In this day and age, productivity is a standard requirement for value. There’s this idea that those who accomplish more in less time are most valuable to themselves, their colleagues, their companies, and even their families. It’s an ethos we don’t even question, as many of us continue on a never-ending quest to optimize every single aspect of our lives. But your obsession with productivity can actually make you less productive.
In business, we study productivity regularly and strive to determine all the variables that contribute to higher outputs. A study found that even the timing of our meals matters—a snack, for example, is better than a full meal for alertness and productivity on the night shift. Yes, productivity is necessary for a certain level of functioning and contribution to society, but an overemphasis on productivity can hurt us.
The problems with productivity
First, focusing on productivity tends to narrow our view. This can be demotivating for several reasons. A productivity-above-all lens tends to put our attention on the details and nitty-gritty parts of our task, rather than the big picture. Counting hours, widgets, or rows of the spreadsheet won’t get you excited about your work. If you want to find meaning in what you do, you need to focus on why you’re doing it in the first place. That’s the kind of thing that will get you up in the morning.
Focusing too much on productivity can also be detrimental because it adds pressure. That can be extremely paralyzing. When something feels too big, too much, or just generally unreachable, we’re less likely to try to accomplish it. The height of a basketball net is just right for the average player to make enough baskets to keep coming back and try for more. It’s not so high that we’ll never make a basket, nor so low that it presents no challenge. Focusing too much on productivity can be like setting the net too high—if something feels unreachable, it’s not even worth trying. That’s why, in many instances, you should put less pressure on yourself to keep your motivation higher.
What to do instead of obsessing about your productivity
You might read this and wonder, it’s all well and good to focus on the big picture and take the pressure off, but can one really opt out of productivity altogether? After all, not everyone has a say in how much work they have to do, and they definitely can’t turn their backs on family or personal obligations.
When I say that you should stop obsessing about productivity, I’m not telling you to stop being productive. What I am saying is to find other things to focus on instead. Here are some ideas.
- Focus on what you enjoy: I get it, not every task you do will make you want to jump up and down with excitement. But as much as you can, zero in on the aspect of that task that you enjoy. When you love what you’re doing, it feels less like work, and you’re more motivated to tackle a task or dig in.
- Curate your work: The way to do more of what you love is to raise your hand for projects that motivate you. Fill your plate and your list of responsibilities with things that add value for the company, and that makes you excited to go to work in the morning. Then you’ll naturally have less time for projects that aren’t your favorite, and those can go to others who are more excited about tackling them.
- Don’t get too caught up in tedious work: For the things that must get done and are just not going to be stimulating to you, focus on muscling through. Just get them done so you can get on to the more exciting tasks and juicy work.
- Take small steps: Focus on taking small steps forward. You’ve looked at the big picture and how your work contributes to it. Now, focus on taking one step at a time to get there. Sometimes it even helps to tell yourself you’re just going to work on something for 10 minutes. By then, you’ll be into the task so much that you’ll want to finish it. If that’s not the case, give yourself a break and come back for another small increment of progress.
Productivity is probably a necessary evil. After all, lots of employers focus on it as a performance metric to judge the value we’re bringing to our company or ourselves. But don’t let it be the be-all and end-all, or you might end up burned out and less productive as a result.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.