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The Point of Productivity: Is Your Understanding of Productivity Holding You Back?

Productivity isn’t what it used to be. 

Previously, most conversations about productivity were firmly rooted in office culture. In other words, the underlying assumption was that people left home every day and went to their workplace. Definitions and strategies for productivity centered on time spent at the office. 

Now, with social distancing in effect and many people working from home, everything is upside down. 

There are certainly some benefits to the current situation, with workers gaining time previously spent on commuting, water cooler conversations, and in-person meetings. But there are a whole lot of challenges as well, including constant distractions, needing to care for children, Zoom fatigue, loss of connection with coworkers, the struggle to maintain work-life balance, and general emotional exhaustion. 

The line between work and home has been seriously blurred, if not completely obliterated. It’s increasingly difficult to tell whether we’ve had a productive day, and many people feel like they’ve never done enough. A constant cloud of productivity shame hangs over them. And while the continuing flow of articles telling us how to be more productive through better routines, setups, hacks, and techniques is well-meaning and perfectly valid, for many of us it’s become a guilt-inducing sledge hammer that continually makes us feel inadequate and overwhelmed.

But is this productivity shame appropriate? Where have we gotten our preconceived notions about what it means to be a productive worker? 

Maybe it’s time to reconsider our ideas of productivity. 

What is the point of productivity?
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Why do we care so much about being productive? 

Productivity is a rather odd concept, when you think about it. What exactly does it mean to be productive and how do we measure it? 

One of the biggest problems with the whole idea of productivity is that it is rooted in a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore. 

As the industrial revolution swept the world in the 19th century, farm and factory owners alike became obsessed with increasing production. Machines were invented and strategies were devised that would increase the amount of goods and crops that could be produced. Productivity could be concretely measured in terms of how many items a factory produced per day or how much crops an acre of land yielded. Productivity was a measure of production. 

If we all worked in factories or on farms, there wouldn’t be much of an issue, but we don’t. Most of us are knowledge workers. Instead of producing steel or textiles, we produce information in one form or another. We write or design websites or crunch numbers. Some of our tasks take minutes while others take months. 

Yet many of us are holding onto outdated definitions of productivity that are better suited for the farm and factory. We think of productivity purely in terms of tasks completed. The more discrete tasks we accomplish, the better we feel about ourselves. 

And while it’s certainly not wrong to try to accomplish tasks, it’s easy to slip into a quantity over quality mindset. The reality is that when it comes to knowledge work, depth is often what’s most important. What matters most is not how many things we get done, but whether we complete the things that add the most value. 

As Jess Whittlestone notes:

…productivity is useless if what you’re producing isn’t meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way. The reason we really care about productivity—or the reason we should care—is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.

How busyness became the new normal
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

How “busy” became the new norm

Holding onto outdated models of productivity has made being busy the new norm. With knowledge work, there’s very rarely a finite list of things that must be done. There’s always something else to do, another task to complete, another box to check. We have complex tools designed just to help us organize the endless river of tasks.  

As a result, we’re always left trying to figure out whether we’ve done “enough” (whatever that means), which leads to consistent feelings of productivity shame. 

To combat these feelings of shame, we resort to a number of unhelpful behaviors. 

We prioritize being busy over doing valuable work. 

We focus on the urgent rather than the important. 

We spend large amounts of time on simple, low-value tasks like responding to emails and chat messages so that we feel like we actually got things done. Even though it would be far more valuable to work on that 6-month project, we don’t because it doesn’t give us the immediate satisfaction and dopamine boost that the smaller, simpler tasks do.

we won’t feel like we got enough tasks done at the end of the day. 

To quote Cal Newport from Deep Work:

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

Busyness is a drug that makes us feel good in the short-term but has serious long-term consequences. Constant busyness makes it almost impossible to achieve any sort of work-life balance and is a sure recipe for burnout. It’s hard to be motivated when we’re always working on tasks that make very little difference. 

Making Productivity meaningful again
Photo by Jason Strull on Unsplash

Making productivity meaningful again

If we want to get the right things done, dispel productivity shame, and avoid the plague of constant busyness, we need to redefine productivity in terms of value rather than output. Instead of evaluating our days based on how many things we got done, we need to evaluate them by whether we did the things that matter. 

So how do we ensure that we work on what matters most each day? By taking specific actions that will set us up for success. 

As Cal Newport says in Deep Work:

The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.

Prioritize the day

We have a finite amount of time and energy, making it essential to prioritize our work. At a minimum, take the time to identify your most important task or project at the outset of each day and then only work on that task until you’ve completed it. If you’re able, it can be extremely helpful to identify your most important objectives for the week, month, and even quarter. 

While it certainly takes time to do the work of prioritizing your tasks, it’s well worth it and helps you stay laser focused on what matters most. 

Plan the day

Once you’ve prioritized your tasks, they need to go into your calendar. Planning your days ahead of time allows you to ensure that you’re always making time for your most valuable activities. Additionally, when you set your calendar ahead of time, your team knows what you’re working on and it’s harder for people to fill up your schedule with nonessential meetings. 

If you want to gain maximum control over your day, you may want to consider implementing the time-blocking method of scheduling, in which you literally plan out every minute of every day. 

The reality is that either we will set our schedules or someone else will do it for us. In his book Essentialism, Greg McKeown says:

When we forget our ability to choose, we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices—or even a function of our own past choices. In turn, we surrender our power to choose.

Ask the right questions

Learning to ask the right questions can help you stay focused and avoid the trap of busyness. Before you engage in an activity, ask yourself questions like:

  • Is this my most important task right now? 
  • Am I adding value or just being busy? 
  • Am I letting urgency drive me rather than value? 
  • At the end of the day, will I be able to look back and say that I worked on what mattered most? 

Eliminate distractions

Even when we’ve done the hard work of prioritizing our work and day, we’re still vulnerable to distractions. Emails and Slack messages from coworkers. Social media. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, and the dozens of other streaming services that are clamoring for attention. If we’re going to be truly productive, we need to take steps in order to eliminate distractions. 

If you have a door, close it. 

Put on headphones and listen to:

Use a distraction blocker like Freedom to block yourself from Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and all the other websites that want to sabotage your work day. 

Reevaluating productivity

As we adapt to the new norms forced upon us by this time of uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that we reevaluate our definition of productivity. Life is not just a series of tasks to complete. It’s something to be enjoyed and savored. Productivity must not be reduced to a to-do list. 

Instead of asking, “Did I do enough?” we need to ask, “Did I do something valuable?” 

Instead of asking, “How many things did I accomplish?” we need to ask, “Did I work on something important?” 

We’re not merely cogs in a machine, we’re people with unique skills and abilities who have much value to add to the world. 

Let’s focus on adding value.