It’s so easy to feel guilty for not being productive, but does that really help us?

What Is Productivity?

To start with I think it is really important to discuss what productivity is, and what it is not. There are loads of different approaches to productivity, and a lot of different definitions. It is also important to separate different types of productivity from others. What we are looking at in this article is not a metric like number of productive hours worked as is often used when looking at the economic scale. It is also not the number of hours put into something. Historically there has been a culture that more hours done equals more work. This is not the case as many things can be done more efficiently and in a more concentrated manner in less time. The argument is that if I have done everything I needed to do for the day, why must I stay until 17:00? Now not all jobs have specific to do lists for the day, most are far more flexible than that, but the argument is an interesting one. Do we measure productivity by the length of time you are at work? Or by the amount of value you produce?

The way we will look at productivity here is with production of value. Productivity is a skill; it is something you can and should learn! If we treat productivity as an art form, then we should look at ourselves as artists. We are not measured by time, but by the finished piece, by the value of work produced.

The Number One Rule

With productivity comes a lot of guilt. I’m guessing you’re reading this because at some point somewhere down the line you have felt guilty about how unproductive you are. This article is here to help address that feeling and equip you with the tools to improve! At the same time, there will be times, no matter how hard you try, when you are unproductive. It is vital not to beat yourself up about it. Everyone has off days, or slow days. It’s normal, you’re human. Don’t expect so much of yourself.

That being said, let’s look at how to improve productivity where we can.


If we want to change anything in our lives, we first have to be aware of it. Think of this like productivity anonymous. My name is Andy and I’ve been unproductive today. That is all it takes to start being self-aware!

“What gets measured gets managed”

This is a common approach amongst managers across the world, and it is true, if you can’t measure something how can you know whether it needs improving or not? Gut feeling isn’t really enough to go on, especially in a large organisation. The same thing goes for ourselves. There is a common mentality that our productivity is impacted and damaged by those around us. I’ve been guilty of this myself sometimes. It is so easy to blame other people for our lack of productivity, but what we’re going to focus on is how to take increased ownership of that. By letting the blame for our productivity fall to other people, we will develop learned helplessness. A terrible condition where we eventually don’t know how to change or improve anything because it is all dependent on everyone else. If we reach this stage, then how can we possibly take any power over our own lives? We need ownership to the extreme here, avoid helplessness at all costs!

Let’s look at an example. Say I manage a team of 15 and I operate with an open-door policy, anyone can talk to me anytime they need. Fantastic, what an open and welcoming manager. Well over the course of the day I get interrupted repeatedly when I’m trying to do some work that requires extended concentration. Maybe I’m dealing with numbers, writing a report, trying to read something. My open-door policy means I’m interrupted at least once every hour, and something which could have taken 2-3 hours, takes the whole day. I’m irritated because my productivity is being hampered by my team interrupting me! How can I get anything done when I’m surrounded by this?

This is learned helplessness in action. What can you do about this? You want to have an open-door policy because communication is important, but you also need to be able to do your own work. Well if we take ownership of the issue, we can find a solution. It is my fault that my team interrupts me, I have not explained to them that I need the time this morning to concentrate, and that I will have time for questions and interruptions after lunch. How can they be expected to know that when I don’t communicate that with them? Suddenly we have power again, instead of just demanding not to be interrupted and being irritated with others, we can just be transparent about the fact we need to concentrate and that our door will be open again this afternoon. Ownership is everything!

Measuring Productivity

For those of you who may find self-awareness difficult, or just want real metrics on your levels of productivity there are two approaches you could take to get some data.

The first is the comprehensive approach. Time to get a spreadsheet open! Take the period of time you are trying to be productive, at work, in the evenings, at the weekends. Break it up into 15 minute chunks. You are going to write down what you are doing every 15 minutes during those periods. This will enable you to see where you are actually spending your time, as opposed to where you think you are. You will have a full picture of how long tasks take, how much you bounce between tasks, what it is that is distracting you and so on. There are obvious issues with this approach, however. The first is that it is time consuming. Writing this much down and doing it every 15 minutes is absolutely a distraction and will use up your time. The other is something called the Hawthorne Principle. Anything that is aware it is being watched, will change its behaviour. So by actively measuring your productivity every 15 minutes, you will be more productive as the guilt of having to write down “scrolling Facebook” twice in a row will be too much. This is a great approach if you want total coverage of time, but it’s important to consider the limitations.

The second approach is using randomisation. If you take the same time period and break it up into 40 timestamps you can set up 40 or so alarms on your phone at random time intervals. This means that you get less data because there is less tracking, but you are no longer able to prepare for the times you have to make notes on what you’re doing. The sense of randomisation here removes the Hawthorne Effect as best we can. You could even further randomise by having a friend text you 40 times during a week to be your reminder. This method gives you less data, but the data you get is arguably more accurate.

The reason for doing this is the information is vital to help you understand where you are actually investing your time!

Quick Wins and the Pareto Principle

The Pareto Principle

This is a fascinating idea that is replicated across a huge number of areas in our life. It is often referred to as the 80/20 rule. In sales it is where 80% of your turnover comes from 20% of your clients. In productivity we look see it as 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort.

You can see this time and time again when you look at projects you’ve worked on in the past. You spend a big chunk of time getting something together and send it off for review. Feedback comes back and you then spend quadruple the time you spent making it going back and forth with very miniscule changes. It crops up everywhere! So we’re going to use this to our advantage with this section on quick wins. Here is the 20% of effort you can employ to get 80% of the results.

The 5 Minute Rule

You may have heard this one before. It’s very simple. Does something take less than 5 minutes from start to finish? Yes? Then do it immediately. It is the quickest way to get rid of those tiny little tasks that sit on your desk and pile up. By leaving them you go from maybe one or two 5-minute tasks a day, to having to spend your whole Friday afternoon doing mindless and repetitive admin. It’s a great way to clear your desk and it really helps to make sure you are on top of things that are so easily forgotten. In my experience, the smaller the job, the easier it is to forget about, and the less forgiving people will be when you haven’t done it!

Time Slots

This is another simple idea. Book out time slots into your calendar. We all use calendars for our meetings, trips, holidays etc. So take the time at the start of the week to see what you need/want to get done, and put into some significant chunks of time. Not half an hour to do “admin” I mean serious slots of 2+ hours to focus in detail on something. If you need to write, then schedule that in. If you need time to think about a problem, schedule that in. There is no right or wrong way to do this really, but by taking the time to put things in your calendar you’ll be amazed at how much better you are at adhering to them.

You can do this in a recurrent fashion too. For example, I book out every Friday afternoon of my calendar to spend time thinking about improvements we can make as a team, for creative thinking and anything else that could come under “leadership time”. By booking these things in advance, it stops you from cramming in everything you can because you can see a space in the calendar. If you spend a lot of time complaining about too many meetings across a week, this is the solution.

Do The Worst Thing First

Now if you were anything like me as a child (or now still, let’s be honest), then you will have saved the best part of the meal ‘til last. I know I’m not alone in this, I’ve asked around and I don’t think I’m crazy. We can use this to our advantage. Why do we leave the best until last? Because then it makes it worth eating all the other stuff that’s ‘good for you’!

Say you have 10 things you need to get done today. 7 of them are uninteresting but needed, and 3 of them are things you are good at and can get really into. If you do the interesting stuff first then you will magically find a way to drag it out for the whole day. You’re not being unproductive right? You’re just being thorough and doing the best work you can. That’s great, but if you have a deadline at the end of the day, you will only be seen as missing that deadline for those 7 other jobs. Starting with the worst tasks first means you are motivated to get them done, you are looking forward to the more engaging stuff later on. You effectively have a reward for doing the mindless admin! It’s a powerful approach and I really recommend it on the days you have a lot of things to do and varying interest in them.

Detail in the Prep

This is a more recent discovery for me and can be summarised with this: Your to do list is there to tell you what to do, not just remind you. This means that writing down on your list “Get back to Mike” means absolutely nothing! Which Mike? Which email? What about? When do you need to do it by? If you don’t use S.M.A.R.T objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timebound) then you have failed at the first hurdle! Take those extra few seconds to put some detail in your to do list. “Reply to Mike Smith today about the new expenses system. I think it will confuse everyone”. It takes almost no more time and suddenly you know what you were talking about when you wrote it down two days ago.

30 Minute Jobs

Another recent approach I’ve started to try out. Don’t you hate it when you have that weird window between two meetings that’s not long enough to get into a state of focus but not short enough to just take a few minutes to grab a coffee? I’ve found that awkward size of time is around half an hour. Half an hour can be the perfectly inconvenient amount of time. You can’t, and don’t want to, just sit there, but equally you can’t do anything that requires a significant amount of time.

A 30-minute job list is the answer to that. What jobs do you have, recurrent or not, that hang over you and take far more than five minutes but aren’t really deep or taxing tasks? Do you keep a list of all those? I recommend you start. A great example in my experience is expense reports, it takes me around 20-30 minutes to fill in my expense reports. I have to do it monthly, but it’s not a taxing job, it’s frankly time-consuming data entry. Jobs like this are perfect for your 30-minute list. Ever unsure what to do before your next meeting in 25 minutes? Pull out the 30-minute list and just pick something at random. It’s a great way to get some of those boring tasks out of the way without having to sacrifice whole afternoons churning through them.

Short Goals

A quick win here for sure, but also an interesting concept to focus on over the long term. A big proponent of this was Ernest Hemmingway. He focused on writing about 500 words a day. Now, Ernest Hemmingway was one of the most prolific writers of the past century, but he only wrote 500 words a day? How does that work? There are several things at play here: short goals mean you can’t fail, they mean you can be consistent, they leave gas in the tank for the next day.

If your goal is 500 words a day, 5 minutes of exercise, 15 minutes practicing an instrument, 5 minutes meditating or anything that short and achievable then it is so much harder to fail! By setting the bar low you get over this constant feeling of guilt that is attributed to productivity. This also works in your favour because most of the time the hardest bit of a task is starting it. We all remember looking at a blank screen trying to start an essay or a report for school or university. It’s the worst bit. So make that stage easier on yourself, set the bar low. You’ll find that you will end up doing more anyway, once you’ve been doing something for a few minutes it’s pretty easy to carry on for a few more, then a few more. Suddenly you’re in a state of flow and it’s been an hour. Great job! Now you’re an over-achiever!

Consistency is also an important factor here. “A man can eat an elephant, if need be, a bite at a time”. This saying is all about small chunks of consistent effort. You can’t write a book in a last-minute hail mary, most things cannot be solved with an all-nighter. It is consistent work that gets things done. The use of short goals enables this. Don’t rush to be done in a week. Aim to do less and be done in three. You’ll likely find you get into a flow and finish early, rather than a panic the day before a deadline.

Hemmingway was also an advocate of cutting his work slightly short. “I had learned already never to empty the well of writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it”. By doing this it means that your love of a task, your enjoyment and ability to focus on it are not exhausted. Now this doesn’t mean you do so little you can’t get into a state of flow, but as we’ve already discussed, the small targets help you expect less of yourself so when you do find yourself on a roll it’s natural and earned, not expected. Leaving space for you to come back the next day helps to maintain that consistency that is so important in anything.

Short goals are a great way to find consistency and to help remove that productivity guilt so many of us feel.

Back to Pareto

We’ve covered a whole host of quick wins you can implement here. These are the 20% effort for the 80% results. Try some of them out and let us know how they worked for you. Not everything works for everyone, I certainly don’t use everything discussed here every single day. Having these tricks in your arsenal though is important. When you find you need something to add into your productivity regime pull something off the shelf and give it a go. You never know it might be the only thing you need!