Study Hacks Blog

The Productivity Funnel

April 20th, 2021 · 23 comments

In light of our recent discussions of “productivity,” both in this newsletter and on my podcast, I thought it might be useful to provide a more formal definition of what exactly I mean when I reference this concept.

In the most general sense, productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

At one extreme, you could implement this navigation haphazardly: executing, in the moment, whatever grabs your attention as interesting or unavoidably urgent. At the other extreme, you might deploy a fully geeked out, productivity pr0n-style optimized collection of tools to precisely prioritize your obligations.

To make sense of these varied journeys from a broad array of potential activity to the narrowed scope of actual execution, I often imagine the three-level funnel diagramed above.

The funnel begins with the fundamental task of selection, where you determine which activities to commit to accomplish. Relevant ideas for this level can be found in books like First Things First, Essentialism, How to Do Nothing, One Thing, The Dip, and Year of Yes.

Once committed, these activities must then go through processing, organization, and storage. There are two goals for this funnel level: to avoid forgetting what you’re supposed to do, and to make smart decisions about what to work on next. Relevant ideas for this level can be found in books like Getting Things Done and The Bullet Journal Method. This is also where the Capture/Configure/Control philosophy I talk about on my podcast, or software like OmniFocus, Trello, Basecamp, and Asana, can help.

The final level focuses on the actual execution of whatever it is you’ve figure out you should be doing in the moment. This includes how you plan your day, the rituals you deploy to support your efforts, and the processes you’ve put in place to support more effective collaboration with others. Relevant ideas for this level can be found in books like Deep WorkA World Without Email, Daily Rituals, The War of Art, and Bird by Bird. Planning tools like my Time Block Planner are also useful here.

There are obvious benefits to defining the concept of productivity with this level of detail.

For one thing, it helps avoid the common mistake of focusing on one part of the funnel while avoiding others. There are many deep work aficionados, for example, who are obsessive about their depth rituals (execution), but are constantly forgetting or losing track of what’s on their plate (organization).

Similarly, it’s common to come across productivity geeks with complex organizational systems, who pay little attention to their overall workload (selection), and end up hopelessly overwhelmed, no matter how much they optimize their OmniFocus configuration.

By clearly delineating the three different levels of the productivity funnel, you can make sure each level gets at least some attention.

This detailed definition also adds nuance to anti-productivity criticism. A lot of this recent debate loosely associates the term “productivity” with an exploitative capitalist drive to maximize accomplishment. When viewed against the specificity of the productivity funnel, however, it becomes clear that this critique more accurately concerns only the activity selection level.

I agree that there’s an important debate to be had about how organizations and individuals implement activity selection (e.g., my recent post on slow productivity), but regardless of where this debate takes us, the other levels of the funnel remain important and largely orthogonal. In a post-capitalist collectivist utopia, where work is optional, and we’ve excised our souls of our past bourgeois internalization of the narratives of production, we’ll still have things we need to get done, and having an organizational system will still be better than haphazardly trying to keep track of these things in our minds (even Lenin had a task list).

Similarly, intentionality about execution can often enhance — not impede — slower lifestyles. If you don’t give serious thought to how you want to structure your days, it’s all too easy to fall back into distraction and shallow busyness.

I’m not sure if the funnel proposed above is complete. Indeed, I’m almost certainly missing aspects of productivity that are equally as important as the three levels I detail. But the more general movement here toward clarity in what we mean when we talk about productivity is worth encouraging.

23 thoughts on “The Productivity Funnel

  1. JR says:

    Best blog posting on productivity I have read in 20 years. Cal gives a roadmap to productivity and share the secret to his incredible success. Amazing honesty and brilliance.

    1. Annie says:

      Hi Cal,
      I really like the productivity funnel visual, worth printing and hanging around the office as a reminder!

      Do you have an article where you explain the capture, configure, control philosophy? I was trying to teach it to one of my coworkers but only found separate articles on capture or control. Thanks!

      1. Dana Lamm says:

        Totally second this question. I am a relative Newport Newbie and resonated so with this funnel visual. Same question as Annie, where to go first to understand.

        Thank you!

  2. Great post! This looks like a great idea for a book. The productivity funnel deserves a deep dive that would take up a lot of research and actionable advice. I’m interested in reading it.

    1. Andrea says:

      I agree. This could be a really useful book, fleshing out these ideas. Preferably a book written by Cal!

  3. Excellent post. This really simplifies the “productivity” process. Much cleaner than the diagram (that I customized and printed) from Getting Things Done. It’s a good reminder why each element is important and an even greater reminder to myself that I need to spend far more time executing projects. Thanks Cal.

  4. Alfred Lee says:

    Really enjoy this article, thank you! “Capture”, in my intuitive mind, seems to be a key part of “selection”, because how could we select without capturing the ideas first. However, your perspective of putting “capture” under “organization” is a fair point too.

  5. This really helped to clarify some of my thinking. I’ve been using time-block planning for a few months now, but I’ve been feeling that I’m not as well calibrated at the strategic level compared to the tactical. Now that I see that time-blocking is just part of the execution component, I can improve my activity selection and organization next.

  6. Alex H says:

    I get the sense that the paragraph that discusses this is intended to be a bit facetious, but honestly, I wonder if a “post-capitalist collectivist utopia” would be more conducive to deep work and stronger partitions between work and relaxation that existing modes of production. People will still seek purpose and want to create things or share knowledge; that’s part of why many programmers work to develop open-source software in their spare time. One of the biggest impediments that I have to deep work is interruptions from higher-ups who want constant updates on things and who don’t realize that these updates interrupt me from doing tasks that would yield more substantive updates. Lots of the time, it seems more like a means of control than actual work.

    1. James says:

      I’m one of those higher-ups that asks for updates. Typically the reason isn’t just to exert control. It’s part of that funnel being discussed. A manager doesn’t just manage their own workflow, we manage the workflow of a group of people. We need to decide what gets worked on, who works on it, and we need to have a sense of the schedule–is it getting done today? Next week? A month from now? Further, depending on how the project was set up, partial completion may be important. Most of my projects are built on milestones–we get to a certain point, tell the client, and get paid for the work up to that point. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to wait until the end to pay. And, frankly, sometimes we do need to exert control. I’ve set up meetings in the past specifically to get someone in gear to complete a task they’d been telling me they’d get to. It’s our job to ensure the work gets done; if you’re not doing it, it’s our job to make you do it or to find someone who will.

      Basically, to boil it down, the role of higher-ups is to act for the company as the first two steps of that funnel. A good manager will allow their workers to establish their own productivity system, but a good manager will also use the trust-but-verify method.

      As an aside, I have never liked the view of “higher-ups” as the Enemy in an institution. Even when I was a grunt I understood that the existence of higher-ups is a necessary byproduct of the division of intellectual labor. They do things that I can’t, so that I can do things I can. Yes, it means I lose some autonomy; on the flip side, I don’t have to deal with Accounts Receivable or with setting the SOPs for international cooperative agreements or the like. It’s all about trade-offs.

  7. What a terrific piece and SO true!! Especially with remote workers and the ever growing list of collaboration tools (on top of the heaping mound that already exist). Interestingly enough, there is a solution to help organizations and their employees with this…. First and only one of its kind. You should check it out. http://www.metaspark.io

  8. James says:

    It looks like you have two selection processes going on in this funnel. The first you identified–select which tasks to commit to. This leaves you with a cloud of commitments, though. The second selection process is to decide which of these tasks to do when. Then you take the tasks that you’re not doing right now and store them somewhere/somehow.

  9. Renee says:

    While I like the simplicity of this over Getting Things Done and other overly complex processes, it has the same fundamental problem as most systems I’ve seen: it starts with action items.

    “Activity selection” is where many people get stuck. There are hundreds of things you can do. To-do lists are like email, they breed more to-dos.

    What’s missing is a constraint on the actions.

    What are you trying to accomplish?
    What’s the outcome or result you want?

    I sometimes spend a good chunk of my deep work time focused on those questions, in order to define the scope of my possible activities.

    Once I understand the result I’m trying to achieve, I can look at all possible activities and assess which are the 20% that will get me 80% of my outcome. What are the actions with the biggest leverage that can move me forward?

    To me, true productivity is not about how to do more things, but how to live more life.

    I spent too many years of my early career caught up in the activity of managing my productivity systems.

    I haven’t figured it all out yet, but I’m constantly aiming to narrow the list of my most important outcomes so I can focus on achieving results and not managing a process of activity selection.

    1. Yep, your points are valid, Ms, and it does help me to understand/summarize the key points of this article. Begin with the end in mind, as in the end, you want to get a certain output.

    2. David Drake says:

      Renee, this is quite profound. This is at the heart of many of the problems that people have in whatever productivity system they use. People complain about being overwhelmed with hundreds of tasks and projects, but why do they have them active on their lists in the first place? I am a big proponent of the “front burner – back burner” approach in managing whatever I have decide are things I need and/or want to do. Bravo to you for hitting the proverbial nail on the head!

  10. m.grami says:

    in your bestselling book(deep work), you discuss the benefits of deep work in academic works and it increased your research papers and h-index, and so on. But It is interesting for me that after that, based on your google scholar, from 2015 to 2020, your citation,h-index and research papers steadily decreased! for example, your citation number fell from 378(2015) to 191(2020). What is the reason behind that?!

  11. Great Post. I think there is one more area in the funnel. It follows execution — assessing the value of the thing you have done. The assessment is critical as a “reality check” to see if and how the execution fits into a larger story line. And it enables you to consider next steps (future selection, etc.). If it is not done soon after execution, you tend to forget stuff which is nicht gut. Without assessment, learning from doing will break down.

    1. G Reinman says:

      I like this idea. It adds a learning feedback loop into the process, continuously improving it, like an after action review. The selection step especially needs this, as it seems to be where so many get hung up.

  12. Jay Scott says:

    It’s very hard to do the activity selection because we are geared to “want it all”. So we want to be an ace fighter pilot, a chef, a Navy Seal, and a PhD. Why? Because maybe we heard about someone who accomplished this (like, one person or something). IMO, we need to apply the Pareto Principle to our activities (80/20 rule, briefly mentioned above by Renee) and then:

    1. Be content with what we can manage to accomplish while still maintaining what Cal terms “a deep life”.
    2. Be grateful and thankful day by day looking at what we have instead of just wanting what we don’t have.

    My two cents 🙂

    Jay

  13. Ian Howlett says:

    I would be tempted to add a layer of “Activity Collection” at the very top of the diagram, to control how all those dots come into being in order to do Activity Selection.

  14. TT says:

    A friend recently asked me what I thought it meant to “be productive”. My best answer was, “doing things for other people”.

    For context, the question came from the situation where I had a day off from work and my wife gave me list of to-do’s since I “wasn’t being productive today.”

    I thought this was worth sharing because that view isn’t unique to my wife. This is a mainstream view in society. If you’re spending any time working on something that is important to you and to you alone, even if it could benefit everyone one day — then it’s generally labeled as “unproductive”. This is what needs to change.

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