effective way to work; it’s popular because it’s what’s easiest. Introducing even just a small amount of thoughtful friction into these systems can generate outsized rewards.

The advice I’m offering here might make sense for employees toiling on their MacBooks in their home offices in 2024. But these ideas will inevitably stagnate as new forces, such as artificial intelligence or augmented reality, further reshape our understanding of what’s necessary to keep up with our jobs. The collection of productivity guides filling my bookcase will only continue to grow.

This presents a subtle problem: How do we keep reappraising the way we work without getting lost in endless tweaking and upgrading of our organizational systems? Not maintaining any type of to-do list is a bad idea. But so is the quixotic chase of a perfect system that doesn’t actually exist. The challenge in cultivating a sustainable approach to modern knowledge work is to locate the space between productivity fetishism and the knee-jerk rejection of productivity thinking as toxic or unnecessary. “To achieve and hold a position of leadership in this age of innovation a man must spend a part of every day in self-development,” James McCay writes, in the preface to his 1959 advice guide. He was more right than he likely realized. We’re never free from the need to keep reassessing how we work—but we cannot let this become the entire story. ♦


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