We’ve all had them – workplace productivity crushes – those in your office who seem to effortlessly fly through their work like a 9-5 James Bond, appearing to get so much done with never a smudge on them. “How do they do it?,” you ask yourself as you find yourself clicking to the next slide of “13 cats that look like British Prime Ministers.” (“You’ll never believe number 9!”)
Glancing around your workplace, it’s easy to think that everyone is more productive than you. But are they? To figure that out, we need to first define what being productive means, and what exactly we’re producing.
Work Has Changed
Born as an agricultural country in the 18th century, and transformed into an industrial one in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of America’s founding was based on manual work. In the fields, planting and picking, then later in the factory assembling. To do that kind of work, you could just show up and get it done. When you could do it was dictated by outside forces – the sun, you can’t plant in fields that you can’t see; and other people – to be part of an assembly line you need other people to assemble. As our culture and technology has continued to evolve the nature of work has changed. These rules no longer apply.
Our work has decentralized from fields and factories to offices and coffee shops, but our personal expectations and the structure of our working time haven’t kept up. Some of the 21st century knowledge jobs still require you to be in a certain place at a certain time – if your work depends on fluctuations in the financial markets, you’re on from the time the opening bell rings to the time the markets close. But even then, much of your work is done not during that time – all the preparation and strategy that put you in position to act when the bell rings. Just because the clock strikes 9:00 and you’re at your desk, doesn’t mean that’s magically when work gets done. Good ideas don’t rely on the sun or your shift to start. They can happen anywhere and at any time.
What, Exactly, Are We Doing?
We, as a society, tend to conflate “busyness” with productivity, and tend to value that busyness. If we see someone with a big stack of papers, who battles emails on their phone at every opportunity, we laud them for their productivity. But battling emails all the time isn’t productivity, it’s battling emails. Maybe the most productive person is the one who's figured out when something needs an email response, and the many times when it doesn’t. Maybe getting fewer emails is the most productive thing you can do.
Unlike your ancestors, you can’t glance over and see that a co-worker has picked seventy apples to your measly twenty, and thus she is more productive, because you have no idea what all that activity at her desk has led to. Productivity isn’t just about “the most” – key strokes, memos, trades, meetings – but instead doing those things right. Quantity is still part of the equation, but creativity, purpose, and quality of what you’re producing is an increasingly large piece of the puzzle. There are authors who have written dozens of books, none of which have gotten traction. Margaret Mitchell only wrote one, but it was Gone with the Wind. Whom would you consider more productive?
When you’re sitting at your computer, feeling frustrated and unproductive, don’t admonish yourself. In a knowledge worker’s world, productivity isn’t measured in keystrokes and mouse clicks. It’s measured in good ideas and figuring out how to execute them. If you’re mindlessly flipping burgers on Saturday afternoon, and in that moment come up with a great marketing strategy, that’s time well spent, and that’s productivity. Acknowledge it, appreciate it, and enjoy your burger.
The secret is to be honest with yourself, and cut yourself a break. When do you do your best work? When is your peak energy? If clicking through a slideshow of cats, one of which bares a passing resemblance to Margaret Thatcher, helps you be creative, it may be that is time well spent. But if it doesn’t, be honest about that and shift your energy to something that does help. Take a walk, go workout, doodle in your sketchbook. Give your brain time to recover, and when it does you’ll get more out of it.
This is part of Edgework Consulting’s Time Management Workshop series. Each Time Management Workshop post is bite-sized and designed to help you get more out of the hours you have. For more entries in the Time Management Workshop series click here.