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Many days, as you struggle to get things done at work, it can feel like it’s you against the world. Productivity expert Cal Newport, a professor of computer science at Georgetown University in Washington, recently took up that issue by asking: When did productivity become a personal responsibility for knowledge workers rather than an organizational one?

With the notable exception of agile software-development teams, he says companies often leave decisions about how work is assigned, reviewed, and organized up to individuals. “We promulgate clear objectives and construct motivating corporate cultures, but when it comes to actually executing tasks, we just hook everyone up to an e-mail address or Slack channel and tell them to rock and roll. This has led to a culture of overload and fragmented attention that makes everyone involved miserable,” he notes on his blog.

He argues our current commitment to autonomy in knowledge work is more arbitrary than we realize. He traces the idea back to Peter Drucker, who is usually thought of as a management guru about things like organizational structure and leadership, not personal productivity. It was Mr. Drucker, however, who in 1959 coined the term “knowledge work” and later suggested since each knowledge worker possessed skills too specialized to be broken down into “repetitive, simple, mechanical motions” choreographed from above, each individual would need to decide how to apply his knowledge and monitor his own productivity. “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail,” Mr, Drucker wrote. “He must direct himself.”

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So if you’re overwhelmed at work, blame it on Mr. Drucker.

A critical problem, of course, is you don’t really decide how much work to take on. That’s heavily influenced by others. Prof. Newport observes that the insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a scenario in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves – that might not be co-ordinated with those of others – ensure a negative group outcome. The best approach to boosting productivity, he says, is to turn the focus to a companywide effort.

“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. 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.” Prof. Newport writes.

We turn in frustration to productivity hacks, hoping those will help. But they don’t directly address the fundamental problem – the “insidiously haphazard” way that work unfolds at the organizational level, as he puts it.“

He believes the answer has to come in a method by which knowledge workers can organize their days around a small number of discrete objectives rather than be submerged by whatever colleagues send their way. In a sense, that returns to Mr. Drucker’s notion of autonomy while avoiding the overload that autonomy has been triggering. And, of course, you can’t achieve that by yourself. It requires management intervention – your boss, or you – if you supervise others – or both.

One suggestion he offers managers is to follow the lead of software developers and institute virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card which specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. “With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time,” he writes.

It’s a worthwhile change to contemplate for 2021. Otherwise, it will be you against the world, again.

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Quick Hits

  • Instead of starting the day with the hardest thing on your to-do list, as commonly suggested, Canadian productivity consultant Chris Bailey finds it more helpful to begin each morning with the task that a worker will be proudest or most relieved to finish.
  • Make time in your calendar if you are working from home to do less taxing tasks, advises Fairygodboss associate editor Liv McConnell. Use it to whittle down your inbox, touch base with someone to strengthen a relationship, or check in with your boss.
  • Successes are revised mistakes, observes author James Clear.
  • Who is the crucial “nodder?” When briefing a senior executive, consultant Grant T. Harris suggests it’s helpful to know the individual who the leader will turn to at a crucial moment for advice and whose positive nod can gain you approval for your proposal. How can you get that person on your side?
  • Tech writer JR Raphael says you can gain more room to write on Gmail if you start a new message; click on the three-icon menu at the lower right corner of the message; and pick the “Default to full screen” option. Nothing will change immediately, but if you then close the message, every time you open a new one it will be front-and-centre in your screen and as large as your browser window allows.

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