For a while, I have seen friends and others struggle with the Productivity Question: are they too distracted by email, Facebook, Twitter et al to actually get something done? As someone who likes to have 27 things going on at once (and usually does just fine, thank you), I say – usually – no. You are as distracted as you allow yourself to be.
Now comes a New York Times column about the “Busy Trap” – how we keep ourselves busy in order to…gah, I don’t know. Read it here. I eventually did, though I was kind of…busy. There was something about the author’s tone that galled me, that being “busy” was a bad thing. That not being able to drop everything to put your invitation on my calendar RIGHT NOW somehow means I’m deficient in my personal organization (as opposed to simply not preferring your company, you pompous person). The example in the column suggests an invitation was during work hours. Don’t flatter yourself, bub.
I’m less troubled by some folks’ criticisms that the article did not consider the feelings of people who need to work long, hard hours to support their families or simply eat. He covers it in the beginning of the article, I finally noticed on my third or fourth scan.
Something else I noticed on a later read – the author’s name, Tim Kreider. I’m usually too busy to read bylines. If your writing stands out, I’ll come back and remember who you are eventually.
I’m more troubled by the breathless linking to this article by people who (like me) may or may not have paused long enough to read the whole thing, let alone understand it. This is not some new way of living (like the 4-hour work week, another bad idea that seems to have worked for one person).
So, how do I get from this to productivity? I think they’re related. People like me crave constant stimulation, and when we are being good to ourselves we turn it off to concentrate for short periods. Banning things like Facebook (even via self-imposed ban), Twitter or email will not prevent one from inventing other distractions – they are just gimmicks to try to trick you into doing things you don’t want to do – e.g., work. If you want to work, you’ll get it done, no matter what’s going on around you.
Further, I’d argue we need the distractions. For one thing, many of us have jobs where we need to zip from task to task or monitor multiple things. All of us simply need breaks to free our minds to solve problems (to his credit, Kreider mentions something like this in his column). Walking away – and taking a walk – is sometimes the best productivity tool. My best micro-example of this: whenever I lose something, I almost always find it right after I stop looking. Let’s stop trying so hard.
The article on the other end of this strained logical rope is n article on “Winnowing Windows” by Clive Thompson in the most recent print version of Wired. Yes, I think it’s cool to read print sometimes. Yes, I think it’s dumb that the articles aren’t online anyway. No link for you, sorry. Thompson talked about one feature of the upcoming Windows 8, called Metro, which limits the number of screens on the desktop. The idea? Focus your attention. Thompson’s conclusion? Hated it. I would too. I have at least 6 windows open as I write this (but lovingly focusing on this one at the moment for your benefit, dear reader). Praising this feature as “Good” reminds me of the people who say they prefer working with monotasking tablets because they can focus on one task at a time. I don’t believe that for a second, especially if there are squirrels outside your office window (squirrels…!).
Yeah, and this cartoon. Hah, hah. True, but not really true. If my boss put this up in the office, I’d tell him to expect me not to read any of his emails.
Ok, so I didn’t really solve anything here. But let’s stop blaming the distractions and just teach ourselves to use the stimuli for good. Your results may vary, do what works for you.