It has been said that work takes up the time allowed for its completion. This is probably true in many instances. It is a sad and jaded truth, based upon the unfortunate reality of mutual exploitation and perception of human nature through a dark and cynical prism. I have always been a student of the laws that pertain to productivity. I am fascinated with the amount of quality work that some people get done in a day and am shocked at how little others will accomplish in that same period of time. I myself measure my productivity in terms of sixty-minute increments and see productivity at client sites in the same way. From the standpoint of productivity, the sixty-minute hour is a very simple and interesting concept that raises the following central questions:
- How many productive minutes can an individual, focused on a task, understanding its value and purpose, derive out of a sixty-minute period of time?
- How can an organization, regardless of size, industry, demographics, marketplace, or economic conditions become more productive without sacrificing quality, creativity, or any other attribute essential to its business?
- How can we increase productivity and have employees work at an optimum level and not burn them out? (You can always beat people harder, but that is not the answer and it never will be. The poster saying, “The beatings will continue until morale improves” is meant to be a joke.)
- How can enhanced productivity become the norm?
If you think you are going to get the definitive answers to these questions in this article, guess again. The theories, postulates, ideas and studies that have been done on productivity are endless. But let’s look at three that are good examples:
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- Productivity tends to be lower after a vacation, on Monday mornings, Friday afternoons, thirty minutes before lunch, thirty minutes after lunch and thirty minutes before an employee leaves for the day.
- Productivity is fragile and is influenced by virtually everything, including caffeine intake, alcohol consumption, sleep patterns, commute times, level of fitness, employee attitudes, seasonal changes, and conditions at home. (If your game is off at home, it is usually off on the job as well.)
- Productivity tends to be higher the last few days before an employee’s vacation as they race to get everything done so they can leave with a clear head.
I am writing this article while flying home to Boston. I am well rested and running on all eight cylinders. This is my second article of the day, and I am writing it in longhand. I am writing so quickly that I am not sure I will be able to read my own handwriting when the time comes for transcription at the computer. The ideas are pouring out in a deluge, and I am amazed at my level of productivity. I am hyper-focused on my work and am probably productive to the tune of fifty to fifty-five minute per hour. I am pleased to be as productive as I am currently, but what about tomorrow? Handling administrative functions for my business, interruptions, answering e-mail, dealing with clients, preparing for Toastmasters and exhaustion from the trip are sure to take their toll. How productive will I be on Monday morning? How many useful minutes will I get out of each hour? Maybe 30 or 35 at the most. This is the nature of productivity. Sometimes up and sometimes down. We are all human. We are fragile in more ways than we care to admit to ourselves, let alone the world. With this in mind, the central question becomes: How can we become more productive and maintain, more or less, at that level of productivity whenever possible? The answer is, as usual, far more complex than the question. For starters, I believe that almost all employees really do want to be more productive. With that belief acting as a structural underpinning, the challenge now becomes providing them with ideas and tools as to what actions and behaviors affect productivity and how these entities can be used to increase productivity in a real and measurable way. For recruiters, consider asking the candidate if they consider themselves to be productive (they will not answer this question with the usual aplomb, because few people if any ask it, so they have little practice). Feel free to probe, as the answer will probably be in the affirmative. Try to find out exactly what candidates do to achieve and maintain a high level of productivity. Be wary of the candidate that tells you they work 18-hour days. That is not a sign of productivity but a sign of a problem instead. I suggest this because most interviews focus on experience. But after a certain point, experience (how long they have been doing what you hired them to do) becomes redundant, and productivity (how much they accomplish working within your organization) is what sets the best employees apart from the more marginal ones. For HR professionals, I can assure you that habits leading to higher levels of productivity can be learned. Consider either one-on-one coaching with employees that are not as productive as they need to be to succeed, or perhaps developing an interactive half-day program on enhancing productivity. It has been my experience that self-discipline, time management, planning, and the ability to set and manage priorities will help anyone become more productive if utilized consistently. As a result, the following basic ideas are a good place to start in working with employees on productivity:
- Plan your day. Not when you, wake up in the morning wondering where you have to be, whom you have to see, and what you have to accomplish, but the night before. Take fifteen minutes to set goals, reevaluate objectives and get organized. (If I forget to do this I am more clueless than usual.)
- Learn how to set priorities and do what is most important first. Von Goethe wrote, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” If you are looking to enhance your level of productivity, setting well-thought-out priorities is a good place to start.
- All of us have things we dislike doing, but they must be done anyway. Do not put them off. Get the things you hate to do done as soon as possible, because no good ever comes from procrastination. (Morning is usually a good time because you have the bandwidth and are not feeling the brain fog associated with the four slices of pizza you had for lunch.)
- Manage your time as effectively as possible. According to Alan Weiss, Ph.D and President of Summit Consulting, time management is the single most consistent, critical personal trait that determines one’s level of success. It is the difference between adequate performers and outstanding performers.
- Do not multi-task. Work on one thing at a time and give it 100% of your focused effort and concentration. If you do three things at one time, something has to give and what gives is usually quality.
- Manage e-mail by checking and responding to it in the early a.m., right before lunch and before the end of the day. If you do not manage e-mail, it will manage you. (Besides, how many Viagra and weight loss pills do you want to read about?)
- Eat well, exercise, and get enough sleep. If you do not take care of your body, your productivity will suffer. Burning the candle at both ends only works for a very short time.
- Utilize a to-do list and cross things off as you finish them. This is probably one of the best tools to use for understanding where you are in terms of work, what has to be done next, and how much has been completed. Focus on getting things done based on the priorities you set but remain flexible in the event of a sudden change that might arise.
- Eat a light lunch. A 37-course lunch at your favorite bistro is very nice, but save that for those times when you are not working. If your body is trying to digest endless fats, carbohydrates, two glasses of wine, and cheesecake, ambition, productivity and effectiveness will decrease. Best case? Exercise or a quick walk, a light lunch and back to work.
- Unless absolutely urgent, do not attempt to work if you are sick, hungry, exhausted or otherwise preoccupied. You will only wind up spinning your wheels and producing work that is not up to your potential. We all have bad days. (You should see some of mine.)
- Have an end to the day. There comes a time to close the lights and go home to your life. Americans tend to live to work, while Europeans tend to work to live. (They also have six weeks of vacation. What do they know that we don’t?)
Regardless of your workload, there are some people that know there is always more to do. Let that reality be something you can live with and understand that you can always do more work tomorrow. Walt Whitman once said, “There is nothing I fear more than the day when there is nothing left to do.” I believe Mr. Whitman was correct. I fear that day as well.