The 5 Choices
INTRODUCTION FEELING BURIED?
Jaivon opened his eyes with a start as the plane shuddered beneath him. He looked around and realized it was just turbulence . . . and that he had fallen asleep again.
He had been dozing on and off for the last hour, trying to stay awake so that he could continue working on his notes. “I’m not supposed to be on this plane at all,” he thought angrily. “I should be at home with Kalisha!” They had gotten married just a few months ago and were in the process of moving into a new home. This trip had come up unexpectedly.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time. Kali had taken some time off from her job to organize the move and he had done the same thing, but one of his company’s largest accounts needed
some emergency technical help, and he was the best one to provide it. “At least no one is texting me right now,” he grumbled. “There’s at least one advantage of flying a red-eye.”
As he slid back into his crowded, stuffy middle-row seat, he thought about the past few weeks—one crisis after another. As one of the lead developers in a small but growing software firm, his schedule was hectic. He had also recently taken on more team leadership responsibilities, so now he had more people to satisfy. If it wasn’t questions from the sales team, it was issues from his developers. So many decisions to make! His email, instant messenger, and text messages were filled with questions that, apparently, only he could answer. His life felt like this middle seat—crowded—and the problem was only getting worse.
He was originally excited about the company and its prospects when he took the job two years ago. Their product was a cool bit of software, and it was the kind of programming he liked to do. With Kalisha’s work and his job, they had begun to look for a place where they could finally make a home and maybe start a family. “But at this rate,” he thought, “we won’t be together enough to raise a family at all, much less begin one!”
Kali’s job was busy also. She was in retail and managed a couple of boutique clothing stores. Because they were open into the evening, she usually came home late. And even then, there was often work to do—checking on the next day’s schedules when people called in sick, following up on inventory, and so forth.
As Jaivon rolled all this over in his mind, he began to feel something he hadn’t felt before—despair. “Will this ever end?” he thought.
Does any of this sound familiar?
While this might not match your situation exactly, our guess is that some of it rings true.
When you picked up this book, you probably did it for one of two reasons:
1. You are looking for some new ideas about how to be more productive. You may actually be managing pretty well, but you want to improve. You want to manage your time better, to get more out of each day. You may want to make more of a difference, to progress in your career, to have more time for those people who are important to you, or to achieve some really important goals.
2. You feel buried every day, and you want some serious help. You may, however, feel more like Jaivon—struggling to stay above the growing pile of things to do and the demands and decisions coming at you all day long. You may feel out of balance and that you rarely have time for yourself. You may feel that your health and relationships are suffering and that your primary goal is just to get through the day in one piece. You know if something doesn’t change soon, you just might explode.
If you relate to either of these descriptions, or are somewhere in between, you are not alone. In our experience, an increasing number of people are feeling the challenge of accomplishing what they want to in their lives. They see great possibilities, but also feel overwhelmed, rushing from one thing to another, trying to move ahead but worried that they may be falling behind. For many, it seems the more they do, the more comes their way. It’s a never-ending flow of
incoming tasks, appointments, obligations, and responsibilities. In some cases, all these things feel like a giant mountain of suffocating gravel pouring over them and threatening to bury them alive.
The purpose of this book is to help you get out from under that gravel, take a fresh breath, and reclaim your life. We will help you dig out by giving you the principles, processes, and tools to help you change the equation—a practical path to overcome the tyranny of the endless flow of the “incoming.” These are not quick-fix magic formulas. They will require some work, but each chapter is full of simple and powerful things you can do immediately and that will have a significant impact on your life.
As you begin implementing this material, one step at a time, you will begin to change the equation. You will get unburied and move forward in more productive and fulfilling ways. You will get clear and focused on the things that matter and you will both be and feel truly accomplished at the end of every day.
THE PRODUCTIVITY PARADOX
It has never been easier in human history to accomplish great things. A big part of that is the dramatic increase in the power of technology to make us more productive.
Today’s technology allows a child in Bangladesh to learn algebra from the best teachers on the planet. It allows people from around the globe to instantly see each other’s faces and collaborate in real time. We can access the world’s greatest libraries and publish our own thoughts to people everywhere. Modern technology has enabled people to advance medical practice, decode the human genome, overthrow governments, distribute state secrets, and expose corruption.
With advances in interconnectivity, processing power, and wearable technologies that measure everything from the temperature of our skin to the flow of our blood, the interaction between how we live and think and the technologies we use becomes more inseparable each day. And the revolution is just getting started.
Yet, paradoxically, these same technologies can make it harder than ever to accomplish the things that are important to us.
THE PRODUCTIVITY PARADOX
It is both easier and harder than ever before to achieve extraordinary productivity and feel accomplished in our lives.
The incoming flow of information enabled by today’s technology fills our lives with tasks and demands for our attention which, in the end, may not matter that much. Technology allows anyone who feels like it, anywhere in the world, to drop something into our digital inboxes, requiring us to respond, even if only to say no. We become buried alive by the unstoppable flow of everything that comes our way, which robs us of the energy we could be spending on higher-value activities. In many cases, we have redefined success as simply getting things done on time (barely!) rather than doing the important things with the attention and quality that makes us feel like we are, in fact, doing extraordinary work.
The tech-enabled, hyperpaced nature of our work has impacted our lives to such a degree that people feel overwhelmed like never before. They feel buried in things to do and simultaneously drained of their capacity to do them. They feel agitated and anxious,
stressed when they are working and stressed when they are not. It is a semipermanent state of worried restlessness that pervades our culture and drains us of confidence and joy. This is the widespread human cost of the productivity paradox, and it will only become more challenging for people who do not know how to tame the paradox and turn it to their advantage.
The productivity paradox revolves around three critical challenges.
CHALLENGE 1: WE ARE MAKING MORE DECISIONS THAN EVER.
In the early part of the twentieth century as the world was industrializing, huge advances in productivity came from the automation of labor. Work was broken down into small, repeatable tasks on an assembly line that anyone could do. As a result, companies and countries were able to produce goods on a much larger scale. This scaling up of production capability is what built the wealth of the twentieth century.
However, in the twenty-first century, the way value is created has shifted from the manual labor required to put things together to the creative mental labor that designs, engineers, markets, and sells today’s complex processes, services, and products (like software or high-end medical devices). Today’s economic value has shifted from low-decision content work to high-decision content work—from our hands to our brains.
The productivity challenge is that the velocity of incoming decisions required to do our work is almost overwhelming. And what most people do—because they are committed, hard-working people—is that they try to handle this flow in a linear way. They
take decisions as they come, handling them one at a time, making them as well and fast as they can, and then moving on to the next one—like an assembly line.
The problem is that high-value decisions don’t come in a predictable order. They are nonlinear opportunities. If we are not aware, we might miss them entirely, or only address them in a rushed, low-quality way. A linear approach in a nonlinear reality is a recipe for failure. Putting our heads down and simply doing more faster does not create extraordinary productivity in a world where value is found in stepping back, prioritizing the choices coming in, and making good decisions on the things that really impact results.
In a telling study cited in the Harvard Business Review, top performers in low-complexity jobs where decision making is at a minimum (like a worker in a fast-food restaurant) were found to be about three times more productive than the lowest performers. In medium-complexity jobs (like a production worker in a high-tech factory), the top performers were found to be twelve times more productive. However, in high-complexity jobs, where the right decisions make all the difference (like a software engineer or an associate in an investment banking firm), the differences between
the top and the bottom performers were so profound they were unmeasurable.1
Think about your own work. Doesn’t it feel pretty complex? Are there some areas where the right decisions will make a huge difference in your results? Are you able to devote the time and energy to make these decisions in a quality way?
CHALLENGE 2: OUR ATTENTION IS UNDER UNPRECEDENTED ATTACK.
If the number of decisions we have to make were the only issue, we might have gotten off pretty easily. But there is a second significant challenge: While we are trying to handle all the incoming decisions, our attention is under unprecedented attack. All the beeps, buzzes, and banners that invade our mental space come at a cost to our ability to focus on the things that really matter.
Even your own personal technology can become enemy territory. If you have ever Googled something important and then, forty-five minutes of links later, found yourself watching brainless videos or reading things that had no value to you at all, you have
experienced how easily your attention can be taken from you if you are not conscious about it.
The marketing world does a good job of exploiting our natural tendencies toward distraction. Think of the millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours spent trying to get just thirty seconds of your attention during a Super Bowl or World Cup commercial. Similar effort is spent every day online as marketers’ pop-up ads wiggle, dance, and make silly noises, just trying to get your attention long enough to generate interest so that they can try to sell you something. Our pervasive media ecosystem from news to advertising to the programming aired is basically a war for your most valuable mental resource—your attention. It is driven by dollars or euros or yuan, and the stakes are high. There is plenty of incentive for advertisers to do everything possible to grab your attention, even if only for a moment.
But paying attention to anything for an extended period of time is hard—for individuals and organizations. Even the language we use is insightful. When we say we are paying attention to something, we are recognizing that attention comes at a cost. It takes an investment of energy to attend to something. This is not just figurative; it is biological and neurological. Because attention requires effort, it is far easier to let your brain become distracted by less important things.
Bottom line: If we’re not careful, we can go on mental autopilot, moving from one stimulating and distracting input to another, and miss the things that are uniquely meaningful—the things that can make our days, lives, and relationships extraordinary.
CHALLENGE 3: WE ARE SUFFERING FROM A PERSONAL ENERGY CRISIS.
In the middle of all of the decisions coming at you and the attention-grabbing distractions around you, do you find yourself struggling to think clearly at work? Do you feel worn out much of the time? Do you find yourself relying on stimulants like coffee or those jolting energy drinks just to get through the day? Have you ever finished your workday or workweek and found yourself so exhausted that you slipped into a couch coma, unable to devote any energy to the other people or activities you love?
A productive life is a conscious life, and that takes mental energy. But with today’s technology-enabled unstoppable flow of everything coming at us, we can often feel so worn out and tired that we face our own personal energy crisis. We can’t muster the mental energy to think clearly and, in a knowledge-work world, that is a problem.
Energy management is not just about physical energy, although that is important too; it’s about the raw-energy requirements of performing mental labor. Again, this is not just metaphorical; it is a biological and neurological reality. Your brain needs certain things in order to function well, like glucose and oxygen, and there are a number of factors that influence how well those are supplied to your brain. Yet, our normal work environments are extremely unfriendly to our brains. As brain researcher John Medina notes, today’s cubicled, sedentary workplaces represent “an almost perfect anti-brain working environment.”2
This is true even as we increasingly find ourselves working in highly complex, mentally taxing jobs.
THE IMPACT OF THE PRODUCTIVITY PARADOX
These three roots of the productivity paradox—a streaming flow of unlimited decisions to be made, the second-by-second battle for your attention, and the draining demands on your personal energy—all have a real impact on how accomplished you feel on any day at work, at home, and in your community.
You feel it every day when you come home frazzled, uncertain if you accomplished what you needed to, worried about things you’ve left undone, and dreading the day ahead. You feel it when you look at your life as a whole and realize there are significant areas of your life that you have left neglected, relationships that have not been nurtured, talents that have not been developed, and interests that have not been pursued. You feel it when you think of your potential and the great goals you have, but then feel battered and bruised by all the incoming tasks and demands that seem to always keep you from focusing on those more important things.
These things don’t just show up in your inner experience; they are quantifiable. What if we told you that in a world where we have more opportunity to do great things than ever before, 40 percent—almost half—of your time, attention, and energy is going to unimportant or irrelevant activities?
In a six-year FranklinCovey study, we discovered exactly that. The study was based on 351,613 respondents from Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and North America. In this research, people indicated that about 60 percent of their time was being spent on important things and about 40 percent was being spent on things that were not important to them or to their companies.3
Think about that for a minute. Now, some might say, “Well, at least it’s more than half!”
But what if your car only worked half the time? Would you be satisfied? What about your computer or cell phone? What if only half of the lights worked in your house? Or only half of your bank account or investments were generating a return? What if only half of the players on your favorite team showed up to play for the championship game? You wouldn’t accept situations like that, so why settle for less when it comes to your time?
From an organizational standpoint, this implies that only about half of the money you spend on payroll is being directed toward things that matter to your organization. If you’re a leader, it means that only about half of your team’s energy is being spent moving forward on your most important goals.
Let’s look at some numbers.
Let’s assume, for a moment, that your organization is similar to the global average. Let’s also assume that each person on your team works about 2,080 hours per year, which translates into 40 hours per week. When you apply the 40 percent metric to these
work hours, it means 832 hours per year are wasted on unimportant activities for each individual working on your team. Let’s further assume that you are a part of a 500-person organization or division and the average hourly wage across everyone in the division (senior and junior) is $50 per hour. This translates to over $20 million in waste each year.
In our experience, this is the biggest hidden cost in organizations today. It is the cost of people spending their precious time, attention, and energy on things that don’t drive your most important results.
It’s not just a numbers game. Think of the cost to employee engagement and commitment when they come to a job where half of their effort is not spent on important things, where they must battle with all sorts of distractions and demands that keep them from doing their finest work on things that really matter.
This is the very real impact of the productivity paradox. In a time when we are more able than ever to do extraordinary work, it seems harder than ever to get that work done. And this affects our work, our relationships, our sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, even our health.
To be clear, we’re not advocating that everyone turn into a little efficiency factory, working in nonstop production mode 100 percent of the time. That is an Industrial Age, machine-based mindset that is not balanced or even possible or productive in today’s world. What we are talking about is the time and energy you spend on the things that are important to you and your work—the things that will bring you a sense of satisfaction at the end of every day. What if we could increase the amount of time and energy you spend on those things by even a little bit? What if we could change the ratio to 70/30 or even 80/20? What difference would that make in your own work and life?
What if you could get rid of even a few of those annoying things that keep you from doing your best work, that keep you from paying attention to your most important relationships, that get in the way of doing the things that increase your sense of joy, satisfaction, and accomplishment each day?
If you believe, as we do, that your most valuable asset is your life and the time and energy you spend living it each day, doesn’t it make sense that you should be able to spend more of it on things that really matter?
WHAT IS EXTRAORDINARY PRODUCTIVITY?
When we use the word extraordinary, we don’t mean everyone has to broker world peace on Friday and win the Nobel Prize on Monday. What we are talking about is living and working at your best, where you bring your whole self to what you do, and tap into the talents and energies you uniquely have to offer. It means, above all, doing work that you can feel great about.
Now you might be thinking, “Sure, that sounds good, but I have no flexibility in my job, and I just have to get by.” Think back for a moment to the fast-food worker in the study we referenced earlier in this chapter. Visualize the image of this work in your mind. It is a low-complexity position with a highly defined job description, designed to remove decisions, create focused attention, and keep the need for mental energy down to a minimum. You could argue that this is the least knowledge-work-like job on the planet. It really is, you might argue, like an old-time assembly line. And you would be right.
Yet, even in this environment, how can one person be three times more productive than another?
A friend of ours took her lunch break at a retail-chain sandwich shop. Expecting only a sandwich, what she got was an unexpected and unforgettable service experience.
When she first stepped up to order, she noticed a young worker covered in tattoos and body piercings—like many other young adults you can find in a shop like this. But when he greeted her, she instantly noticed his enthusiastic smile and the attention given to her order.
She then watched this young craftsman as he deftly assembled her sandwich with fluid movement that indicated not only a joy in the process, but a mastery of the details—like watching a skilled dancer or a performing artist. It was clear that he had thought through the process and created a sequence of events that allowed him to put forth his finest efforts.
As he finished her order and handed it to her with a sincere thank-you, she realized that she had not experienced a simple worker in an assembly-line job, but a human being making a conscious contribution—a true artisan.
What made the difference?
Even in that tightly controlled scenario, here was someone who had consciously decided what was most important among the things he could influence, focused his attention on them, and brought his finest energy to that work. Underlying that formula was an even more fundamental decision required of all extraordinary work—he had decided to bring his whole self to the job. As a result, his work was significantly more productive, more enjoyable and rewarding to him, and more impactful for those he served.
WHEN HAVE YOU BEEN EXTRAORDINARY?
Compare this to your own work, which likely has much more latitude! When was a time you felt, like this young man, that you were doing extraordinary work? where you were involved in a project or some other effort that brought out your very best? when you put your whole self into it? when you went to bed feeling accomplished at the end of every day?
When you were doing this work, what was your decision making like? What was the quality of your attention? When distractions came up, did you quickly move past them so that you could remain focused on what you were doing? How much energy and clarity of mind did you feel?
Often when we ask these questions in large groups, there is a moment in people’s eyes where you can see a bit of fear: “Have I actually ever done anything like that?”
It’s amazing for us to watch them work to dig up those great accomplishments. People generally are often so busy just trying to handle it all that they don’t even pause to realize what accomplishment really feels like. Then, when they realize there actually were times when they were engaged in doing great work, the energy in the room goes up as they start to relive and share some of the best moments in their lives.
Imagine how it would be if you were able, at the end of every day, to look back on that day and consistently feel the same sense of accomplishment.
THE PROMISE OF THE 5 CHOICES TO EXTRAORDINARY PRODUCTIVITY
Our premise in writing this book is that everyone has the capability to do extraordinary work. Everyone has the potential to go to bed at the end of each day feeling satisfied and accomplished.
However, in order to do this, you will need to directly address the three challenges that underlie the productivity paradox. You will need to increase your capability in three areas:
• Decision management
• Attention management
• Energy management
The good news is there are 5 Choices that, when consistently made, will help you do this. These 5 Choices are anchored in the timeless principles of human productivity that we and others have taught at FranklinCovey for over thirty years. They also draw upon the latest thinking in brain science, biology, technology, and performance psychology. They have been vetted by tens of thousands of practical experiences that people have had applying them in numerous situations and organizations around the world. They are proven and they work.
The alternative is to miss the new learning about decisions, attention, and energy and remain buried alive under the relentless flow of incoming tasks and demands—to let 40 percent of your time and energy be consumed by things that don’t matter, to allow your life to be lived for you rather than taking control, to ignore the conditions that let you go to bed feeling accomplished at the end of every day.
Ultimately, what’s at stake is the quality of your work and life and the satisfaction you feel in making the unique contributions that only you can offer.
TO SUM UP
• The productivity paradox is that it is both easier and harder than ever before to achieve extraordinary productivity and feel accomplished in our lives.
• The three basic challenges of the productivity paradox are: we face an overwhelming flow of decisions, our attention is under unprecedented attack, and we feel a drain on our personal mental energy.
• Everyone is capable of doing extraordinary work.
• There are 5 Choices that, when consistently made, enable us to rise above the chaos and feel accomplished at the end of every day.