The top 5 new rules of productivity

We all want to increase productivity and get more done with our working hours.

There’s just one problem: Most people’s view of productivity comes from an industrial age view of work. This leads to some fundamental misconceptions about work, including some of these:

  • If you work more hours, you get more work done.
  • Adding more people to a team means you can finish sooner.
  • Productivity is more or less constant and can be easily scheduled.

For knowledge workers, i.e. anyone who works with information rather than physically producing stuff, these notions are not only wrong, they’re actively harmful.

So here is my suggestion for 5 new rules of productivity for knowledge workers.

1: Your productivity will vary wildly from day to day. This is normal.

In an industrial setting, production and output can be planned in advance barring accidents or equipment failure. Basically you know that if the plant operates for X hours tomorrow you’ll produce Y widgets.

For knowledge workers, you can’t possibly know in advance whether tomorrow will be a day where you:

  • Reach a brilliant insight that saves you and your team weeks of work.
  • Work tirelessly and productively for 12 hours.

Or the day where you:

  • Spend 8 hours gazing dejectedly into your screen.
  • Introduce a mistake that will take days to find and fix.

This variation is normal – if a little frustrating. It also means that you shouldn’t judge your productivity by the output on any given day but rather by your average productivity over many days.

I have never seen this more clearly than when I was writing my first book. Some days I’d sit myself down in front of my laptop and find myself unable to string two words together. Some mornings I banged out most of a chapter in a few hours. Writing is a creative process. I can do it when I’m in the mood. Trying to write when I’m not, is a frustrating exercise in futility. On the days where I couldn’t write, I’d go do something else. Probably wakeboarding :o)

The result: I wrote the book in record time (a couple of months all told), the book turned out really well AND I enjoyed the writing process immensely.

Three things you can do about this:

  1. Don’t make project plans based only on your maximum productivity days. Not every day will be like that. Base your schedules on your average productivity.
  2. Don’t beat yourself up on the low-productivity days. It’s normal, it’s part of the flow and these days have value too. I like to think that on these days, my subconscious mind is working on some really hairy complicated problem for which the solution will suddenly appear fully formed in my mind.
  3. If you do have a day where you get very little done, why not go home early and relax or get some private chores done?

2: Working more hours means getting less done

Whenever we fall behind, it’s tempting to start working overtime to catch up. Don’t! Instead, commit this graph to memory:

Regular overwork decreases productivityIt comes from this excellent presentation on productivity. Read it!

Here’s another data point:

In 1991, a client asked me to conduct a study on the effects of work hours on productivity and errors…

My findings were quite simply that mistakes and errors rose by about 10% after an eight-hour day and 28% after a 10-hour day…

I also found that productivity decreased by half after the eighth hour of work. In other words, half of all overtime costs were wasted since it was taking twice as long to complete projects. After the study was done, a concerted effort was made to increase staffing.

(Source)

This may be counter-intuitive but it’s important to grasp: For knowledge workers there is no simple relationship between hours worked and output!

Three things you can do about this:

  1. Don’t work overtime. In fact, some studies indicate that knowledge workers are the most productive when they work 35 hours a week.
  2. Take breaks during the work day and make sure to take vacations.
  3. Experiment to find out what schedule works best for you. Five eight-hour days? Four longer days and a long weekend?

3: Working harder means getting less done

In an industrial environment, you can most often work harder and get more done. An increase in effort means an increase in productivity.

For knowledge workers, the opposite is true. You can’t force creativity, eloquence, good writing, clear thinking or fast learning – in fact, working harder tends to create the opposite effect and you achieve much less.

Three things you can do about this:

  1. Take the pressure off yourself and your team. Even if you make a mistake or don’t make a deadline the world probably isn’t going to end. Less pressure means higher productivity.
  2. Schedule a work load equivalent to only 80% of your work week. Trust me, you won’t be wasting your remaining 20% – but you will be more relaxed and more creative.
  3. In the words of Fred Gratzon: “If it feels like work, you’re doing it wrong”. If you find that most of what you do is a struggle, this is a sure sign that you are not at your most creative and productive.

4: Procrastination can be good for you

In an industrial setting, any time away from the production line is unproductive time – therefore all procrastination is bad. Search for procrastination on google and you’ll find a massive number of articles on how to stop procrastinating and get stuff done.

They will tell you that there is only one reliable way to get stuff done:

  1. Check todo-list for next item
  2. Complete item no matter what it is
  3. Go to step 1

They’ll tell you that if only you had enough willpower, backbone, self-control and discipline, this is how you would work too.

Well guess what: Knowledge workers don’t work that way. Sometimes you’re in the mood for task X and doing X is ridiculously easy and a lot of fun. Sometimes doing X feels worse than walking barefoot over burning-hot, acid-covered, broken glass and forcing yourself to do it anyway is a frustrating exercise in futility.

Sometimes procrastinating is exactly the right thing to do at a particular moment. This is largely ignored by the procrastination-is-a-sign-of-weakness, the-devil-finds-work-for-idle-hands crowd.

Three things you can do about this:

  1. Procrastinate without guilt. Do not beat yourself up for procrastinating. Everybody does it once in a while. It doesn’t make you a lazy bastard or a bad person. If you leave a task for later, but spend all your time obsessing about the task you’re not doing, it does nothing good for you.
  2. Take responsibility, so that when you choose to procrastinate, you make sure to update your deadlines and commitments. Let people know, that your project will not be finished on time and give them a new deadline.
  3. Remember that “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted” (according to John Lennon).

5: Happiness is the ultimate productivity enhancer

The single most efficient way to increase your productivity is to be happy at work. No system, tool or methodology in the world can beat the productivity boost you get from really, really enjoying your work.

I’m not knocking all the traditional productivity advice out there – it’s not that it’s bad or deficient. It’s just that when you apply it in a job that basically doesn’t make you happy, you’re trying to fix something at a surface level when the problem goes much deeper.

Three things you can do about this:

  1. Get happy in the job you have. There are many things you can do to improve your work situation – provided you choose to do something, rather than wait for someone else to come along and do it for you.
  2. Remember to appreciate what is already good about your job. Often we forget, and overfocus on all the annoyances, problems and jerks. This is a natural tendency called negativity bias, but it also tends to keep us unhappy because we forget what works.
  3. If all else fails, find a new job where you can be happy. If your current job is not fixable, don’t wait – move on now!

The upshot

The industrial age view of productivity has serious limitations when applied to knowledge workers – but it remains the dominant view and still informs much of our thinking and many of our choices at work. Let’s change this!

This is not without it’s challenges. The old view of productivity may no longer apply, but it does give managers an illusion of control and predictability. The new rules are… messy. Less predictable. They rely less on charts and graphs – and more on how people feel on any given day.

It ultimately comes down to this: Do we want to stick with a model that is comforting and predictable but wrong or are we ready to face what REALLY works?

Your take

What about you? When are you the most productive? What is your optimal number of working hours per week? What stimulates or destroys your productivity? Please write a comment, I’d love to know your take.

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65 thoughts on “The top 5 new rules of productivity”

  1. Another great post with key insights.
    I’ve found that when I do great work, I often don’t do much for most of the time, in the traditional sense. But the ideas churn away at the back of my head, I talk with other people about them, and I gather input. Then, just before the deadline, I finish the work in no time.

    For a long time, I used to feel guilty, or beat myself up over not getting things done “in good time” or for not “working effectively like everyone else”. Now, I feel pretty good about letting things hang, knowing that I will eventually finish the work, and (just) in time.

    Also, I’ve notised, that ideas improve over time, with the big insights only coming at the end. If I finished work early, the quality could therefore not be the same.

    I have, however, found one critical requirement for me: There has to be some kind of urgency. A deadline of sorts, and not just a decided lets-do-it-by-friday one, but a real one. Like doing workshop, speaking at a conference, or presenting something to a client. Things that influence other people, and would get me in trouble if I didn’t do them. I’ve now startet actively introducing deadlines like these on the tasks I like to get done, and it can do magic!

  2. Alex,

    I agree with Jon on the importance of urgency. I’ve enjoyed Kotter’s book “Urgency.” It explains both good and bad urgency. Deadlines help me. Did your research include deadlines?

    Here’s another thought. Positions that require innovation or creativity include hopelessness. I think we’ll be more productive if we embrace rather than resist feelings that we can’t/won’t find the answer. http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/2010/02/04/just-before-innovation/

    Your research opens my eyes.

    Regards,

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  3. Sorry, I don’t buy most of this. It sounds like motivational speaking rather than behavioral science. Maybe it’ll make people happier, but I doubt it’ll help them get more work done.

    Sure, it’s important to keep in mind that productivity goes down if you’re working a lot. But productivity does not equal the total amount of work done; rather, it’s the rate of getting things done. So I’ll still get more done, on average, in a 12 hour day than an 8 hour day.

    Also, the plural of anecdote is not data. While your experience writing your book is interesting (taking time off when it wasn’t coming to you), it seems to contradict the habits of most writers, who focus on maintaining a spending a certain amount of time writing every day. Neither of these is data, but I’m not convinced.

  4. I don’t buy any of this except for having a bad day and the happiness factor. Happiness and motivation is a biggie in any industry. And everyone has bad days. Just make sure you don’t have two in a row. At the end of the day, even in a post-industrial world it’s only 5% inspiration and 95% transpiration. It’s a competitive World out there, and if you’re not working someone else is. So, if you are in a company that has deadlines and deliverables, shareholders and expectations, you better ensure that the job gets done, on time. So, mambo-jambo about staring at blank screens just doesn’t cut it for me. Bite through, work hard, play hard and I will see you on the other side smiling because you got there. Sorry for the bluntness.

  5. As a knowledge worker who also works from home, who just had one seriously nasty monkey wrench tossed into her perfectly wonderful plan for the day, THANK YOU!!!!

    Seriously. My work plan for the day just got thoroughly derailed by some nastiness from outside the office. And I’m up against a deadline. So it’s nice to know that taking the time to deal with my feelings about the nastiness is smarter to do than try to meet the deadline and turn in inferior work.

    Anne Louise Bannon
    YourFamilyViewer.com

  6. Hi,

    First of all i want to tank you for the post, and for bringing the discussion alive. My comments bellow.

    Totally agree with 1, 2 and 5.

    About 3, i strongly believe that “it depends” on how the reader interprets the text, if the desired interpretation is, “When you overwork, you will get less work done by hour and less quality in the work performed”, i totally agree.

    Procrastination is a little bit more tricky, there are several ways of procrastinate, i believe that there are active and passive procrastination, and passive procrastination is not good for a person productivity.

    I totally believe that in a post-industrial era, on a knowledge worker, the number of hours worked is not proportional to the work delivered, and neither should be! That only applies in old days or if you are a factory worker.

    The paradigm should change, when you are talking about knowledge workers, knowledge workers are not factory workers, their productivity is highly affected by the following factors:

    * Working schedule, the level of productivity will vary from individual to individual depending on time of the day.
    * Working environment, a good working environment will be a great stimulus to a more productive individual.

    That are my 5 cents.

  7. Excelente article! I really felt identified with it.
    The reality is that our motivation depends on the amount of dopamine and other neuro-transmiters present at the moment on the brain, so we cannot force us to have motivation; the solution is indeed to find ways to be happy, to raise the average amounts of those dopamines..

  8. I agree, mostly. Deadlines are a must for this kind of employee – otherwise the work may never get done. I’m a perfect example of this as I love to put off tasks that I hate. My solution is to get the crappy stuff done first so I can work on the stuff I love to do. I really believe in work smarter, not harder. I am never impressed when someone in my office, (or previous jobs) is working 12 hour days all the time. (Everyone has to once in a while…) They are either doing this to impress their own boss, because they are not efficient, or there is not enough staff to do the work that needs to be done. If it’s because of staff or efficiency then they’re not doing a good job anyway.

    Of course, it all depends on your job. If you’re writing a book that is a lot different than if you’re writing for a newspaper with strict deadlines.

  9. I am in total agreement with the majority of what you have to say here.

    Being in sales as I am, it’s always about the numbers. Where I am employed if you aren’t at quota you have to work harder and longer (50+ hrs/wk) – someone told them that was the key to making us produce more.

    The one thing my management can to do to squash any enjoyment I get out of my day is to tell me how to do my job – especially if theyve never walked in my shoes. I would hope that my record here would speak for itself. Unfortunately it should say on the office door, “You are only as good as your last sale.” Quarterly averages, yearly averages – never looked at. If you can sustain high output endlessly you’ll be ok, but you are damned if you have a dip in production for longer than a week.

    The economy is tough as everyone knows which invites employers to squeeze the blood from turnips. And since there are a lot of turnips looking for work, they become disposable.

    Until times change I believe many companies will continue to operate with an industrial mindset.

    Cheers!

  10. I work from home, primarily as a freelance illustrator, and I’ve found these rules to be accurate. The work world has trained us to operate under stress to the point that we consider it normal.

    When I first started working at home, I tried subjecting myself to the kinds of pressures I know from work, and my work suffered.

    When I learned to accept and indulge myself (take frequent breaks, stop to take personal calls and emails), I found that I hit productive strides more frequently. As a result, I work a lot more, but the quality of my work and my enjoyment of it has increased dramatically.

    I try to be determined and flexible. Sometimes that means not overloading myself with clients so I have room to breathe, often it just means continuing to work past a cutoff time when I’m in ‘the zone’…

    Anyways, thanks for posting this!
    great stuff!

  11. Thanks for all the great comments, people. This blogpost has gotten a lot of attention – and has also provoked a lot of people. Which is good :o)

    Jon: You know I agree – and deadlines help focus the mind.

    Karl: You have the same experience as me – that your productivity varies wildly from day to day. It takes some practice, but we need to accept this in ourselves.

    Dan: Interesting point. I have never seen that connection between hopelessness and innovation. I’ll have to read up on it.

    Henry: Glad you like it!

    Greg: You raise an important distinction between productivity and output – what matters in the end is of course output. However, you can bring yourself into situations where more work makes your productivity negative – eg. when you introduce mistakes.

    As for data, this article is not original research – but it is based on original research. Please check out the presentation on productivity that I link to – that one is full of data.

    Pedro: If I may say so, you’re thinking is stuck in the industrial mode, where work is more about transpiration than inspiration. I can’t sweat more and write better articles or give better presentations to my clients. A computer programmer can’t grind his teeth and find better solutions to tricky problems.

    What I’m presenting here is not about ignoring deliverables and deadlines – it’s about finding the best way to increase productivity and thereby reach your deadlines.

    And for knowledge workers, this is not about 95% transpiration and acting like it is is harmful to our productivity AND our happiness at work.

    Anne Louise: Glad I could help :o)

    Jose: Thanks for the input. If you have a moment, check out my other post (linked to above) about effective ways to procrastinate and you’ll see that we essentially agree.

    Luis: Exactly – neurology plays into this. One thing I’m looking for right now is what happens at the intersection between positive psychology and brains science.

    Joy: Fantastic – I love that you’ve figured out what works for you and do that.

    Cassandra: Which just shows the folly of the industrial age thinking. “If someone is not performing well, they can just work more!” – this makes no sense for knowledge workers.

    You also touch on another point, namely that some companies are using the crisis as an excuse to treat employees like crap. I wrote about it here:
    http://positivesharing.com/2010/01/my-message-for-2010/

    samax: I’m glad you’ve found these rules to be true and live by them. It is of course easier for us self-employed people who can structure our day any way we want. Also the point about not overloading yourself is crucial!

  12. Alex,

    If you find any good research on the feeling of hopelessness before breakthrough please let me know. My blog on that topic is my own observation… although, as I think about it, the saying “its always darkest before the dawn,” applies.

    I wonder if there’s good research that expands the idea

    thanks

    Leadership Freak
    Dan Rockwell

  13. Alexander,

    A number of ex-colleagues desperately need to read and act on this post. I am a knowledge worker who used to work for a company that could best be compared to NBC’s Dunder Mifflin (“The Office”).

    Key phrase: USED to work.

    This company, a player in the PR industry, has employees who are supposed to be agents of change. These employees are supposed to know the trends before they happen; supposed to encourage and foster creativity. Unfortunately, management often frowned upon change. It was almost as though they were frightened by fresh, creative ideas. One of my colleagues was once told that she “had too many ideas.” Have you ever heard of such a thing??

    “A model that is comforting and predictable, but wrong” should be the tagline for the company I used to work for. This is a company that thinks the quality of your work is determined by the number of hours you put in each day.

    I spent two years at this firm, and watched my happiness fade and my creative spirit die. I am now w/ a different company; one that embraces the rules outlined above. I now have a career – not just a job – and it doesn’t feel like work at all.

    Thank you for your post. I sincerely hope executives of knowledge-based companies read this and implement these vital rules if they are not already.

  14. Thanks for another great post. I now run my own company and the pressure of productivity is a much broader one as no one else is setting the pressures but I will find this extremely useful when I start to beat myself up. I couldn’t help but sent it to my old boss (I used to be a VP at a large North American bank) as your points are so valid but do run “mostly” polar opposite to his perspective on things, on of the main reasons I left the corporate world and became a partner in a small team building company!
    Thanks!

  15. Great post. Great advices full of clarity and insight. All I ever felt is true about productivity of knowledge-workers found its words in here. Great job, well done.
    Thank you very much!
    Kind regards from Berlin, Germany.

  16. Alexander!
    Excellent post as always! Your post made our “Fab Five Blog Picks of the Week”!
    I especially liked the procrastination piece…
    Morning is my most productive time…

  17. This post took away the guilt factor away from me :) Thanks Alex!

    However, from my experience, deadlines get work done. Irrespective of the ups and downs of the creativity, we deliver the work just-in-time for the same reason. Oh yeah, creativity factor influences the quality quotient.

    Off topic, When I read this post, I felt that many points are “so true!”. Is there any specific word for that? – you agree with the content you read but you never realise those points before..

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  19. At the beginning the article is pretty “quantitative”, but I like it. I usually keep track of how I spend time, so it’s easy for me to find out why I am or I am not productive.

  20. Agree! It is just not smart to manage a design firm like a factory with assembly lines.

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