Being busy is easy. Being busy doing the right things is hard. Not being busy but being productive is even harder.
The desire to make a change, to be doing something, to keep improving things can start to become detrimental. I learnt this early on in my last role with a new team. New ideas were plentiful but never given the time to bed in. I realised that I needed to slow down to achieve more. It required a different approach but in time I hope that it had a positive impact. From my perspective at least there was more time given to building the right things than constantly changing course.
Some of the books that helped in getting to that point and continue to influence the approach to getting the right things done and being productive include:
Cal Newport’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism which together explore the approach that we take to filling our time. It is so easy to become distracted and to think that an empty inbox is a productive day. Newport’s challenge is to be intentional in the things that we work on and the time that we give to them. Fast switching (or claiming to multi-task) rarely gives our brains the time to go beyond the surface of the problem. There is a need to invest real time without distraction if we want to bring about significant change. I don’t agree with everything that Newport sets out — sometimes I want to waste my time and just do pointless things — but there is a key message in the discipline and intention that is at the heart of these books.
Simon Sinek’s Start with Why has become increasingly popular over the last few years. The challenge is to think less about what it is that you do and more about why you’re doing it. Having a clear sense of purpose is valuable. Teams achieve more when they know why they’re doing something rather than just what they’ve been told to do. It is interesting to read Sinek’s work alongside Newport’s and to think about their different approaches to discovering purpose and our own sense of good work. A key takeaway for me is that unless you’re clear on why you’re doing something then others will struggle to understand and other problems will stem from that.
The 4 Disciplines of Execution is a book that I stumbled upon trying to find something that went beyond the theory and looked at what actually needed to be done. With endless models and academic thinking to draw upon I reached a point where I felt like I knew what needed to be done, but didn’t know how to make progress. This book sets out some key ideas that help teams to take control of their own situations and influence the things that they can rather than being at the mercy of a metric that lags behind.
A final recommendation would be If we can put a man on the moon: Getting Big things done in Government. I read it whilst I was working in a Government department and so perhaps it resonated more at that time. I do however believe that it is useful for any business leader to read and understand the pitfalls that can ensnare us when trying to bring about significant change. With five traps set out then, as with many things, it isn’t a case of being able to avoid them but being aware of them can help. This links back to my belief that to be right is almost impossible but that we can continue to learn so we’re less wrong. If we’re the least wrong we can be then we’ll be in a good place.
There are many other books, podcasts, blogs and papers that could be helpful and indeed have been to me. Ultimately it comes down to our ability to take ideas, experiment and be prepared to fail. Knowing that being busy isn’t the answer is a good place to start. Discovering what makes a difference is key to finding good work to do.