Productivity and Collective Action
If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that individuals can’t solve every problem on their own. I have a responsibility to wear a mask and wash my hands, but if the government doesn’t enforce lockdowns, prioritize the supply of protective gear to health workers, and pay people in service jobs to stay home so that they don’t have to expose themselves to strangers, my actions and choices will be overwhelmed by larger systemic failure.
I think the same holds true for productivity at work. Going through my inbox every morning to prioritize outstanding tasks and blocking off time in my calendar so that I can focus on writing or coding helps me get more done, but the gains from these practices will be lost in the noise without changes that only the organization as a whole can make:
- Requiring every meeting to have an agenda and minutes.
- Having an unambiguous decision-making process.
- Making information findable (including people’s roles and responsibilities, so that you know who to talk to about what).
I’m still in touch with a few of the students I mentored when I was at the University of Toronto, and without exception, they tell me that what I taught them about this stuff helped them more than anything they learned from me about Python or version control.
There’s a world of difference between helping the poor and working to end poverty; while it’s easy to make jokes about critical theory, asking “how do we not be here?” often leads to better solutions than asking “how do we fix this?” Rather than individual strategies for getting to inbox zero, I think we should be looking for ways to make those emails never happen in the first place. Instead of trying to defend meeting-free time, we should make meetings more efficient and more effective. We should all put on masks, but we should also vote for governments that aren’t afraid of what might happen if people realize that working together can make the world a better place.