productivityIf you are reading this, you care about your productivity. And however productive you are, you probably want to improve. That is a worthy goal. Before we can improve our productivity, we have to know what it is. And many people don’t have a clear picture of productivity. Let’s get clear and work on getting better, shall we?

A Major Worry

A major worry of leaders when people left the office to work from home was “How will I know what people are doing?” While the concerns were often described in terms of productivity and wondering if people would get their work done. As someone ultimately responsible for the work getting done, that makes some sense, yet too often the real reason for the question often came from a loss of control: the unstated concern was “if I can’t see them – I don’t have control.”

This frames a view of productivity as being about activity, which as I think you will see before we are done, isn’t the most accurate or helpful definition.

A Current Example

Over the last several months I have asked hundreds of people individually and in workshops this question:

What are you doing with your commute time?

With commutes largely now consisting of a walk down the hallway (compared to the average American commute of 27 minutes each way), it seems like a good question. While I get responses including, time spent sleeping, reading, and exercising, well over 50% of the responses are “I’m working more.”

When people tell me they are using their former commute time to work more, my next question is:

Are you getting more done?

Sadly, the answer is either “no” or people don’t know how to answer the question.

Does this “extra” work time make people more productive?

The Four-Letter Word That Gets in Our Way

Perhaps the most dangerous four-letter word in our vocabulary today is:


All those folks using their commute time to work, will all tell you they are busy.

Here is why I consider busy a dangerous word:

  • It gives us a false sense of success. When we are busy, we are “working hard” which for many people is a virtuous idea.
  • It gives us an excuse. Tell someone you are busy, and people are immediately understanding and commiserate with you. And if something is a bit late because we have been busy, people seem to understand. (i.e. “I know you are busy.”)
  • We mistake it for productivity. Busy is a term of activity, which takes us back to the boss wanting to know if we are working, or the team member who is working more hours on the job.

Activity – everything you have read so far is about activity.  But activity isn’t productivity.

A Better Definition

Consider two people who need to reach a destination 20 miles from their home. One decided to walk, the other drove their car.  Both reached the destination. Which was more productive?

The driver was more productive.

What was the difference?

Time spent to accomplish the task.  When you want to measure productivity, you must consider time spent.

Productivity then is more about accomplishment than activity. One of the definitions of productive, according to Merriam-Webster is: “yielding results, benefits, and profits”.

Accomplishment, not activity.

Applied Mathematics

Remember that productivity has a numerator – work completed and a denominator – time spent.

Looking at our earlier example then of working during former commute time, but not knowing what more you have accomplished, means you did the same amount of work in more time – the equivalent of walking rather than driving.

Thinking about activity might never uncover the issue, but when we think about accomplishment/unit of time or effort, we are defining productivity.

When you begin to think about productivity in this way, for yourself and others – you will ask yourself better questions, and most likely begin to get better results. And when you do, you will begin to become more productive.


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