When you contemplate your life, wondering what it means to be alive, it’s unlikely the first thing that came to mind was ‘office work.’
And yet arguably the life you lead at your desk inhabits a great deal of mental real estate. The sheer number of hours typically spent at work guarantees that the office and all it entails is fundamental in understanding and explaining the big picture of your life.
Work may or not bring out the best of us, depending on our tasks and whether we are able to get into flow as defined by Csikszentmihalyi. But observation suggests there is one constant in human behavior you can expect to see wherever you find a shantytown of office cubicles.
The idea was coined by Allie Brosh, of Hyperbole and a Half fame. In a recent interview with Terry Gross, Brosh explained how she started her now-famous internet comic when she was supposed to be studying for finals: “I'm laterally productive. I will do productive things, but never the thing that I'm supposed to be doing.”
The elegance of lateral productivity is it allows you to put off tasks indefinitely without guilt. After all, you aren’t loafing around accomplishing nothing. You’re working hard! You don’t have time to file those reports.
It’s Einstein’s theory writ small: two objects can’t occupy the same space at the same time. In this case, two tasks can’t occupy the same brain space, since the human brain is notoriously poor at multi-tasking.
Lateral productivity allows you to play the hero to your self-imposed task villain. You find yourself in a kind of self-perpetuating state of activity, trapped in some Escheresque landscape where you’re diligently drawing the next set of stairs right before you ascend or descend said stairway. Technically, you’re moving, but there’s no forward progress to be had.
This art form is practiced by workers and managers alike. Lateral productivity can go by many other aliases, including “special side project”. The naming lends a measure of credibility. Throw in some metrics, build some color graphs, wrap it up in a Power Point presentation and you’ve got the makings of an entirely new task, which at some point lateral productivity will force you to abandon for something else.
Perhaps the best spokesman for lateral productivity was the great New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra. Driving around one day, unsure of his location or the route to his destination, he reported, “We may be lost, but we’re making great time.”