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The productivity I/O sweet spot, or Why balance is a bad thing

In my one of my conversations with Chris Crouch we talked about how hard we should be working for sustainable productivity. As I summarized in my interview with him (scroll to the section Personal workload capacity), Chris questioned the conventional (?) wisdom of working at or near our maximum. I took it as a smart way to be productive but not burn ourselves out. This is controversial: We are expected (by ourselves and others) to work harder - put in more hours, sacrifice time with loved ones, all to accomplish "more, better, faster." As Laura Stack [1] says in Leave the Office Earlier, most professionals have a backlog of 200 or more hours of uncompleted work. Whew!

As you may have read [2], I've been playing with the idea of how our inputs (things we've invited into our lives requiring our attention) balance with our outputs (conversion of intputs into work we do).

I love how Nicholas Carr frames it in The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google:
All living systems, from amoebas to nation-states, sustain themselves through the processing of matter, energy, and information. They take in materials from their surroundings, and they use energy to transform those materials into various useful substances, discarding the waste. This continuous turning of inputs into outputs is controlled through the collection, interpretation, and manipulation of information.

After a bit of thinking I came up with a little surprise. Consider your rate of inputs ("I") vs. rate of outputs ("O"). We have these possibilities:
  1. I >> O (far more coming in that going out)
  2. I > O (a bit more coming in "")
  3. I ~= O (approximately equal)
  4. I < O (a little less coming in "")
  5. I << O (far fewer incoming than outgoing)
Questions: Which is your most common state? and Which do you think is ideal? At first blush 3 or 4 seems best. But let's name each one and do a brief analysis:

  1. Drowning and desperate. This is that "utterly out of control" feeling, the sense that you'll never, ever be able to catch up. This is the source of big backlogs of email and paper. Work is falling through the cracks, and you have a reputation of "Better follow up in person or it probably won't get done." Grievously unsustainable
  2. Sinking (maybe slowly, maybe fast). This is the sense of "I just can't quite keep up," and leads to an overall anxiety about work. Your inboxes are increasing, with occasional "binge" emptying happening. Unsustainable
  3. Steady state, but brittle. You're just able to keep up if it's "a good day," but the slightest lag in work means you start falling behind - a day or two, say. And vacation or a trip? You'd better block out a good chunk of time blocked out to pay your "vacation tax." Brittle (one of the 10 GTD "holes" I identified)
  4. Smooth sailing. You've got some amount of buffer built in to your life. You can afford a few days of letting things pile up, and emptying is not usually a problem. Sustainable
  5. Couch potato/proactive monster. You have plenty of buffer. You can take off a week or two, say, and catch up with no sweat. Coasting
Thoughts? I'm sure you can come up with better names, but clearly #5 is most interesting. I see two extremes. First ("couch potato") is the unchallenged case. Not much going on, possibly bored. The other end ("proactive monster") is (you guessed it) The 80/20 Principle applied. It's "kill your TV" and don't read the news (bustin' it 4HWW-style). You have no problem picking up the phone and talking to almost anyone you want, and finding time to read and write is not what's holding you back. You're a Hedgehog [3], and things are aligned in your life.

Living #5 goes against common wisdom of "working hard, very hard" being a top three success factor, and I want it. Naughty? Likely. Final questions: What do you think? Is this even possible in modern work, or as an employee/cubical dweller?


Reader Comments (12)

Just a heads up: The site is experiencing some issues as part of changing its design. Especially troublesome is a problem entering comments: The text is (using programming nomenclature) "squished." You can still type or use an external editor, but it's unreadable, at least on my machine. Sorry about that!


June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

(Chris Crouch sent the following comment; thought I'd share it. -- matt)

Yep...I agree that we should all try to get the best out of ourselves and others...not necessarily the most. There should always be plenty of time for rest, recreation, relaxation and reflection (I could probably think up a lot more "R" words that describe alternate uses for time...but I'm sure you get the point).

June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I'll admit, I've never been a big proponent of a balanced life. I'm much more interested in a full life. Sometimes that means burning the midnight oil. Other times that means an extended holiday of travel. I think one needs to understand their priorities in life and use that as the context for defining how time should be spent. The idea of sacrificing time with loved ones seems to be a common thought on why maintaining a balanced life is important, but I don't buy it. If one finds themselves working 80 hours a week and missing their family, then I'd say they are unbalanced, but more so, they are unfulfilled in one area that is a priority for them. What about a person who's working 80 hours per week and has a healthy, unstressed family life? Still unbalanced in my books, but probably feeling fulfilled. Being fulfilled on an 80 hour work week may seem foreign to many, so lets switch that around... what if a person could meet all their career and financial goals on 10 hours per week (i.e. they're fulfilled) and spend the rest with family. Again, I'd say this isn't balanced according to today's norms, but it sounds like they may be living a full life. For me, thinking in terms of Full has more power as well. Lets say a balanced life is 8 hours at work, 8 hours with family, 8 hours sleeping. What if a person is consistently hitting these timelines but hates their job? Sounds like they've achieved the covetted "balanced life", but 40 hours a week in a job you hate... fulfillment is probably in the toilet!

Ok, so that long winded bit wasn't exactly what the article was about, but anytime I see the words "balanced life" I can't help but think "why settle for that?”

Good stuff on the I/O... it's given my brain something to chew on!

June 18, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

It also appears OL (ordered lists, i.e., numbered bullets) are broken. This means the references above to numbers doesn't make sense. Sorry folks!

June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Another great tidbit sent to the future from the ghost of Matt past:

"It is necessary to be slightly underemployed if you are to do something significant" -- Nobel Laureate James Watson

June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

[I thought I'd replied before, but it seems to be gone.]

Thanks for the references, Michael. It turns out I have the overloaded syndrome book on my 'to read' shelf - good excuse to read it next!

June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Excellent points, Doug. I'll try to summarize: Balance doesn't necessarily imply full, and vice versa. Better to be flexible, pour your heart into what you love, rather than strive for an arbitrary numerical "idea." Great stuff!

> Good stuff on the I/O... it's given my brain something to chew on!

Much appreciated - thanks your thinking on this.

June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

The only thing I can see to add is that there can be periods of exceptions (aren't there always though!).

Specifically, I'm thinking of taking a vacation in August where for a very happy 3 weeks, my workload will be in number 1 (inputs much greater than outputs) and once I get back in September, it'll be solidified in number 5 (outputs much greater than inputs).

I can see two approaches for catching exceptions, either makes it more complex though...

Approach 1: add a component of a task count. I.e. in the case of I << O
- if you have plenty of buffer (low task count), you're coasting
- if you're ripping through a backlog (high task count), you're catching up

Approach 2: add a component of time (perhaps long-haul vs short-burst). Again, with I << O
- if you're in this state for the long-haul, you're coasting
- if you're in this state for a short-burst, you're catching up

June 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Kyle

Hey Doug. *Excellent* point re: the dynamic nature of how work can flow. Regarding your approaches, I'm not sure I understand. I do see how I/O can refer to either inbox activity or task activity. INBOX: How well we are able to keep up with *things*, and TASKS: "" to keep up with *work*. Both can vary over time, as you point out.

June 25, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Another angle on this is to think about the role of stress - both positive and negative. If we are too stressed, then we burn out. However, we need a little stress to keep us going and motivated. Too much or too little can both cause problems of low self-esteem and procrastination.

I think there is a balance, just that it might not be in the middle! More off to one side... And intermittent too!

July 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Very good point, Benjamin. I guess it's like anything - middle of the road is usually safe, but sometimes we have to get faster or slower as needs dictate.

July 2, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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