I have noticed that it has become cool to be super productive, to show off your uber-human productivity skills to others and to revel in how much more you can get done compared to yesterday. And I have noticed that this reverence for productivity has led people to misunderstand the difference between 'hamster wheel' productivity and truly valuable productivity. I will explain in this blog post what productivity means to me, why it's frequently misunderstood and how pursuing the wrong type of productivity can lead to burn-out. And I will offer my top tips for making sure that your productivity is truly engaged in creating value.
The reason I wanted to write this post is that I have been accused at times of being unproductive. The way I work is not the typical standard for that which people consider to be productive.
I often keep irregular schedules. I may take long breaks and sometimes do spend time listening to music or checking my phone while working. This is, according to the current standard of those enforcing 'hustle culture', decidedly unproductive.
I have noticed that the idea of productivity has become an end in itself. And I am not sure why ... or how that is useful.
People confuse being busy with being productive. They confuse producing 'things' with being productive. They confuse fitting in more with being more productive. They confuse time spent working, without looking at a phone, or having breaks, with being productive.
But while getting more done in less time may meet a basic definition of productivity, this kind of productivity is of the lowest vibrational quality. This is what I call 'hamster wheel' productivity. Mindless, repetitive and often leading to burn-out.
True productivity, in the sense that I have found to be needle-moving and game-changing, is not just about being more efficient so that you can do more in less time. It is about time spent with your full energy and attention on only the important and most high-value goals and doing tasks in furtherance of that goal.
It is not just about creating more hours of efficient and focused work.
It is about being absolutely intentional about what you do.
It is about spending your most high energy and focused hours on the right tasks and creating blocks of time when you are fully present and in the zone so that you are able to complete an important piece of work with intent.
Contrary to popular belief we do not need to be productive all the time! We are allowed to be unproductive and check our phone every minute if the task we are doing is non-urgent or routine or easy. We should save our productivity for our most difficult, creative and high-value tasks.
The reason is, very simply, because we are human beings and it is impossible to be productive in every hour of the day without burning out.
You have a finite reserve of good quality power. It needs to be rationed. Like an athlete who saves his energy for match day, you need to think of yourself as conserving energy so that you can direct your focus when it's valuable and will make the most difference.
I have written before on this subject and it did not go down well with people who believe in 'hustle' culture. The idea is that if you are not focused for 12 hours a day 'working' you are unproductive.
However, I have often found that those kinds of people make 'busy-work'. They appear to be working hard, like busy little bees, a picture of productivity, but those very same people often end up with the same output as me. They have just made more work of it.
I am sure they feel they are being productive but the problem is they have just wasted a ton of energy that didn't need to be wasted because they are locked in a mental trap that they must fill in all of the time. And they operate from the premise that the harder they work, the more value they have created.
This is a dangerous belief. You do not create more value just because you feel you have worked hard or for longer.
Don't misunderstand me. I am fully aware that many tasks simply do take a long time, even when we are focused and engaged on priority tasks. And some tasks are hard and do require a lot of your energy and physical and mental exertion.
And sometimes, when we are working for someone, we have contracted or employee standard hours and we must therefore make things last the allocated time - which is sadly often a recipe for enforced unproductivity.
However, where, for example, you work for yourself, it is important to ensure you are defining productivity in terms of value - rather than being a productivity hamster for the sake of worshipping at the altar of productivity.
We must get away from this mentality.
The truth is that conflating time spent being 'productive' with true value is a way of kidding ourselves that what we are working so hard to accomplish (and burning out for) is valuable.
There is no point being 'productive' if the work you are producing is extraneous, redundant, poor quality or filler work designed to make yourself look busy, or organised or hard working. This is literally productivity for the sake of proving to yourself that you are productive!
So having said that, here are my three top tips for ensuring your productivity is well engaged, truly valuable and fair to yourself.
1) Get absolutely clear on your priority tasks. And when deciding this, you must include, and do, the big wins first. Do not start with your admin list. This is busy work and you can do that when you are watching tv or listening to a podcast or on a lunch break. Direct your productive hours to the big wins. The email for that partnership. The presentation that will get you the raise. The blog post for your members.
2) Set a time limit for deep work. This is contrary to the belief that you should be productive all the time which means you end up either burning out, or you end up creating busy work. Set a time limit of how much you will work in a productive way. It's ok. You are allowed to do this. There is no better way of making sure you remain focused on what is most important than giving yourself a finite amount of time. This time limit for deep work should be long enough to get stuff done but short enough that you can retain a high level of focus in that period.
3) Give yourself time to slack off. Yes, this is allowed and it is normal. As long as you have scheduled your deep work session in the day you can kind of allow yourself to be unproductive for the rest of the day (I know this is crazy talk according to conventional thinking nowadays). This is actually helpful because it means you create a healthy motivation and drive if you know you only need to work intensely in a short burst. It also means that you know that you are getting the really important stuff done even while preserving your valuable energy overall and enjoying the flow of your day.
So those are my tips for ensuring you are being productive in the right ways. You are reclaiming your productive focus and you stay in control of your energy - because, in the grand scheme of things, this is a marathon, not a sprint - which is ironically why sometimes we need to break it into small runs, in small sections, rather than think we can run long distance every day.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments.