[Update 19 May 2016: There is another excellent video below with more of a scientific insight into why the brain is compelled to procrastinate]
The truth about being productive
I spent eight years working in Management Consulting in London for one of the Big 4 firms. And while I learned a hell of a lot about how to successful help businesses achieve their goals, I also learned two frustrating truths:
Being busy is not the same as being productive
and equally importantly
Working hard is not the same as being productive
This is a myth which is becoming more and more toxic in big companies and organisations across the world, and it’s partially the result of moving to what many experts call the Knowledge Economy. As jobs transferred from anything is paid for a set number of hours per day (factory work, service industry, governmental jobs etc) to more of a career where people get an overall salary, a strange transformation has taken place: people are working longer and longer hours to try and stand out amongst their peers.
Simultaneously, people’s work had changed from something measurable (how many widgets you produced today) to something more abstract (producing a slide deck to be shown in a month’s time). It became very difficult to tell what people were working on at any point in time if you watched them from a distance or weren’t with them. So workers needed to find a way to illustrate that they weren’t being lazy, and that they were working hard for the company. Laziness is seen as one of the ultimate sins in the workplace (potentially only exceeded by hitting “Reply all” to a company-wide email), so people used one of the few things they could to prove they weren’t: their time.
Productivity, by its very definition, is the amount of work achieved within the amount of time allocated.
Even if standard office hours were 9:00 to 5:00, people in many corporations began to see those timelines as the minimum, rather than the norm. And nobody wants to be seen as just doing the minimum. I have heard stories from my colleagues in Singapore that there are whole departments where staff won’t leave before their manager, and managers won’t leave before their staff, resulting in a Mexican Stand-Off of wasted time where everyone is at their desks just surfing the web for hours until people begin to leave.
“Work” expands to fill the time available
[Now, before I go on I want to stress that while this is an issue in a large number of corporations, and even entire countries, it is not the case everywhere. In fact, in numerous Northern European countries like Germany people take great pride in being able to show they get their work done in the standard office hours available by leaving on time.]
If there is a lot of work to be done, then of course sometimes you’ll need to work longer hours to complete it all. I’ve had my fair share of “crunch time”, especially leading up to the release of a big deliverable.
There is a growing amount of research which indicates that people only have a finite amount of time they can focus and concentrate their mind each day before energy levels unconsciously drop and your productivity plummets. Many psychologists refer to this limited resource of self-control as your amount of “willpower”, and the process of it being used up as “ego depletion”. Some of the most famous insights into this come from Roy Baumeister, who showed experiments where once people had their amount of willpower reduced, their performance on subsequent tasks was significantly lower. Once your ego is depleted, it also becomes exceptionally difficult for you to avoid distractions or procrastination until it is recharged. Other psychologists have estimated that you probably only have about 2-3 hours of willpower per day, which is usually being consistently eroded throughout the working day.
And here’s the big, shameful secret that so many people have (especially many people with an entrepreneurial mindset):
Often, the large proportion of their day is spent doing work which doesn’t really add value
To understand this, you need to understand two fundamentally different types of work that people do: actions and activity.
Actions are work which result in value being added to the organisation and which help it grow
These may include:
- Products being designed, assembled, shipped etc
- Code being written
- Scientific experiments being conducted, results analysed, hypotheses being developed and tested
- Services being provided which result in a direct payment (e.g. surgery performed)
- Sales calls
- Research into new technologies, customers, the market and competitors
- Research conducted and reported on how the company can innovate, change, grow
- Services conducted to produce a client deliverable (e.g. legal document writing and review). Important note: Not all the time taken prior to the production of the deliverable are actions. See below: meetings
In general, they result in something new being produced or attempted.
Activity is work which doesn’t directly add value or help the organisation grow
These may include:
- Meetings to share information
- Meetings to update on progress
- Meetings to discuss future meetings
- Bureaucratic tasks (e.g. timesheets, performance reviews)
- Checking and responding to emails
- Making lists and To Do lists
- “Processing activities” (e.g. payments)
- Reformatting (e.g. slide decks, spreadsheets, thought pieces)
- Reading the news
- Collecting data & photocopying (it’s not the same as actually reading it and figuring out what it means!)
- Vanity metrics, like checking “progress” on things if it doesn’t result in a decision on how best to proceed (e.g. how many views did our website get yesterday?)
- Regular / Recurring management activity (e.g. production of weekly / monthly / annual progress reports)
- Time on social media
- “Building the brand”
- Setting up the office
- Time reading sports websites or Pinterest and then pressing ALT + TAB if your manager gets close to make it look like you’re working on a spreadsheet
- All the other imaginative ways people spend time not working while in the office (let me know your favorites in the comments)
So here’s the thing: As long as someone gets all of their actions done each day / week, then frankly it doesn’t matter how much time they spend doing other activities. It’s that simple. And I often tell clients that it is almost always perfectly possible to complete all of those actions done in those 2-3 hours per day that people have all their willpower.
But why doesn’t this happen?
Simple. Because actions are often much harder than activities. They are inherently more risky, and therefore uncomfortable for the brain to not only do but even start.
Most activities are things that people are used to doing regularly, and they have figured out how to do them more efficiently. In some cases they become almost second nature and people are nearly able to do them on autopilot, with minimal mental effort.
I call this concept “Sleepworking”
Another important thing to note is the difference between urgency and importance. Urgent work seems like it needs to be done ASAP. Important work is what will have the biggest impact (both positively if it is done well, or negatively if it is done badly or it misses its deadline). The issue arises when other people begin determining what is urgent in your world, which has become worse since people have begun trying to work as a team over email, which is almost immediate. So many people focus on the urgent activities, rather than the important actions. To be truly productive, you need to be able to prioritise work which is both urgent and important to you to be done first.
Another by-product of this is that people don’t realise they are not being productive when they are working all day on activities. They have the illusion that they are working hard because they are busy all the time. This is especially true of people who spend a large proportion of their days in meetings. Meetings keep a large number of people busy, often for hours at a time. But often, they are nothing more than information sharing sessions, and in the worst ones (which unfortunately is too many of them), there aren’t even any decisions to come as a result of the meeting. People feel like they’ve been busy, and their supply of willpower has been depleted, yet the majority of people have not produced anything during the time allocated to the meeting.
So much like the instant gratification monkey in the video above, many people at work will prefer to spend time early in the day working on activities. As the day wears on they know that the actions still need to be completed, the actions appear not only harder but less appealing and end up taking longer as people are less able to focus and resist further distractions.
The end result of the combination of people thinking that staying at work longer is a positive sign, along with the human nature of preferring to work on activities rather than actions, is that actions take far longer to complete than they should, and there is often a rush near the deadline as people realise that not enough work has been done on the important tasks.
Why entrepreneurs and innovators suffer more than the rest
I want to state once again that most entrepreneurs aren’t lazy (although many want to know shortcuts to success or give up at the first sign of failure).
But people who start their own business have one further issue which means that they can go for even longer spans of time without delivering anything. Most entrepreneurs will have some work experience where deadlines and deliverables were given to them, by managers or existing clients. And there were repercussions for not hitting those dates (not getting paid, or even getting fired).
Now, once they start their own business, for the first time it is now up to them to decide when their deadlines or milestone dates are, and how they are going to hit them.
And the only person (or team) they are accountable to for hitting those dates is themselves.
Rather than risk failure by telling people what you’re going to deliver and when people can see it, it feels much more comfortable to keep those commitments to yourself and launch things “when you feel that it’s ready”. They can completely remove urgency from their required actions.
This ties in with one of the most primal fears which almost all entrepreneurs will go through. The voice in the back of your mind which says:
But what if it doesn’t work out?
What if people don’t like it?
What if it isn’t good enough?
What if we fail?
This results in so many startups which appear to be working furiously on their business, yet keep missing their launch dates, or even never launching at all.
It is even more true of companies and individuals who are attempting something truly innovative. By its definition, there is less historical evidence to compare innovative products to than established successes, and so they are much more scary to develop because the risk is higher, even if the rewards are as well.
Many true innovators also have an additional dilemma, which is that they constantly see new ideas and opportunities to improve their future product (which hasn’t been delivered yet). They imagine all of the new designs and features, and begin working on including them before the original version is even complete or launched.
In the worst cases, these periods of time can go on for days, weeks or even months, where entrepreneurs are spending time working on activities in the business, often looking far into the future, at the expense of working on the challenging but important actions which will actually be the business itself.
A business isn’t a business yet if it doesn’t have anything people are willing to pay for.
Taking the busyness out of business
So what can people do to get out of this trap?
I have a couple of tips.
Firstly, stop thinking that you’re impressing someone by working longer than you need to. You’re not. In some cases, you can come across as less able since your work appears to be taking longer. I learned this for myself a long time ago, where I noticed that if I focused on the right things, I would get as much productive work done in half a day than other people took a whole week to complete. And even now that I’m running my own firm, there are days when I get a solid three hours of real work done and feel like I can confidently reward myself by doing more pleasurable things for the rest of the day.
Begin by taking an honest and unbiased look at the work you do each week, and classifying it as either actions or activities. This will be very uncomfortable for many of you, since you’ll see how much time you’re spending on activities at the expense of actions.
Then, for each of those, note down both how urgent they are compared to the others, and how important they are overall. I usually suggest a 3 point scale of Low, Medium, High.
You’ll be able to figure out which actions are both urgent and important. These are what you should work on first thing in the morning, when you have your full supply of willpower. At first, you’ll be tempted to go back into your routine of doing the easier activities first thing in the morning, but you need to resist this. Very soon you’ll notice how much easier the actions have become since you’re able to focus on them much more effectively.
Finally, as a team, look at your list of regular meetings. First, ask if they are a meeting that usually results in actions and decisions. If it isn’t you can usually stop having that meeting and complete it just as effectively with a single email. Additionally, most meetings end up taking half and hour or an hour because that is the default time “chunk” which is allocated in scheduling software like Outlook. Instead, if you need to have a meeting, try out other durations like 10 or 15 minutes. Standing meetings are especially good for this, as it encourages the body to waste less time and keep up the pace.
Soon enough, you might not be in total control of that instant gratification monkey, but he won’t be controlling you anymore either.
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