Newport opens his book examining the problems that email has brought upon the world of knowledge work. He then attempts to solve these problems by laying out a few principles. He first argues that organizations should focus on focus, guarding their employee’s attention. Next, Newport focuses on the “process principle.” Knowledge work can be more effective if there is a process in place for getting the work done. In Newport’s view, the production process combines work execution with workflow (139). In other words, you need to know not only how to do a task but also how these tasks link together to get work done.
The first thing to do is try to get view of the whole process. You need a view of the whole before you can go about optimizing it. Such a concept sounds much like Sam Carpenter’s systems methodology of “Isolate-Fix-Maintain.” But beyond seeing the process, the production process also “requires rules about how work is coordinated” (141). It’s not enough to fix the tasks; you must also fix how the tasks are managed. Production process is so important because human beings naturally default to the easiest way of doing things in the moment (142). Yet, choosing the easy way out in the moment (like sending an email) may end up hurting our productivity in the long run.
The production process seeks to create systemization and checklists (“Do this…then this…then this…). A good production process will seek that recurring tasks are done in the same way according to the same standard. A well thought through production process will also have a “checklist” of sorts to make sure all the work will get done. In addition, a good production process will have in place a “process that helps improve the existing process” (150). Organizations need to be serious about constantly improving how they get things done.
What makes for an effective production process?
- Easy to know who’s doing what and how it’s going (status updates)
- You don’t need email to work on stuff
- There is a known procedure for updating work assignments.
A good production process can make it clear what needs to be done and by whom, all without resorting to email. One way to really amp up the organization’s productivity is by creating automatic processes. Automatic processes take highly repeated actions and turn it into a process with a checklist. An automatic process means creating a checklist, putting reminds into place, and giving access to the relevant information to people. What kinds of things can be turned into an automatic process? Newport advocates for the 30 times principle: if you produce something 30 times or more in a year, seek to automate it (176).
Major Tool: Task Boards
To help facilitate an effective production process, Newport advocates for the use of task boards, like Trello. Tasks boards are boards in which tasks are written on a card and arranged into columns (155). Task boards help organizations agile methods, methods of doing work in which it seeks to get work “out in the wild” as quickly as possible (156-57). Agile mindsets seek to capitalize on the fact that people are pretty good at planning, if they have all the relevant information (158). Therefore, task boards seeks to put all the relevant info at their fingertips and provide focus. Task boards are most effective with the following things kept in mind:
- Cards should be clear and informative
- Start with default columns (to do, doing, done)
- Hold regular review meetings
- Use “card conversations” (notes on the actual task card) to replace hive mind chatter
Having a place where all the team’s tasks can be seen, organized, and assigned can help knowledge workers do their best work.
Major Tool: Personal Kanban
Tasks boards aren’t only for organizations, but can also be used by individuals. Personal kanban is the name for a task board system for individual use. The power of personal kanban is that it forces you to “do a small number things at any one time: give them full concentration, and only when you finish one, should you replace it with something new” (165). Personal task boards are most effective with the following things kept in mind:
- Use more than one board. Have one board for each “role” in your work.
- Schedule solo review meetings
- Add a “to discuss” column. If you have a regular rhythm of effective meetings, you can replace 90 percent of the hive mind chatter that occurs (169).
- Add a “waiting to hear back” column
- What is our current “production process”? (Sketch out what is before moving to what it could/should be)
- What can be “systemized” in our current work set up?
- What processes can be turned into a checklist?
- What process can be automated?
- What tools could we look into that can help our production process?