Productivity is a Side Effect

How to be more productive in four really hard steps


It feels like every day, more and more productivity tips come across my various channels. We love to read about productivity. Part of it our inherent desire to be productive — to be a productive member of society (Max Weber explored this need much better than I ever could). But what does it mean to be productive? Is it not checking email before a certain time of day? Is it keeping lists? Is it investing in the right tool or app?

Productivity is a personal concept. I suspect knowledge workers are very interested in reading about it because there’s no way to measure productivity externally. Furniture makers know they’re being more productive when they build more furniture. But for others, the measurement is not so cut-and-dried. So we read about productivity to compare ourselves to others, and because many of us assume we’re not being productive enough.

1. Map

So in thinking about productivity, the first question needs to be what am I trying to do? It’s a simple question and an impossible one. During the course of a day, we may want to return three calls and we may want to better position our department within a larger organization. One task is fairly straight-forward and the other is amorphous. But by considering the variables, we can think about how they fit together. Do the calls need to be returned to internal stakeholders who might be impressed by a fast response to a query, thus enhancing the reputation of the department? Or are they routine calls that can be postponed, with little fallout? By thinking about goals, and how the little picture can impact the big picture, we get a better sense of what needs to be done and in what order. This is the first, and most important, step of productivity. It’s also the hardest.

2. Document

Once you have your goals and steps mapped, write it all down. As of this writing, there are 286,000 articles that will help you pick a task manager or calendar or project management tool. By the time you get to the end of this paragraph, there will be 12,000 new ones written. It doesn’t matter where you put your goal map. Just put it someplace you’ll see it all day, every day. I use my calendar. Some people use paper. Give yourself a day to pick a container and then stick with it for the next 365 days. The tool you choose won’t make you more productive. Only your commitment to the tool will. I’m sure there are situations where choosing a tool is part of what someone is trying to do in a high-stakes, career-defining way, but usually, it’s just a way to avoid working and planning, while still feeling like you’re doing something. Avoid the trap. Just pick something and write down what needs to be done.

3. Review

Once you have your goal map written down somewhere, look at it. Some things might need to be broken down into actionable steps. If you’re trying to better position your department, think about specific things you can do to accomplish that. If just doing your job well will better position your department, than write down the things you need to do to perform your job well. Having the steps you need to take to move toward your goals written down and in front of you will help keep you focused. Also, when you add new items to your list, it’ll make you think about how the new items will impact the existing ones. It’s very easy to get pulled off of your goals, but by having the actionable things you need to do in front of you all the time, you always have a sense of what needs to be done versus what should be done. This helps you to prioritize. Sometimes, you’re going to have to do things because someone told you to do them. Put them on your list, do them, cross them off of your list, and get back to your real goals.

4. Repeat

Repeat this process. Over time, you should find you’re achieving the goals you’ve set. If you’re not, review your list and figure out what’s not working. Are your goals not achievable? Are the steps you’re taking toward them not the right steps? Or are things just moving slower than you would like? The thing of it is, as long as you’re making progress toward your goals, you’re being productive. You can write 20 beautiful, perfect reports a day, but what do they accomplish? Do they bring you prestige? Do they demonstrate your value within your organization? Do they help your organization make better decisions? Or do they sit on a hard drive or email server somewhere, unread? Productivity isn’t about volume — it’s about impact.

The nice thing about this process is that as you become immersed in it, you stop thinking about productivity as an abstract concept and instead just think in terms of your work, what needs to be done, and if it’s getting done. Tools and workflow become less important as you instead find yourself focused on what’s important to you.

Another nice benefit of this process is that less things fall through the cracks, as you’re constantly paying attention to what needs to be done, in a big picture kind of way, rather than a putting-out-fires one.

But the thing I like best about this workflow is that it puts me in the center. I have personal goals and professional goals and workplace goals, and by finding the common threads among the different goals, I’m able to work toward them in an efficient, deliberate way. Sometimes the pace is slower than I’d like, but in general, I’m usually moving forward. Productivity isn’t about getting things done, so much as it’s about finding a process that helps you realize your goals.

Productivity isn’t the goal. It’s the side effect of achieving your goals.