Productivity training has matured significantly over the past 15 years.
We began with an emphasis on efficiency. Then, we began to ask the question about how to use that efficiency to free up time in our day. Now we are realizing that using that extra time to do meaningful work is a skill in and of itself.
In short, third-wave productivity has nothing to do with artisanal to-do list apps.
A little while back, I had the honor of interviewing Cal Newport about his book, Deep Work. While there is a lot in our conversation that I’d love to get into, it will have to wait for another time. Today, I wanted to pull out one segment where Cal and I talked about the Three Waves of Productivity.
Side Note: I put together all my book notes from Deep Work and also combined those notes with all the key takeaways and highlights from my interview with Cal Newport. You can download the in-depth notes here.
Productivity Wave One: “Efficiency”
This first wave focused heavily on systems, methodologies, and tools. It touted efficiency as the ultimate form of productivity, stating that you need to capture and organize all your tasks and projects and other areas of responsibility. To do this you need smarter lists and more powerful tools.
(Note that there are many ways to be efficient with your time and your tasks beyond a specific or complex methodology. I for one am a huge fan of the Ivy Lee method.)
Productivity Wave Two: “Intentionality”
This second wave built on the first. Saying that organizing your tasks is not the height of productivity. Rather, it’s about making room to do the real work. This second wave was more of a mindset shift than a skill.
In other words, it was the realization that when you are efficient with all the incoming stuff and your ideas and time, then you are able to create space in your day to do the important work. (Note that another way to create space in your day is to say ‘no’ to certain incoming things and create some margin for yourself.)
This intentionality of choosing to do meaningful work exposed a truth that to merely free up your time isn’t enough.
Once people had time available to do the “real work,” they often didn’t even know what it was — nor did they have the skills needed to take advantage of that time.
Doing the real work is, in itself, a craft that takes time and practice, and this is what the third wave is all about…
Productivity Wave Three: “Meaning”
Wave three is about defining what to do in the time that you’re fighting to clear out and taking advantage of that “real work” time.
We have had to reengage with what it means to concentrate and do focused, meaningful work. We are now giving our attention to what it means to do deep work.
These three waves serve one another. You need all three to get the true benefits, and it’s not until you get to the third wave that you start to see all the benefits.
It is in the third wave where you start to produce more valuable work and you find your work more meaningful.
However, the challenge here is that many people do not have clarity about what it means to be productive and valuable. They cannot define what important, deep work is. As a result, that lack of clarity leads to unfocused busy work such as checking email, social media, news, etc.
In his book, Deep Work, Cal warns against using busyness as a proxy for productivity:
In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Clarity cures busywork.
Clarity about what matters also gives clarity about what does not. Clarity is vital if you want to do deep work on a regular basis over the long run.
Next, we’ll talk about the most common issues that will threaten your efficiency, intentionality, and deep work. We’ll also get into the most common pitfalls to productivity.
In the meantime, I’ve put together all my book notes from Deep Work and combined it with all the key takeaways and highlights from my interview with Cal Newport. You can download the in-depth notes here.