The myth of productivity
"It had ceased to matter whether or not people enjoyed their work or found pleasure in it. It was important only to finish as much as possible in the shortest amount of time.
Nobody seemed to notice that by saving time they were actually losing something much more important. These people didn’t want to believe that their lives were becoming poorer and poorer, colder and more monotonous.”
—excerpts from Momo by Michael Ende
It’s time to admit that we have an unhealthy obsession with productivity. We write books about it, we share “secrets” to it, we buy every sort of app or tool that promises to maximize it. And like any other unattainable quest for perfection, we never really feel as though we have accomplished it.
But what is productivity really?
In industrial-era terms, the measure of productivity is simply the rate of output per unit of input. It was by this metric that Henry Ford instituted his famous 40-hour work week, after research showed that eight hours per day, five days per week was the optimal time for factory workers to produce its maximum output per worker.
Our economy has long since evolved from blue-collar to white-collar, and despite research to the contrary, the majority of workers have seen their workweeks increase. Entrepreneurs seemingly have it the worst, working an average of 52 hours per week, 63 percent longer than most other workers.
For so long, we’ve always associated productivity as a measure of output against time. With time being a finite resource, we try to find ways to cram as much as possible into the day, and we are inevitably disappointed or anxious when we can’t do it all. And the more we try to master time, the more we think we can take on, which fuels the cycle of disappointment and anxiety.
But in a modern work era dominated by knowledge workers and creative entrepreneurs, where the output is not necessarily units of cars, but rather innovative ideas or creative new products, how can you truly measure productivity? Are 10 ideas produced in a two-hour brainstorm better than one idea sparked by a five-minute shower? Do those five minutes count as work? Which ideas are better?
Reframing the conversation: productivity as flow
For entrepreneurs especially, there are no right and wrong answers about the amount of time one should work. What we should do, however, is reconsider productivity as a measure of focus—the ability to filter out the noise and give full attention to any given task.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this intense focus, which he observed in many athletes and artists, as “flow,” a state of being completely absorbed within an activity. In flow states, people perform at their peak mental state: fully focused yet relaxed, with effortless concentration and pure enjoyment of the task at hand. In flow states, time is secondary—what seems like hours could really be minutes, what seems like minutes could be hours.
The flow state itself may feel effortless, but oftentimes achieving flow can be difficult. A recent Gallup poll found that 71% of American workers feel disengaged at work, and that the average business person spends less than 5% of her work day in flow.
Why is that? Well, for all its wonders, technology is often our worst focus-killer. Flow states require a disconnection from distraction, a near-impossible feat when surrounded by numerous devices and gadgets that constantly command our attention. A simple ping of a cell phone or pop of a calendar alert can easily snap us out of deep concentration.
As much as we like to depend on technology, the solution to productivity is not more apps, but rather the ability to increase and sustain flow states. Fast Company reports that an increase in flow from 5% to 15% of the workday could double one’s workplace productivity. Simply put, you get more done when you are fully focused on what you’re doing.
Using mindfulness to facilitate flow
Researchers have found that the brain waves of people in flow states are quite similar to those in meditation states—in fact, there are actually quite a few similarities between the two. Thoughpeople experience heightened focus and concentration in the two states, brain activity is actually lower than normal.
When viewed from this perspective, the key to increasing our own flow states may actually be in mastering mindfulness in our everyday lives, in developing a stronger ability to live in the present moment. Mindfulness leads to flow when we can channel our focus on the present into a particular task, whether that is solving a complex problem or simply just answering all the emails in your inbox.
Taken out of context, these ideas can easily be taken for granted. In the corporate lexicon, flow and mindfulness become just another set of “low-cost tools to increase our ability to speed up, tune out, and drive ourselves harder than before,” according to psychotherapist Zoë Krupka.
But productivity should not be about achieving the most amount of work in the shortest amount of time—it should be about doing your best work most efficiently.
Flow and mindfulness must become a part of our everyday lexicon—we should learn to apply them in every aspect of our lives, not just at work. And it all balances each other out: if we can be fully present during dinner with the kids, we become better at staying fully attentive during weekly meetings. If we can find flow in our hobbies—be it exercising, cooking, reading, or art—we feel energized for creative pursuits at work.
And that is ultimately how we master productivity: not by trying to save time, but by trying to find focus and joy in everything we do.