Rethinking what productivity looks like at work

Brook Campbell

North Americans might be working longer hours than those in other developed countries, but we are actually lagging behind when it comes to our productivity. Culturally, we tend to associate working long hours with being effective and committed; a mindset deeply imbedded in how we approach our day-to-day work. While many of us wear our tendency to overwork as a sort of badge of honour and importance (100% guilty over here!), the harsh truth is that more time working does not necessarily equal greater productivity.

In fact, studies show that the more we work, the less effective we are. When operating from a perspective of time scarcity, we can become convinced that we need to hurry through our days, checking our list off as we go. But, when immersed in the frenzy of meetings and deadlines, we are only able to offer a small fraction of ourselves to the actual task at hand. Our attention is fragmented and our ability to focus suffers. 

So, if we aren’t being as productive as we could be, what is the result of all this time spent toiling in the workplace?

The result is that North Americans are feeling overworked and burnt out, and the impact can be seen in all areas of life – our health, our relationships and our performance in the workplace. 

The management of time

Image: Niklas Rhose

Image: Niklas Rhose

The term productivity was first used in the early 1800s, as the Industrial Revolution was gaining steam in Britain. Reflecting the industrial era mindset of improving the efficiency of systems and structures in order to maximize outputs and profits, productivity was seen as a scientific equation for success. Charlie Chaplin’s iconic 1926 film, Modern Times, parodies this scientific management approach to work by contrasting the loss of humanity with the rise of the Puritan work ethic and the mechanization of labour. In the 19th century, productivity was viewed as something that could be tightly managed and controlled, and Chaplin was critical of the direction Western society had taken. 

Today, however, we do not have to look far to notice the average worker is no longer on the factory floor, and much of the work we do requires a level of thinking and ingenuity that far surpasses the demands on our 19th century counterparts. While creativity and inventiveness (key 21st century workplace skills) can not be regulated or controlled in the same way as manual labour, many of us still measure our effectiveness using the industrial era ‘clock in, clock out’ method.

Add to that the demands of instant communication and hyperconnectivity, and our lives have become highly complicated and increasingly ‘doing’ focused. No wonder many of us are struggling to keep up.

We are caught in an industrial age way of doing things, with a modern era approach to being connected day and night. It is a perfect storm of factors that is causing us to push harder and live faster than ever before in human history. Decreased productivity is merely a symptom of a society that is maxed out in every way. 

So, why are we doing this to ourselves?

Rethinking how we use our time

In order to adequately respond to this convergence of ‘doing’ and hyperconnectivity, perhaps it is worth taking a moment to slow down and really think about how we are using our time. If we seek greater ingenuity, responsiveness and resilience in order to keep pace with an ever-changing landscape WHILE maintaining a level of wellness and contentment that makes us effective in our lives, it is quite possible that speeding up will not get us there. 

After all, up until now speeding up has left many of us feeling overwhelmed, sick, stressed out and unfulfilled in our day-to-day lives. 

Perhaps what is needed is a new way of looking at what constitutes productivity, and how to structure our time so that we can create the best conditions possible for creativity, innovation and a sense of wellbeing to pervade.  This could be what Charlie Chaplin was calling for in his parody of the Industrial Revolution. A revitalization, of sorts, of our humanity (our ability to connect to ourselves, our bodies and our environment), and an entry point to a new and more powerful form of productivity.

This is what I want to explore over the next few weeks. Stay tuned for future blog posts as we rethink what productivity can look like.