True Performance: Five Ways to Avoid Fake Productivity

by Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE

“Better productivity means less human sweat, not more.”—Henry Ford, 20th century automobile manufacturer.

We all know the classic definition of increased productivity: producing more goods or services per given amount of time; or, as the online Oxford Dictionary puts it, the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input. That’s foundational knowledge, right? The problem is, while these definitions may have applied when our economy was based almost entirely on agriculture and manufacturing, they don’t necessarily apply to our modern service-based economy or knowledge jobs.

Here’s what I mean. Consider the editor who cuts 10,000 unnecessary words out of a novel. Using the old definitions (rate of output per unit of input), his productivity is negative, suggesting ineptitude. So, the definition obviously doesn’t apply in that case. But in truth, his reductive work has increased the novel’s clarity, making it easier to read and more likely to find a publisher. Some things simply require more time and input to refine; and here’s where effectiveness outshines efficiency, though productivity typically requires both. On the other hand, just because someone finishes 15 tasks in one day doesn’t mean they were productive. They might have been procrastinating on an important task or performing low-value work only.

Differentiating fake productivity from true productivity isn’t hard, but it does involve a sincere review of your daily activities. Most of the tips I’ll outline here are just as foundational as our standard definitions of productivity. But sometimes we need to return to these core principles to ensure our goals remain properly aligned with reality and corporate need.

  1. Don’t confuse output (or quantity) with productivity. So, what if you write 1,000 lines of code a day, but the code is inefficient or requires lots of revision? If you write 500 lines of code that does the same thing and isn’t buggy, it will ultimately prove more beneficial, even if it takes you longer. As I’ve pointed out, sometimes doing one or two high-value tasks is more profitable and productive than doing 15 low-value tasks.


  1. Realize that low-value tasks aren’t always non-productive. You’ll always have lower-value housekeeping tasks to take care of. Meeting daily requirements, maintaining a database, editing, even clearing your email in-box are all essential tasks, because they save you time later. However, they may seem like net performance losses in the short term and probably won’t directly profit your organization. However, they will likely pay for themselves in the long run. Necessary, boring, hidden work can still be meaningful if it doesn’t keep you from other high-value work.


  1. Fear perfectionism. The devil may be in the details, but when you’re trying to produce, you can only go so far in correcting yourself before you kill your productivity. Fix things on the fly. Personally, I tend to write overly long sentences per my train of thought and then go back and edit. This keeps me from being painfully slow by trying to type a sentence correctly the first time. That’s what editing is for. If you try to get everything exactly right before you start, you may never start.


  1. Don’t just play it by ear. Proactive always trumps reactive. Guesstimating or only bothering to learn something when needed is a sure way to hobble yourself. Practice lifelong learning instead. While on-the-job learning remains crucial, start with self-training. Read about and learn your field the best you can before you step into a role, from the technology you use to how to hit deadlines and on through to human psychology. You’ll hit more homeruns that way.


  1. Keep sight of your goals. As an old saying goes, “when you’re up to your neck alligators, it’s hard to remember that your original goal was to drain the swamp.” Your best bet? Find a way to bypass the gators and get busy with draining the swamp, no matter your obstacles. Here’s the thing: even if they attack you, once the swamp is drained, most (or all) of the gators will go away. This is usually the case with whatever allegorical swamp and symbolic gators you’re working with. Go around people if they are in your way and figure out how to get it done.


Making Life Better

You can spend years fighting alligators, putting out brushfires, stalling, revising, and letting the petty bury you if you don’t look at the list above and take these tips to heart. Don’t fake productivity! Most people know exactly what they should be doing.

© 2021 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.