“Productivity” Isn’t the Goal

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Bookstores today are awash with titles aimed at helping you to be more ‘productive’. The internet even more so. The idea of increasing productivity has created a cottage industry of people finding and developing ways (lifehacks) to be more ‘productive’, how to eliminate some time-consuming task so that we can get more real work done (i.e. be productive).

There are two problems with this approach –

1. The thing that all of these books and sites, and those that frequent them, miss is that what we really want isn’t to be more productive. It’s to be more ‘effective’.

One of the all-time best-selling books (at least as far as leadership & management is concerned) is Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. Notice the wording? Not 7 Habits of Highly Productive People, but Effective.

Being productive means doing more things. Being Effective means doing more things that matter. Which should a leaders drive for?

2. Most of the time saved by instituting these “life hacks” won’t actually be spent doing anything useful or ‘productive’.

My favorite illustration of this point comes, interestingly enough, not from the current crop of productivity proponents, but from a magazine article I read in about roughly 1992. It was a magazine aimed at small business, and the columnist was documenting his experience with a new computer keyboard. The manufacturer had designed a new spring system that shortened the distance the keys traveled when typing, thus ostensibly shortening the time it took to type. The manufacturer claimed that this design would shave 5-10 minutes off the time it took him to write his column (thus improving his ‘productivity’). The writer used it, and agreed. It did in fact seem to take less time to type.

The problem though came not from the keyboard, but the writer himself. In the end, he concluded that, while the keyboard was nice, when he had a week to write his column and yet still waited until the last hour to write and submit it, 5-10 minutes really didn’t make much difference.

Even though he had this device that would save him time (be more productive), he didn’t use that time for anything useful. He wasn’t more productive, he didn’t turn in his column sooner, he had an extra 5-10 minutes to put the column off. And I think this holds true for most of us. Given and extra half-hour, how many of us (really) are going to immediately shift to something of importance?

And therein lies the problem with ‘productivity’ – the goal shouldn’t be about being more ‘productive’, or doing things faster or shaving minutes off tasks. It should be about finding one’s priorities, and making sure they’re given the proper attention.

That alone will make us not only more effective, but consequently, more productive.