Flow as the Grand Unifying Theory of Productivity

In the current issue of Strategy & Business magazine, I have a lengthy article examining the substance, as well as the accompanying “sell” of several powerful systems of productivity. The piece examines both the meat of what folks like Peter Drucker and David Allen deliver, as well as some possible external reasons for their broad and enduring appeal. (Apologies that this requires registration.)

I’ve come to believe that at some level the personal productivity gurus are dealing with similar issues as those who teach broader organizational effectiveness. The challenge, in a time of an ebbing entrepreneurial threshold, is to recognize when boundaries SHOULD be drawn. (“Dad always practiced what he preached, and it was just about impossible to tell where his scientific management company ended and his family life began,” state the authors of Cheaper by the Dozen, a terrific book about the need for such boundaries.) The following thoughts are adapted from material that I couldn’t fit into the article, for space reasons. It’s my attempt to recognize where the big schools of productivity overlap with individual systems like Getting Things Done (GTD) which focus on personal activity.

Individual productivity systems that build awareness and purpose for one’s actions, and re-examine how to make these activities simple and transparent, are not just removing the obstacles to doing things more quickly: they are building the capacity to produce at a higher level. They enable you to produce without distractions or roadblocks—to immerse yourself in the work itself and essentially love yourself in the work, rather than the thought of the work.

In a sense, being properly aligned and aware creates the capacity to scale. Indeed, herein lies the unifying principle of productivity, whether individual, or organizational: the idea of flow. David Allen mentions flow in terms of a psychological state described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose classic book of this same title defines the condition as those rare moments when, “instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we do feel in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions when that happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be.”

Flow plays a central role in the Toyota/lean system as well. Toyota managed to achieve greater speed and quality by focusing on the flow of materials, and the linked, reflective capacity of people and parts in the system to auto-correct in the moment. The system shifted its emphasis from raw speed (accomplished by mass) to flow (a quality of insight more than output). In a similar manner, David Allen’s GTD system sees completion and presence as the secret to productivity. Those individuals who have most fully exposed their coming needs, and sorted them into a an overall system which processes them effortlessly, will necessarily achieve greater output, not to mention peace of mind and a greater ability to do more as a result. In his system, fullness counts far more than more-ness.

For Toyota, the quality of flow signals a waste-free, standardized, nearly living system of production. For Allen, flow has more to do with Csikszentmihalyi’s rapture, a state of mind where there’s no wasteful and corrosive thinking about doing: rather, thinking is doing, and the more one rids the mind of distraction, clutter, and doubt, the more one achieves fullness and presence. Enhanced outcome becomes a product of bliss, instead of happiness resulting from having boosted productivity. Optimal begets optimized, rather than the other way around.

Flow, in all these systems, comes down to arriving at the simplest possible process of seamless change and action. (“Possible” indicates that this can always be improved, and allows that this is an ideal state, rarely an actual one.) The essence of getting things done right is not about learning to do more, or better per se. The primary practice to be learned (the habit to be cultivated) is to learn how to not do the things that are unessential.

While this may sound simplistic, I believe that it is far harder than it sounds. Over time we bundle all the unnecessary things we do in life into our daily routine, and only rarely take an instance to examine if we must still do so. It’s like being a parent and adapting new skills to match your child’s developmental needs. It always takes time, since part of you wants your child to slow down growing up. And all these habits, practices, and wasted motion, take a real toll in terms of distraction, useless energy, lost time, and psychic entropy.

The Toyota system places enormous emphasis on eliminating waste in all its manifestations—everything from wasted activity to a surplus of inventory. Likewise the best personal systems should challenge you to question why you do things the way you do—and then enable you to simply do them. Remove that last layer of pure waste, which is the thinking about doing. Just do. To quote from Chogyam Trungpa, “The absence of struggle is in itself freedom.”

Lowering the Personal Entrepreneurial Threshold

Recently a number of articles have argued that it’s easier today for web-based companies to get going. Current tools are enabling web-savvy individuals to launch viable businesses with far less capital than before, which in turn helps them shorten the time and resources spent on becoming whole ventures with the ability to serve customers profitably, quicker and cheaper than before. I agree.

What intrigues me is the way this same trend applies to the business of personal life. I’m not all that web-savvy (gee, looking at this site, you think?), yet I do know enough to recognize when and how tools are lowering the entrepreneurial threshold in all ventures. What does this mean? Simply that individuals have more control over entrepreneurial aspects of their life that were once unmanageable, or required so much time and effort that they were best left to others. Most of us are now doing much of the work we once outsourced to travel agents, stock brokers, bank tellers, and much more. And more of us are using the web to form mini-ventures that bootstrap our personal resources to deliver cool stuff to others.

This personal do-it-yourself ethos only gains further traction as the many uses of the web become more apparent and more manageable. In the past I’ve raved about Make Magazine, which is the best new publication of the past several years (in my humble opinion of course.) Now comes the excellent book Rule the Web: How to Do Anything and Everything on the Internet—Better, Faster, and Easier by Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make.

The promise of the book couldn’t be simpler: “It’s a guide to getting stuff done with the Web,” says Frauenfelder. And he delivers, in abundance. Rule the Web satisfies so many specific wishes and needs of individuals who, like me, realize they use about as much of the web’s potential as they do their own minds. Some of my favorite how-to’s in his book:

*Use the website gethuman.com to break through any service line to a real person.
*Exchange an unwanted gift certificate at swapagift.com.
*Look beyond Amazon for books by using bookfinder4u.com.
*Improve your website or blog immeasurably with more tips than I can list.

This is more than just a great list of sites. Using the same DIY sensibility that informs the pages of Make, this book applies a “gee-whiz isn’t this cool that we can do it together” attitude that makes this profound new tool welcoming. Highly recommended. Interestingly, I’m not as huge a fan of the accompanying website, which is currently heavily weighted towards podcasts (a media that I still have not become a fan of).

Sufjan Stevens, Entrepreneur

    I consider myself part of the New Populist Approach, in which artists no longer rely on the “star-stoking machinery” of the music industry, and instead focus on more sustainable means motivated by modesty, autonomy, community, loyalty (and other benign abstractions).

This from a sweet essay by singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens discussing his cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” He makes a nice distinction between building a fan base (and a business) through modest, ground-up methods, rather than the top-down, high-risk, Big Business approach. Indeed, Stevens practices what he preaches with his business Asthmatic Kitty, which relies heavily on building community over the web, supporting small acts with modest means, sharing songs from the site, and doing many small things to build an audience of kindred souls. A far cry from a huge label plotting which billboards to buy and what payola to distribute.

And, in a small way, an inkling of how many new ventures in the post-web-2.0 world can emerge.

Good Writing Begets Good Writing

If by chance you are reading this on a computer screen, and therefore have heard of and might even use, email, then I have a must-read for you: Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Home and Office by David Shipley and Will Schwalbe. (N.B. Will is a friend of mine, a fact which has nothing to do with my love for this book.) The authors have a brilliantly focused premise. Email has emerged as a predominant form of communication over the past few years, yet few of us have reckoned with the demands of this new format. They remedy this with a book that can comfortably sit on a shelf with other classic guides such as The Elements of Style, On Writing, Writing Tools, and On Writing Well.

Not only is their writing about writing spot-on, but the authors have in fact prompted more good prose to boot. “Email is like an appliance that we have been helplessly misusing because it arrived without instructions,” writes Janet Malcolm in this wonderful review. She builds on this metaphor later in this nice passage:

    For, in truth, email is more like a dangerous power tool than like a harmless kitchen appliance. The more skillful (or lucky) among us have escaped serious injury, but many, perhaps more, of us have suffered the equivalent of burns, lost fingers, electric shocks, and bone fractures. Incautious emailing has cost jobs, ruined friendships, threatened marriages, subverted projects, even led to jail time.

I highly recommend reading the review, and buying the book. By the way, as preparation for a writing workshop I gave to 20 business authors last fall, I prepared this list of my essential resources for writers. It hasn't changed much, other than perhaps adding Send.


Over the summer I consumed a bunch of books on art theft. (The Rescue Artist by Edward Dolnick is a great airplane read by the way.) These led to Frank Wynne’s I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Forger. This smart account of Han Van Meegeren, the most celebrated forger of the past century, sheds light into the way in which “truth” can be built collectively, regardless of true facts. (Stay tuned, there’s a moral in all this.)

Van Meegeren was an accomplished artist, who, denied the full glory he felt entitled to, turned his talents to forgeries of the highest quality. His faux Vermeers were so brilliantly realized, in everything from technique and emotion to scientific verisimilitude, that he conned the leading critics of the day. They saw in his fake art an entirely new period of Vermeer’s life and art. Indeed, despite evidence of their fabrication, forged works of van Meegeren’s hang on the walls of the world’s foremost museums today.

I mention this book on this blog (which is designed to focus on writing and entrepreneurship) for what it says about Wikipedia. Early in the book Wynne interviews an accomplished forger—nowhere near as good as van Meegeren, but quite successful nonetheless. The thief explains how counterfeit provenance begets an artificial truth that, over time, becomes accepted as genuine. “Most forgeries just get sold from one person to another and in the process they become more genuine: the more often they’re sold, the longer they hang on a gallery wall, the more genuine they are.”

This pretty much sums up my feeling about Wikipedia, which continues to gain momentum as a fundamental business resource. (There’s perhaps no greater indictment than this Wall Street Journal article detailing the priorities set by Wikipedia authors when it comes to setting down important references.) In my opinion wikipedia is a gallery of earnest and occasionally beautiful forgeries, which have acquired the semblance of truth over time. And every day a crowd of viewers and contributors add another veneer of “wisdom” to a truth that has been collectively formed. Truth and forgery are essentially conjoined over time.

The entries on Wikipedia are genuine, yet not true. They are not authoritative, in my book. Rather, in their own way, they are authentic. Which calls to mind a favorite quote of mine. “I’m very authentic,” boasts the character Agrado in Pedro Almodovar’s All About My Mother. “It costs a lot to be authentic,” she says in regard to the numerous plastic alterations of her body. Explaining her choices, Agrado adds: “And one can’t be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you’ve dreamed of being.”

There's No Such Thing As Business Writing

Here’s a rave review I gave to Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. This recent book immediately establishes itself as a classic writing primer, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone seeking to improve their writing. Regardless of what you are writing, this book will deliver a handful of insightful tips. Clark animates his book with stellar examples from a surprising range of sources, supporting my argument that good writing is good writing, regardless of where it’s found. In other words, there’s no such thing as business writing, since there’s simply writing, period.

I’ve read through the following two articles several times to see how and where they tap into Clark’s tools. In this taut essay by Hancock Financial Services former CEO David D’Alessandro, see how well he uses details like butcher’s block and “well-seasoned maple wood” to convey a specific scene from his childhood. And how well he moves from a chilling story to a powerful argument. And in this literary take-down by Ron Rosenbaum, note the author’s wonderful blend of attitude and content. He uses enough data from his subject’s column, with reporting and facts of his own, to give his mockery substance.

Don’t Miss Myths of Innovation

Oops. It’s been quite a while since I posted—been busy completing several very large projects. I’m back, and again resolved to post more frequently. Actually, I have some changes planned for the site, which I hope to roll out over the coming months. This site is screaming for better focus, clearer promise, and more frequent engagement from yours truly. All this can I truly deliver. Eventually.

In the meantime, here’s a tout: The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun. In the spirit of what makes his book so fun, which is to debunk innovation myths, I’ll mention three ways that his terrific book defies received wisdom.

Innovation books must be long. Berkun’s book checks in at 150 pages, and even with a small trim size and many illustrations, it feels complete. He sets up ten candlepins of innovation myths and nails a strike by knocking em all down. His pithy chapters skewer the ideas that innovation is always good, or belongs to the lone inventor, or happens as a sudden epiphany. Berkun breezily reveals how new products and services are produced in a disciplined process, one that can be loosely described and certainly supported, though not always precisely replicated.

Innovation books must present innovation as a holy and abstract grail-like abstraction. Berkun takes innovation down off the pedestal and puts it into the pedestrian (and that’s a good thing.) He shows how innovation in practice (indeed, all true innovation would appear to fall under this category, rendering “innovation-in-practice” a redundant turn-of-phrase) occurs “anyhow in a corner”, to crib Auden, “some untidy spot where the dogs go on with their doggy life.” Innovations don’t occur as a sudden, isolated revelation from a lone genius. Rather, Berkun shows, breakthrough ideas and products are produced in an iterative, cumulative manner by clever and resourceful individuals and teams building on the legacy of genius.

Continue reading "Don’t Miss Myths of Innovation "

Read Ice Cream Man by Gus Rancatore

My book The Startup Garden opens by saying, “I owe this book to my friend Gus.” Gus owns Toscanini’s Ice Cream in my home town of Cambridge, and his role as the animating spirit of this business that has touched so many people inspired me to write my book. Recently Gus wrote his own account of starting the business, which he published in the Amazon shorts program as Ice Cream Man: My 25 Years at Toscanini’s.

It’s simply one of the best first person accounts of why someone launches a very specific business. His story shows that while great enterprises emerge naturally from a certain person at a certain point in time, there’s always a certain random serendipity thrown in. He shows that a haven for great tech startups invariably spawns a small service business that is just as meaningful. He shows that all great businesses are woven into the social fabric of a place, and that they are ultimately not an impersonal business but a profitable enterprise built of people and stories. I’m going to crib the whole opening, below, and urge you to go plunk down the 49 cents for this gem.

    I didn’t grow up dreaming that one day I’d run an ice cream store. I wanted to be a cowboy, and later an astronaut, but I come from a background of small business people. My mother’s family owned several funeral homes and my father owned a clothing company. It doesn’t seem like there would be many similarities between cowboys, astronauts, a funeral home, and an ice cream parlor, but you would be surprised.

    Day after day, a woman comes in for a pint of strawberry ice cream and a pint of orange sorbet. Finally, she explains that her mother has cancer and her father is so upset that he can’t eat regular meals. Every few weeks there is the husband who comes in after his wife gives birth; the hospital food is awful and the new mother is wiped out and desperate for a hot fudge sundae. We used to have a regular, a young physicist, who came in alone almost every day and drank a nocciola frappe while he read the newspaper, He died at 35 and about seventy of his friends held a memorial service, after which they all walked over to the store to drink nocciola frappes in his honor.

    Continue reading "Read Ice Cream Man by Gus Rancatore"

Business Obits, II

David Silverman’s Typo: The Last American Typesetter, or, How I Made and Lost $4 million (An Entrepreneur’s Education) is a terrific business memoir. It’s a painful, honest, elegiac tale of the failure of one typesetting company (his) during a time when the entire industry has inexorably migrated overseas. I’ve always admired business books that don’t shy away from the fact that success is always remarkably challenging, and full of pitfalls and failures. (Barry Moltz’s great mix of candor and enthusiasm makes You Need to be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting and Growing Your Business) an excellent read in that regard.) And fact is, some businesses collapse under the sheer weight of mistakes, new technologies, new markets, individual fallibility, and other assorted items that don’t appear as footnotes on the balance sheet.

By sharing the painfully personal story of his typesetting company’s demise, Silverman sheds light into all that is challenging and often insurmountable in business. His beautifully written memoir avoids no details about the realities of managing people, the natural conflict between capitalism and humanism, and, in his case, the business consequences of a young owner’s naiveté.

Like many individuals whose technical expertise is critical on one level, and yet entirely insufficient for tackling the broader business challenges, Silverman slowly discovers some of the intractable challenges facing his would-be turnaround. A cast of stubborn, small-minded, workers continually thwart Silverman’s attempts to spur empowerment and change. Things must be done the way they’ve always been done, regardless of how antiquated or costly they are. Add to that Silverman’s gradual awareness of issues such as the total cost of producing a page of work to client specs, and the ambitions to capitalize on the company would already be challenged.

But there’s powerful external challenges happening as well. Typo is an entrepreneurial tale of struggle, learning, and reconciliation set against a disturbing backdrop of shifting economic conditions. His poignant memoir brings the “global” issue of globalization to an all-too-human level. Over the course of the book, the extent to which employees in foreign companies can do the exact same work for a fraction of the cost becomes clearer and clearer. The fact that all major publishers expect significant and ongoing cost reductions (without saying how) exerts another pressure.

So it’s little wonder that despite some small victories, Silverman and his partners ultimately fail in this venture. But the experience has certainly created something of value for readers. By reporting on the demise of the domestic American typesetting industry through the lens of his personal struggles both within and outside the business, Silverman sheds light into both the intractable macroeconomic pressures and the stubborn human dynamics that can, and often do, destroy an enterprise.

Business Obits, I

At Inc. magazine, where I once worked, it’s always been a foundational belief that readers learn the most important lessons from stories about the successful practices of growing companies. While this may be arguably true (though for a smart analysis of this see The Halo Effect, both book and website), I wondered whether readers would be as just well served with stories of companies that failed. Not necessarily failure in the sense of stupid errors and willful deceit; but simply, companies run by smart people with integrity who, for reasons greater than their enterprise, couldn’t make things work. I wrote the first business obit at Inc, and the magazine continued the tradition for a while. In the meantime I’d like to note two terrific recent obits.

For today, I point to Hanging It Up, a Fortune article by David Whitford, a gifted writer who I had the privilege of working with at Inc. Through a history of graceful work about the human side of enterprise (just do a search of Fortune and Inc.), Whitford has earned himself the reputation as a go-to guy for business stories with color and complexity. His story about the recent closing of one of the last domestic hanger factories is essential reading. Sure, the company erred, but one gets the sense that in the face of the “flat world” described by other writers, this plant was destined to fall prey to larger forces.

This story doesn’t work too hard on making a global point, however. Rather, it focuses on the messy and somewhat capricious tale of a shuttered factory. It’s all too rare for a reporter covering a “notable” business story to actually go out and talk to shop-floor or other front-line workers. Here’s a great passage from the closing portion of his article.

    On my last morning in Monticello, I met Green for coffee at Donna’s Place on Main Street. Green lives with his girlfriend, his daughter, and his 6-month-old grandson. He has small blue eyes, a red goatee, and a jaw that’s clenched most of the time. After 22 years at Laidlaw, Green is collecting unemployment and going to trade school in Janesville, working toward a certificate in industrial maintenance. He’s not learning anything new: it’s just that no one will hire him without the certification. His tuition is covered by a state re-training program, but the unemployment doesn’t cover his bills. “I have a mortgage,” he says, “vehicle payments, heat, electricity. Right now I have a choice of taking [health] insurance or eating”—he’s chuckling—“so I chose eating.”

Great writing relies on clarity, directness, economy of detail, and color. It’s all there.

Next obit: Typo, a forthcoming memoir set in the typesetting industry.

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Flow as the Grand Unifying Theory of Productivity

Lowering the Personal Entrepreneurial Threshold

Sufjan Stevens, Entrepreneur

Good Writing Begets Good Writing



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Read or print the Intro and Chapter 1 .

Read some book reviews at Inc, 1-800-CEO-READ, and the Miami Herald.

Read the publisher's press release.

Visit the companies that Tom discusses in the book

Hear a recent lecture by Tom on the Startup Garden


Read about other books and web sites about starting your own business.


Just Managing – articles that Tom wrote for The Industry Standard and some Business Articles written for Inc., Fortune Small Business, Harvard Management Update, and other places.



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