14th March 2022
Like many elements of business, scholars and academics have, long ago, created a formula to measure efficiency and productivity.
Labour productivity is the function of total outputs over total inputs.
The figure derived from this formula can be a useful number to quantify the work your people are doing. However, like many business theories, the formulaic approach to people often fails to account for the human side of business.
In more simple terms? Reducing people and their output to generalised figures has the potential to gloss over the real-life factors that influence how we work.
People are complicated. People tend to be inconsistent. People have lives, with all sorts of strange and unusual, ever-changing circumstances that influence their mindset.
When we bring up workplace productivity, we need to bear in mind that each person is a unique case - what works for one may not work for the other. In saying this, productivity is not a conversation to ignore altogether - rather, we need to understand some of the key psychological processes occurring when we work (including those that bar us from working at all). The productivity debate should centre around understanding how to optimise our minds to harvest our most abundant energy and relish in our work with unparalleled vigour.
Here are 5 of our favourite principles.
1. Set yourself up for a great start:
Don’t check your email first thing - rather, get underway with an immediate task, and schedule in short windows of time throughout your day to check the inbox.
Immediately checking your email the moment you sit down to work can have the unhelpful and unmotivating effect of taking up your time, stressing you out and making you spiral and feel out of control.
Rather, allocate small chunks of time in your morning (perhaps second thing, or third thing) to check email. Remain in the driver’s seat of your day, making active, intentional decisions about how you allocate your time - and not allowing time to get the better of you.
2. Formal, intentional break time:
How many times have you tried to continuously work, until you slowly peter out of energy and resign to checking your phone more and more frequently, until you’re no longer formally ‘working’?
It’s all too easy to sluggishly ease into an informal break that consists of solely scrolling through your phone while still sitting at your desk.
Instead of this guilt-inducing cycle, try factoring in scheduled breaks, where you intentionally move away from your desk and move your body (even if walking to the couch three meters away). Changing up your environment gives your brain a rest, allowing you to step back and observe whatever you’re working on with a greater perspective - seeing the bigger picture.
Stepping away from the desk for a formal break is psychologically brilliant too - you can pull a ‘Pavlov’ on yourself, conditioning your brain to associate productivity and hard work with your desk, and associate rest and leisure with the communal couch, or your bed (when working from home).
3. Is it quality over quantity?
Recognise how unproductive perfectionism can be. Instead of stressing and obsessing about doing your task perfectly, to the point of incompletion, sometimes just getting started will spur you into action.
There’s a brilliant story from the book Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It goes something like this:
“In a pottery class, the professor divided up her students into two groups, A and B.
Group A would be graded on the number of clay pots they produced by the end of the semester - 50kg of pots would be equivalent to an A grade, 40kg equivalent to a B and so on.
Group B, on the other hand, would be graded only on one pot, which would achieve a final grade based on how perfect it was. The better the single pot, the higher the final grade.
By the end of the semester, a curious phenomenon occurred. The highest quality work was produced by Group A, who were aiming to make as many pots as possible. Through the process of creating, they honed their skills and learned how to make the perfect pot, which would be the most stable and efficient to create. Group B on the other hand had sat developing theories of perfectionism and conceptualising the perfect pot, and had little to show for their effort other than a pile of dead clay.”
The moral of the story is simple: quantity leads to quality. The two are not mutually exclusive, as we are often led to believe!
In the workplace, this has a curious application. Sometimes, we struggle to begin tasks, theorising about how perfect the final outcome should be. In these cases, rather than focusing on creating the perfect final result, focus on getting started.
4. Understand where your attention is going:
If you adopt a cynical, critical approach to your phone and social media, it may inspire you to put your phone away while working altogether (and even delete all your social media, retire to an isolated cabin in the woods and retreat from society completely)!
Researcher Alice Marwick coined the phrase ‘attention economy’ which describes how attention is a finite, scarce resource that we all compete for. When we post and share content online, we contribute to the near-infinite sheer amount of data and information available digitally, and as a result, we all compete for the finite reserve of attention. This is how social media operates: forcing us to post more and more and engage as frequently as possible, to harvest and commodify our own attention.
In less theoretical terms, this explains how social media is designed to keep us locked in the app, using attention-grabbing features, such as endless notifications, to do so - because the companies earn more money, the longer you're locked in.
Take a stand against this disturbing model of consumption, and stay in control of your own attention - by putting down your phone, switching off notifications and closing that email tab, when you’re in focus mode.
Some phones have the option to opt-in to a focus or 'do not disturb' mode, where unnecessary apps are temporarily disabled for a set period of time - forcing you out of the mindless scrolling phase (which we often do without thinking!).
5. The theory behind productivity:
In the school of Economics, the Law of Diminishing Returns is used to explain factors of productivity within a production context. In short, the idea of diminishing returns states once production capacity is reached, adding in more factors of production will merely reduce the overall output.
In simple language, this is a critical principle: if you usually work for seven to eight hours per day, working overtime for 10+ hours will likely only diminish your productivity. The first few hours are more efficient and productive than the remaining several.
Realising at which point your output (or productivity) will decrease can help you make smarter decisions about when you work, or what task you focus on - and for how long.
This coincides nicely with Parkinson’s Law, another theoretical phenomenon. This law essentially refers to the old adage that work expands to fill the time allocated to its completion. Give yourself two weeks to complete a task? You’re likely going to take the full two weeks to do it.
(not to be confused with Cole's Law; a thinly sliced cabbage).
Keep both of these theories at the forefront of your mind the next time you examine your to-do list, and observe the point when your productivity begins to diminish. Aim to adjust your schedule to match your most productive hours, and allocate the right length of time for each task - without over-assigning time.
You'll be surprised at how much work you can complete and how much you can fit into your day.
Productivity is personal. Each person has different requirements and ideal settings to create their maximum output. Treating your brain like a machine, giving it the necessary care and attention, can be the ticket to achieving more than you ever thought possible.
Or at least, just keeping up with those deadlines.
- Want to know more about how to create a better health and safety culture? View ecoPortal smarter safety videos. ecoPortal health and safety software can also help your business. Try a demo or get in touch with the team at ecoPortal.