Is Productivity a Scam?

woman sad at work

Adobe Stock / Fairygodboss Staff

Sarah London at Hive
Sarah London at Hive
July 23, 2024 at 5:37PM UTC
You’ve tried it all: Morning meditations, no emails before lunch, no social media during the workday and only scheduling meetings when you absolutely have to. And you’ve read it all before – the 7 Traits of Super Productive People or 4 Reasons You’re Not Being Productive. Quite frankly, you’ve hacked your life so much, you should have a degree in coding. So why aren’t you feeling productive enough?
Don’t be fooled – productivity really is a scam. Everything from the definition of “productive” to the tasks that compose a more productive life is clouded in mystery, and this vague phrase took the business world by storm before the word COVID had even been added to our dictionaries. We all want to be productive. The question is whether or not being productive is good for us in the first place.
The research on productivity has provided some mixed messages, to say the least. Earlier research on productivity was optimistic, as 59% of respondents from this 2005 SHRM report, who said that nothing negatively impacts their productivity at work — they feel productive all the time! But as time went on, the tides turned, and now, if the room is too cold, if there’s too much silence, or if there are any other little hiccups in the delicate world of the office worker, productivity can be destabilized. In fact, a 2017 UK study conducted by VoucherCloud of ~2,000 employees working full-time office jobs claims that on average, respondents report being productive for less than three hours per day. So much for feeling productive all the time, right?
And as if things weren’t muddled enough before the pandemic, now, productivity has become a sort of cult that sucks us out of the scary, unmanageable world that we can’t control and into the microcosm of our jobs, where we can control everything down to the tiniest detail. Companies have lauded working from home as the perfect weapon in the battle for productivity, and companies like Global Workplace Analytics gushed that early in the pandemic, large companies like Best Buy, British Telecom, and Dow Chemical reported two-thirds of managers saw their employees being more productive, and the organizations at large reported productivity rising 35-40% in the first few months of lockdown. Even the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that productivity is up 2.1% this quarter. So how’s productivity a scam when the statistics seem to indicate its validity?

The Problems with Productivity

The definitions

Productivity is generally defined as in an equation measuring input and output. This includes how many hours of work someone is doing, how much product they’re pushing, and the financial rewards for sales or milestones achieved. In this way, if the company is doing better financially, the employees are said to be more productive, which is how the U.S. Bureau of Labor judges things.
But that’s not the only way productivity is tracked, especially when surveys or polls are given to employees by their managers. Gallup’s research says that managers equate “butts in seats” to productivity rather than financial gains, so much so that 52% of HR professionals want to see employees in the office even if they have nothing important to do.
These days, the same can be said for a Zoom meeting that could have been an email, or an email that could have been a Slack message, or a Slack message that could have been a Google search. Just because people are engaging in the act of work – something that certainly makes one feel productive if done in overwhelmingly large quantities using software and programs that provide the kind of instant gratification an immediate file transfer or quick instant message conversation provides — doesn’t mean that they’re really being productive. It just means that we’re working longer hours, perhaps engaging in more busy work, and causing our managers to think that we’re more engaged, leading companies to report higher productivity, and ultimately, increasing shareholder interest.

The tips

Now that we know what productivity means to your boss and your organization, we can figure out what it might mean (or not mean) in the context of popular culture. The problem is that when we try to look up tips to enhance productivity, the results are platitudes like “have the knowledge,” “create systems,” or “desire results.” One of the most popular productivity tips is to make decisions that are consistent and disciplined, whether it’s about your clothes, hair, meals, projects, deadlines, or anything else in your life. If you act quickly and proficiently in everything you do, you’ll find that you get so much more done. But do you need to eliminate spontaneity and creativity from your life in order to make it productive?
Some of the tips are also as mundane as they are strict. Some firms that seek to enhance productivity among their employees will already have a protocol for filing paperwork, standardizing procedures, or integrating software. Even the more practical advice some outlets give, like circulating agendas for meetings in advance, is done pretty routinely among teams with a moderate level of communication. So what if you’re already as well-organized as you can be at work, but you still don’t feel productive?

The formula

Rather than outlining the behaviors, let’s take a look at the deeper underlying ways that productivity manifests. Specifically, the tenants of productivity seem to be decisiveness, efficiency, and rigidity. The most productive people cite their regimented days and packed schedules as the key to their success, but at the same time, prioritize sleeping, exercising, and self-care. All you have to do is everything, very fast and all at once, and you’ll be productive in no time.
To emulate the Ariana Huffington and Elon Musks of the world, you’ve got to be dogged and goal-oriented. You’re a fast worker, a quick study, you always know your priorities, and you never spend too long on a decision. But before you rush to send that email, or buy the same turtleneck to wear every day, take a moment and think before you act. Does this sound like someone you want to be? Or is there more to one’s work-life (or life in general) than just the ability to run your life like a military drill sergeant?

How to be productive

While the world’s most productive people might tell you that sleeping at 8 PM and exercising at 5 AM are integral parts of their productive days, there’s more to productivity than keeping your body and mind fine-tuned to be a little office-ready automaton.
A productive day could mean a successful day of meetings, or it could mean a successful trip to the grocery store. You could be productive if you get your car washed after weeks of putting it off, if you complete your first painting or poetry collection, or if you pick up that fall coffee drink you’ve been dying to try. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t be prioritizing, or acting in a logical and reasonable way when you’re trying to check things off of your always-growing to-do list. But as long as you take care of yourself in a way that furthers goals big and small, you’re being productive – or as some of us simpler people would call it, “living your life.”
Productivity isn’t just what your boss says it is, or what your company’s bottom line says it is – it isn’t even what the most productive people in the world say it is, or what the best productivity life hacks say it is. Productivity is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and in order to figure out if you’re being productive or unproductive, you need to figure out if you’re satisfied with the amount and type of work that you’re doing. If something makes you feel accomplished, contented, and proud, it was a productive achievement, whether you did it inside or outside the office.

Do you think productivity is a scam? Why or why not? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss'ers!

This article originally appeared in Hive — the world's first democratically built productivity platform. Learn more at Hive.com.

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