The problem with chasing productivity

Most of us chase productivity like a crack addict after his next hit. We’re compelled to buy books, attend workshops and listen to podcasts so we can become more productive. But why? Silly question it seems but maybe not. Asking it may stop you from chasing productivity like a dog chasing his tail.

What’s wrong with doing more with less?

Nothing. The unarguable obviousness of this is why we keep sending workers on to the productivity battlefield and accept the costs of the workplace stress it creates—burnout, high turnover, no innovation , lost creativity and poor leadership—like society sends soldiers off to needless wars and accepts the costs of returning war vets with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Productivity gains is good strategy for systems and machines, not humans

The problem is we think pursuing productivity gains is an effective strategy to job security and even career advancement.

It’s not.

Career advancement will depend on your leadership skills and your success at getting other people and teams to be more productive. Unless you’re clear on why you’re chasing productivity gains and how you’re going to use them, all you’re going to get by your personal productivity increases is tired.

Your productivity gain will quickly become the new expected normal, and you’ll soon have to find ways to exceed that as well.

We don’t run machines at 100 %

We try to compete with machines that never normally operate near to 100 % of their capacity, by using productivity gains to routinely run at 110 % of ours.

Engines are never routinely run at full capacity because doing so would cause an early breakdown of the machinery, and reduce their lifetime productivity. Why then do we ask our bodies to?

Our belief about work

Our beliefs about work is responsible for the relentless pressure we place on ourselves and each other to grow, compete and stay on top. Nothing is ever good enough because we all believe it’s necessary to compete, to win, even survive. If you’re not producing more and more, with less and less while working longer and longer they’ll just get someone younger who can, … for less pay. This creates tremendous pressure and paranoia in people who only want to do meaningful work that provides enough to take care of their families, and allows them to enjoy life.

Keeping up with the machine

We’ve been trying to keep up with machines ever since they were just a capitalist tease at the dawn of industrialization. The possibility of 24-7 always on, standard quality, no vacations/sick days/maternity leaves/law-suits/strikes/training has always been a capitalist’s wet dream, and now with robotics and AI, the fantasy is slowly coming off their Fortune magazine centerfolds into their factories and workplaces.

Productivity won’t save you

If your job does not involve large doses of creativity, leadership or customer/client relationships your replacement is assured and no productivity gains will save you. Retraining won’t future proof you either—although it may buy you time.

What should you do?

Abandon productivity?

Of course not. But don’t chase productivity for its own sake; use productivity gains to create the space and time to develop the capacities more likely to help you keep your job and move up—your capacities to create, innovate, lead, sell and build relationships.

bring something else to the workplace

Don’t be tricked into playing the productivity game—even if you’re good at it—because you will eventually lose. Bring what productivity cannot: Your human self with all its creativity, enthusiasm and authenticity. Contribute to a workplace people want to go to on Mondays. If you have good managers, they will notice.

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Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.