Why We Are Not as Productive as We Believe We Are

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August 2017
Why We Are Not as Productive as We Believe We Are

We want to think of ourselves as good workers. We try to do more, do faster, often end up staying longer at work… We do work hard, but does that mean that we are really being productive?

Surprisingly, the answer is no. As disappointing as it may sound, working hard doesn’t always mean working efficiently. Let’s look closer at what true productivity means.

What It Means to Be Productive

If you ask anyone what productivity is, you would hear something like “producing more goods or services in a given period of time”. That might ring true for paperclip or microchip production. But in the knowledge-based economy, that doesn’t make real sense.

Take programming, for example. Are 1000 lines of code per day better than 100? Some developers can even produce a negative output and still be productive, making the resulting code simpler and cleaner.

The meaning of work is what defines real productivity. You might be doing tons of shallow work just keeping yourself busy, instead of focusing on really meaningful tasks. Does that make any difference?

Well, it does. From the productivity point of view, there are two types of work we do throughout the workday: meaningful work that needs to get done, and things that seem to be important tasks but in fact kill our efficiency: instant messaging, busywork, emails, pointless meetings.

What we need to understand is: urgent is not always important. When chasing seemingly pressing goals, we are at risk of losing important ones. And, like a sculptor that removes everything unnecessary to produce a work of art, a productive person has to eliminate everything that is not real work.

So productivity is more about what you don’t do, than what you do.

What Fuels Fake Productivity

We work, live and play in a fast-paced technology environment, and this environment urges us to react quickly and communicate instantly.

While being generally positive, this type of behavior has its drawbacks. First, it is addictive. Second, it triggers the same “robotic” reaction regardless of the subject. And finally, it impairs our ability to concentrate. And so all our favorite means of communications – email, smartphones, messengers, social media – provide a constant flow of distractions. Jocelyn Glei, author of the bestselling book “Unsubscribe”, in her talk at The Next Web Conference, suggests focusing on the email, as it is the primary work tool for most office employees.

In short, our inbox shouldn’t define what we have to do in the first place. It’s so easy to fall in the trap of reacting instantly to any stimulus: new message, email, or notification. Now consider that it takes about 25 minutes after a distraction to get back where you were. Looks like a more than valid reason to quit checking your inbox every 10 minutes, right?

And still, communication distractions tend to heavily influence our workstyle. Below, we’ll look at some reasons why it’s happening and what we can do about it.

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Overcoming Completion Bias

One of the reasons is the so-called completion bias. We love small tasks that are easy to handle. When we feel that the task is urgent, we immediately rush to do it. Upon completion, our brain rewards us with a portion of dopamine, the “happiness hormone”. The bad thing about it is that minor tasks are usually not very important, and so we believe we’re efficient, but in fact keep wasting our time.

Possible Solutions

  1. Build a Covey time management matrix

    A great way to learn how to distinguish between important and urgent is to build a Covey time management matrix. Sort all your tasks in 4 quadrants according to their urgency and importance, and focus on the “strategic” quadrant which contains high-value, but not urgent activities. These might be your long-term projects, or professional development goals. Something that is indeed worth spending your time on.

  2. Keep track of your progress

    When you’re working on a larger project, it’s easy to lose motivation as it takes longer time to complete the work. Jocelyn Glei recommends creating special “hacks” to mark your progress. You might want to use amount of work done as “hacks”, or mark certain steps of a project.

  3. Use timesheet software

    Try timesheet software where you can enter your milestones and deadlines and see how much time was already spent. It is especially useful if you are working in a team and would like to evaluate progress of your colleagues, too.

Eliminating Random Rewards

Another trap we often fall into when using email is our want of random rewards. The mailbox works as a slot machine, producing random rewards: positive messages with appreciation from our clients, colleagues, or boss. We strive for more and check email more often, even if it’s not necessary.

Possible Solutions

  1. Keep your inbox in order

    Consider using a dedicated tool such as Sanebox to keep your inbox in order. A number of other personal productivity tools will help you keep a safe distance from the social media and similar distractions.

  2. Reward yourself

    Since none of us can stop being hungry for reward, try replacing random rewards with real ones. Determine your true goals and focus on them. With the help of a to-do list, outline the steps that will lead you to your goal. Accomplishing these steps will boost your self-esteem and motivate you to do even more.

Learning to Say No

In his famous book on influence, Dr. Robert Cialdini showed that reciprocity is a very strong social mechanism. When someone does us good, we feel obliged to return the favor. While it’s a normal human behavior, it can also do us harm by forcing us to do something we never wanted or planned to do. For example, when someone reaches out to us, we feel we have to reply right away, but it doesn’t have to be so.

Possible Solutions

  1. Track your communication

    Most people spend quite a lot of time on communication without tracking it down and don’t realize that is might be a real time-waster. Use timesheet software to understand your time expenses – it will help you improve your working habits.

  2. Level up your communication routine

    Think about how you can make your communication more efficient. For instance, you might decide to check your email just twice a day: in the morning and in the afternoon, or reply only to business emails when at work. Don’t feel obliged to reply or take action instantly unless there is a blocking issue. Formulate your principles and hang a printed copy above your desk.

  3. Get rid of bad habits

    Make a list of habits you want to get rid of, such as checking updates from social media in your workplace, or uncontrollable chatting in mobile messengers. Follow your decision religiously and check your progress every 2 or 3 months – for example, by comparing your timesheet data.


In the world of information and technology, speed is the king. We are all used to instant reactions, real-time communication, and constant information flow. But being productive doesn’t really mean working faster or completing more tasks, regardless of their importance. On the contrary, this only leads to fake productivity.

What we have to do is stop checking emails every now and again and replying each of them right away. Quit doing urgent tasks. And get down to meaningful work. That’s what will bring you real results.

So step back, peel off all distractions, and remember the saying of the famous Henry Ford: “Better productivity means less human sweat, not more”.

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