Excellence, Planning, and Effort: Baking the Productivity Cake

“One of the great challenges of our age, in which the tools of our productivity are also the tools of our leisure, is to figure out how to make more useful those moments of procrastination when we’re idling in front of our computer screens.” — Joshua Foer, freelance American journalist and 2006 U.S.A. Memory Champion.

As a rule, you don’t just stumble across productivity—and it doesn’t strike you out of the blue like a gift from Heaven. One of the most cogent observations I’ve seen on the subject comes from motivational speaker Paul J. Meyer: “Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort.”

Print out that quote, frame it, and hang it prominently on your wall. Take it to heart—because Meyer certainly did. At a young age, he became keenly interested in personal achievement and goal-setting and made the above quote one of his formulas for success. By age 27, he was a millionaire—and that was back in 1955, when the term really meant something. By 1960, he was teaching other people his secrets, and many now consider him the founder of the Personal Development movement.

Let’s take a look at how each of Meyer’s ingredients contributes to true productivity:

Commitment to Excellence. You can have nothing less than a positive desire to do incredible work. Think of attitude as leavening in a cake: without it, your team won’t rise to the occasion. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to encourage team commitment to excellence in every way possible. Build an experienced, talented team, and then make them feel that visceral need to create a product or service that will carve out a large slice of the market share.

I’ve written whole articles and book chapters on the subject of motivation, so I won’t belabor the point here. Typically, though, a commitment to excellence arises through factors such as:

  • Leadership by example
  • A culture of mutual cooperation
  • Effective team building exercises
  • Incentivization (via money, perks, promotions, rewards, awards)
  • Employee empowerment
  • Full engagement

Intelligent Planning. Here’s the basic batter of your productivity cake, the body that gives the leavening something to act upon. Allow your team enough time for their research, work, and strategic thinking. Look at what’s going right (so you can continue it) and what’s going wrong (so you can fix it). This leads to informed step-by-step planning, followed by a point-by-point productivity plan. Do your deep thinking, set your milestones and deadlines for each piece of the project, and execute once you have enough information.

Focused Effort represents the heat that provides the energy and synergy that turns your cake batter into a structured final product. Your team will conduct the execution on the front lines; your primary job as the leader is to facilitate their progress and keep encouraging them. Clear obstacles, elicit advice, tap the knowledge of those outside the project, insert necessary changes with minimal disruption, block distractions, and keep an eye on the competition. Arrange the environment so your people can sink safely into the task, becoming so focused they lose touch with the rest of reality for a short time.

Inextricable Quality

Once you’ve carefully selected, thoroughly mixed, and baked your productivity ingredients, a delicious result is inevitable. But remember: the final quality depends on you and your careful, heartfelt guidance. Some say a cook is only as good as their ingredients; I say the cook is only as good as their sense of purposeful productivity.

In your experience, what other elements contribute to team productivity? Attitude, planning, effort, and what else?



  1. After getting a bit distracted looking at that cake… ahem… I read your article. Spoke to me so much. I think another thing that could contribute to team productivity is plenty of breaks NOT doing anything! I think when you’re encouraged to go out at lunchtime, have your space, do something else for a bit, rather than slogging away for hours in the same position, your work efficiency will actually improve and you’ll find yourself doing more with each minute.

    • Luca, your suspicions are correct! Human beings aren’t robots; we can’t operate non-stop without a break. Sometimes the best thing you can do is STOP working, get up, and recharge your mental batteries. I think lunch away from your office, reading a non-work magazine sounds delightful. Or visit with a friend over your meal. Many people complain about socializing at work, but sometimes, socializing gives us the brain space we need to dive back into a task requiring focus and attention. Besides, chit-chat is good for relationship-building. If nothing else, take a brisk 10-minute walk around your building or up and down a few flights of stairs to get your blood pumping again—and then dive back in! Laura