Let us begin with an assumption: productive work is the goal of most businesses and managers.
Why would I call that an “assumption?” Doesn’t that seem like mostly-verifiable fact?
Here’s why: a lot of work is tied to self-worth, a quest for relevance, and the hope that no one is perceiving you as incompetent. This is why so many people are so obsessed with how “busy” they are, and why quantity of work on your desk often means more than quality of work completed.
Oftentimes, productive work doesn’t really matter. It should, and we constantly talk about how it does, but we often speak about Topic A at work and Topic B is the real deal. We just don’t acknowledge that publicly.
Let me give you two quick examples here before we hit the meat of this.
1: if your boss assigns you a project, assume you turn in two versions. (Have to suspend some belief here.) One version is productive work; it accomplishes the client need and is really good. But it didn’t follow every check box of process. The second version did follow the process, but the work sucks. No quality. Most bosses would like Version II better. Process = control = relevance. That’s important to remember.
2: ever worked with someone who tells you how slammed they are at every second, every day, of every season? “This is my busy season!” “No, this is!” You know that person, right? Ever wonder why their life never seems to get easier? I mean, we have 189 million books and articles about productivity nowadays. Shouldn’t their situation be improving? No. Because they’re not that slammed. They need to say that to present the truly important elements.
Now let’s get into productive work a little bit more.
Productive work and the one brain shift you need to make
Sweet article from Mark Manson on “How to be more productive.” (A noble goal!) He hits this paragraph nicely:
Exercise has diminishing returns for the simple reason that your muscles tire out. And as your muscles tire out, their ability to be stimulated for further growth diminishes until it’s more or less non-existent. Spending two hours in the gym gets you little to no extra benefit as spending an hour. And spending an hour only gives you slightly more benefit than spending 45 minutes.
And look, a corresponding visual:
So if you want to do more productive work, you need to understand how productivity works. In other words, the hard ceiling on human productivity at work is about 55 hours/week. In several studies (people smarter than me), working 54 hours/week has the same return as working 72 hours. Think what you could do with those extra 18 hours! Netflix! Children! Friends! Happy hours! Rec leagues! Sex!
How do you make that shift?
Realize that while work is important, it’s ultimately a means to an end. Companies don’t operate according to moral norms like reciprocity. Your boss loves you? Great. That and a quarter gets you a bit more than two dimes. If a client drops, revenue erodes, or a host of other things … you’re potentially on the chopping block. Company loyalty is dead, and — reasonably — employee loyalty died with it. Insert something about millennials and the Gig Economy here. (I would link myself, but I’m not trying to be a total ass here.)
You also need to determine two sets of priorities:
- Those around your life
- Those around work
For “life,” that’s going to be different for everyone. One approach is “The Four-Way Win.”
For “work,” also different for everyone. Work priority is notoriously pretty bad and tends to be defined by manager/silo, but if you use data to see where revenue is coming from/potential revenue channels, there are opportunities to define priority therein.
The 88 percent stat
Should be noted that, per one study, 88 percent of “rewarded and appreciated projects” began with the same question:
What difference could we create that the end customer would love?
While that question doesn’t do much for employees (internal stakeholders), it seems like a good question as a starting point if you want to do more productive work.
And finally, understand the body’s timetable
People are different, but generally most people are more productive at 10am than 3:30pm, which is why (one reason why) the standard work day makes almost no sense anymore. I’d argue you need to understand two things:
- The importance of breaks: People love to talk about their “hustle” or “grind” or nonstop 16-hour days. Largely bullshit. Most people spend a portion of that time checking social media, emailing, masturbating, whatever. The optimal workload management ratio (science!) is 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. Pursue that.
- Days are different: Mondays and Thursdays shouldn’t be used for the same tasks at work. That’s not productive, because your body has a different approach to Monday than Thursday. (And let’s not even get started on Friday.) Each day in a work week has its own role, and creating a “focus day” can be big too. Oh, and by the way, you can be productive on Friday afternoons. Here’s how.
Again: productive work should matter. It’s often not really the goal, though. It’s just what we say is the goal. The real goal is being perceived as indispensable, especially as automation looms.
What would you add on productive work, ideally without quoting a Travis Bradberry article back to me?