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Escaping the Productivity Matrix: Balance or Flow

By Kiahnna D. Patton

Kiahnna D. PattonIs productivity a trigger word for you? Do you feel a slight pinch or huge weight when you think about how to get the most out of each day? Some believe balance is the key. I like the idea of flow.

Balance is “a state in which different things occur in equal or proper amounts or have an equal or proper amount of importance.” It tends to feel pretty regimented, and everything is assigned a similar weight. Flow, on the other hand, is described as “moving smoothly and continuously.” It feels more flexible and opens space for continuous change depending on the tasks.

How do you feel when you reach your flow? Energized, excited, ready for more, ready to win!? How do you feel when you achieve balance? Done!? What does the effort look and feel like to get to each? Balance – attempts to establish order may lead to constant re-working, feeling limited, stress, etc. Flow – may leave you feeling like you can do your best, taking the time you need to accomplish what you want, etc.

Whether balance or flow, what are we attempting to have? You probably aspire to have it all and be as productive as possible, whatever that means for us individually. With that in mind, if you have a 7 a.m.-10 p.m. schedule (or 15 waking hours on each weekday), how do you approach those days? Getting caught up in the productivity matrix, being still and thinking, or falling into that deep, uninterrupted, restful sleep every parent imagines? You have to incorporate a paying gig, volunteer efforts, extracurriculars, raising children, starting a business, going to school and, of course, exercise and sleep into your day. With balance, you may attempt to regiment your day and feel compelled to use every minute to accomplish your checklist. In the strictest sense, you dedicate 8.5 hours to work and 8.5 hours to personal tasks and interests. With flow, you may decide to spend 4 hours toward work on one day and 12 hours another day, depending on the demands of your personal life and work life.

Flow is not a new concept; however, the idea of balance has been so ingrained in our work-speak and culture that some folks schedule their lives into complete failure, the productivity matrix. They have a list for this, a list for that. A time for this, a time for that. I’m guilty of it myself and have been on a path to recovery. A sliver of empty time on my calendar? Amplify my efforts and fill it with a to-do that still needs time! In the end, I walked away feeling like I failed because I didn’t manage to balance everything. Maybe it’s a matter of changing my paradigm and not viewing it as a failure but as progress. Or, I need to think again, as Adam Grant encourages in his book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know.” He writes, “When we dedicate ourselves to a plan and it isn’t going as we hoped, our first instinct isn’t usually to rethink it. Instead, we tend to double down and sink more resources in the plan. This pattern is called escalation of commitment.” Let go of balance and go with the flow.

Women are often congratulated for being superheroes and asked how they do it all. Surely no one spends equal amounts of time on each activity or area of life, which the concept of balance will dupe you into attempting. How exhausting does that even sound when you read it out loud?

And, I say that from the perspective of being a neurotypical person. I contend that these women and others who have “fifty ‘leven” (reference the Urban Dictionary website if you’re a little lost on that reference) things on their plates find a flow, a space where effectiveness is a higher priority than equally distributed time.

How can you create flow? Here are a few ideas:

  • Think about how your work-life intertwines with your personal life, and incorporate those things into your day.
  • Schedule meetings at times when you’re apt to be engaged. For you, it may be morning hours.
  • Be flexible and incorporate some play into your day.
  • Most of all, free your mind and focus on your wellbeing.
  • And for goodness’ sake, buy a robot vacuum if you have the means. Increased my effectiveness by 1000%. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but much less of my brain space is stolen by scheduling and rescheduling time to vacuum to erase the signs that a toddler has left his mark in every room.

For a perspective on flow in action, I spoke with Christopher Lee, Georgia State University MBA candidate and leader at the largest golf retailer in the U.S.

“I would say time management and organization go hand-in-hand. Having a productive life doesn’t mean splitting up tasks and responsibilities evenly every day. If you have work, school, a side business, health goals, and family responsibilities, they all can’t get 20% of your time every day. Some days areas get 40% of your time or more, while some areas will get 10% or less time on that day. Just like Franklin-Covey, I’ve found that one of the most viable ways to have real flow as it relates to time management is to prioritize the tasks at hand, give letter grades to each task (A being the highest), and complete the highest priority items first. For example, if you have 10 tasks and 3 are A’s, knocking those off the list will reduce a lot of the stress and anxiety you have related to your list. The lower letter items usually could be done immediately but their low importance relegates them to be completed later.”

Creating life flow may help you to feel a little less pressure to enter the matrix, or a little more incentive to avoid it. Whichever paradigm you choose, flow with it.

Kiahnna D. Patton is senior human resources business partner at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) and a nonprofit founder.

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