The Value of Productivity Advice

(This is a repost of a previous article for reference purposes.)

Does the source determine the value?

An interesting discussion popped up on Google+ today talking about evaluating productivity advice based on the provider of the advice over the advice itself.  While I may be over-simplifying the concept, it inspired me enough that I believe it is worth further investigation.  I do agree with the commenter there is a segment of the “productivity movement” tending towards saleable advice, but that is to be expected in any venue of expertise.  I spend a great deal of time in the project management space and you find the same perspectives there.  The challenge I raise to this is, do we discount productivity advice based on if we do not agree with the adviser?
My stance, and what I recommend to others, is to take a three pronged approach to evaluating productivity advice.  The three tenets of the evaluation are:

Relevance – Practicality – Repeatability

By using these measures you can determine if a productivity hack, solution, tool, or whatever has a good chance of contributing positively to your personal productivity for an extended period of time.

Relevance

Does the advice have a relevant point of reference in making an impact in your daily life?  When you review your list of “productivity issues” do you see one that matches the solution the advice recommends, or do you see the solution and look for a problem for it to solve?  I’ll use the example of Inbox Zero for my own reference here.  While the approach of having all email addressed and resolved in a timely manner can be a huge boon to many, it’s relevance to my own needs is minimal.  Seeing the posts and solutions (some excellent by the way) I moved to see if implementing Inbox Zero methodologies made sense.  For me, the end result was additional work with no increase in productivity.  Not a failing of the solution, or of my own, but a failing of relevance.  I was solving a problem that for me didn’t need to be solved.

Practicality

Can you execute the advice without creating an adverse increase in your work efforts?  Many systems are complex and comprehensive, promising grand repositioning and resolution to many productivity needs and problems.  They require commitment and application for their success, and their failure comes not from the system but from the application.  For example let’s look at the popular approach by David Allen, Getting Things Done.  There are a huge number of advocates of this solution and just as many people who have successfully implemented it into their daily lives.  When I applied my own evaluation criteria to the approach (after several attempts to make it work for me) I found the effort needed to implement the solution was never going to be practical for me.  Again, it is not a failing in the solution nor is it a failing in myself, but rather a recognition that my personal needs and style required a different solution.

Repeatability

Can the advice become a repeatable contributor to your daily productivity methodology?  We have all fallen prey to the instance of the “hot hack.”  The simple, quick trick that promises to solve a productivity issue in short order.  The challenge often comes from these hacks not being truly sustainable over the long term.  An example of this for me became the “shared solution.”  Many methodologies recommend improving your productivity by engaging others into your system.  Shared notebooks, shared notes, shared tasks, shared lists, etc.  The thinking is by engaging another in your process, you lessen the direct load on yourself and thereby become more productive.  Personally I’ve found this to be true IF (and that’s one really big if) the person or persons being engaged share your same vision of the solution and a common willingness to participate.  In the professional space the org chart can be used as the stick to reinforce use of a shared solution, but in the personal space there is rarely such an incentive.  You may be able to get a person to participate once, but making that success repeatable to multiple individuals and instances is a different matter entirely.

Evaluate based on what not who

Anyone can recommend a productivity solution, hack, or idea to me and I will evaluate it for myself based on the criteria listed above.  Who that recommender is bears no impact on my evaluation.  What is most interesting about this is many of the ideas I have adopted over the years have come from posts online, from people I have never heard of, but who’s ideas whether their own or shared from another, have met the requirements and made a difference for me.  I will admit if a person’s repeated advice fails my test I’m much less likely to pay attention in the future.  So as I started this missive, let me recommend you evaluate what you see and read and determine for yourself what will work.