The fundamentals of productivity

Younes Serraj
Younes SerrajNov 19, 2018
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A brief history of productivity

The baby boomer generation (born between 1945 and 1960) experienced an industrial approach to productivity. Just like at the factory, we explained to them that being productive means doing more in less time. And like machines that would run a few more hours to manufacture a little more, employees also had to work longer days to produce a little more.

Our generation has seen the concept of productivity evolve. Today, we are immersed in a universe very inspired by startups where it is necessary to make to-do lists and Pomodoro, in other words to implement organizational techniques. The emphasis is no longer on working time (now acquired) but on the use of tools and techniques that are supposed to increase our performance tenfold.

We can see in the United States, because it is often from there that we import our new working methods, that a new trend has emerged in recent years. She wants that being productive means not listening to fatigue, not wasting time taking a break, getting up at 4 a.m. and working until late at night and on weekends too, even if it means having to take a break. take drugs to increase their performance to the detriment of their health.

Here is a typical example of a motivational speaker encouraging people to go in this direction:

Be careful, the time you waste, others spend it working, going further than you. Don't let go, be strong, resist fatigue, work hard, even harder, always harder. You'll see, it will pay off in the end! Want to create the next unicorn? Do you want to get rich and retire at 35? So give it all and more!

Bullshit. This is the recipe for burnout, not for success.

Perpetual motivation does not exist

Productivist speeches aimed at selling e-books and conferences consider that we should not listen to ourselves in these phases of loss of motivation and strive to work until it passes.

During my years of teaching in a computer science college, I observed this recurring pattern in my students (800+ each year): loss of motivation, procrastination, anxiety about having fallen behind, "leisure" activities. to relieve stress, even more delay, etc. It is a vicious circle that exists in the world of studies as well as that of work.

Rather than condemning these drops in productivity, I want to start by stating the following: These episodes are not abnormal. Everyone goes through this more or less regularly. What to do is:

  • Understand why they are coming

  • Take some precautions so they don't happen as often as possible

  • Make sure they pass as quickly as possible when they are there

"Chance is ignorance of the causes"

I no longer remember which philosopher said this very correct sentence.
If we consider that these drops in speed are due to chance, we place ourselves in the position of a victim and we just have to wait for it to pass (hoping that it will pass). But if we analyze these phases, we realize that they are always triggered by one or more identifiable and soluble elements.

Let's take a minute to state the obvious: Like it or not, we are a biological body (mammal). The good news is that this biological body has the ability to warn us when it is no longer functioning to the best of its ability. Either our "rational" brain tells us, our emotions tell us, or our body tells us. In any case, when there is loss of motivation, something is wrong. I will choose to call this something unwell.

A discomfort is first signaled by a thought. A seasoned mind will know how to identify these situations without being affected by them. Let's take an example: if I have training as a salesperson and I'm going to shop, another salesperson will have a hard time manipulating and influencing me. Why ? Because the fact that I'm aware of what he's trying to do and how he's doing it protects me. As soon as I detect that he is trying to manipulate me, he loses his hold on me. In other words, as soon as I identify a situation, a context or a pattern of functioning likely to affect me negatively, I can protect myself from it rather than suffer it.

If the discomfort is not identified at the stage of rational thought, a second channel of communication is used to warn me and sound the alarm: emotion. We feel discomfort without really knowing where it comes from or what is causing it. Something is wrong, we are not in a very good mood, or we are not focused, in short, something is not right. Self-knowledge allows at this stage to become aware that an emotion is there, that one should not be afraid of it and even less repress it but:

  1. Let her come and do her messenger job

  2. Listen to it

  3. Give it a name (sadness? Fear? Anger? Disgust? Surprise? ...)

  4. Find out what is causing it.

As soon as we put our finger on what is wrong, that we manage to qualify what is problematic with specific words, everything is better in no time. We then go back to the rational stage because we go from a vague, fuzzy and chaotic situation to a named, targeted problem. Meditation is an excellent tool for learning to refocus on the present moment, to create a vacuum around you so that you can focus on listening to yourself.
We can only understand what we manage to name.

Finally, if the discomfort is still not understood, the negative emotion that lasts causes psychosomatic disorders: heartburn, back pain, fatigue, insomnia, etc. Reaching this stage is serious and it becomes urgent to take care of your physical and mental health before thinking about being productive. We must not "wait for it to pass". It will not pass. Our bodies are very intelligent and wouldn't go out of their way to sound the alarm bells louder and louder if it wasn't important. If we ignore it, if we suppress our emotions and deny our physical pain, the discomfort will continue to grow and each time it resurfaces, it will always be even stronger.

It is everyone's duty to be kind to themselves and to do the necessary work to get better. The testimonies of people who have experienced a burnout are unanimous: you should not wait to be exhausted to take care of yourself. When it is the body that speaks, it is because we have already waited too long. If you have a flat tire, you're not going to be driving down the freeway at full speed and waiting to find yourself in a ditch to call for help. Your vehicle is you, your mind and your physique. Take care of you !

Why am I talking about this? Because we often have this defect of seeking performance before seeking well-being. Because we think that only productivity matters, to the point of forgetting ourselves. Because we mistakenly think that personal balance goes against our desire to be the best. Because we are looking for this magical state that we call "Flow" or being "in the zone", this state where we lose track of time, that we feel neither fatigue nor desire nor need . Only our work exists and everything flows from the source, everything is fluid. Flow is when you are inspired.

Yes, but we are machines. A machine needs certain conditions to function, and conditions need to be optimal to function at its best. So since we are mammals, I am not going to advise you to download this or that app, make to-do lists or Pomodoro. Rather than selling you a magic bullet or treating it the wrong way, I'm going to ask you some questions. I want to get back to basics and invite you to listen to yourself and analyze yourself on different dimensions.

1. Am I in good physical condition?

  • I get enough sleep, at fixed times, in a calm environment, without light, where it is neither too hot nor too cold.

  • I take a nap during the day when my body tells me it needs it.

  • I hydrate properly (aka. Drink water)

  • I eat healthy, minimally processed foods at regular times, without skipping meals.

  • I do not consume disruptors or so as little as possible (no more than two coffees / stimulants per day and never after 3 p.m., no alcohol too frequently or in too much quantity, no sodas or sweets, ..)

  • I play sports several times a week (a bit of core training and push-ups in the morning, swimming, cycling, climbing, ..)

  • I do not work more than 3 hours in a row without taking a real break (minimum 20 minutes away from any screen, computer or smartphone)

2. Does my environment allow me to work?

  • There is not too much noise around me

  • I am not interrupted, I am not called out except for a real emergency

  • There are no distractions on sight

  • If I choose to listen to music, it turns in the background, not too loud, does not distract me, does not attract my attention

  • I have what I need close at hand (water bottle, scrap paper and pencil, tissues, etc.)

  • My seat, my desk, my keyboard and my screen are at the right height, comfortable

  • My desk is clean, tidy, as minimalist as possible (the more cluttered, the more it clutters the mind)

  • It's neither too hot nor too cold

These two checklists allow us to rule out the majority of the causes that prevent us from functioning properly. Without claiming to be exhaustive, these lists probably constitute the foundation without which you are sure and certain that you will not be well in your daily life and therefore in your work. These are the real prerequisites for productivity.
Let’s go a little further and now take a look at the human “social animal” dimension:

3. Is my life balanced?

  • I have interests that feed me outside of my job

  • I am satisfied with the quality and quantity of my social relationships

  • I am satisfied with my love life

Whether we're introverted or not, we all need social interactions. Social isolation is scientifically proven to cause stress, anxiety, depression and reduce life expectancy. Not ideal for productivity, therefore. Evaluate the proportion of time you devote to work, to your social, emotional and leisure life and find your balance, the one that will do you good in the long term.

Consider all the dimensions of your well-being

The physiological aspect is essential, the work / life balance is essential and listening to your emotions is essential. We must realize that being productive is first of all to do well on a daily basis.
Have a healthy, realistic relationship to what you are first and foremost, a biological machine, and again:

Be kind to yourself: take care of yourself.

Younes Serraj
Younes SerrajNov 19, 2018

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