Understanding of Productivity Holding You Back?

Poductivity isn’t what it used to be.

Previously, most conversations about productivity were firmly rooted in office culture. In other words, the underlying assumption was that people left home every day and went to their workplace. Definitions and strategies for productivity centered on time spent at the office.

Now, with social distancing in effect and many people working from home, everything is upside down.

There are certainly some benefits to the current situation, with workers gaining time previously spent on commuting, water cooler conversations, and in-person meetings. But there are a whole lot of challenges as well, including constant distractions, needing to care for children, Zoom fatigue, loss of connection with coworkers, the struggle to maintain work-life balance, and general emotional exhaustion.

The line between work and home has been seriously blurred, if not completely obliterated. It’s increasingly difficult to tell whether we’ve had a productive day, and many people feel like they’ve never done enough. A constant cloud of productivity shame hangs over them. And while the continuing flow of articles telling us how to be more productive through better routines, setups, hacks, and techniques is well-meaning and perfectly valid, for many of us it’s become a guilt-inducing sledge hammer that continually makes us feel inadequate and overwhelmed.

But is this productivity shame appropriate? Where have we gotten our preconceived notions about what it means to be a productive worker?

Maybe it’s time to reconsider our ideas of productivity. 

Productivity is a rather odd concept, when you think about it. What exactly does it mean to be productive and how do we measure it?

One of the biggest problems with the whole idea of productivity is that it is rooted in a time and place that doesn’t exist anymore.

As the industrial revolution swept the world in the 19th century, farm and factory owners alike became obsessed with increasing production. Machines were invented and strategies were devised that would increase the amount of goods and crops that could be produced. Productivity could be concretely measured in terms of how many items a factory produced per day or how much crops an acre of land yielded. Productivity was a measure of production.

If we all worked in factories or on farms, there wouldn’t be much of an issue, but we don’t. Most of us are knowledge workers. Instead of producing steel or textiles, we produce information in one form or another. We write or design websites or crunch numbers. Some of our tasks take minutes while others take months.

Yet many of us are holding onto outdated definitions of productivity that are better suited for the farm and factory. We think of productivity purely in terms of tasks completed. The more discrete tasks we accomplish, the better we feel about ourselves.

And while it’s certainly not wrong to try to accomplish tasks, it’s easy to slip into a quantity over quality mindset. The reality is that when it comes to knowledge work, depth is often what’s most important. What matters most is not how many things we get done, but whether we complete the things that add the most value.

As Jess Whittlestone notes:

…productivity is useless if what you’re producing isn’t meaningful or helpful to you or others in some way. The reason we really care about productivity—or the reason we should care—is that it allows us to do the things we care about as well and effectively as possible. Productivity isn’t a goal, but rather a tool for better achieving our goals.

New Focus Music