You’re an expert at getting things done. Your inbox is empty, your desk is clear. You turn around incoming demands promptly.
Your projects are marching steadily towards completion. Your files are backed up, your filing cabinet a thing of orderly beauty. Your workflow system is a well-oiled, efficient machine.
The trouble is, you’re not getting much done that has an impact. Not much that grabs the attention of the people who matter. Not much that gets them talking. Not much that you’ll point to with pride in a few years’ time.
If you’re not careful you could end up like a certain person we know.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”. I’d like to put forth for your consideration that foolish productivity is the hobgoblin of creative minds.
Sure… there’s a lot to be gained from time management and personal productivity systems. Having written an e-book on the subject, I’m sold on the idea. But I know from personal experience that such systems can become a distraction from your real work.
In the middle of fine-tuning your e-mail system and to-do lists, you can lose sight of the difficult and challenging creative work that only you can do. At one extreme, you can spend more time on your workflow system than on the work itself, the digital equivalent of shuffling paperclips. But even when you’re busy working, you can get caught in the ‘efficiency trap’ – what I call Personal Taylorism.
To see what I mean, let’s take a detour through early twentieth century heavy industry.
Frederick Winslow Taylor was ‘the father of scientific management’ – a system for managing human work by developing standard methods for performing each task on the production line. Procedures were designed for maximum efficiency and workers were trained to stick to them, rigidly. Hierarchy and authority were used to maintain control.
Richard Florida sums it up succinctly in The Rise of the Creative Class:
Under Taylorism, a manager could not only tell a worker to stoke a furnace, or install a bolt, or type a business letter, but could arrange the task and show the worker exactly how to do it for maximum efficiency.
In the early twentieth century, Taylorism was widely adopted and became one of the key mechanisms of mass production. (Lou thinks of this as ‘the golden age’). These days, in developed Western economies, Taylorism is a historical curiosity, usually cited as an example of What Not To Do when managing human beings. No one seriously advocates using it any more.
Because efficiency is no longer the name of the game.
As we saw in Innovate or die, China and other nations are out-competing Western economies on productivity, by churning out goods at prices impossible to match within the US or Europe. Western companies can no longer compete on efficiency – so they need to do something else.
This is one of the primary drivers of the creative economy, in which innovation is now the key source of competitive advantage. And Taylorism has a poor record on creativity.
Richard Florida links Taylor’s ideas with those of Henry Ford in what he calls ‘the organizational model’:
Despite the initial creative efficiencies of this new system, the eventual creative limits of the organizational age are obvious to anyone who lived through this time. Large organizations were beset by the conflict between creativity and control. The bureaucratic values of the period often functioned to snuff out creativity on the factory floor, smother it or ignore it in the R&D lab and discourage entrepreneurship…
So what does all of this have to do with you?
On a personal level, you face the same problem as modern businesses. Efficiency and productivity have become necessary-but-not-sufficient conditions of success. If they are the basis of your approach to work, then your options – and rewards – are going to be severely limited. If you want to succeed in the 21st century marketplace, you’re going to have to do something very different.
Outsourcing to India and China started with industrial manufacturing, but it has now spread to secretarial, administrative, accounting and legal work – even ‘creative’ jobs such as graphic design and programming. Why should I pay you top dollar for a website when I can get something that looks perfectly good (to me) for a fraction of the price overseas?
You might recall the story of AJ Jacobs, the editor of Esquire magazine, on his first experience of outsourcing to an Indian personal assistant as told in The 4-Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss:
Honey has completed her first project for me: research on the person Esquire has chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive… When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is fucked. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g. swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army.
Organization, professionalism, efficiency, productivity and initiative – these are becoming ubiquitous, and depending on where you live, there’s a fair chance someone, somewhere, can provide them cheaper than you can.
So if your approach to work is based on ‘personal productivity’, you risk falling into the trap of Personal Taylorism. You’re becoming more efficient at the risk of losing your creative spark and your competitive edge, and you’ve already lost the efficiency game, anyway.
At which point, that ‘empty inbox feeling’ can start to feel a little… empty.
Over to You
Have you ever found yourself being busy and ‘productive’ at the expense of being creative and effective?
If you got out of this cycle and back to your creative best, how did you manage it?
How do you stop your personal productivity system becoming an end in itself?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a Coach for Artists, Creatives and Entrepreneurs. For a free 25-week guide to success as a creative professional, sign up for Mark’s course The Creative Pathfinder.