Before the omnipotent smartphone and the advent of ever-present email, work used to be something you left at your desk office in the form of a pile of papers.
However, the modern workplace doesn’t stop when you do. Constant connectivity has allowed us to do our job at any time, from anywhere, for better or for worse.
With so much more to do and so much less time to do it in, productivity has become the buzzword du jour when it comes to business. But can you actually become more productive? And what does it actually mean to be truly productive, anyway?
Let’s delve into this concept a little more.
What is productivity?
Traditional definitions of productivity seem to couple the concept with the idea of efficiency or a rate of output. Technically, productivity is the state of ‘being productive’ but as this means different things for different people, as well as different businesses, we’ll need to drill down a little further.
“In most jobs today,” writes Chris Bailey in The Productivity Project, “Efficiency is no longer enough. When you have more to do than ever before, less time to do it, and unparalleled freedom and flexibility with how you get it done, productivity is no longer about how efficiently you work. Productivity is about how much you can accomplish.”
Let’s look at the difference between productivity and efficiency for a little more insight.
What’s the difference between ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’?
The terms ‘productivity’ and ‘efficiency’ are often used interchangeably but both concepts actually differ quite distinctly from each other and understanding this distinction is important if you’re applying them to your own work context.
Let’s break it down as follows: Productivity relates to the output of a person or company over a period of time. In contrast, efficiency relates to how that output is actually generated.
An example might be: John is a customer service representative who takes 100 calls in his 12-hour workday. Sandy works six hours a day but also takes 100 calls. Both employees are equally productive but Sandy is twice as efficient.
In a nutshell, productivity measures the results whereas efficiency measures how those results are generated, especially when it comes to resources. Efficiency factors in aspects such as time or money spent and whether these applied resources were used effectively.
A reason why these two things are commonly muddled dates back to our earliest jobs during the industrial revolution.
Productivity and modern work
In consideration of the fact that jobs have rapidly swerved from the once repetitive, factory-bound work that was prominent even fifty years ago, Bailey makes the point that our days are filled much less with the occupation of putting something together on a production line and become far more dynamic and demanding.
“Companies borrowed the [production line] methodology and when you had standardized tasks, it worked,” echoes digital anthropologist and author Rahaf Harfoush. “But all of a sudden, we’re in the knowledge economy where people are coming up with ideas and strategies and services and you can’t really measure by that time metric.
“If you go to work, do you say to yourself: ‘OK, between the hours of nine to five, I’m going to come up with one idea an hour?”
To be productive, argues Bailey, it takes more than just time management; it’s more a case of energy and attention management as well. Bailey presents the idea that to be productive is to have the correct overlap of time, attention and energy.
“If you don’t spend your time wisely, it doesn’t matter how much energy and focus you have—you won’t accomplish a lot at the end of the day. If you can’t focus or bring a lot of attention to what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter if you know what your smartest tasks are or have a ton of energy—you won’t be able to engage fully with your work and become more productive. And if you can’t manage your energy well, it doesn’t matter how well you can manage your time or attention—you’re not going to have enough fuel in the tank to get everything done that you intend to.”
Think of productivity as what happens when several components work in harmony. Let’s look at a few of them.
Important components of productivity
Not all time is equal when it comes to work that needs to be done. Some work is sprint work—replying to emails, for example—and some work is deep and creative, requiring several hours and limited interruptions. Understanding what type of time you need for all the tasks on your to-do list is important to managing your time and workload efficiently. If you have control of your time, you might consider scheduling days or portions of time to dedicate to these each week—Mondays can be your day for meetings and Friday afternoon is when you clean your inbox.
Focus and attention
Maura Nevel Thomas argues in her book, Personal Productivity Secrets, that focus is one of the 21st century’s rarest and most valuable skills. ‘Attention management’ is one of the most important components of productivity and, as some experts argue, far more important than time management (more on that later).
It matters little that you’ve put aside the time to get into the kind of work that requires ‘flow’ (as suggested above) if you’re dragging your concentration away from the task at every incoming email. Studies have shown that for every distraction (email checking included), a portion of around 20 minutes is required to get sufficiently back on task.
If you completely commit your attention to tasks, you’ll be able to do faster, better work.
J.D.Meier’s beloved Getting Results the Agile Way reinforces the idea that energy is a huge driver in productive, rewarding work.
“You can’t get more hours in a day,” he explains. “But you can change your energy. And, if you use your best energy, you can amplify your impact in powerful ways.”
If you can successfully recharge between tasks, your ability to achieve will skyrocket.
“For as long as we can predict, time will continue to tick on at the same rate, but what actually fluctuates on a day-to-day basis is how much energy and attention you have. In the knowledge economy, that’s what makes or breaks how productive you are, and more importantly, it’s something you can actually control.”
You’ve probably heard that working longer doesn’t translate into working harder. A Stanford study revealed that those who work 70 hours achieve comparable amounts of work as those who work 55. In short, you need the right amount of energy to be able to be productive and sometimes that means taking a break, switching off from devices or simply not thinking about the tasks at hand.
Gretchen Rubin, author of The New York Times best-seller The Happiness Project and The Four Tendencies has a unique way of expressing this idea.
“I always had the uncomfortable feeling that if I wasn't sitting in front of a computer typing, I was wasting my time—but I pushed myself to take a wider view of what was ‘productive’. Time spent with my family and friends was never wasted.”
Productivity tip one: Swap time management for attention management
These days, after decades of the opposite, the prevailing thought amongst those who have tirelessly studied the concept of productivity is this: time management isn’t actually a key to productivity at all. Don’t mistake that as a free pass to do the minimum in the time you’re given or to not plan well but, as we discussed above, there will never be more hours in a day or week than what already exists, and honing in on exactly how we spend them down to the minute creates an obsession that doesn’t solve the problem.
Attention management has a few components but it’s most easily described as the act of noticing what is distracting you and intentionally refocusing it back to the task at hand. Time management strategies have become increasingly redundant as our modern work world develops into a place that’s often exhaustingly collaborative and distracting—we work in open spaces rather than in an office that has a door to shut and we perform our work on a machine that’s capable of myriad distractions at the click of a button.
If you know what your triggers are (a sunny day outside, a grumbling tummy, a chatty colleague, opening a tab of celebrity gossip), removing these can do wonders for your productivity.
Productivity tip two: Use The Rule of Three to increase focus
Spearheaded as far back as Thomas Jefferson, thinkers such as Leo Babauta, Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani and Microsoft’s director of business programs, J.D. Meier, all apply the ‘rule of three’ to funnel focus into three particular areas for the day. It sounds underwhelmingly simple but when you realize that this technique taps into several of the components of productivity, you’ll understand its true power.
Here’s how it works—at the beginning of each day, write down the three things you most want to have accomplished by the close of it. J. D. Meier, who refers to the technique as ‘the three wins’, suggests you tackle this technique at the beginning of each day, each week, each month and each year in order to maintain long term focus.
Make your weekly ‘three wins’ something to look forward to recording, with a customizable template from Canva such as Yellow Sprinkles Weekly Schedule Planner. And for something more targeted for daily use, try a straight to the point template such as Minimalist Grid General Daily Planner.
Productivity tip three: Consider your best use of time
Above, we talked about the impact of time as a component of productivity. While we also touched on how time management isn’t the be-all and end-all for productivity, there are a few ways you can treat time in a way that’s advantageous to you, while also finding a helpful overlap of attention, focus, and energy. There are a few strategies you can apply to any given timeslot that suits your needs, for example: Batching and applying ‘the now habit’.
Batching, or sprinting, is a technique you can apply to blocks of time during which you can power through a pile of similar tasks—replying and deleting emails, signing documents, approving final pages, for example—which is a helpful way to achieve a flow and minimize distractions.
The ‘now habit’ is as much of a mindset as it is a way of working; it’s the idea that past a certain point, you can only plan so much—after that, you just have to get it done. Overcoming procrastination and jumping into deep work on a task activates the energy aspect of your productivity; you’ll be less likely to be limping to the finish line if you don’t spend too much time delving into the minutiae of the planning stage.
Tools for productivity
To help with attention
Writing your ‘rule of three’ down and keeping them in sight is the best way to ensure your attention is focused on the right things during the day, week, month and beyond.
To help with energy
Switch off your phone and get back to the old fashioned way of doing things by putting pen to paper. Journalling is a proven strategy to boost mental wellbeing and gratitude, reviving and restoring you for the day ahead. It doesn’t have to take long—make a habit of simply writing three things you’re grateful for at the close of the day.
To help with time
Although it’s not necessarily advisable to track your time, an app such as Rescue Time can help you to understand the breakdown of your time, with a view to bettering this in future. If nothing else, it can show you where your attention management has wavered (too much time on Instagram, perhaps?)
Useful quotes on productivity
Sprinkle a few of these around your desk and you’ll be on your way to feeling both productive and full of energy for ticking off those tasks.
“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort." — Paul J. Meyer
"Focus on being productive instead of busy." — Tim Ferriss
"Productivity is the deliberate, strategic investment of your time, talent, intelligence, energy, resources, and opportunities in a manner calculated to move you measurably closer to meaningful goals." — Dan S. Kennedy