Is Productivity Overrated?

Is Productivity Overrated?
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Productivity – personal and work – was the hot topic of the past decade. Everywhere one turned there were sites and articles on lifehacks and how to be more productive. But is productivity overrated?

The Podcast That Got Me Thinking

I started to consider this question while I was listening to Cal Newport’s podcast, episode 235. In it, he considered an old article he had written about personal productivity, and whether the article was still valid.

(I highly recommend listening to the podcast because he takes apart his article point by point and walks through the changing in his thinking.)

The thing that captured my attention was that Dr. Newport equated productivity with organization.

Organization Has Never Been Productivity

In my mind, organization and productivity have always been two separate topics. One can be productive without being organized, and organized without being productive.

Organization is simply one of those things that helps people without an innate sense of “stuff” to find the things they need in the least amount of time possible.

I have seen several people (not many) who can find any piece of paper immediately in a towering pile because they remember where it is located. I have also seen several people (not many) who can locate anything immediately in a living space that seems totally chaotic.

The key word here is immediately. Organization is simply a means to find things with the least amount of time spent.

And when we talk about doing something the quickest way possible, we are talking about efficiency.

Efficiency Is One Side of the Productivity Coin

It wasn’t long into my own productivity journey that I realized that productivity is not just about efficiency. True, if you are wasting time while doing activities, you are not efficient, and therefore not using your time to its best advantage.

But it isn’t just about being efficient.

Productivity is also about being effective.

Effective: Doing the Right Things

It doesn’t matter how well and fast you can crank widgets if what is needed is to turn whatsits.

One has to be doing the right things in order to be truly productive.

An example from my own life: I was working with a junior developer to help her assimilate into a programming team. Her job included many tasks, but the main focus was for her to write code. As in develop (hence the job title of developer).

She was falling behind, missing milestones on a project, and I was asked to find out why.

During my first meeting, she proudly showed me the documentation she had written for the first phase of the project. It was beautifully formatted with a table of contents, an index and a glossary. Terms were cross-referenced and it was easy to use. She showed me how she had used styles and bookmarks to make updating and formatting the document a snap.

She had taken all of the development time for phases 2 and 3 and put the effort into creating the masterpiece of documentation for phase 1.

This had two problems, outside of the fact that she hadn’t done the development: the first was that the documentation would become outdated as she finished each phase; and the second was that focus group studies had told leadership that users of the software preferred to get answers to questions online.

She had created the document efficiently but had done the wrong task. She had not spent her time effectively.

Deep Work is Effective Work

One of Dr. Newport’s books is on Deep Work*. In it he talks about how people can and should escape the trap of doing things that are low-value, like answering email, if you want to be able to focus on more cognitively challenging work.

No one gets paid to solely answer email, after all.

Deep work is clearing out the distractions so you can focus on the task at hand.

I’ve always thought this is about the second half of the productivity coin: being effective. Doing the stuff that matters while limiting the stuff that doesn’t.

This idea was brought back to me as I was listening to the podcast where Dr. Newport looked at his past article.

Organization Plays a Part

So productivity is effective work done efficiently. But does organization come in?

Absolutely. For those people who don’t have the spatial memory to be able to locate things in total disorganization (and very few people do), organization can be a means of clearing out the distractions. It gets low-value stuff out of the way so I can get to a mind space to do effective work.

Organization allows me to find the tools I need to do the job at hand without the delays of searching for them. Organization means that my mind is not constantly distracted with tasks I need to do because they are written down in a trusted system. Organization means that my visual field is clear when I work (an important consideration for my personal focus).

Organization allows me to be efficient and effective, but it is neither one of them.

Is Productivity Overrated?

Coming back to the question of “is productivity overrated”.

Since productivity involves doing to right work, I would say no. It is never going to be overrated for people to do what they do best and to be their best selves.

Efficiency will never be overrated either. If you need to get something done with the least amount of time spent you have to be efficient.

Organization as a means to a goal will never be overrated because it supports both effectiveness and efficiency. Organization as a goal in itself seems like a timewaster.

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