The Workplace Productivity Lie We Tell Ourselves

workplace productivity, workplace project management, project management, work productivity, productivity at work

Productivity. It’s one of those plans of action that seems to elude so many of us. It’s something I’m focused on this year. And also every year, but this year, I’m committed to quality or quantity. And for me that means being productive. I’m focused on making the most of my time, but first I had to define what productivity is for me.

What is Workplace Productivity?

I first spent some time journaling what being productive looked like for me. We are taught in business books, magazines and television shows that we have to have to be perfect, together and dress beautifully in order to be productive. That productive people are successful and don’t make mistakes. In my adult life I know many successful people who are not productive. I know lots of people who are busy, but many who don’t get things done. Some spend their days spinning their wheels and running in circles. I knew how being unproductive felt but not what finding success at being productive realistically looked for me. Norms were challenged because at the moment I’m feeling extremely productive. I work remote and am feeling extremely productive while wearing yoga pants, barefoot, messy hair finishing up my second cup of coffee.

Being productive is not simply just about hacks, scheduling tips and checklist I needed to complete. Workplace productivity is a state of mind. It’s about creating a plan of action and being honest with yourself about what you are not good at and finding a way to either complete those tasks yourself in a timely manner or outsource them completely.

Productivity was about looking at my existing way of doing things and processes and formulating a plan of action to make a change. For myself, productivity was critical to my success as a business woman and entrepreneur. My mom was a stay at home mom so my idea of being productive was a false one. Productive was a clean home, an organized house and a warm meal every day. I feel guilty because I can’t and don’t do those things. Because of that I feel less successful and productive which in retrospect is silly. And when you are working remote, you can’t escape the house because it’s your office so I’m reminded of my version of childhood productivity success. When I feel less successful, I worry. I don’t just worry, I’m a silent worrier. I let my stress and emotions build up inside.

Over the years I’ve learned to realize that I am a perfectionist and an overachiever. I tend to focus on a single task and develop tunnel vision making me a subject matter expert on a topic in a short amount of time. This became extremely apparent in my time as an entrepreneur. I focus. I obsess. It’s all I think about, but for everything else it’s extremely unproductive because all my attention is focused on one thing. It’s also the reason I’m good at what I do.

Productivity vs. Busy

In the entrepreneur world, productivity is defined by clients you obtain, boxes checked off that checklist and the ability to generate an income and achieve your goals in whatever your goal might be – 20, 40, 60 or 10 hours a week. Your boss is yourself so you don’t have to answer to someone other than your own person about why you took a longer lunch or slept in on Wednesday. It’s okay to check your mail over the holiday because you promised your client you would. You do the work because your life literally depends on it. There is no guarantee salary. There is no holiday vacation, overtime or time off pay.

I’ve found working in the corporate world that productivity means something else there. You want to be efficient, but not too efficient. It’s a fine line you walk in the workplace. There’s not just office politics but industry politics and maybe peer politics to navigate and you don’t want to become so productive there are glaring gaps on your Outlook calendar. You become less concerned about being productive and more concerned about making the appearance of having a ton to do. That’s called busy which is now in direct conflict with productivity. You want to look busy and ultimately keep your job which is why you accept an additional 10 conference calls during your work week. Busy keeps the boss happy. Busy keeps Nosey Nancy from chatting it up with your boss because she keeps peaking at your empty Outlook calendar. This is the difference between being productive and busy. Question is how do we free and focus on workplace productivity instead of workplace busy?

How to Change Productivity Perceptions at Work

This year I’m committed to being a better version of me.  My view of understanding how to be productive starts with acknowledging that you are not. By no longer ignoring the growing pile of unopened mail that moved from the dining room table to the basket hidden in your hallway closet. I bought a shredder last year and am committing to using it on the regular. Mail is my absolutely nemesis. This year I’m admitting to myself that I am not as good as managing your time or work as I might have led myself to believe. I’m admitting to myself finally that I tend to avoid things I don’t like or am uncomfortable with. Part of being productive is facing those previously avoided projects, tasks and items today.

By committing to making a small change to open, sort and file my mail a couple times a week, I am removing future worry and anxiety instead of facilitating stress, worry and avoidance qualities.

We all have piles of something we avoid that keep us from being productive personally and professionally. When it comes to “what is productivity” is that by hiding that pile in our closets and pretending that we have our shit together we are not only perpetuating a lie but we are passing those behaviors on to our children, our employees and team members. My daughter and team needs to know that I am a work in progress because I want her to have a realistic point of view and understanding of what being successful vs. being productive actually means.

Productivity means getting things done efficiently and in the best manner. It is not just having a full calendar because you appear more powerful at the office. It’s time to start focusing on creating productive pockets of down time, encouraging productivity and by celebrating not shaming those in your office or workplace that do that too. Productivity isn’t about the amount of meetings on your calendar or the number of slide decks you’ve built, it’s about meaningful work that helps towards your individual and unique ultimate goal. I’m tired of being measured by the hours that I work on my annual employee review, by peers and by others. You should be too.

Sit down. Talk to your boss. Challenge opinions and norms in the office. Suppress the urge and need to fill your work day with unnecessary long and agenda-less calls, touch bases and meetings. Suggest instead your office embraces project management philosophies and perhaps invests in project management software instead of rewarding those who are Nosy Nancy’s and are bad planners in your workplace. Bad workplace productivity practices suck the life and excitement out of your employees. Make a change and take a stand to reward those who come to work focused, organized and engaged.

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell

Jessica Miller-Merrell (@jmillermerrell) is a workplace change agent, author and consultant focused on human resources and talent acquisition living in Austin, TX. Recognized by Forbes as a top 50 social media influencer and is a global speaker. She’s the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource and host of the Workology Podcast.

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