Productivity is really (truly!) about 15-minute pockets

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There’s been enough articles on business productivity to drown an entire sea of thought leaders, but this one will take a slightly different approach to the topic. Let me try and set this up for you quickly.

Business productivity is a noble goal. (You’d hope.) The goal of most organizations is to be productive and make money, and the goal of most individuals is to be (look?) productive and make more money for themselves. The intersection point of these two ideas is often a lot of hollering and chest-pounding, but the commonality is “business productivity.”

Along the way to business productivity, here’s what we tend to do: we take ideas rooted in 1911 manufacturing principles and try to apply them to 2016. I, for one, cannot think of a single thing about work, people, technology, or productivity that’s changed in 105 years. Gah.

Most people in white-collar, cubicle world work spend their day doing the following things:

The meetings and conference calls tend to be set — 30-minute blocks, 1-hour blocks, etc. When you go get lunch (or four beers and weep) tends to be relative to the day, but also set. The task work should be set — ever heard of uninterrupted work time? — but it’s usually not. Strategic work honestly barely occurs for most people, although they’ll tell everyone in sight how that’s what they do all day.

The interesting thing about the path to business productivity is these little 15-minute pockets that pop up throughout the day. You know what I mean. These “Hey, got a minute?” moments are everywhere. Ironically (sadly?), these moments cost the U.S. economy $588B per year. Why? Because everyone knows that “Hey, got a minute?” becomes 35 minutes of off-task bullshit about how some boss is a wanker and/or “so-and-so isn’t carrying their weight.” I’ve been in, and observed, about 92,833 of these meetings in 12 years of working.

Here’s where it gets interesting: what if the most productive people out there actually know how to maximize these 15-minute pockets, and the rest of us are just dicking around? Let’s investigate.

Business productivity: How do most people manage 15 free minutes?

If I had to guess, this would be the list:

  • E-mail
  • Check their phone
  • Social media
  • Read some articles (skim some articles)
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Zone out

None of these things are really tied to business productivity. You could make a case that e-mail is, but hopefully by now people realize work email is just a giant cover your ass play.

Now — I’m not necessarily saying that zoning out or checking Facebook is bad. It’s not. No one should be grinding for 10 hours a day straight through. I firmly believe in the 52–17 ratio. But at the same time, none of these concepts above are tied to business productivity.

Business productivity: How could you manage 15 free minutes?

This article makes a couple of good points. Notably:

  • Separate your to-do list into tasks and projects
  • Write to-do lists in an action-oriented way
  • Look at e-mail and social media only with an eye towards moving forward

Most people I’ve ever seen in offices would pretty much collapse in their swivel chair trying to do these three things, but let’s break this down a bit.

Tasks vs. Projects: Most people have 15 free minutes, rush to their desk, and check e-mail. They scan e-mail for the big themes or names. Does their boss need something? Is it urgent? Then, even though they only have 15 minutes, they dive into that because they assume that is now “priority.” Priority alignment is terrible at most companies, and the problem begins in these 15-minute pockets. If you dive into a project, there’s no way you’ll get very far in 15 minutes. So then you’ll come back to it in a disjointed way.

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Action orientation: Basically, to-do lists are not very effective. But since everyone uses ’em (I do!), we gotta play the game. Lead your lists with action verbs, i.e. “Enter revenue totals into VCL spreadsheet.” In this way, you know exactly what to do and where to do it. You can dive right in.

Eye towards moving forward: Basically, skim/scan. The difference between this and the above example? If you see a long e-mail that needs a thoughtful response, put it in a “To Answer” folder and move back to tasks. The absolute worst shit in the working world is when you write a long, detailed e-mail — and then someone answers “K, thx” because they read it on a 15-minute break. Don’t be that person.

Business productivity: Quantity vs. quality

Just need to do a quick insert here. Many people in business confuse “busy” and “productive.” There are many reasons this happens — “stupidity” is one of them, yes — but here’s the big reason. At base, work is a quest for relevance for many people. It’s massively tied to your self-worth. The easiest path to relevance is by focusing on quantity — “I’ve got so much to do! I’m drowning!” as opposed to quality. We all secretly know that quality performance won’t necessarily get you more money or perks. That stuff comes from being close to the existing power core. (That’s why you have a “Chief Strategy Officer” for some reason.)

But if you’re going to spend 8–12 hours/day at a place, you might as well produce something of quality. Unfortunately, that’s not the goal of many individuals or organizations. For individuals, it’s “look relevant and busy.” For organizations, it’s “What the hell do these people do all day? We’re just trying to print cash.”

This is kind of where business productivity in general dies in the flood.

Business productivity: Extrapolating this 15-minute concept

Some Type-A target-chasing buffoon reading this might yelp, “15 minutes? What does that matter?”

It matters a lot.

Let’s do this math. You work about five days a week, right? We’ll assume 10 hours/day. (I’m sure you claim to everyone in sight that you work 17 hours/day, but let’s be realistic for this exercise.) So: 10 hours/day. We’ll say 8am to 6pm. In those 10 hours, how many random 15-minute pockets might you encounter? I’ll guess one such pocket every 2 hours in between meetings/calls. If that’s even remotely right, you get about five 15-minute pockets per day — or 75 minutes per day. That’s 375 minutes per week in these 15-minute pockets.

Now let’s say you take four weeks of vacation, so you work 48 weeks this year. That’s 18,000 minutes in these pockets. Divide that back by 60? That’s 300 hours. 300 hours is like 7.5 entire work weeks! That’s almost a full quarter!

You see now how maximizing these 15-minute pockets might be good for business productivity?

Business productivity: So, how do we actually get better at this?

My humble list would include:

  • Understand your goals and priorities
  • Figure out how strategy (big picture) is aligned with execution (your tasks)
  • Actively manage your time the way you’d manage money
  • Don’t let people waste your time with pointless, bullshit meetings
  • Demand rationales for attending meetings
  • Prepare for the ones you do attend
  • Understand the power of 15-minute pockets of time here and there over the course of a year

Now, here’s the caveat to all this. There is a big difference between “rank and file” and “management” roles in this context. Rank and file tends to have their time managed. Management tends to be able to manage the time of others. We all know where this gets dicey. Managers claim everything under the sun, including their mother’s gout medicine, is a priority for their direct reports. Those direct reports run in circles all week, get exasperated, and quit.

Bottom line? We care so much about margins and growth and revenue and “the financials.” But we absolutely do not respect people’s time in most businesses. And that’s where business productivity really dies.

Anything else you got on business productivity?

My name’s Ted Bauer. I try to gussy work discussions up in less bullshit than others. I think I’m successful once in a while.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money:

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