Returning to First Principles: Five Basics of Productivity

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. [With analogy], we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths… and then reason up from there. “ — Elon Musk, American industrialist and inventor.

It’s easy to forget what productivity truly is, especially when it’s cluttered with various initiatives, politics, and personal agendas. As I read this quote from Elon Musk, it led me to think, “What are the first principles of productivity?” I thought it would help to clarify the basics (both procedural and human) that must underlie productivity for it to really work. Here are five items I consider basic to understanding and achieving productivity:

  1. An understanding of productivity. Many people don’t understand what productivity means. Unless your job consists entirely of doing such tasks—and some low-level jobs do! —it doesn’t involve answering emails, handling social media, or checking little daily tasks off your list. You can delete and delegate such things as part of the necessary housekeeping of your job. Productivity is work that moves your organization forward in some way. Officially, productivity is one’s output per time unit; the more the better, if the output is high-quality and doesn’t require correction or discarding. Make your goal maximum productivity with minimal waste. This may sometimes require you to slow down or conserve your work materials to maintain quality.

  2. Accountability stems from a willingness to not only do good, productive work, but also to stand by that work unflinchingly. When something goes wrong, admit your failure and learn from it. As long as you didn’t significantly harm your organization, your superiors will be pleased to see you take responsibility for your actions and will trust you to continue to try to do your very best.

  3. Take care of yourself. In many ways, your most important tool is yourself. Humans are endlessly adaptable; it’s why we’re the dominant species on this planet. But no matter how flexible you are, you’re like any tool: you can’t stay busy constantly. The mind-body connect does matter, so get a decent amount of sleep each night, eat well, hydrate yourself, exercise, keep your mental facilities sharp, and have preventative maintenance done on a regular basis. When you make mistakes, don’t dwell on them. Learn from them but leave them in the past. It’s important for you to forgive yourself your failures.

  4. It’s not just about labor costs and profits. In some schemas, those measuring productivity can’t see past labor costs (usually the biggest cost for any operation) and the profits printed on the bottom line. While productivity contributes directly to profitability and ideally offsets labor costs, not every job produces direct profits. Consider HR jobs and some management positions, which rarely profit a business directly but are crucial to their functioning. Do the best possible work you can that moves the organization forward, maintaining high levels of productivity to support those who directly bring in the cash if you don’t. It’s not about somehow finding a new “profit point” when your job isn’t designed for that.

  5. Use systems and routines. To maximize your productivity, learn to manage yourself carefully—what most observers call time management. This requires you to find and use an effective system to keep you on track and productively balanced, with the inclusion of routines that eventually become automatic and easy. Finding the right routine and systems will take some time, so do some experimenting.

Sometimes you must start over to move forward. If you’ve lost track of what productivity really means, or you find yourself mired in confusion about why you can’t get ahead, take a little time to clear everything away and go back to productivity’s first principles. You may have other in addition to the six I’ve chosen here, but this is a good place to start your own research and start laying down a new road toward a productive future.


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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