High performance isn’t just for former finance ministers, finds Piers Cain
Improving productivity has been a concern, nay the obsession, of successive British politicians, notably of George Osborne when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Osborne was thinking mainly of the need for strategic investment in science, technology and infrastructure to drive change across the industries, rather than improving individual productivity. In recent weeks, he seems to have switched his focus, demonstrating how one person can hold down several substantial roles and earn a fortune – a sort of one-person Northern Powerhouse. We await with interest Osborne’s ‘how to’ book revealing his secret recipe. In the meantime, readers will have to make do with How to be Really Productive by Grace Marshall.
There are some people who regard self-help books of this sort as the work of the Devil, of use only to those who have no clue how to organise themselves or get things done. Marshall doesn’t help herself by adopting a breathless, relentlessly upbeat, ‘inspirational speaker’ style, which may put off some readers. This is a pity. The book won the ‘Commuter’s Read’ category of CMI Management Book of the Year – deservedly so. I challenge the reader not to find something worthwhile in it.
Marshall has a healthily realistic perspective on the world of work in the 21st century. People work from home, as well as in noisy, distracting open-plan offices – allegedly introduced to improve choice and team dynamics, but really to save money on floor space. (When is the last time you saw a chief executive with the senior team working in an open-plan office?) ‘Always online’ mobile technology means that some people are checking their emails even at 2am, while in bed, and some bosses expect them to do so. Parents – still mainly mothers – have to juggle family responsibilities with work deadlines. The boundaries between work and ‘the rest of our life’ – both the physical and social space in which work takes place and the hours in which we work – have become completely blurred. Marshall points out that the notion of ‘work-life balance’ has become virtually irrelevant because firm boundaries are hard to maintain and the volume of work has become unmanageable. A more realistic aspiration is to achieve an acceptable work-life rhythm and Marshall provides some practical ideas on how to achieve this.
Marshall’s other key insight is the importance of aligning personal satisfaction, life objectives, and one’s own psychology to the way we approach work, we decide our priorities, set our boundaries, and organise ourselves. Anyone familiar with a coaching approach will recognise much of what Marshall says. Still, it is entirely sensible to recognise that one of the reasons we are less productive or successful than we might be, is that we are often working against the grain of our own emotions, our personalities, our body rhythms and mental processes. If this seems a bit too New Age for you, you may wish to dip in and out of some chapters. Indeed, the last couple of chapters do feel a bit padded.
Overall the book has a practical feel – quite appropriately so. Every chapter concludes with a set of questions to help you develop insights about your own motivations, issues, weak spots and actions you can take to move things forward. I tried these out and personally found them useful even though I have done a similar test before.
The work of the Devil? No. Heard it before? Possibly – although its clearly competent and eminently readable. Not every book has to be ground breaking. Still, even if you simply wanted to focus on what matters to you and pick up some ideas on how to achieve more, pick up this book. You will almost certainly find in within it something for you.
How to be Really Productive: achieving clarity and getting results in a world where work never ends