Digital Push Back

Digital Push Back

Productivity is one of those words that is often bandied about in business as something that needs to be improve upon.

But, what does it mean to be ‘productive’ as a knowledge worker? We may sense how productive we are being in a day, it is sometimes a KPI that forms part of our annual objectives, or maybe it’s a perceived state of how we contribute to our team goals.

In a manufacturing age, productivity can often be translated as developing more ‘knowledge widgets’ as a form of business asset building. So, being productive is synonymous with writing that report, building that presentation, completing that project, etc. It’s getting more stuff done, more quickly.

We know that being distracted by our notifications and online worlds can scupper our focus and the amount of work we are able to get done during a working day suffers, as a result. Spending more time scrolling through social media, watching cat videos or being distracted by notifications and messages from friends/family during the working day means less time spent getting work done.

But, what if the definition of productivity was not so much about numerical output, but more about quality and depth of output? How does digital technology affect that element of productivity?

A few ways are:

* Spending time scrolling through social media and watching short film clips reduces our attention span.

* Our ability to spend time thinking about and contemplating things and reflecting on life is reduced when we turn to a screen every time we have a break from work.

* Not giving the creative sections of our brain time to engage means we are less likely to come up with unique solutions to problems.

* If we are distracting ourselves with screens and devices, instead of taking time to think, reflect and be inspired, we tend to reduce our ability to think deeply.

Maybe part of what we need to be doing a lot more of is pushing back on our own definition of what it means to be digitally distracted and how this affects our productivity.

Maybe it’s not just about turning off our notifications. Maybe it’s about spending more time without our devices anywhere near us, so we can relearn what it means to give ourselves the opportunity to ‘just be’. Time to think, time to contemplate, time to go deep, time to be more creative, time to talk with others, time to just be with others. Maybe…

As a long-time fan of Cal Newport, I am delighted that he is bringing out a new book early this year – on this very topic – on how to become more productive. But this is not the kind of ‘generating knowledge widgets’ productive. Rather it is how to produce knowledge value – that creates change, has meaning, takes time, but is of great quality and value. 

Cal’s writing and thinking often flies in the face of mainstream corporate culture and also captures the essence of what a large (seeming) minority of disenfranchised knowledge workers are feeling, explains it so it makes sense and then provides solutions to the problem at hand.

In a December 2023 article for The New Yorker, he meditates on a few topics I often talk through:

  • Children ought not to be given access to social media before the age of 13 – although 16 is probably a better age from an emotional and psychological perspective.
  • We should be more selective about what technology we take on board, rather than immersing ourselves in the latest trends and gadgets.
  • Spending more conscientious time away from our distraction devices is good for our physical, mental, emotional and communal well-being.
  • Taking time out from devices is not just good for general mental well-being, but essential for creativity, reflection and self-esteem.
  • We need to change the paradigm of how we view our work, our lives, the perspectives we have around digital technology and the narratives we engage in around work and work culture.
  • ‘Pushing Back’ at the BigTech corporates is an individual decision about how to optimise tech use (and reduce where necessary). Government bodies are responsible for ensuring regulatory boundaries are put in place to limit the control and data mining of personal data by BigTech, but we need to ensure we use technology for our benefit and to continue to improve what we do, rather than allowing ourselves to be ‘enslaved’ by the gadgets we purchase and use.

Cal Newport’s new book (released in March 2024) is all about Productivity – and how we have fallen for the fallacy that greater levels of time spent working is the same as being productive and producing high-quality work. The premise in his (free to download) introduction is that: 

‘The relentless overload that’s wearing us down is generated by a belief that “good” work requires increasing busyness— faster responses to email and chats, more meetings, more tasks, more hours.’

This is going to be another well-thought-out, well-written and timely book. It’s well worth a read/listen as soon as it is out.