The age of the 80+ hour workweek is coming to a close. Every day, scientists, experts, and neglected families add their voices to the resounding chorus singing the refrain of, “More work isn’t better work.” And I believe it’s a step in the right direction.
These days, the hustle culture is rightfully going the way of SnackWells and skinny jeans and it is being replaced with a more mindful work existence (at least, in some settings). Taking breaks has reemerged as an acceptable behavior, meditation pods are popping up in office buildings (the ones that still exist, anyway), and we are slowly beginning to understand that quality always trumps quantity.
But the slow demise of the “Get More Done No Matter What” mentality is threatening to abscond with the concept of meaningful productivity along with its receding tides. And that, my friends, is as scary as Erika Jayne’s foundation line.
So, rather than throwing the productivity baby out with the hustle culture bathwater, I would like to propose an alternative solution. Focus.
Yeah, yeah. We all know we should focus. Eat the frog. Be great at one thing rather than mediocre at many. Specialize. Niche down. We have heard it all. The idea of pursuing just one aspect of any industry is just about as tired as the brouhaha of busyness.
But, there must be some middle ground, right? There has to be some world in which we get important things done with focus, but we don’t subsequently shave years off our lives with lack of sleep, stress, and exhaustion. So, how do we reinvent productivity in a way that keeps the good parts of it, but chucks the bad?
Before we get into how to preserve personal productivity for future generations, let’s look at exactly what we’re talking about. First, when I write about productivity in this article, it does not refer to how many tee shirts a factory can produce in an eight-hour workday. (While I did get an A in supply chain and operations management in grad school, throughput rate and JIT inventory systems are for another article.)
If you work in a tee-shirt factory, obviously your goal is to make tee-shirts (or to make sure other people make tee-shirts). Personal productivity is a bit more complicated. Humans are much more complex beings than most tee-shirt factories.
Back in the day, at the beginning of the popularity of productivity, personal productivity could only be achieved if you locked down three aspects:
- What is the sole purpose of your business?
- What are your key performance indicators?
- How can you work as much as possible to get as many tasks done that will lead to the success and excellence of the first two questions?
This approach to personal productivity was a great way to get people’s attention. We love drama. We celebrated Jamie Kern Lima’s 100-hour workweeks and we connected ourselves to the matrix during all 20 of our waking hours. Get more done! How do I hack my productivity? How do I outsource writing birthday cards to my family so I can keep working and consuming my daily allotment of lattes and Ritalin?
Like every new fad diet (consume only grapefruit, eat like a cave person, fast for 16 hours per day), we believe that sacrificing all else to be the kingpin hustle jockey will inevitably launch us up the success ladder. But, time and again, we have found that once people hit the stratosphere, they inevitably encounter some kind of mental or physical health chute that puts them on the fast track back to where they started.
Optimal productivity, performed at any cost, doesn’t work. Well, it might work in the short term, but no extreme answer to a problem works in the long term. That’s the frustrating thing about moderation. It’s not exciting and it takes a long time. But, as any great craftsperson will tell you, it’s worth it.
In the past decade or so, we have attached ourselves to the hustle mindset and the idea of optimal productivity. We squeeze every drop of juice out of every day. Do you know what a thoroughly squeezed lemon looks like? Probably a little like your soul after a 12-hour workday. And once that juice is gone, that lemon is pretty useless. So, I believe our challenge, in the face of the turning tides of work culture, is to find a way to redefine productivity.
I am going to make a broad and sweeping statement: There are way too many things to do in this world. And this problem will only get worse.
Looking at my to-do list right now makes me batty.
- Email Erica
- Send interview questions to Tracy
- Write an article for *** publication
- Call the new doctor to transfer records
- Run 17 miles
- Pick up Kate’s birthday present
- Create company Venmo
- Change piano lesson time slot for tee ball
The reason this to-do list (and this is only a portion of it) is so stressful is that it is so disparate. None of these tasks are really related. And only three of them have anything to do with what I do for my job.
With the previous definition of productivity, I would have considered myself to be “productive” if I checked off all or most of these tasks. But, this to-do list is not getting me anywhere. When we think of ourselves as productive when we “get things done,” that is where the problem starts.
All day, my mind bounces around the points above until I check them off my list. But sometimes, my mind bounces around so much that I often don’t get much done at all. Why?
Well, one of my favorite scientific studies was done by Sheena Iyengar at Columbia University. She gave a group of people six types of jelly to choose from and she gave a different group of people 24 types of jelly to choose from. The group with six jellies was ten times more likely to buy a jar of jelly.
An article by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review sums this up perfectly. “The more numerous our options, the more difficult it becomes to choose a single one, and so we end up choosing none at all. That’s what happens when we have too many things to do. We become overwhelmed and don’t do any of them.”
The first problem with the definition of productivity, as it has been associated with the hustle culture, is that there are simply too many jelly choices. We are simultaneously building our online brands, starting companies, growing our families, spreading our content over multiple platforms, and spreading our minds waaaaayyyyy too thin.
Tip #1 —Focusing personal productivity
It’s as simple as finding your one focus and letting everything else fall by the wayside. I change my focus from day to day (I alternate between 3 — writing, my company, and my family), and each day I have been working to mentally let everything else fall away from my brain. That freedom from trying to remember every little thing opens up brain space for what matters. And the loose ends will either fall away or you can tie them later when you have more time.
We are not machines. And, for the most part (for now), that’s a good thing. We can’t plug into the charger and keep working. We need to recharge, we need downtime, we need to move our bodies, and we need a freaking community for goodness’ sake. The hustle culture’s productivity was grossly one-sided. It left no time to recharge.
The general mindset around this is that we will either “sleep when we’re dead” or retire at the age of 35 after 15 years of 100-hour workweeks when we sell our companies for billions of dollars. One option is not ideal and the other unlikely. The second problem with productivity is that it does not view humans in a holistic way. And, as much as we would like to be robots, we aren’t (yet).
Burnout rears its gruesome skull the moment we attach ourselves to this popular principle of living. And do you know what the Mayo Clinic says about burnout? “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”
The keywords in the paragraph above are “reduced accomplishment.” So, our pursuit of (the traditional definition of) productivity is rendering us burned out which is, in turn, making us less productive. That doesn’t seem to be a great hamster wheel to frequent.
A holistic approach to productivity is annoying. Trust me, I get it. Ample hydration makes me have to pee too frequently to stay in a good workflow. My “get up from your desk and move your body” alarm goes off at the absolute worst time of day. And, for some reason, changing into my workout clothes at lunch is like nails down a chalkboard. Like a toddler, I sit at my computer. Just one more minute. Just two more minutes…
Martin Stepanek of Charles University in Prague put together an extensive study on the factors influencing work productivity with over 32,000 employees. This quote from his findings blew my mind. “Together, mental and physical health mediated 93 percent of the indirect effects on productivity identified in the model.”
In other words, if you’re not physically and mentally healthy, you’re not going to get more done. And when you try too hard to get too much done, you can become physically and mentally unwell.
Holistic productivity is like preventative medicine. It doesn’t seem pressing because you may not have hit a wall yet. But, by the time you hit the wall, it’s too late. Not only have you created a mental and potentially physical health conundrum that could take years to unravel, but you’re also, well, reducing your productivity.
Tip #2 — Safeguarding personal productivity
I’ll admit it. It’s counterintuitive. As I write this paragraph, I know I should put on my sneakers in eight minutes and go out for my afternoon workout. The temptation to get in just one more task is so enticing. But, the best way to safeguard the integrity (and efficiency) of your personal productivity is to actively care for your bodies and minds.
It takes a total of 35 minutes of your day to gain two hours of productive, focused flow-friendly work. Yes, that’s a completely unverified statistic, but it is true for me. When I work out after lunch (to combat my tendency to siesta) and I spend five minutes meditating in the morning on my ONE task for the day, I always find myself in a pretty awesome flow state.
As the culture of work changes, personal productivity lays on a gurney, wide-eyed and terrified. Will we lose the exciting impetus to feel empowered to take control of our time and to capitalize on tools to help us reach our goals? I sure hope not. But, if we keep productivity around, it’s going to have to change a bit. A lot a bit, in fact.
I love to hack my productivity just as much as anyone else, but “get more done” has hurt us in more ways than one. So, how do we revive personal productivity? By doing two things:
- Choose one thing. Don’t get more done. Get IT done. And, for that matter, you don’t need to get it done. You can simply do it. Done implies completion which adds a level of stress we don’t really need if we are driven individuals to start with.
- Prioritize optimizing your brain. Drink water even if you lose an average of 12 minutes per day. Because guess what, you’ll gain that in quality focus during your other working hours. Stop working, go outside, and move your body. Eat things that won’t make you lethargic and bloated.
At the end of the day, productivity demands focus. We all know that focus is in high demand these days. If you can choose to focus on one thing and you can optimize your body and brain to stay focused on that one thing, you will take a step every day toward your goal. And that, my friends, is personal productivity.