Productivity Discovery Behind the Wheel of My Civic Hybrid

My 2013 Honda Civic Hybrid has no pickup. It likes to hydroplane on roads hardly slicked by a drizzle. And it has very few bells and whistles. But it was dirt cheap. And it gets me where I need to go. And I rarely need to stop for gas to fill up its 11 gallon tank. And this past week, it beat a shiny blue BMW to the same destination.

Now, don't get me wrong; I wasn't speeding. In fact, it took me a while to get to a steady speed. But a wonderful thing happened down a long stretch of road: as I drove along, traffic lights kept changing from red to green. And, while luxury racecars in other lanes shifted gears to accelerate, I was already humming along. My epiphany occurred when I turned into a strip mall parking lot, followed by the aforementioned BMW that I had passed miles back.

The lesson is not that slow and steady wins the race, though that may be true. The lesson is: when there are fewer red lights and less traffic, you reach your destination more quickly, no matter the quality of the car. This, of course, is the purpose of highways, but unanticipated traffic and road conditions mess things up. In the very near future, automation will likely allow for the elimination of traffic lights, but we are beholden to them for now. I know very few things about cars or engineering, but I know this: when you remove friction--red lights, traffic, accidents, potholes--your journey is smooth sailing.

Productivity in business works this way, too. The hardest part of getting a project done is sitting down to do it, ramping up, and working without interruption. The red lights in the workplace are rampant: colleagues who want to chat, the ringing cell phone, Slack channels, the "ding" of an incoming email, scheduled meetings, someone calls in sick and the calendar needs to be rearranged. If only we could have only green lights in the workplace...

When setting up a workspace or a workflow, the less friction there is, the smoother the ride. Friction begins with sifting through choices. Sometimes, we can eliminate friction simply by eliminating choices that really shouldn't matter in our day-to-day. When we do exert brainpower on those choices, we can find ourselves stressed or knee-deep in unintended consequences. On August 28, 2014, while speaking about sober foreign matters, Barack Obama wore a tan suit and broke the Internet. The media went crazy because of his tan suit. But there was, in fact, one semi-legitimate reason for the mass online freakout: as Time Magazine pointed out in a column actually entitled, "In Defense of Barack Obama's Tan Suit":

The larger problem lies in the expectations that Obama had previously created. In [a] 2012 Vanity Fair profile, Michael Lewis quotes Obama saying the following: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits… I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

Obama was correct in eliminating the friction of choosing suits and publicly discussing it. Fast Company published an article called, "Always Wear the Same Suit: Obama's Presidential Productivity Secrets." When you do decide to remove roadblocks to productivity, own that decision and do not give in to temptation. Every choice has a countervailing tradeoff. When Obama decided to limit his suit choices (the type of choice also reflected in Steve Jobs' insistence on black turtlenecks and jeans), he gave up spontaneity and creativity. And it was a point of no return.

Okay, so we're not the president, and our stoplights are more mundane. Let's say, you decide to eliminate daily group meetings with your team. This is something supported by titans of entrepreneurship such as Richard Branson and Tim Ferriss. And the humorist Dave Barry is quoted as saying, “If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be 'meetings.'” You should expect pushback. You should expect cries of "How can we be on the same page without meetings?!" But it would be worse to give in and wear "a tan suit." If you return to daily meetings, the meetings will become even more unproductive, because people secretly respect choices that cut down roadblocks.

Besides cutting out meetings, what else can we do to turn those stop lights into go lights? It can be a system-wide change like the one made by Marie Forleo, founder of marketing mastery course B-School. Marie gives the entire staff of her online empire a two-week summer vacation; it may be the smartest move she has made in a vast sea of smart moves. Sure, there is no revenue to be made, no product to be marketed for two weeks in August, but, then again, there are no shifts to cover, no routines to forego, no stress of remembering who is doing what.

Or, you can choose to restructure your entire approach to your daily schedule. Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator wrote an extraordinary essay delineating the differences between large time blocks and small time blocks, based on a "Manager's Schedule" vs. a "Maker's Schedule": set aside short time chunks (with padding) to attend to quick tasks that need to be done quickly, but set aside many hours to achieve maximum creative results.

"There are two types of schedule, which I'll call the manager's schedule and the maker's schedule. The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you're doing every hour. When you use time that way, it's merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you're done... But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started."

Still, you can do the little things that can cut out the friction. Put a "Do Not Disturb" sign on your door, and close the blinds. Put your phone in airplane mode for an hour or two. Or mix a lot of work with a fair amount of pleasure, as Simone de Beauvoir liked to do:

"...[I]n general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o'clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o'clock, I go back to work and continue until nine."

Don't think the little things matter? Even the tiniest of obstacles can get the most effective person off his game. Do you remember the "Midge Game" between the Yankees and the Indians? In the 2007 AL playoffs, the Bronx Bombers were riding high on the hot hand of their rookie setup sensation Joba Chamberlain. Until this game, Joba seemed to be the second coming of, well, his closer Mariano Rivera. But then the craziest thing happened: Jacobs Field was biblically attacked by a swarm of harmless tiny flying "midges." Unnerved, Joba swatted and swatted. He was sprayed with repellant. And he threw two wild pitches that led to the eventual loss to the Indians. These bugs didn't bite, but they did something almost as bad: they distracted.

As for me and my Honda Civic, I appreciate what it does for me and what it is, but also what it isn't. It isn't an SUV; I have no room in my car for children other than my own. Therefore, I'm not carpooling. It doesn't fill up for gas very often, so I have more time to spend with my family instead of getting gas. It doesn't have the odd shape of a Prius or the fancy T of a Tesla, so I don't have to be ostentatious in my environmentalism. And, after I've started it up, its battery recharges when it reaches a steady pace.

Related: Life Lessons from a Muddy Ditch So Close to Mardi Gras