Productive vs. Effective

I picked up Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and flipped through his writing. As far as human beings go, B. Franklin managed staggering productivity and effectiveness on several fronts throughout his lifetime. Notably, toward the middle of his book, he listed out his day hour by hour, top to bottom. At the beginning of each day he asked himself, “what good am I going to do today?” and at the conclusion, “what good did I do today?”

The title of today’s post, Productive versus Effective, implies that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, productivity contributes to effectiveness. Where productive means producing much, effective means successful in producing an intended result. Thus, I modified B. Franklin’s question to ask, “what effective movement am I going to (or did I) make on my research today?” Rather convicting questions, my friends.

Effectiveness in my world means contributing to the body of knowledge. We need productivity to be effective, but it is one’s effectiveness that up-ends conventional thinking, gives one purpose, changes the world. Effectiveness moves it forward, whatever one’s it may be. Productivity requires little critical thought or creative understanding. Effectiveness demands critical analysis and creative problem solving. Effective contribution takes time.

My Thursday Morning Gulp List gives me great satisfaction because I march right through a long list of items needing attention, items easy to complete and mark off the list. I am productive! Quantity over quality. If anyone asks me what I accomplished that day, I can rattle off 50 finished items.

Demonstrating effectiveness in one’s day risks the appearance of dilly-dallying or incremental (if any) movement forward. To the untrained eye, collecting rock samples looks like an excuse to go hiking on a sunny day (I’ll concede, I did double dip on that day). Effectiveness on a daily scale is much harder to quantify. Only one line item may get marked off, if that. When a well-intended loved one asks me what I got done today, my thin answer, “I tracked down the platens I needed and took measurements so I can have new ones machined,” leaves me dispirited. Why don’t I have 50 things to rattle off?

Research in a new area feels much like slowly groping one’s way forward in the dark, in a foreign environment, with few recognizable landmarks. The process is slow. I long for quick turn around, and sharp, decisive steps. Nevertheless, having had fast-paced jobs capitalizing on high productivity and low intellectual challenge, I know my interest would soon wane and leaving me to wander off in search of something interesting, something challenging, something needing figuring out.

But in that intellectual space, a dance exists: perfectionism versus excellence. Learning what I need to know to understand the work versus learning every conceivable detail about every conceivable process/instrument/shale formation. Reading just one more paper, one more text in case I missed something versus drawing the finish line and calling it done. And it is this knowledge about myself that brings me back to why I do what I do.

We cannot be effective if we do not get our work into the public sphere. No matter how dedicated to the craft, if no one reads about it, hears about it, or sees it, then the work does not count. Effectiveness dies in obscurity.

As much to myself as to my fellow effective human beings, “done is better than perfect, so get it done.”

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