Controversial statement, I know. Our collective generation, all those participating in the global economy at this moment, have become obsessed with productivity.
We have productivity hacks, productivity journals, productivity plans, output quotas, pomodoro bubbles, e-mail batching, the 80/20 rule, daily status reports, scrums, and a myriad of other options and methods for maximizing productivity. Much of this has been effective. Or, said differently, we have indeed discovered more ways to create more output in less time and with fewer resources than we did in the past. The dream of efficiency for many executives and corporations are coming true.
But what about for individuals? The proliferation of productivity has been hard at work for easily a decade now, and yet, as recently as six months ago, publications like Fast Company, TechCrunch, LinkedIn, Forbes, Business Insider, and the Wall Street Journal all published new ideas and techniques for how to be productive.
So why are companies getting so much traction on material that is at best repetitive and at worst completely identical to the other information out there?
We keep seeing these messages because we as individuals still spend tons of time feeling unproductive and underutilized.
The human condition compels us to feel useful, productive, or helpful on any given day. In his Ted Talk on Blue Zones, Dan Buettner discusses a strong linkage between those who live longer and those who have a defined purpose in their lives. In the community of Okinawa in Japan, this takes the form of Ikigai.
Over the last month, I’ve had 25+ conversations with people ranging in age from 25–40 about their experience with career transition. The number one thing that people stress in what they want in their next role: the opportunity to feel useful and productive.
If we want to fix this pandemic of feeling unproductive, the answer is not to unearth the correct combination of productivity hacks and methodologies; we need to back to the source.
If you want to feel productive, you have to take ownership of defining productivity for yourself, and then create the space you need to pursue that every day.
Personal productivity has an infinite number of forms, and they are all based on who you are and where you are in your life. For some, productivity in the context of output comes naturally — they are driven by the desire and need to outpace and outperform where they were yesterday. This incremental, +1 style often fits in well with traditional goal setting and is easy to integrate into a corporate setting.
Productivity, for others, is more about achieving balance. I feel most productive when I engage in a number of different activities on any given day. Today, I have five calls with old colleagues and classmates, a two-hour Ironman workout, this blog post, and making dinner for my family. In isolation, none of these individual activities is a hallmark or beacon for productivity. However, when I can successfully engage in all of these different areas in my life, I feel great.
Productivity in another lens is doing less. Productivity for this group is more about completing objectives and tasks in increasingly small windows of time to create space to think, breathe, explore, exercise, or do anything else that fills them up.
All of these are great — none of them are wrong. Some versions fit better into some circumstances than others. But one thing is certain:
If you try to artificially layer your employer’s, your partner’s, your friends’, or your family’s version of productivity on top of yours to motivate you, you probably won’t feel particularly motivated.
Now, I’m not saying that you have to throw out the other measures of productivity in your life. If you work in sales and have a quota, you still need to hit and exceed it to excel at work. But you do not have to rely on that metric to make you feel productive. In fact, you’re probably much better off defining productivity for yourself, and ensuring that you care for that metric as much as you do your sales target.
If this idea is exciting but scary, as many new ones are, here are some simple steps to get started.
- Get clear on what productivity means to you. Reflect. Journal. Meditate. Think about the days when you feel the most fulfilled and alive. Write down a vision of what your perfect day looks like. Look for patterns.
- Track your progress. The one thing that productivity paranoia has given us is the knowledge that measuring progress is a highly necessary component to making substantive progress. Pick your metric, evaluate your performance, look for ways to improve, iterate, and keep going.
- Create a range. Productivity, even if defined by you, can become a treadmill to nowhere if you have no endgame other than to constantly increase your productivity. Ideally, you will eventually be able to establish a good feel for what days feel great and what days feel disappointing. As you better understand your own motivations, just shoot for great days, not the best days. If you still need a goal, see how many days in a row you can find yourself comfortably in your desired productivity zone.
- Don’t treat productivity like a diet. It is frighteningly common that we decide to go on a diet, do a ton of research, buy all of the right foods, get ready to change our lives, do it for three days, and then totally abandon the whole thing. All or none has a very low expected rate of success; we’re not built to create a massive change in a single moment. Instead, make small changes every day, track your progress, acknowledge your failures, forgive yourself, and keep going. If nothing else, no matter what, keep going.
Every person has the right to feel productive every day. However, we only have the opportunity to reap the benefits of productivity if we take the time and ownership to exercise our right appropriately.
If you’re not feeling particularly productive or useful in your work currently, give this a shot and let me know how it goes — I would love to hear from you!
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