The Shame of Productivity


We are part of a society constantly espousing the benefits of being “more productive”. As a group we’ve fallen for the misconception success is determined by how much you are able to do, not necessarily how well you are able to do it. Get more done, accomplish more, tick more checkboxes and you’ll be happier, healthier, and more successful.

When you ask people what being “more productive” means, almost always you’ll get the answer “getting more done.” Rarely is it about doing things more effectively or eliminating tasks to avoid unnecessary work. You’ll hear those mentioned in the diatribes of most productivity experts but rarely is the advice taken to heart by those trying to “be more productive.” The challenge is the definition of phrase “more productive” is the antithesis of what we should be striving.

Oh yes, I know we put stars on pedestals and laud them for their apparent unparalleled successes, but what we fail to consider is the improvements and refinements the majority have had to make on their way to their achievements. We strive to find the magic wand, the red pill, the “Top 10 hacks” to give us the secret to success. We don’t accept the fact that the last time a guy used a magic wand to make his work easier he ended up to his mouse ears in brooms and buckets. There are hundreds of strategies out there with even more variants all striving to be the one that does the trick for your productivity. You may even find one, but be prepared to get grief over “wasting time” trying different methods.

Therein lies the irony in all this. If you spend time creating systems and revising techniques, trying tools and watching videos, at some point someone will say, “don’t bother with all that, just do it.” Yes, thanks to Nike and other success peddlers we have become trained to “just do it.” You’ll also hear: “Just ship it”, “Done and shipped is better than perfect and unshipped”, and my personal favorite, “We’ll fix that in the next sprint / iteration / version, just do it.”

Taking time to determine the right things to be doing, planning for issues, and mapping out a path will not only make the end product you’re producing better but it will improve your productivity by eliminating rework and mitigating the effects of potential problems. We have developed entire methodologies around throughput and volume processing of tasks. Tomes written on topics such as “Inbox -1” and “Get This Stuff Done” focus on the doing part but little importance is placed on the time to determine the What and Why rather than just the How and When. Don’t get me wrong, most solid methodologies include time for planning but “Just Do It” causes us to skip those chapters.

We have become so delivery focused that strategy and ideation have become almost esoteric arts in the workplace as well. There are times when planning and thinking are accused of being procrastination and preventing us from action. We disguise our lack of commitment to thoroughness under the auspices of “keep it simple” and “just do it.” Strategy and innovative thinking are often limited to high pay grades often disconnected from the realities of the challenges being addressed.

At what point will we remember the value of taking time to think things through? There was a time when we would spend time just thinking. Putting in the effort to ponder, peruse, and pontificate on the What and Why. We are so focused on the How and When we just wait for someone else to tell us the What and usually never bother to share the Why. There is a depth to understanding the entirety of a situation which makes the effort more rewarding. Yes, there are times when mechanical execution of tasks can be satisfying but those time usually have short durations as the repetition wears away the resolve to act. Slowly questions such as “Why are we doing this?” or “What is this going to benefit?” start to come about and then the slippery slope is dead ahead. When will we start to dedicate resources and cycles to scenarios and creative evaluation around possible problems and how to deal with them before they come to fruition?

How often have you been tasked to do something as a fire drill or an “emergency” knowing full well a little planning and thought earlier in the process would have prevented the stress and undue sense of urgency? There’s an old chestnut, “A lack of planning on your part doesn’t constitute an emergency on mine.” As satisfying as that is to say, we all know instances when it just isn’t the case. We operate in a reactionary mode regardless of the amount of lip service paid to strategic planning and the number of hours lost in “planning” meetings. We get frustrated, annoyed, and finally throw up our hands and say “Just Do It.” The “Just Do It” mentality is the easy way out. How about we change it to “Think First”?

If we make a concerted effort to think beyond How and When and delve deeper into What and Why we’ll discover answers to questions we didn’t even know we should ask. We’ll find problems before they happen and be prepared. We’ll know what resources to ask for, what tools are required, and what information will make the difference to reach a successful conclusion. If we educate ourselves, our peers, and our children on the importance of critical, creative, strategic thinking wonderful things happen. In simple terms, we become more productive.