Throughout seven seasons of the TV series The West Wing, we hear President Jed Bartlet repeatedly ask his White House staff, “What’s next?”
Bartlet explains his catchphrase’s intent in the second episode of season two, during a flashback to the campaign trail. Bartlet and his team are discussing strategies for securing his nomination for the presidency. When a character belabors a proposal, Bartlet counters: “I understood the point.... When I ask ‘What’s next?’ it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?”
Functionally, the phrase signals to viewers the closing of one chapter and the pursuit of a new storyline, but philosophically, his question always comes to mind when I think about productivity.
Productivity is a simple calculation: the rate at which an item is produced or a goal is achieved; maximizing the volume of work output in a period of time. But, by not typically performing exclusively rote tasks, our ability to do the mental math on our own productivity is limited. Productivity for most is a state of mind—one that’s sensitive to factors like the complexity of a task or pain-in-the-butt-ness of a particular to-do.
I don’t think that the feeling of productivity is really about output at all. If one can feel productive while checking off only a few small items from a list, maybe productivity really lives in the spaces between tasks. Productivity, as Bartlet hints, may be more so about a readiness to move on than a measure of completion.
But in trying to feel productive, we place ourselves in a constant battle between maintaining dedicated focus and trying to minimize attuning to “what’s next.” We let the next task bleed into our current mind-space for the sake of building momentum. When we concentrate so heavily on what’s next, we might just miss what’s now.