Going dark – a story of productivity
There seems to be two expectations in the modern information/digital working age:
- Be productive
- Be available 100% of the time for instant response
As you're probably aware, the two don’t sit well together.
The Olden Days
In days of old, you received your mail for the day once (or twice) a day, within an hour it was dealt with, then had the rest of the day to focus on work. Brilliant.
However, nowadays it seems everyone is expected to be at the end of the phone or have email open all day and respond to it instantly, yet be no less productive.
I’m not quite sure how we came to be in this mess, but it simply cannot work or be sustainable for any length of time.
If I was to map productivity, it might look something like this:
- The first graph shows a productive period with no distractions. It takes an hour or so to get into “the zone”, but once there, productivity is excellent and the worker is generally happy knuckling down to get on with what they planned to do.
- The second graph shows the same period but full of distractions, with productivity starting and stopping but never getting very far. The person wants to work, but as a result of distractions never gets anywhere near “the zone” and frustration and lack of motivation sets in. If this is an ongoing occurrence, stress is inevitable.
On a daily basis I could quite easily let the 2nd graph happen due to the steady stream of emails and calls we receive, but we need to draw a line on unplanned disruptions for obvious reasons. In fact, it's a necessity that we do so daily.
We’re a small business, and like many, don’t have the luxury of a receptionist.
But if we did have a receptionist, that person would generally be little more than a message taker or call screener, since they would require technical ability to be able to progress calls. If they had technical ability, they’d be paid more and it would make sense for them to do other more useful things too. But then they would hit the same productivity graph above...
In the absence of a receptionist, we have voicemail and can receive emails. Not quite as personal, but it serves the same purpose of taking messages and deferring them to a time they can be looked into later. And if no message was left, the issue couldn’t have been that important could it? ;)
To be productive, we need to go dark. That involves getting old school and:
- Diverting calls to voicemail or putting them on silent.
- Closing Outlook to minimise distractions, perhaps checking it once or twice a day.
- Occasionally working from home to get away from the office environment and distractions.
- If calls are being answered, viewing who’s calling and deciding if it’s more important to answer it or divert to voicemail for the time being and continue with current work.
These are all common sense approaches to getting things done and being productive as I’m sure you can agree, but for whatever reason seem to appear intolerable by many in this day and age! I, as I'm sure have others, have wrestled with guilt about employing these practices, but it all boils down to a simple fact of life: you can't please everyone all of the time, and if you try, you'll end up in a bad place attempting the impossible. Best you do what you feel is right, and let your customers know why.
On the flip side of the above:
- Queries still get answered the same day or soon after, we just collate communications into a designated response period and work though them, which leaves us productive and happier human beings the rest of the time.
- If a message is at least left, we can assess its urgency. We don't have time to follow up missed calls.
- Effectively we get back to everyone when we can.
The bottom line is that in order to continue to perform and enjoy the job we do and keep good productivity, we have to enforce sensible boundaries around communication and sources of distraction. I realise this may not please everyone, but it's an unavoidable trade-off in most businesses, especially those who's workload is large or complex. (Also noting that support policies dictate priority.)
Being less available and responsive to communications ultimately increases productivity and helps to reduce unnecessary stress in an information overload world. So why not try embracing the darkness in your own role too. It should be a way of life rather than a last resort.
Some themes were taken from the book Productivity Ninja - a great listen (audio book) or read.