On the occasion of the Rolling Stones’ 30 year anniversary, a journalist asked laconic drummer Charlie Watts, “what had it been like to spend three decades working with the band?”
“Five years of hard work,” he replied. “And 25 years of hangin’ around.”
Now Charlie Watts put the slink into Sympathy for the Devil and the pop into Satisfaction, so you can forgive a man a lot of hanging around when that’s what happens when he’s working. But if, in your next monthly catch up with your manager you announced you’d replicated this productivity ratio in the office - five days of hard work, 25 spent “hangin’ around” - you would likely be facing some tough questions. For all that digital leaders talk about outcomes not output, there is an invisible standard, a sort of “I know it when I see it” quality to what counts as being productive.
Most of us have internalised the fact there is no time for hanging around. Most productivity methods - Agile, Getting Things Done, Bullet Journals - have their things to say about “value” and “focus”, but the answers, the process, and the meat of what they’re about is basically throughput.
Make a list. Process it in some way, into categories. Get through it. Put a lot of ticks next to a lot of things.
I think back a lot to the responsive redesign of Telegraph.co.uk, a big news website, which I worked on in the lead Product role. 110 people ploughed through a couple of thousand JIRA tickets over 14 months - a lot of things were crossed off the list. Many were painful and pointless. We spent six perfectly good sprints on a perfectly fine picture gallery while reading at lunchtime about how the media is dying and the future is aggregation theory. The world did not need another picture gallery, not remotely. But it was the most productive period of my life. We built a team, a culture, a shared set of values and an approach that moved the organisation faster than it had moved for five years previously. We built some products and features with real value; some were ones you could see in the data and feel in your bones from a mile off, others I took my time to reconcile to (during the process I had a particular dislike for the way we’d prioritised drop caps over many considerably more practical features like, say, the video player - but a couple of years later, the styling has aged well.)
This answer is dissatisfying, because it feels like I’m saying that the reason you need to accelerate through the list is to get through the chaff, and get to the valuable stuff hidden there. This doesn't feel true, though - have you ever looked at your old to-do lists? Do you feel victorious at the stuff that got crossed off? I moved house recently, and there was a box of old notebooks, pretty colours and shapes, tatty corners. Inside they’re all covered in black inky handwriting - but none of those stars and underlines, arrows and re-writes make any sense now. They feel great to complete - I am nothing if not a compulsive underliner, boxer and crosser outer - but in the end I can only feel bleak about them because seen from this vantage point, of course it’s clear getting through the work does not, in itself, matter. Lists are empty calories, so the dictum “focus on what matters” is not very good advice. None of it matters - it’s very, very rare that any single thing that can be reduced to a bulleted item is worth anything very much at all.
What is hard with any future-facing list of things is to judge the value. With retrospective lists, it is much easier. Early on at the Telegraph, when the digital product team was more like 5 or 10 people, not 110, one thing we did was at the end of the week, hold a meeting called “The Victory Lap.” We stood in the tatty meeting room we’d commandeered and went round the group, one by one, calling out something decent, true and data driven that we’d done that week. Now at BBC News, I keep another list: just a Trello board of “stuff the team has done.” Sometime it’s features we’ve shipped, sometimes it’s things we’ve learned, roles we’ve opened or hired, thing we’ve realised.
This is the list that feels productive; the one that comes not from charging through the list itself, but from the hanging around, from looking backwards as well as forwards. From the before, the after, and from the sides. Perhaps that is what the hanging around is best thought of as: some kind of space for thinking about the work. You can spend your time trying to get through the list quickly, or making the list shorter (or even longer), but none of these really changes the value of the list - because the value lies outside of it. As Kierkegaard put it, “it is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” The value is not the thing itself, but in playing around with it. I will leave Charlie with the last word, talking about how the Stones goes to Sympathy itself:
"It was one of those sort of songs where we tried everything… We had a go at loads of different ways of playing it; in the end I just played a jazz Latin feel in the style of Kenny Clarke… not the actual rhythm he played, but the same styling.”
Just as "we love to buy books because we believe we're buying time to read them" (Warren Zevon), we love to make lists because it implies there is a simple, foreseeable way that you can get to good, with positive attributes such as focus and tenacity. You can do less (focus) and you can go faster (speed through it). But the thing you need is neither. The thing you need are delays, false starts and anything else that happens when you’re just hanging around.