Simplicity and the storm before the calm

My Financial Times column 12/27/10

Lew Wasserman, the Hollywood mogul who ran MCA, used to wait in his office until everyone had gone home and then walk around looking for papers left on his agents’ desks. If he found them, he would sweep them into the bin. A messy desk, he thought, implied a messy mind. I have always coveted this kind of organisational stringency but somehow never managed to achieve it. But this is the time of year to dream again of personal organisation and productivity.

Personal organisation is the weight loss industry of business. Everyone wants it and everyone knows how to achieve it. But we are always looking for the next gizmo or system that promises to make it easier, from Filofaxes to iPhones, from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to David Allen’s Getting Things Done.

But just as we know the answer to weight loss, eating less and exercising more, so we know the key to personal productivity. Do more by doing less. It sounds rather Zen but the idea is simple. The most successful professional lives are those that are highly focused. They are not a cacophony of conflicting obligations, deadlines and political machinations. They involve the streamlined pursuit of a single goal.

One might begin with Steve Jobs. Apple’s success over the past 13 years since Mr Jobs returned as chief executive might be reduced to a single idea: making the complex simple. For a company of its size, it has a remarkably small line of products, with just a few variations on each theme. It is evidence of Mr Jobs’ habit of saying “no” much more than he says “yes”. Organisationally, Apple’s executive team, centred on Mr Jobs, Tim Cook, his chief operating officer, and Jonathan Ive, his design chief, have succeeded in achieving vast scale from a relatively small core group based in Cupertino, California. Decision-making is highly centralised and the organisation flat. Apple is no corporate democracy but the effect from the customer’s perspective is that you always know exactly what you are getting.

Mr Jobs’ clarity of thought and purpose is reflected in his dress, the jeans and black turtleneck; his car, always German, always silver; even the washing machines in his house. In an interview in Wired in 2007, Mr Jobs explained the process for choosing his washing machine. He and his family were dissatisfied with their American machine. So they spent two weeks discussing the problem over dinner. They talked about design, function, water usage, environmental impact and finally decided on buying appliances from the German manufacturer Miele. Imagine how many distractions you have purged from your life to focus so intently on the design and function of a washing machine.

For many of us, our days are like whack-a-mole, flailing at problems as they emerge, hoping that one good wallop does the trick but fearing that nothing is ever well and truly solved. Multi-tasking is another term for it. It often seems that the division between those who focus on one task at a time and those who multi-task is a theological one; each side claiming to be more productive. Academic research, however, suggests that the relationship between multi-tasking and productivity follows an upside-down U-curve. A little multi-tasking improves our productivity. But then we plateau and too much multi-tasking, too much work and too many relationships to manage slows us down. We would be better off taking Mr Jobs’ washing machine approach, taking a problem, going deep to solve it once and for all and then moving on.



Friends who moved from Connecticut to California this month told me of the relief they felt as their moving truck took away all their possessions. They had sold their house and were moving into a rented apartment above their office, and could not wait to start afresh without the burdens of ownership. Which manager does not crave that elusive sense of mental lightness, the clean break, the clean desk, the same old problems finally dealt with and only new opportunities ahead? Mr Wasserman tried to impose it with his nightly desk purges. But it is not the only way. 

The English writer Patrick Leigh Fermor found a different path in his wonderful book A Time to Keep Silence, when he goes on retreat to the Abbaye of St Wandrille de Fontanelle in northern France. At first he is frustrated by the silence and inaction, his mind still racing at city speed. Then he is overcome by tiredness and sleeps longer than ever before. Finally he reaches a state “full of energy and limpid freshness”. His “desire for talk, movement and nervous expression” had “languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment”. By the end of his stay, he was in that state every manager wants to be in January, free of the “hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life” and suddenly more productive than ever.


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