Owning your practice

I had an email exchange earllier this week asking what had soured me on the personal productivity space. “Soured” may be a bit too strong a term but I have become skeptical about most advice about personal productivity. It is not for lack of trying or familiarity with the domain.

A little history is in order.

I was a product of the parochial school system. Nuns had their methods for dealing with daydreamers. Getting caught at it bordered on a mortal sin. I mostly avoided getting caught. I was lucky to have one nun who figured out that a major piece of my problem was that I wan’t being challenged enough and channeled me to a private all boys school for middle school and high school. Turns out that Benedictine monks are even better than nuns at keeping you busy and focused.

Their tutelage earned me entry into Princeton. In retrospect, I should have brought one of the monks with me instead of my typewriter. I left behind a support system that was simultaneously invisible and essential for keeping me organized and focused. ADD was not a diagnosis that existed in the early 1970s.

Struggling with deadlines and deliverables was either a moral or a systems failure. I opted for the systems failure hypothesis.

I didn’t articulate it that way but I found my way to the first of many systems promising to provide the structure I needed. That first was contained in Alan Lakein’s classic How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life, published midway through my college career. I bought DayTimers and Palm Pilots. I paid for David Allen’s workshops out of my own pocket. I’ve tried just about every piece of productivity and personal management software that’s reached the market. They would work for a while, then collapse.

The moral failure hypothesis was beginning to look more likely. On the other hand, I was getting stuff done even when it felt harder that I thought it should have. I convinced Harvard to give me an MBA and a doctorate in business. I had a series of successes and occasional catastrophic failures. What I was struggling to discern was an underlying pattern that didn’t hinge on my being a bad person (or on everyone else being out to get me).

My doctorate is in how organizations manage to innovate, particularly with technology and systems. I turned that lens into a mirror. I was successful when I was in an environment that compensated for my weaknesses and failed in environments that called for strengths where I was weak.

Part of the answer came when the world put a name to my particular collection of strengths and weaknesses—ADD. More recently, we’ve broadened that notion to the idea of neurodiversity. People’s brains work differently. By and large the world is uncomfortable with diversity. Organizations and markets want to find and address large, average, groups.

This is as true for productivity promoters as concert promoters. Wonderful if you are Taylor Swift and your art matches nicely with millions of fans. Less desirable if your art appeals only to left-handed guitarists.

We all have the same twenty-four hours available to us each day. We are all faced with more options for what we might do than will fit into those twenty-four hours. Productivity advice ought to be universal applicable. The unstated assumption is that we are all neurotypical and that we, therefore, treat hours and options in the same way.

Productivity advice assumes that one size fits all. All you need do is put on this particular productivity outfit and all will be well. Neurodivergence means that nothing fits right off the rack. The question isn’t whether the advice is right or wrong; the question is how to make it fit you.

It is safe to presume that productivity advice will continue to target the average neurotypical brain. If that is not you, then you have extra work. Work to understand and articulate how you diverge. What’s easier for you? What’s harder? Can you find a way to compensate? Adapt the recommendations to something better suited to your unique profile.

It’s nice if off the rack suits you. But you’ll do even better if you learn how to tailor things to minimize your weak spots and flatter your best features. True whether we’re talking fashion or work practices.


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