- Introduction to Productivity
- Measuring Productivity
- Increasing Productivity
- Factors of Productivity
- The Philosophy of Productivity
Productivity has become the most important factor in business success. Managers expect employees to perform a specific amount of work in an allotted time and base evaluations off this performance. Maximizing productivity goes beyond the office though. The countries of the world look to productivity indicators more than simple GDP to gauge economic strength. Even so, productivity is down .3% in the United States. Many people question these official statistics, claiming that outsourced labor and manufacturing should not be counted toward domestic productivity. If you want the government's answer to measuring productivity, check out the Bureau of Labor statistics comparing different countries and sectors of the economy. If you want the real scoop, read on.
While everyone wants to be more productive it seems that everyone has a different definition of what it means. It's no secret that computers and the web have made it easier for employees in many industries to conduct business. These tools have been indispensable in the rush to more productive workplaces over the last decade. Technology is not the only factor though. Employee satisfaction, company policies and even office layout can tweak worker production without changing outputs or inputs.
What You'll Learn
- What is productivity?
- How is productivity measured?
- Is productivity different for different people?
- What factors affect productivity in positive or negative ways?
- The modern tools that are changing the ways business works.
- Improving your performance in the workplace and beyond.
- The beliefs behind productivity and the people who advocate them.
- Advice from productivity masters to live up to your potential.
Many attempts have been made to create a system to accurately measure productivity. Most have failed. The problem is productivity is not the same in all situations. Take computer programmers for instance. You could count the lines of code over the number of hours work, but this is a highly inaccurate method. Different languages require different amounts of commands to perform the same action. You can have as many lines of code as you want, if they are full of errors you will never get to a working version. Then there are the fuzzy factors like team composition and worker satisfaction. These all have obvious impacts on how well a worker performs, but attempts to quantify any gain have fallen short.
Productivity is a touchy subject in software development circles. Some firms press their workers to produce as much code as possible, and are usually disappointed with the outcome. On the other side of the spectrum, a coder who produces one line of perfect code a day is not very useful either. In Shaking IT Up Kevin Vandever touches on the many challenges for gauging programmer productivity. He speaks from experience when he says that different companies have different priorities and seek different types of coders. Some will focus on speed while others seek only quality products. There is no set formula to determine the a worker's productivity in every situation.
There are additional factors beyond the lines of code written. Knowing the best way to use a particular language allows workers to do more with less data. They increase their productivity even while doing less. In a similar way, annotating code and organizing it in a logical fashion might not seem like a direct gain, but has long term benefits. Well written code is easy to follow which means that when bugs pop up they can be easily squashed. In the end the programmer was more productive, even though they took more time to complete the software. All of these aspects deserve consideration when evaluating your team, and vary from business to business. That said, don't ignore productivity. Not knowing your workers' potential wastes money for longer than just the short term. In the world of programming deadlines must be met and if you're in the dark about employee efficiency there is no way to determine an appropriate due date.
What do Creatives Create?
Writers and other creatives are in a similar boat. Michael Kinsley of the Washington Post evidences the difficulty pinning a number on creative production. The Chief Operating Officer of the Tribune Co., umbrella entity for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, recently announced that writers would be evaluated based on productivity. This doesn't sound too unreasonable until the method of measurement is revealed. Journalists were judged on how many column inches they produced. Is a longer article always better than a shorter one? What about feature writers versus those on local news? Different types of articles tend to vary in length.
Productivity metrics need to carefully analyze what they are measuring. Basing a writer's worth on how many words they put down does not look at the quality or readership they draw. Pressure to write more can result in reduced quality and reduced revenues in the long run. Of course things like article quality and reader draw are just as hard to evaluate. Business managers who need to know their worker's productivity would do well to choose their criteria carefully. Emphasizing the wrong factors is not only misguided, it could degrade overall performance in the wake of workers gaming the system for personal gain.
Even scientific discovery, a pursuit with clear inputs and outputs, is not cut and dry. Scientists submit their reports to journals which are then read and cited throughout the community. Seemingly, the more citations a paper has the more valuable it is. There are many problems with this system. For one thing, papers continue to be cited years after they are published, so older papers will always appear more valuable. This status says nothing about their contribution to the field. Is there any way to use citations to determine scientific productivity?
Changing the variables doesn't diminish the underlying ambiguity. Even limiting the citations to the publication year doesn't yield satisfying results. A discovery in a popular field will naturally receive more attention than one in a niche subject. The most widely read journals are interested in broad fields where a lot of research takes place. They simply don't accept extremely specialized essays. Dividing the citations garnered by the authors involved runs up against similar roadblocks. While the lab administrators who help secure funding may not be directly involved in the research they are the ones bringing in the grants. Scientific pursuits are not a solo endeavor, and while each person involved should contribute something, these contributions are not always apparent the actual paper.
- "How not to measure scientific productivity" by Chris Lee appeared in the Physical Review E recently. In this article he comments on the state of measuring scientific productivity and its flaws. Ultimately he concludes that while solely measuring statistics does not provide satisfactory evaluations, administrators understand this and use their own judgement to make the call on a researcher's output.
With so many problems measuring productivity a standard definition is needed. When measuring physical production in a simple operation the calculation is easy. Objects created divided work hours spent is a fairly solid method. Governments use this type of equations to determine productivity on a global level. But few people solely produce goods anymore since our economy has shifted toward knowledge work. Information specialists do not work in the traditional system of inputs and outputs and require unique analysis to determine their efficiency.
JoAnn Hackos of the Center for Information Development Management delves into the issues with measuring data productivity. Information workers produce resources that lead people to the right decisions or actions. These can include instruction manuals, tutorials, courses and guides. These employees are in the unique position that their work increases customer productivity in addition to their own. While you might be able to determine that a knowledge worker saved a customer a certain amount of time, putting an economic value on this savings proves frustrating. Other methods like counting pages produced run into problems as well. Increased output does not always result in measurable gains.
On the input side of the equation measurements are even trickier. Of course there are salaries and work hours to consider, but knowledge workers utilize many tools in their jobs. They ask experts questions, conduct market research and analyze products to refine their documentation. Their projects are completed in groups where each member of the team contributes a discrete portion and must communicate with others to create the finished product. Discussions and debates are included as a necessary part of the process.
Hackos claims that with so many variables, measurements of productivity are bound to be flawed. The real goal, though is to track patterns over time. As long as business use the same model to gauge their workers, they will be able to see changes in productivity over time. That said, if you are measuring the wrong data, or just one kind of data, the numbers will not match actual gain.
What it Means for Business
So far the attention has been focused on mistakes made in measuring productivity rather than ways to improve it. In business this kind of information isn't especially useful. The simple fact of the matter is that most companies' metrics for productivity are not effective gauges. Some managers have simplistic perspectives on productivity or are simply measuring the wrong factors. Understanding not only what your employees produce but how they do it helps to understand where improvements can be made. It is not just about the statistics. Different workers go about their jobs in their own fashion. While your top employee might be doing a lot of things right, there is always more to learn. Getting an overview of the company allows executives to adapt their policies and get everyone on the same page. They can decide where to focus their efforts to increase their competitiveness.
Evaluating Productivity on the Enterprise Level is a guide for owners of large companies to follow. While sizable businesses often have more workers than they can keep track of, they also have more to gain from ensuring those workers are fulfilling their potential. Deep analysis of the processes allows for them to see where things go awry and survey their workforce for better strategies.
Everyone wants to know how to do more in less time. Whether it is to get attention for promotion at work or simply to have more free time, productivity is on everyone's mind. Just trying harder using the same strategies is like running at a wall. First you need to understand where productivity comes from.
The most significant gains in productivity recently have come from advances in technology. Computer software is frequently updated to include more features that let you get things done faster. This doesn't, however, mean that you should simply download as many apps as you can find. Tech writer Chris Smith understands the pitfalls of technology overload. He points out that sometimes its not about having more tools but rather having the tools that are most effective to help you. This means analyzing your weaknesses and finding the software or systems to counteract them. Productivity techniques and technology are useless if they don't actually address the underlying problems. He also points out that sometimes simpler systems are better. Using pen and paper to take notes can actually boost your productivity if you use it in appropriate ways. Its not about having biggest toolbox, its about finding what tools you need to get the job done and using them to their potential.
Smith's argument lends itself to the claims Erin Doland of Unclutterer makes in "Want to be organized? Know thyself." In the article she emphasizes that increasing productivity is a personal endeavor. If work is drudgery, there is no amount of productivity tools that can force you to achieve. Understanding some basic likes and dislikes, your most effective working conditions and your capabilities allows you to effectively gauge productivity and take steps to improve it. Perhaps most importantly, the article suggests a goal for increasing your effectiveness to increase motivation and have a metric of progress. Knowing what works for you is more important than following a set system or using prescribed tools.
The Outside World
If productivity were just based on the individual, though, it would be much easier to improve. Our surroundings and work environments play a huge role in how much output we can handle. "Scientifically Proven Tips for a More Productive Office" draws from research findings that show what factors boost office performance. Lighting, indoor flora, comfortable chairs and even temperature all have been proven to affect productivity. These factors, however, are just the beginning. Think about your desk space and how to maximize your effectiveness there. Is your desk cluttered or neat and tidy? Do you use a filing system to store important documents? Changing the setting where you work is an easy way to be more efficient. You can develop a new organization scheme, change layouts for more production, move more important tools to the most visible portions of your workspace or simply redecorate for a more appealing space that lends itself to increased focus.
It has been put off long enough. Knowing the factors that improve productivity is not very helpful if you don't improve them. Everyone has their own productivity tips and, as stated before, what works for one person is not necessarily universal. Maximizing your output is a process and will require a lot of trial and error, but does not have to be a fly-by-night exercise. These are some techniques useful to most people for increasing their effectiveness.
Beginning a project is often the most difficult part. Some work is simply not all that exciting, but having a bad attitude about it will get you nowhere. The trick is finding the factors that drive you to do your work. Motivation either comes from an internal desire to perform the work or external demands. "Are you really motivated?" from Pursuit of Focus explores these two forms and how they occasionally overlap. The goal is to find aspects about your work that you are personally motivated by. External motivation, such as your boss handing you assignments, can only go so far. There needs to be some internal force that keeps you going. This is not always easy to develop. Sometimes you have to abstract the work, focus on what you are aiming to do by completing it. For example, a project that is dragging on might not have any personal incentive to increase productivity, but finishing it so you can get to your weekend plans adds benefit to your end. By finding something that drives you in your job you can increase productivity without changing your habits. Finding motivation is perhaps the most essential step to improving your efficiency.
If you simply cannot see any value in what you do, you can look to others for inspiration. Motivation does not need to be a life changing goal or even the promise of some future reward. Beyond simply loving what you do there is gratification in small tasks. Maybe you like a sense of discovery. Emphasize this portion of your work to make it more personally engaging. If you are able to pull this off, you will find yourself producing more and enjoying your job.
- Why do YOU do what you do? is a documentary project that asks ordinary people what drives them in life. It is interesting to see what different people have to say about their work and the satisfaction they draw from it. Perhaps you'll even be inspired to find something you enjoy in your employment.
Businesses are quickly shifting toward web-based solutions for many of their needs. The web allows for quick communication, research and distribution of content, perfect for fast paced companies. But are your employees using the internet efficiently? Probably not. There are rules to the web and understanding them will allow you to work faster. Productivity on Web 2.0 shows you the best ways to get an edge on the internet. It advises reading less while using smart tools to gain more. The applications it suggests are not as important as how you use them. It does not really matter which RSS reader you subscribe with, as long as you are using one that works for you. Cut through the clutter and get the information you need by improving your internet understanding.
As technology advances, the way we use it changes as well. Phones revolutionized the way business was conducted in the late 1800s. Now they take the form of handheld computers and can send emails, browse the web and run applications. The phone is becoming an essential part of everyday life, including work.
The value of a phone is not that it does things better than a computer or other device. It is simply the most commonly carried tool for the job. While you might work on a computer in the office, using your phone to take notes while on breaks or out of office meetings is easy. While you could do all of this work on paper, phones can sync with computers, transferring all your data onto a more productive machine. Being mobile allows you to check up on your work from anywhere and actually reduces stress since you do not have to worry what is happening at the office while you're away. Learn how to use mobile technology on an individual level and you will reap the benefits of increased productivity.
Some businesses are even handing out smart phones to each new employee. They see potential in the technology to revolutionize the way they do business. Phones are not only useful for organization of data. Software is constantly developed to expand their capabilities in many different applications. Having employees interact through their phones helps make sure everyone is on the same page, even from different parts of the office or the country. They can also reach out to customers, send Tweets and conduct surveys with a few keystrokes. Marketing is perhaps the most affected by the popularity of smart phones. QR codes are interpreted by camera phones and direct users to specific content on the web. Businesses can now determine when a mobile user is close to them and offer special discounts and coupons. Mobile devices allow businesses to get more done with less effort.
- Find out more about how businesses are using smart phones in "Mobile Technology for Increased Productivity & Profitability." The article covers ways to incorporate phones into a business plan to save employees time as well as using them to increase revenues through advertising, outreach and reduced overhead. All of these methods allow for more output with less required input; an overall increase in productivity.
With so many sources of information its tempting to try to perform many different tasks at once. Who doesn't want to get more done in less time? The only problem: multitasking isn't effective. An avalanche of research has piled up the reasons why trying to do two things at once actually kills your productivity. The human brain can't handle too many channels of information, doing multiple things means that each task will be completed later than it would have if you tackled it singly and it is hard to gauge actual progress when you are not focused on the work in front of you. These are the most commonly cited reasons not to stretch yourself thin, but there is another, more egregious error that multitaskers commit daily. They do not give people sufficient attention while communicating. This is "Why Multitasking Sucks." In business, as in personal life, communication counts for a lot. Maintaining healthy relationships with your coworkers and bosses helps build camaraderie and understanding in the workplace. By multitasking you are eroding these friendships by not giving them your full attention. But clarity in speech has a more practical application in the workplace. If workers are talking with each other while distracted, they are more likely to make mistakes. If they are explaining complex instructions, it is probable that someone will misunderstand and waste valuable work hours. Don't advise your staff to multitask. It will only degrade their work quality and can lead to major problems.
For some people, productivity is more a lifestyle choice than a system of completing activities. It creeps in to absorb everything from brushing your teeth in the morning to getting some sleep at the end of the day. Being productive in everything you do is a great goal and can lead to more personal time, better performance and more rewarding relationships. Is there any surefire way to get there? The thing about philosophies that claim to increase efficiency is that they are all rest on different fundamentals. The path to productivity is different for everyone.
The Buddha and Productivity
Zen Buddhism is often cited as a wellspring for habits that improve performance in the business world. Its minimalist outlook seems to be what many productivity gurus suggest through their programs. It is not a lie that businesses can learn a lot from the religion. Zen Master Susan O'Connell suggests worrying about something only once. A clear head is an obvious boost to productivity. The problem is that we are confronted everyday by phone calls, emails, memos and other small pieces of information we must deal with. All of these expectations add up and create stress. Performing short tasks when you receive them alleviates this anxiety and allows you to complete the important projects without distraction. Of course you don't want to constantly jump from one thing to another. Strike a balance where you get the little stuff out of the way but still have time to tackle the pressing deadlines.
Eastern religions offer more to productivity than just a clear head. Yoga is closely tied with both Hindu and Buddhist practices as the physical representation of spirituality. Not surprisingly, it has been adapted to business practices as well. Our physical well being is closely tied with mental performance and simple exercises can fill us with a sense of calm. The underlying belief is that a quiet body produces a quiet mind. While stretching all day probably will adversely affect your productivity, taking a little personal time can be a good way to unwind. Take a look at some of these simple exercises to stay focused during long days in the office.
Suffering for Efficiency
Tim Ferriss draws inspiration from the ancient Greeks to increase performance. In "The Practicality of Pessimism" he discusses how enduring challenges can be good for your work. By overcoming hardship we steel ourselves against distraction and self-destructive tendencies. Our struggles are not things to be intimidated by, they are opportunities for action. Similarly, you should always prepare for the worst while things are good. This allows you to plan ahead with a realistic perspective on the future. If you are always focused on your problems and taking steps to counter them, you will always be improving. Goals are more ambiguous and difficult to gauge. While Stoicism is certainly different than Buddhism, the foundations espoused by Ferriss very closely resemble the Eastern emphasis on suffering.
Mix it Up
In many cases productivity experts draw on many different philosophies when constructing their systems. Lifehacker explains two philosophies of the well-known masters and then shows you how to construct your own system. Every technique is different and it is important to develop your own. Starting from scratch allows you to tailor the method to suit your personal style. By the time you are done, you will know it like the back of your hand. The system will make sense to you, it is on your terms. If you have tried other productivity improvement regimens and failed, coming up with your own is the best bet.
- These TED presentations are from some of the most respected names in productivity. Tim Ferris, Jason Fried and more sound off on the best tips to improve your performance in the workplace and beyond. Whether you are an executive or a graphic designer there are pointers here for you.
- David Allen's podcast series has a wealth of information on becoming more productive. They include speeches from Allen himself as well as his associates and some guest interviews. The collection is based on his GTD system, one of the most widely used methods to boost your work flow.
- Time Management From the Inside Out disentangles productivity from boredom. She shows that time management brings freedom, not an endless cycle of to-do lists. Learn her secrets for how to develop a productive lifestyle.
- Getting Things Done is productivity legend David Allen's signature book. In it he reveals his system to reduce stress while getting more done. With many adherents from around the world swearing by his method, there must be something to it.
- Getting Organized: Improving Focus, Organization and Productivity offers very similar advice to GTD. The strength this book is its compact size and casual style. If you want a stress free, no strings attached guide to productivity, this is it.
- TPM: Collected Practices and Cases explores the world of productivity as it is experienced by business. It uses real life examples to show where companies have improved their performance and the factors they didn't expect to drag them down. Where most gurus simply offer up their own advice with case studies tacked on as evidence, this book goes into the details of what works and what doesn't.
How do I know where I can be more productive?
Penelope Trunk claims to have been inspired by her anger with Tim Ferriss. While you don't necessarily have to develop a mortal enemy to compete against, her advice does strike a chord. Finding inspiration to be more productive is as simple as looking at what you don't like in people. If you notice that people waste time doing things a certain way, you have found a route to increased productivity. Improving your own time-management skills works in a similar way. Figure out what you are spending a lot of time on, what you don't like to do. Why is this? Is there a way to do it better? Probably so. Where you find the inspiration is up to you, but carefully analyzing your activities and those of others to determine weaknesses is indispensable.
When a worker stops working do you try to get them back on track or cut losses and let them go?
The Compassion Capital Fund recommends sucking it up and finding out where the problem lies. There are many reasons for a drop in productivity and not all of them are necessarily bad for your company. Sometimes personal issues disrupt work flow or an employee does not want to move up from their current position. These are legitimate concerns, but should be addressed with communication rather than a pink slip. Often its as simple as building up that employee's confidence level to cope with their responsibilities. While you obviously don't want workers who are not performing, it is often easier to fix the problem than deal with the fallout from hiring a replacement.
On the other hand, keeping unproductive employees around sends a clear message to your entire workforce: performance is not important. Steve Adubato at NJ.com understands this. If you don't periodically check up on your workers you may end up with a bigger problem. What's more, when times get tough and someone has to go you're sending them into an economy where they have even less chance of being hired. Don't get complacent with your workers. Trimming the fat before it goes rancid benefits both you and the nonperforming individual. Your company is more productive overall and your best team members know they are valuable. The ex-employee can find a position where they can perform better and, if they're smart, will think about why it is they were fired and aim to fix the problem. While you shouldn't jump on someone just because they had a bad week, knowing when to pull the trigger helps everyone involved.
What is the most productive way to tackle multiple assignments?
Having too much on your plate is stressful. The more things you have to think about at a given moment, the less attention is devoted to the task at hand. Getting the small things out of the way allows you to concentrate on the bigger picture, according to Jaimy Ford. There is always something to do, both at home and in the office. Little things like out of place items and cluttered spaces nag you with their presence. But these things have easy solutions. Eliminate the stress by completing these projects first. Get them out of the way and move on to the big issues. You won't only be saving yourself worry, completing an assignment builds confidence. By checking off small pieces of work you are preparing yourself to plow through more intimidating projects.
Of course, you could always try to get the worst out of the way first. This strategy is suggested by Michelle Connolly of GetOrganizedWizard.com. The work that you dread most is the one causing you the most stress. Making progress on that assignment will have more benefit than completing less discouraging ones. Going against your natural tendencies will help you to become a better worker. Finishing it will make you feel that you have accomplished something, and the work left over will seem like a breeze. Of course, everyone has their own definition of tedious work. But if you get it off your plate you'll notice that you feel much better.