Want to Increase Productivity in the New Year? Take Time to Think


Many of us start off the year in a flurry of activity, inspired by our shiny new goals and intentions.  For those of you in that mode, it is important to remember as you go along to also take some time to think, contemplate and learn. When we don't, we are liable to miss the forest for the trees, and thereby bypass opportunities to create even more amazing results.  When we think of ourselves as most “productive,” our focus narrows and we concentrate exclusively on that one project. It is great for billing hours and grinding out other specific tasks, but it is not conducive to innovative ideas, sustained vitality, or creating non-linear results. For most of us, when we talk about increasing our “productivity” we really mean increasing our activity level in order to produce more of the outcomes that we want.  The level of efficiency and effectiveness remains the same, but through increased effort we produce more.  We are trying to create more of something, more hours billed, more clients signed, more blog posts written, as opposed to looking for ways to leverage our efforts or bring about qualitative changes and improvements.  After all, it isn’t really the number of blog posts you care about; it's the reputation you create, the impact of your writing, or the number of potential clients who reach out to you.  It is not really the number of clients you sign that matters, but rather the income you produce or the degree of enjoyment and intellectual stimulation you get from the work.  The way to produce what we really want in our work and our lives is usually not simply more of the same activity.  Real increases in productivity come when new ideas or insights lead to different actions that yield more of the outcomes we want, but with less effort.  This is not about magical thinking. It’s about taking the time to think, learn and grow such that you develop new approaches to the challenges you are facing in your life and your business.

It is also worth noting that the level of increased productivity achievable through taking time to think increases exponentially as one moves up the hierarchy of an organization.  As an individual producer, any insights you may have about improving your work processes or saving time and energy could double or even triple your personal productivity. (This may sound like a lot, but in the area of business development, it is completely possible, depending how the person was using his or her time originally.)  Such improvements are great fun and incredibly satisfying.  But think about how much more impact you can have when addressing management or leadership problems.  When you turn your mental energy to management issues such as hiring and firing practices, delegating and accountability structures, outsourcing, and helping partners and staff to thrive, any insights and new approaches could easily create 5-10 times the degree of impact as your individual efforts.  When it comes to leadership topics such as visioning where the firm is going, creating a great work culture, and business strategy, the efforts are leveraged even further, creating 20-100 times the productivity as individual efforts.  See the graph below.


Even assuming you are with me, and agree that it would be valuable to spend more time and energy thinking, you may have some concerns or objections. Here are the ones that I most commonly hear from people, and my responses.  

Have you seen my schedule? I just don't have time for anything other than what I'm already doing.    Then your life will continue to look like a hamster on a wheel. It's not terrible. But if you don’t like it, it may be time to try something new.

When I try to think, my mind just circles around the same thoughts over and over, and nothing new seems to come of it.    By “time to think,” I am including taking a class, reading a book, taking a walk, praying, traveling, meditating, writing, or talking with another person—really anything that helps you to shift your mindset or stimulate ideas.  Of course, much of your conversations and reading time may be more appropriately categorized as entertainment or distraction, but you know the difference.  Reading the Twilight series is unlikely to lead to deep thoughts or insight about your life and business.  Whereas, reading a biography of an accomplished person, or a substantive book in any field even if seemingly unrelated to your current challenges, can generate new insights and awareness.  The same applies for conversations.   

My problems can’t be fixed with insight. My practice area is in decline and becoming a commodity. That is just a macro economic fact. I can't fix it. (Feel free to substitute this with my partner is a jerk, or any other circumstance that looks or feels hopeless.)   Problems always look impossible until we find solutions. I promise you that someone has (or will) find a way to resolve, benefit from, or at minimum, improve the same exact situation you are facing.  There is no reason that you can’t do the same, other than that you are convinced it is impossible.  As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you are right.”  History is littered with things that people thought were impossible and which turned out were not.  

I have a "doing" problem not an "insight" problem.    Cool. Then get to work.  I would add one thing, though. If you know what to do, and can’t seem to make yourself do it, it may be worth giving the insight approach a second chance. 

Often doing leads to insight.  So, it’s better for me to just keep on going.  I wholeheartedly agree that doing can lead to insight. The two are mutually supportive and reinforcing. Elite athletes and military units still do some form of after action analysis even after they get first place or successfully complete a mission. The combination of action and analysis leads to excellence. Typically, insight junkies just need more action and action addicts benefit from more insight.  

When I start thinking I tend to focus on everything I've done wrong or why things are never going to get better and I get depressed.  So, I find it's better not to think too much.   Many people find being alone with their thoughts uncomfortable.  This is one of the reasons that despite the rampant anxiety in our society and the fact that meditation has been studied extensively and found to be the best form of relief from anxiety (better than medication, plus no side affects) relatively few people are willing to do it.  Noticing one’s thoughts is a high bar. 

In any case, you have a number of choices.  You can go with the various approaches outlined above, which don’t require you to be alone with your thoughts. Or, you could experiment with that very specialized form a bravery that involves being with oneself.  It’s uncomfortable in the short run but leads to peace of mind, which many people find well worth the discomfort.

I'm not a very creative person.  Grinding it out is what I am good at.   I find that human beings almost invariably have very strong beliefs about themselves that are not 100% correct and which interfere with their happiness and success. Have you had a conversation with a five-year-old recently? They are completely certain about everything. Our identities were formed, to a large extent, when we were around that age. While there is enough truth to our self images that we can always find evidence to support them, they are rarely the whole story. Even if you are a great worker bee, it doesn't mean that you don't also have ideas or insights that could be immensely valuable. If you are happy with things the way they are, by all means, don't change a thing. But if you have some fundamental dissatisfaction with your worklife, it certainly couldn't hurt to create a little more spaciousness in your schedule and see what happens.

However you ultimately decide to spend your time, I am wishing you the very best for the new year!!