Few things upset me more than productivity bias. It’s based on the premise that working hard is good, working smart is better, but working productively is best. The idea is productivity makes us great employees and CEOs. It’s an aspirational work lifestyle that often comes packaged as well-meaning advice.
The problem is not everyone has the privilege and time to be productive.
I face this bias often; employers and investors assume my productivity will be lower than other working adults because I am a mom. But as someone whose career took off at the same time I had kids, I can tell you: productivity is a fallacy, and a wasteful one at that.
In the past six weeks nearly every parent in America has become a homeschooler. My husband and I are running an in-home daycare on top of two demanding jobs. While this is my first-ever pandemic, it’s not the first time I’ve been forced to concurrently work under pressure and parent my children while stuck at home. In fact, I’ve done this twice before.
The “mommy CEO”
In 2016, I started a company three months after my first daughter was born. I bootstrapped and ran it alone from my basement, while juggling caring for my children and recovering from postpartum depression. By the time my daughter started daycare six months later, I’d built a fan base, landed shelf space in independent toy stores across Seattle, and appeared on TV.
Despite the traction, I encountered overt bias. A prominent VC once told me behind closed doors, “When I meet a young woman, even if she’s a great founder, I never know if she’s gonna be as committed. What if she has babies and decides to stay home? It’s what my wife did.”
I realized then my experience was not an isolated incident.
That winter, as I faced investor rejection, I started a support group for women like me who were leading venture-scale companies. In less than three years we went from a 25-person Facebook group to a 20,000-strong national community sponsored by some of the biggest names in tech. Our mission is to accelerate the success of startups helped by women and nonbinary founders.
This is the company I was leading a year ago, when my second daughter was born. This time the stakes were higher. I had high-profile customers, revenue goals, and payroll. But we weren’t large enough that I could hire someone to fill in for me. And I wasn’t making enough to justify hiring a nanny and night nurse so I could truly work full-time. I had to make do.
Despite a very “unproductive” few months for me, our company had spectacular results last year, doubling or tripling every metric we track. Once again I discovered what I wish more leaders and organizations would see: productivity does not mean effectiveness.
Through my experiences, I’ve trained myself to be effective despite not having much time to be productive. Facing limited work time forces me to take three important actions: prioritize, delegate, and say “no.” I’ve come to believe that these three things form the real secret to success.
It starts with prioritizing. The times in my life when I worked the longest hours, and the most “productive,” I was not thoughtful about what was truly important to me. Now, I know to critically evaluate priorities and stick to them. I keep my priorities explicit, simple, and ranked. They are cleaner than my inbox, kitchen, closet, and browser tabs.
Once I have priorities, I still have to choose what to tackle and what to do with the rest. High-priority work that I don’t have bandwidth for, I delegate. Adding delegation to my workflow helped me find a group of self-starters whom I trust, and can let shine. It’s also the best way to balance responsibilities among team members who have their own families to take care of. When I have more time to focus, I pick up tasks for others when their time is compressed.
Next comes the hardest part—saying “no” to requests, ideas, and extraneous “nice-to-haves.” When time is strictly limited, every “yes” I say means “no” to something else, with the likelihood of neglecting a higher priority. Even though I hate disappointing people, I’ve learned to say “no” in ways that feel authentic and honest, while extending generosity when I can.
Shaping the culture
As I write this, my team is all sheltered in place, working part time, and caring for their kids and family. Although our story is still being written, I’m confident that this team was built to weather this challenge, since our culture was forged by caretakers and working moms.
Delivering results through my postpartum months made us feel strong and empowered. Later on we codified this experience into our company values with the statement, “You get one life, make it count.” This boils down to making the most of your time not by being productive, but by going big on things that matter. It makes a huge difference.
Meanwhile, out in the world, millions have lost their jobs, with millions more struggling to keep their jobs despite schools continuing to stay open and support systems decimated. When it comes to “being productive” at work, parents—moms especially—are now at a distinct disadvantage. Even worse, the effect will only compound over time if corporate leaders retain, promote, and rehire only those who put in more hours.
With moms and dads, temps, and CEOs all facing the same childcare challenges, the lesson to be learned today is about who can be effective in the hardest times, not who works the longest.
We have an opportunity to reshape this outdated, exclusionary notion of productivity. I hope we make productivity bias a relic of life before the pandemic.
Leslie Feinzaig is the founder and CEO of the Female Founders Alliance, a national network with 20,000 founders, investors, partners, and supporters that collaborate to help women and nonbinary startup leaders succeed.