The Productivity Paradox: Short Term or Long Term Effect?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately on how to recover time I’ve spent in tasks not directly associated with what I consider productive, i.e. email, admin stuff, and doing everything else but those tasks that will help me achieve my goals. Why do I do those things, you might ask, and I reply that is because sometimes you just can’t say no. In a corporate environment, sometimes (some of you may argue that’s ‘all the time’) you get pulled out of your daily activities and asked to do something unplanned, like help out the sale manager with a powerpoint presentation, interview a new candidate for that admin position or even attend a meeting called last minute by your boss. As much as you hate it, sometimes you just have to adapt to the situation and juggle things around, add another monkey to your back and hope it doesn’t brake your neck. 

But I digress… what I’ve been focusing on for the past few posts is on how you can use tools you already have at your disposal (like MS Outlook for most corporate users) to become more effective and productive. The use of such tools, however, can be seen as a short-tem fix instead of a long-term effect. If you become better at managing your schedule, let’s say, will that help you gain back time you have wasted up until now and use now the time you’ll be saving in more productive tasks? Or is the time you have already wasted considered “sunk time” and will never be recovered?How productive are you?

On a recent blog post Jason Cohen, from Smart Bear Software, tackled this issue and argued that if you become 1% more productive each day you won’t necessarily be able to add all this productivity up and claim at the end of the month that you’ve now achieved 30% more productivity (the claim of 1% translating into cummulative productivity was made by Alfred Lin, Zappos COO, in his blog post). This is an interesting concept, because a lot of people start using GTD and similar methods to become more productive and it is comong that they end up not implementing the full method but are still satisfied because they feel they are now a bit more productive each day. So, in the end, if you are only a bit more productive can you claim an overall big productivity improvement?

What I will argue is that whatever the correct answer to this question, it is missing the point. The important thing is not to decide whether you can become 1% more productive each day, but is your productivity being applied to achieve your goals? Before you attempt to increase your productivity, first ask yourself: do you have a short-term or a long-term goal?

Short-term productivity is exactly that, the 1% each day, the ability of now to clean up your inbox in 30 mins instead of 45 mins, the extra 5 mins you gained because you are now running effective meetings, and the satisfaction that your day is now being spent on things that matter. 

Long-term productivity is the focus on your overall goals, how you spend your time, and what do you need to change in your daily habits that will let you achieve your objectives in the amount of time you have available. We all have goals and work hard to accomplish what we set forth but are we being realistic? Are we startegizing and planning what our priorities will be? Do we even know how much time we need to spend on specific tasks and whether those tasks will get us to where we want?

Jason, again, touched upon a very powerful first step for anyone interested in the long-term productivity plan. He talked about assessing your time and noting how you are spending your time during the day and week. Peter Drucker, in his book “The Effective Executive” spent the majority of his book discussing time management because it is such an important concept to tackle if you want to become more effective. Drucker suggested “know thy time” as a precursor to any adjustment you will have to make to your daily routine. This simple yet powerful principle is essential to help you better understand how you are spending your efforts. Take notes of how you are spending your time, then go back and ask yourself:

  1. What tasks are taking most of my time during the day and week?
  2. Which tasks should I be working on that will lead me to accomplish my goals?
  3. Are those tasks in my first list matching the ones in my second list?

Obvious, but not necessarily easy. Most of your time should be spent on those tasks that are directly associated with your goals, and if you are not spending most of your time on those, than no matter how productive you become every day (be it 1%, 5% or 10%!) the amount of productivity increased won’t matter if you are not focusing on what’s important.

Getting stuff done isn’t the goal. Getting the RIGHT stuff done, is.

Once you’ve identified what are the right tasks, the ones where you should spend more of your time then you can start thinking about ways to become more productive. This is long-term planning. If you always know how to spend your time, then when those unplanned events happen, you won’t be thrown off balance trying to recover your time.

Don’t focus on small or big improvements. Decide what you need to improve first.

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One Response to The Productivity Paradox: Short Term or Long Term Effect?

  1. Jason Cohen says:

    Great point Daniel, and one that I neglected to make in my post. You’re absolutely right that all the productivity in the world doesn’t matter if you’re not working on the right stuff!

    I see the same thing in software development. You can have a developer who is fast and accurate at writing code, but it doesn’t matter if you make the wrong features.

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