Missing the Obvious: Three Common Types of Productivity Debt

“Excuses are a time thief. Have a goal, accept responsibility, and take action!” – Dr. Steve Maraboli, speaker and author.

Sometimes our biggest time-thieves are right under our noses, but we never think of them as such. Worse, while we know that some tasks keep us busier than we like, we don’t view them in terms of debt—at least, not in terms of financial debt. But time debt is a painful reality, as any harried Superparent or mid-level manager can tell you. Still, very few of us take this further to realize that since time is money, time debt may ultimately translate into productivity debt.

I’ve understood this truism subconsciously for many years, but only recently have I seen it formulated as such. Think of it this way: Every minute you do something other than productive work during working hours, you’re compounding your productivity debt.

You’ll easily recognize the worst productivity vampires when I mention them, because the concept ties in closely with prioritization, time management, team dynamics, and more. But presenting it as productivity debt is, I think, a novel and effective way of emphasizing the need to work yourself out any time pit you find yourself in.

Here are three common facets of productivity debt to face full on and start fixing:

  1. Poor health. Ironically, this often stems from borrowing or stinting on our personal time. Many of us eat too fast, fail to exercise, don’t hydrate, don’t rest enough, don’t take the steps necessary to maintain our sanity, and get too little sleep. Here’s the category where spending MORE time on ourselves pays off by limiting productivity debt.


    Don’t play World of Warcraft eight hours a day, but do some things you enjoy; take care of your health; go to your doctors’ appointments; go for a long walk; play a round of golf. Generally, the better you feel, the more you accomplish at work. The more energy you have, the more energy you can devote to your work and family. We all know this deep in our hearts, but few of us act on it!

  2. Over-Commitment. You’re overbooked. You’ve taken on too many tasks from too many people, so you end up with much too much to do. Even too much email represents a type of commitment debt, since each of those messages brings with it a commitment to answer or a task to complete. Every new commitment not directly related to your projects, or that exceeds your personal capacity, threatens your productivity.


    Start prioritizing your tasks, cut ruthlessly, say no, give things back to others, then put your head down and start fulfilling your remaining commitments, not taking anything else on until you can.

  3. False Economy. In 2016, I published a book called Doing the Right Things Right. The point was that productive people work effectively (by doing the right things) and efficiently (by doing them the right way). Too often, we choose expedient short-term solutions. As a result, we often end up having to go back and fix what we’ve patched or called “good enough for government work.”


    You may remember the Y2K problem, when everyone thought the world might end because, up to then, almost all computer code was based on two-digit year dates. People were afraid their systems would blow a gasket when the odometer flipped over to January 1, 2000.  The programmers who wrote the original code in the 1960s and 1970s never dreamed their successors would keep recycling the same code modules for decades, just because it was easy and fast… but they did. It took several years of frantic work, and hundreds of billions of dollars, to solve the problem. Of course, the world didn’t come to an end, and the doomsday predictions didn’t come to pass. The lesson was hard-learned, however, and we should never forget it: If you do things right the first time, instead of trying to save time and money, you’re less likely to waste those precious resources on it later.

Productivity Is as It Does

We call it the Rat Race, but scrambling to keep up will never serve you well. You can become highly productive only when you know your limits, refusing to exceed them beyond the normal process of growth, and testing yourself. Taking on too many tasks, falling for the lure of false economy, and ignoring your health hurts you in the long run. Stop running in circles, examine your situation thoroughly, and take the steps necessary to turn your thrashing into high performance.

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on productivity and performance. Funny, engaging, and full of real life strategies that work, Laura will change mindsets and attitudes so your people can maximize productivity, strengthen performance, and get the job done right. Her presentations at corporate events, sales kick-off meetings, and association conferences help audiences improve output, increase speed in execution, and save time in the office. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401, email Christine@TheProductivityPro.com, or CONTACT US.

Here’s what others are saying:

“Laura Stack’s session with a group of our seasoned operations managers was eye-opening. We all learned new ways to be more productive with the tools we already have. I’ve never seen each of our seasoned, experienced operations managers so engaged in a session. Many of our senior and mid-level leaders were wowed by what they learned and have already begun using the new techniques with their teams.”
—Mary Pawlowski, Learning Design, Piedmont Natural Gas

“What I enjoyed most about your presentation was that it was not only engaging but also practical in application. I’ve read everything from Covey’s system to “Getting Things Done,” and you presented time management in a way that is the easiest I’ve seen to digest and apply. Thank you for helping our system today!”
—John-Reed McDonald, SVP, Field Operations, Pridestaff

“Laura is an incredible speaker who takes practical information to improve productivity and efficiency and makes it interesting and fun! She has a great sense of humor and completely engaged our corporate and sales team. Laura motivated everyone to take steps to make their lives more productive and efficient.
—Molly Johnson, Vice President Domestic Sales, Episciences, Inc.

“Ms. Laura Stack’s program received the highest scores in the 13-year history of the Institute for Management Studies (IMS) in Cleveland! From the 83 participants, the workshop received a perfect 7.0 for “Effectiveness of the Speaker” and 6.8 for “Value of the Content.” Managers especially valued learning about task management, how to minimize interruptions, organizing with Outlook, prioritizing, effectively saying ‘no,’ how to set boundaries, and recognizing self-imposed challenges to time management.”
—Don Gorning, Chair, Institute for Management Studies Cleveland