We need to talk about productivity debt.

Bruno Sánchez-A Nuño
Mar 2 · 6 min read

We seem so obsessed to do more, to get more things done, to be more productive, that we rarely stop to ask ourselves to what cost.

If you can’t go running without listening to a podcast. If you can’t have coffee without reading the news. If you feel you are always behind… you might be suffering too much “productivity debt”.

In Economy, we call “debt” when we get something now that we will need to pay later, and we will usually pay more than we originally got. Usually, the more you wait to pay it back, the more you need to give back. Debt lets us do things now that otherwise, we couldn´t. Debt can be a good tool, like when you use it to invest in your company, and the profits you generate are bigger than the interest the debt creates. But you know you have to pay it back.

In Technology, we say we incur in “technical debt” when we create software and make decisions that make us go faster now, but we know we will need to change later. The more we wait to “pay back” that decision, the harder it becomes. For example, assuming our code only runs on our computer, so we reference our computer folders in several places in the program, instead of creating a placeholder function or something that takes time but works on any computer, or phone… or when there are no files. Technology debt is usually unavoidable to move fast — it’s even recommended to get the first prototype as quickly as possible —. But too much debt will cripple improving the program mid and long term when you want to make seemingly trivial changes. It will be hard to explain to a non-expert why a perfectly working program on your computer would need days of work to make it work on another computer.

👋 Hola “Productivity debt”

I would say that we also incur in “productivity debt” when we try to make as many things as possible in the shortest amount of time. But in this case, we don’t seem to consider any cost to it. We make “To do” lists, we buy productivity apps, we find hacks to save time like coffee makers with timers, we use services like BlueApron to avoid wasting time cooking or Deliveroo instead of going to eat out.

We seek this feeling of a productive day. It’s a kind of winning that feels very personal and addictive. Maybe the little thrill when you order the UberX while you are wrapping up a meeting or off-boarding a plane so that it’s arriving when you get out. Or maybe ticking off all your tasks for the day. Maybe getting inbox zero. Maybe we stop taking a break for coffee and we have it while we check email or the news. Maybe reading all those articles on the metro when we commute or listening to all the podcasts while running. Or we skip lunch with colleagues, sticking the fork on the salad while looking at the computer screen watching a Ted talk on how to be more productive working fewer hours. Maybe we look at our calendar and if it’s not fully booked back-to-back we schedule some extra meeting, squeeze a call to your parents or rush to a yoga session, or the doctor checkup you should have done months ago. Maybe you get annoyed for receiving Whatsapp audio messages so you can’t read it while on a meeting.

😱 The cost of Productivity Debt

Productivity obsesses in “Getting Things Done”, the micro view, the process, when we actually need a macro view, “Getting To Outcomes”. Like trees that don’t let you see the forest, productivity can derail into being better at trees, or being better at “being better”, not on the forest. And then we still have to pay that debt.

We pay our productivity debt with less agency, inflated expectations, less control of our lives. If we answer all emails before we even run the whole inbox someone, very productive, will have already replied with a new question. Moreover, those answers will probably be short, shallow, automated, and we might miss the whole context, or we were too focused on the short-sight that we missed their later reply that everything is fixed. We pay this debt either with stress, depression, or need to carve out times when we can focus on controlling our lives, like mediation, getaway trips, no-phone days. Ironically there is an increasing market of very productive meditation courses, organized retreats, wellbeing apps, …

We pay our productivity debt with less creativity, less depth of thought. Almost all theories of how creativity happens, need some kind of “unproductive” moments. Maybe an unrelated task is suddenly relevant, or a flow of thoughts needs to incubate. Maybe we needed to explore where some crazy idea might lead, or we need deep concentration to slowly gather all aspects of the problem at once in our head. Not surprisingly, Asimov’s idea of creativity is opposite to any productive framework. He calls for a “folly of creativeness” with “fooling around, boondoggling, telling dirty jokes”. Don Knuth, professor emeritus at Stanford University and computer science guru, writes on his website that:

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

We pay our productivity debt with less capacity to react. There is a reason emergency response teams, like fire-fighters, sometimes appear free, they must be able to respond at any time. There must be response capacity in the system at any time. You pay this debt when you stress coming back from a weekend, a vacation, a traffic jam, your kid who is suddenly sick and needs to be picked up… Less room to adapt means more often having to confront the pressure to re-fit all our duties. That’s the definition of stress.

We pay our productivity debt with lack of focus. When we get things done, as many as possible, be avoid filtering, selecting, keeping on track. It conveys our inability to make tough decisions. Maybe answering all emails, going to all conferences, being in all meetings is just not realistic. This lack of a clear focus can derail on focusing on being productive as a goal on itself. Rory Vaden, on his “Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success” says “Success is never owned, it is rented. And the rent is due every day”. He coins it as a positive thing, to embrace. I take it as negative, as a proxy that that “success” is a carrot on a stick. Process over Outcomes.

Sometimes productivity is a way to externalize the cost to someone else. Like when the doctor fills up the waiting room with back-to-back appointments. All those people waiting are paying the price of the doctor’s productivity to avoid free slots. Maybe your CEO is eternally busy but surely tomorrow you can grab a coffee, and so you eternally hold on your progress for that tentative but surely soon meeting.

🦄 How much productivity debt is ok?

I have no idea. Like any debt, it can be a very useful tool, but I don’t think it’s ever free. Most people seem to think otherwise, which then leads to productivity inflation: the new normal thing is to do much more, to use the new apps, to answer more emails, to share more, meditate more, make more pictures, … Productivity inflation might indeed be part of progress. After all, we all don’t spend most of our days writing letters by hand and waiting weeks for a reply. But indeed neither we all spend most of our days planting the food we eat. With productivity increase also comes specialization. We don’t get better at doing more things, we get better at doing some things and we focus on those.

I might be all wrong, and If only I were more productive I would achieve much more. I don’t know. I started reflecting on this after reading Oliver Burkeman’s article against time management, which happened to be close on my reading list with Asimov’s creativity essay. And then, luckily, I had a few unproductive days to think about this.

A rule of thumb for productivity debt might be the one that you can invest its profits in something else, and in net effect, you are freer. Be a productive coder, so you can then avoid managing a team and spend more time doing better code. Be a productive manager answering emails and going to meetings, so you can build a great team you trust and avoid having to micromanage their work. Be productive at communication, so when you do communicate you are not paying Vaden’s “daily rent of success” but creating something so other can be better at getting to outcomes, not processes, something worth sharing… which I hope this article is. 🙏

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Bruno Sánchez-A Nuño

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Scientist who worked with rockets, then at the World Bank, and now trying to understand how Science actually makes Impact in Society. brunosan.eu