Illustration by Justin Tran
Illustration by Justin Tran

Work Culture

Changing your perspective on productivity


Published on January 17, 2019

Looking for a better way to work in 2019? Don’t download the apps. Don’t do the to-do list. Don’t do more.

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As a culture, we’ve put a lot of energy toward figuring out how to increase productivity in the workplace.

Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman proposes the secret to accomplishing more isn’t the perfect tool or technique. Instead, to get more done, he says, focus only on doing what you enjoy. Burkeman acknowledges the problem with that particular productivity fix is that most of us don’t have the option of foisting all the tasks we hate onto someone else. However that, he says, is an issue with society not productivity.

But what if the real issue with our culture of work is that we’re looking for a solution to the wrong problem? 

When it comes to figuring out how to unlock max productivity, there are plenty of tips, books, and videos on how to get it done.  But is our pursuit of productivity standing in the way of something more meaningful? “Productivity isn’t inherently motivating,” says Dropbox researcher Jennifer Brook. “That’s not why people show up to their work. We show up for a lot of other reasons and that just isn’t a primary one.” It’s time to break the Productivity Myth.

The productivity myth

Hidden between the fear that “The robots are going to take our jobs!” and the backlash against “busyness,” is the reality that so many of us are burnt out on doing more. Our society’s latest turn toward increased productivity can be mapped back to the Great Recession when employees were expected to do more at the office because there were literally fewer people on staff to do the work and out of fear of losing their employment.

Not only does an excessive focus on productivity rob us of our ability to be our best creative selves, we know now that lengthy workdays don’t necessarily match up with increased output and can even be damaging to productivity. For the last decade, a key benefit of our growing supply of workplace technology tools is that they've allowed us to get more done in less time. And still, the emphasis on even-greater productivity persists. According to Tony Schwartz, author of "The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working," this drive for more is backfiring. In the Harvard Business Review, Schwartz points to the major Toyota recall and the mortgage crisis as examples of the financial consequences of our manic pursuit of productivity gone terribly wrong.

Besides, if as Brook says, productivity isn’t motivating, how does that affect the way today’s workers feel about their careers? A little more than one in three of us are engaged at work, which means the majority of American workers spend their time on the clock feeling uninspired or worse, actively working against the workplace accomplishments of others aka being unproductive. And it’s not just American workers, says Brook, “We’re in this moment globally, where people are questioning ‘What do I want to put my productive time towards?’ and ‘For the sake of what?’ Those are much bigger questions to ask and answer, personally, as an organization, as a team, as a society, than the narrow question of, ‘How do we be more productive?’”

Productivity as the lead priority of an organization risks being costly and can be a contributor to poor job satisfaction. Brook points out that people are currently questioning the “need to raise their productivity for the sake of more” when “more has created a lot of systemic and societal problems like pollution of our environment and the fragmentation of our attention.” The “more is more” mentality behind our nation’s productivity mania can’t go on forever. But if not more, then what?

Well-known organizational psychologist Adam Grant believes we need a cause to rally around, “Productivity is a means to an end, not an end,” Grant told GQ. “I think the worst way to be more productive is to set your sights on being more productive. What you want to do instead is to focus on a reason to be more productive.”

Meaning over more?

Could meaning be the reason we need to motivate us? Brook says, “People are seeing meaning as an antidote to more, but it’s not just about meaning. Meaning is a signal that we’re connected to something larger, but it’s really about re-orienting ourselves around the bigger things at stake for us like race and gender equity and inclusion or a sustainable planet for ourselves and our kids.” For our work to matter it needs to speak to our values and something must be at stake for us. When asked what meaningful work looks like, Brook described it as work that:

  • In some way benefits more than just the individual.
  • Prioritizes how we relate to and interact with each other.
  • Makes the connection to our greater values and beliefs.

Grant asks himself similar questions on his quest to flee the cult of productivity: “Who's going to benefit from this project? Why did I start this project in the first place? I try to reconnect with the motivation for doing it, what's fascinating about it, what's meaningful about it.” But how can the rest of us break free from the productivity trap and bring our organizations with us?

Escape the productivity trap  

As anyone who’s ever been on the forward motion of a wave of change can attest, breaking free of societal expectations isn’t easy. Even Brook, who spent her 20s far from the rat race living and working as an artist before beginning her career as a researcher, needs to regularly remind herself to ease off the desire to be overly productive. Brook advises individuals to develop the following skills and behaviors to avoid falling prey to being productive for the sake of being productive:

  • Get very clear and continually reconnect with your values and what matters deeply. What is your unique purpose that you’re here to do?
  • Use your purpose as a decision-making framework for what you choose to work on and how you spend your time. 
  • This is a lifelong project. As one ages this becomes increasingly more important as you grow more aware of your time.

When organizations join individuals in taking up the cause of escaping the productivity trap, it puts them in a stronger position to attract and keep the right talent, build things that actually matter, and thrive in the future of work.