The 'personal' is the problem in personal productivity

The 'personal' is the problem in personal productivity

November 26, 2022

The 'personal' is the problem in personal productivity
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In a recent New Yorker article, “The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done,” Deep Work author Cal Newport calls out “personal productivity” thought leadership for ignoring the ways organization-wide decisions impact individual output.

The problem facing all knowledge workers is a deluge of demands on our time. Like sheep overgrazing cooperatively owned land, knowledge workers take each others’ time as if it were infinite in an endless tragedy of the commons in which scarce resources shared by all quickly run out.

“An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner,” Newport writes. “But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable.” Indeed, these little interruptions end up being incredibly costly to productivity. Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of your productive time.

Newport describes the growing disillusionment with “productivity pr0n,” which places the locus of control, and blame, with the individual worker. Productivity advice, by and large, is aimed at helping individual workers best handle being bombarded with distractions and competing priorities.


It’s “bootstraps” ideology retrofitted for the workplace.

To the contrary, we need organizations to step in and help protect workers’ time. “Productivity, we must recognize, can never be entirely personal,” Newport writes. “It must be connected to a system that we can study, analyze, and improve.”

“Imagine if, through some combination of new management thinking and technology, we could introduce processes that minimize the time required to talk about work or fight off random tasks flung our way by equally harried co-workers, and instead let us organize our days around a small number of discrete objectives,” Newport writes.

Clockwise’s mission is to help make time for what matters. This means helping workers protect their time on the team and organizational level.

We help teams structure their days in such a way as to spend most of their time focused on the autonomous, creative, skilled work that Peter Drucker -- a scholar who helped define the study of organizational management -- identified as so crucial to growing our economy, to paraphrase Newport.

In most ways, worker autonomy works well. Employees who feel they have a large amount of self-direction at work are generally more engaged and less likely to burn out. Newport offers the example of a computer programmer who might bristle at a project manager telling them how to solve a coding problem. But organizations should take responsibility for putting clear limits on when other teams can expect responses from workers and require their attendance at meetings.

This principle informs the product experiences we’re building. Clockwise for Teams helps establish and support the kinds of norms that lead to greater productivity, fewer distractions, and less busywork.

  • We take the guesswork out of scheduling meetings by suggesting the times that open up the most Focus Time for your and your team.
  • Our Slack integration shows colleagues whether you’re available based on your calendar. So if you’re in Focus Time, in a meeting, or out of office, you colleagues will know not to expect an immediate response.
  • We also make it easy to set up and enforce No Meeting Wednesdays (or whatever day your team chooses) for more heads-down time.

Workers of the world, it’s time to unite around a vision of productivity that’s less “fend for yourself” and more “let’s find a way to make sure we have the control over our time that we need to succeed.” You have nothing to lose but your email chains.

Thinking of time as a tragedy of the commons, and organizations as at least partly responsible for helping workers take back charge of their time, can help workers actually get more done. Truly achieving productivity involves a mindset shift. We need to recognize that productivity is a shared, organization-wide challenge, not just a personal problem to be solved.

About the author

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is the former Head of Content at Clockwise. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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