Have you been chasing the elusive rabbit of productivity for too long?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more productive and get more done. Not only can improving productivity help you check more tasks off your to-do list, but when approached from the right place—and as part of a larger strategy—it can help you form better habits, foster professional and personal growth, and help you build a more fulfilling, meaningful life.
But in recent years, there’s been a clear shift in the way we think about productivity; instead of looking at taking steps to increase productivity as a helpful tool in the bigger picture of improving your work (or your life!), many have adopted a “productivity at all costs” attitude, where getting more done is the end (and only!) goal.
But the problem with productivity for productivity’s sake? It’s extremely easy to overdo it. Instead of focusing on producing meaningful work, you get caught up in hours worked, tasks completed, and rate of production. Or, in other words, you fall into a vicious circle of focusing too much on the production process instead of the actual work.
If any of this sounds familiar, you may be caught in the productivity trap—and so focused on getting more done in the short term, you’ve lost sight of getting what matters done in the long term. Let’s take a look at 6 reasons why productivity in and of itself shouldn’t be your end goal—and how to break free from the productivity trap and refocus on the bigger picture.
Table of Contents
1. You Don’t Think Before Taking Action
Have you ever heard the term “measure twice, cut once?” It may sound trivial, but the truth is, when it comes to productivity improvements, it rings true.
When you’re solely focused on productivity growth, there’s an urge to dive into the productivity data (like hours worked, services rendered, or tasks accomplished per hour), identify ways to improve those metrics, and take immediate action to boost the numbers.
But taking action without a plan is rarely the right move—and, in their haste to improve productivity, many people take action before really putting thought into what actions would best support their workflow and goals in the long run.
That’s why it’s so important to slow down—and before you act, take the time to think, plan, and make sure that, whatever steps you’re taking to foster productivity growth, are in alignment with who you are, how you work best, and where you’re ultimately trying to go.
Considering how fast-paced our personal and professional lives already are, before you move forward with the latest productivity hack, it may be a good idea to slow down and ask yourself some simple questions—like “Will it really affect my work?”, “Is this worth my time?”, or “Is this the work I should be doing now?”
Bottom line? There are tons of productivity measures or process improvements out there that, in theory, can help people get more done. But before you jump headfirst into implementing those measures or improvements in your business or work, it’s important to slow down, evaluate your strategy, and make sure that those productivity “hacks” are actually going to inspire meaningful change in your business.
Bonus tip: While we’re on the topic of making decisions, I recommend that you watch this TED Talk on the importance of asking the right questions before approaching any type of work.
2. You Try to Improve What Already Works
If you subscribe to most productivity gurus’ line of thinking, you’d believe that everything, in work and in life, is subject to improvement.
But sometimes, things are fine (or better than fine!) exactly the way they are—and spinning your wheels to try to improve such things may technically boost productivity, but it certainly won’t increase efficiency or drive better results.
For example, let’s say you use LinkedIn to prospect for new clients—and your strategy has helped you build up a healthy backlog of leads for your business.
With a “productivity at all costs” mindset, you might be tempted to invest your energy and labor hours in trying to adjust your strategy and bring in more leads per hour worked. But if you already have a system that’s working—and producing the leads you need to keep your business growing, thriving, and moving forward—that energy and labor would be better invested in developing a strategy to better serve the leads you already have (e.g., doing research on your prospects to deliver more targeted pitches or implementing new technology or software to better manage your leads).
Or, to put it in other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
If you’re not sure which areas of your workflow could benefit from productivity hacks—and which are fine as is—try using the Pareto principle. According to the Pareto principle (a.k.a. the 80/20 rule), 20% of the effort or resources you invest yields 80% of the total results. Following the 80/20 rule, you can pinpoint the top 20% of your most effective activities and leave them as is—then look at the other 80% as an opportunity to improve and track productivity.
3. You Focus On Too Many Strategies at Once
In case you haven’t tried that already, type the phrase “productivity tips” in Google and look at the number of results. How many did you get? Thousands? Hundreds of thousands? And how much of the information and know-how from the results pages is actually valuable—and how much of it is a waste of time?
The point is, even if exploring productivity tips was your full-time job, you wouldn’t be able to read through all of that content in a year, let alone apply it—and trying to digest and implement all of those productivity strategies is a surefire way to negatively impact your economic performance, create overwhelm, and actually make it harder to get things done.
So while it may be tempting to read every productivity article or spend all your free time listening to self-improvement podcasts, having a finger in every pie is not a sound tactic if you want to deliver quality—and actually get meaningful work done in your business.
Instead of trying to introduce as much productivity advice as you possibly can, focus on making small, calculated changes in the areas that matter.
For example, instead of spending hours every week reading as much productivity content as you can—and then trying to apply that content to your work—choose one area or task that you want to improve, like increasing purchased services for your existing clients.
Choose one change you can implement consistently over a specific period (like touching base with your clients once a week or offering a new deal or discount to existing clientele). Then see how that change improves productivity in that area.
4. You Don’t Finish What You Started
What would happen to your business if you constantly jumped from one project to another, without crossing the finish line on any of them? If you focused on instant gratification (I want to try this—and I want to try it now!) instead of long-term success (I have a clear strategy—and I am going to see it through to the end).
Chances are, things wouldn’t go well.
Unfortunately, the modern productivity obsession feeds on a want for instant gratification and immediate results: “How to Become a Millionaire (Quickly)”, “5 Easy Ways to Increase Your Profit by 300%”, “How to Read a Book in 2 Hours”—you get the idea. It’s not surprising that very few of those “successful” people ever mention perseverance and consistency as elements of their master strategies.
Nowadays, the simple ability to have a long-term plan—and then stick to that long-term plan until its conclusion—is in short supply. But success—whether that’s defined as landing a new client, driving economic growth for your business, or launching a new product—is a long game.
So instead of jumping from one productivity hack to the next, try developing a long-term strategy for success—and then seeing that strategy through.
5. Your Tools Are Using You
If you want to get more done, tools can be extremely helpful. There are new technologies that can help with everything from more effectively managing your labor force and improving information technology (IT) for your business to monitoring output trends and better organizing new tasks.
But technology can be a blessing and a curse. While the right tool can help you get a job done quickly and more efficiently, spending too much time and mental energy evaluating tools—and trying to find the “perfect” tech stack for the job—can actually cause multi-factor productivity to tumble.
For example, let’s say you want to get a better sense of labor productivity within your business—or, in other words, how effective your employees and workers are each day.
While there are certain tools that can help you better understand the data, if you have your labor statistics available (e.g., units produced per hour), you don’t actually need a tool to get the job done. Funneling all your time and energy into finding tools that can help you—for example, turn your statistics into fancy charts and reports—will actually keep you from taking steps to actually improve your labor productivity.
Bottom line? There’s nothing wrong with using technology to make your business more productive and effective. But if you find that you’re spending a significant amount of time researching, evaluating, and comparing new tools, ask yourself, “Do I really need this tool to do my work properly?” If the answer is no, move on.
Bonus tip: Even though I rely on tools like time trackers, to-do lists, and digital calendars to manage my workflow, using multiple solutions that serve a similar purpose does more harm than good. If you feel that researching and comparing productivity software has become your little hobby, have a look at this article.
6. You’ll Put Yourself at Risk for Burnout
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be more productive. But chasing productivity at all costs is a losing battle—and it can put you at serious risk for burnout.
If your only goal is to increase productivity, you can use hacks to build a more efficient workflow. But as you increase efficiency—and get things done faster—chances are, you’ll fill that time and space with new tasks, responsibilities, and to-dos.
The more productive you become, the more things you’ll add to your plate—and the more likely it is that you’ll get completely overwhelmed and burned-out.
On the flip side, if your goal is not just to boost productivity for productivity’s sake—and is instead to increase productivity, for example, to have more time to spend with your family or to explore your hobbies—you’re more likely to use productivity hacks to create more balance in your work and life, which can help keep burnout at bay.
The Bottom Line
Chasing the rabbit of productivity has become an international sport. Nobody knows exactly what the rules are, but since the game is afoot, we feel compelled to participate.
Just like the snake oil peddlers of the Old West, productivity gurus go to great lengths to sell the “best,” “fastest,” and “easiest” methods that will allow you to excel in business and personal life. But sometimes, a little skepticism can go a long way.
Don’t get us wrong; we’re not saying productivity is a bad thing. When used strategically, productivity hacks and strategies can help you become more efficient at work and find a better work-life balance—that is, if you don’t get carried away.
So don’t get carried away. Instead of pursuing productivity for the sake of productivity, pursue productivity to improve your work and your life.
This post was updated in March 2022.