Protect your productivity quadrant to escape the rat race for good

April 22, 2022

How lucky are we that, as knowledge workers, we can make use of the most advanced set of tools ever seen by humanity? Software tools like Gmail, Slack, Discord, Jira, Figma, Office… have become a standard. We are a few clicks/dollars away from enjoying an amazing set of features for collaborating, communicating, designing, organizing, creating and executing. Multitasking for the win… if only.

Protect your productivity quadrant to escape the rat race for good

Your Current Work Stack

I am not a Gartner pundit to pontificate on any 10-year long productivity trend. What I know is that humans are s**t at multitasking effectively. We are so bad at it, that those very same experts who years ago praised multitasking as an inherent human “feature” are now blaming it unashamedly as the obvious “bug”. Now they call it “context-switching”. Google it if you dare to.

Context switching is our impulse to switch from one task to an unrelated one not because you feel like doing it, but because very powerful tools nudge you to. Enter “notifications”. As product Jedi Steven Sinofsky reminds us, “notifications don’t solve the ‘take notice’ scenario users have. They solve the ‘take more notice of me’ problem apps have.” And of course, don’t get me started on the sheer volume of jobs emerging from and along these platforms. Good luck with that.

So, at we have come up with this XY chart to better understand what works and what doesn’t. Tools are not evil per se, they are just high-maintenance, high-attention seekers, overlapping with similar ‘characters’ aiming to capture a piece of your most precious and scarcest resource, Time. 

Time can be split up into two main subsets: one that relates to spontaneous interactions vs time-boxed ones (scheduled-unscheduled) and another one that relates to the way you interact with others (sync-async). Taking into account that all projects are anything that require collaboration -even if it's "only" between you-today and you-tomorrow- this XY chart encapsulates over 95% of all cases.

On both extremes of the X axis (synchronicity), email and phone calls (or Zooms) are great at solving both use cases. Same with the Y axis, where many tools are 9-to-6 business-only tools while others are unscheduled by default. Frustration soars when the originator and/or recipient of a “job” can’t align on the priority of that “job”. A very human “bug” that percolates across all teams. Surprisingly, instead of working as a counterbalance of that bug, many of these tools simply reinforce it: the more Slack comments a user creates, the happier the product manager in charge of reaching her KPI quarterly target is. Quick win for a few, unfathomable long-term consequences for all. 

Let me use a basic example for this: if I send you an email (or Slack comment) asking for your help on some minor detail regarding a complaint from one of our users, but I forget to mention how important it is to me (or when exactly am I expecting your answer to show up on my email), we are both undermining the basics for this task to be expedited optimally. Without a quick agreement on a deadline and its priority, we have just created a lose-lose situation for both out of thin air. Multiply than micro inefficiency times the number of close colleagues you work with times notifications times emails times tasks times tools… that’s quite a somber script unfurling. 

By piggy-backing on Paul Graham’s legendary post on the “maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule”, you realize we can all relate to one or both roles and similarly, struggle when any of those schedules gets disrupted. Whenever we ask for something from somebody, he/she has to switch contexts (mentally, physically) at your discretion (not theirs). Be assured everyone will pay a price for every slight “disturbance in the Force”. 

The sched-async quadrant is where your highest productivity (per time unit) is. And productivity drops because context-switching is "expensive" (being "focus" the currency of choice). Anything "attacking" that quadrant (unexpected phone calls, colleagues pinging you on different tools, rescheduled meetings, mounting notifications, etc) equals reversion to the 9-to-6, white-collar, unproductive mean. I call it the tool-wagging-the-dog problem, where humans live by whatever their tools ask them to do, not the other way around.

Protect your time and focus and I assure you will escape the rat race for good.