I’m over the moon to announce that I made Time Doctor’s list of “most influential people in productivity!” Woohoooo!!!
I watched the man in the third row intently. His jaw was clenched and a big vein stood out on the side of his neck. With a red face, and a determined look, he seemed downright hostile toward me. So when I asked the group for a show of hands of the people who’d been to my previous workshop, I was surprised to see his hand go up. If he didn’t like me the first time, I thought, why would he be here now? As it turned out, my presentation on overwhelm and overload had really helped him. And despite what his nonverbals said, he wasn’t angry at me. Nope, he was pissed off at the subject of that day’s presentation: email.
When I got to the part about not using your email inbox as a storage depot, he pushed back–hard. His work day starts at 5 am, he explained, as he wakes up to an inbox filled from their overseas offices. “Answering all these messages is making my life a living hell,” he barked. “I can’t keep up. The flow is too intense.” The vein on his neck bulged and a new one, which looked downright scary, appeared on his forehead.
I nodded. “You’re drinking from a fire hose, aren’t you?”
He glared at me, “Yes! That’s exactly it!”
“That fire hose doesn’t care if you drown.”
His eyes widened. “What are you saying?”
“The fire hose doesn’t care if you survive or not. You have to save your own life. You have to walk away from the fire hose so you can breathe.”
He sagged in his chair. “I don’t know how to do that,” he said.
When I think about this man, my heart breaks. He’s not alone. There are thousands like him: pounding away at their email, attempting to keep their heads above water, while the email and all the other pressures of their jobs blast them like huge fire hoses. They’re trying their best to take it all in. But it’s physically impossible. Running faster and faster to keep up doesn’t work: the flow is much, much to rapid for that. They get up earlier or stay up later (or both) and they still can’t keep up. These are valuable, engaged, caring employees who are getting hosed–becoming more and more fatigued, getting angry, becoming disengaged.
And the worst part is: the fire hose doesn’t care. The fire hose is the not just the flow of work, it’s the work culture itself that says: you must stay under the fire hose and keep trying to drink from it–or else.
Here’s what I know: you have more freedom that you think you do. Freedom to set some boundaries so you can walk away from the fire hose to get a breather. But freedom, as the saying goes, isn’t free.
The price of this kind of freedom is:
- Incredible reliability: you have to be impeccably reliable both internally (keeping your commitments to yourself) and externally (keeping your commitments to others). Hold up your end of every bargain. Be accountable and renegotiate. Your pride isn’t important. Cultivate trust instead. Trust buys you a lot of breathing space.
- Ruthless efficiency: work like a fiend when you’re “on.” You can’t allow yourself the luxury of letting your attention wander–and that includes letting yourself go to a bad place with your attitude. Cultivate a foxhole mentality: there’s an enemy out there (the fire hose) and you’re going to battle him with everything you’ve got.
- Drop it like it’s hot: when you’re “off,” make a clean break. No email, no smartphone, and no talking about work. The fire hose is insidious. Tolerate no incursions into your home territory. None.
- Work on small victories: Winning battles is what wins wars. You won’t get everything you want all at once. You’re going to have to take your life and freedom back one battlefield at a time. It may take weeks, or even months, to pinch back the amount of time you allow the fire hose access to your head, heart, and hands. Every bit of ground will be hard fought. But once you’ve gained an inch, you’re good for a mile. Stay with it. Even a break of five minutes is five minutes you’re not under the blast of that effing fire hose, add five more minutes to that and you’ve got ten: one sixth of an hour.
- Make yourself indispensable: Cal Newport talks about this in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You: when you possess rare and valuable skills, and you’re recognized for those, you can leverage your skills for the lifestyle you want. If complete victory over the fire hose is what you want, you’ll have to work your tail off for it…but your freedom entirely in reach if you’re willing to put in the effort. I know this for certain: I’ve done it and I’ve watched other people do it, repeatedly.
- Go into stealth mode: Tell no one what your intentions are or what you’re doing. The workload (and the creators of the workload) won’t give you permission to walk away from the fire hose. This is something you have to do on your own. And when you’re successful in gaining breathing room, divulge your success only to the people who matter: your family and friends. [A side note: not everyone will appreciate or applaud your success. Some people will be hostile and/or jealous. You've been warned.]
Last, but not least: stop complaining. This is your job. It’s hard. So get over that. Clenching your jaw and bitching about how hard it is doesn’t make the situation any better. If you want it to be different, work to make it different. If you’re not willing to work to make it different, then nothing will change. The fire hose is going to go right on blasting without regard to your feelings.
You are too precious to let yourself drown under the fire hose. It’s time to create your plan and rescue your life from the blast. It’s not too late. Act now.
I am proud to present to you The Productive Manifesto.
This short, to the point, manifesto-style document is the culmination of years of work, thinking, and reflection. The views presented here represent a strongly contrarian viewpoint on what it means to be productive. In the Manifesto, you’ll learn about what I view as the lies that productivity methods perpetuate and why it’s time to call bullshit on each and every one of them.
I believe that being productive is inextricably tied to a sense of purpose and that contribution is the key to a life well lived. As productivity practitioners, we are among the most effective and efficient people in the world. It’s time we banded together to put our productivity prowess into service for a bigger game.
Join the revolution. The time is now.