Bryan Berg is a professional card stacker. He holds four Guinness World Records, including the tallest and largest house of cards—all freestanding. (As he says, “No tape, no glue, no tricks.”) Ironically, in Berg’s daily life, he describes himself as “the first person who would ever trip or spill a drink,” yet with the cards, his control is spectacular.
At trade shows he sleeps on-site, each day waking to behold the new layer or castle turret he added the day before, slowly seeing his undeniable progress. What a clear and gratifying experience that must be.
In simple moments, we too can have this kind of observable accomplishment. A sink full of greasy dishes turns into an empty one. A thousand jigsaw puzzle pieces become a golden retriever. But in the world of work, where there’s so much pressure to be productive, it’s especially tough to get that hit of before-and-after satisfaction. We spend most of our time in the messy middle of projects and are constantly putting out fires. We fly through to-do lists and stuff our calendars in search of a feeling of “I built that.” And yet we find ourselves lost in a constant state of what sociologist Juliet B. Shor calls “performative busyness.”
Activity is not productivity. To be productive means to create something of value. In the past 18 months, we’ve seen surprising examples of the value that can be created, even amid the chaos. We’ve learned that for many, working from home can be as productive as being in the office, and that a timeline for almost anything can be accelerated beyond our wildest dreams. But we’ve also seen that work can be a bottomless sinkhole where we numb our anxieties about the world around us and fill time with low-value tasks.
We crave the before-after reward more than ever.
Right now, each of us has a spectacular opportunity to satisfy this yearning. As companies around the globe rethink what tomorrow’s workplace will look like, we can reset expectations and be more intentional about the way we choose to work.
We must first prepare the environment. Just as Berg sweeps the floor and checks the cards before he starts stacking, we need to create a context in which a dependable cycle of building, witnessing, and celebration can happen. It can begin with just three small, critical shifts in how you view your workday.
Clarity must come first
All of us are being called upon to adapt to ever-shifting pandemic protocols and face ongoing, rapid professional change. Life is a buffet of ambiguity right now, and everyone is craving clarity. But it’s often missing.
As managers, we tend to think we’re explaining the full picture of a new project or assignment (it makes sense to us), but then underestimate the mind reading required to fill in the gaps. We fail to state, out loud in specific language, why a piece of work is being done, what the scope is, who else to involve, or precisely when it’s due. Teams then dive in, making costly and often incorrect guesses about which direction to run, how fast, and with what resources.
If you’re a manager or leader, your team needs you to slow down. Fill in the details and point them explicitly toward specific high-value before-after opportunities.
Work can’t keep being like this
Too often, people wake up to face workdays that involve multiple levels of tolerated misery.
Truly meaningful assignments continue to be scarce. Bosses who are bullies inexplicably remain employed. Even when supervisors strive to care, they often do not have the tools or time to be empathetic.
The Great Resignation has arrived, and high performers are shouting from the rooftops, “Lose the crazy, or I am out of here.” When employees feel disrespected and overloaded, they can no longer find meaning or autonomy in their work—the two most powerful forms of professional fuel.
Change has already begun. Zoom has unveiled our real lives and given us a good start at getting more human with each other. When the CFO’s cat walks across his keyboard, and our baby cries in the budget meeting, we become more genuine and connected. We must not let this warmth recede.
Leaders can amplify these new bonds with one simple tactic: Make a vulnerable admission. Reveal a personal flaw or a mistake made, and this brave gesture will stimulate a wave of authenticity to follow it.
You are not a robot
The next time a captcha screen has you identifying spotlights or bicycles to confirm your humanity, take a moment to hear its important message as you click the little boxes. You are not a robot. Traditional productivity hacks, such as time blocking, tell us that we must be constantly moving and achieving in every second of the day.
This is not sustainable. We need the softness of schedules designed for people (with bodies and appetites and bladders), and we need room for human messiness. Productivity, going forward, will simply have to be gentler. We must give people permission to take a minute to think—or breathe or ponder or plan.
We must slow our collective metronome and eradicate the shame of rest.
To begin, insert a small wedge of open time between activities that previously would have been connected: a meeting and another meeting, a request and a response, or an idea and enacting a plan. These wedges will lace your day with tiny intervals of much-needed space.
There will always be impermanence in the work we do. Even Bryan Berg’s card houses inevitably collapse. But if we encourage clear direction, thoughtful cultures, and humane expectations of ourselves, we will be better positioned to experience more before-and-after victories.
Even in the absence of larger organizational changes, you can take back some control. You can keep a simple piece of paper next to your computer and each morning write down just one or two before-after moments to focus on. And as you build, layer by delicate layer, these accomplishments will ground you, and fill you, and get you ready for whatever comes next.