WorkWoes Act II: The Dark Side of Productivity

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I was settling into my movie theater seat—one of those giant leather ones that recline, of course—at the opening night of Disney’s TheLion King reboot.

I’d been looking forward to seeing it for months...but I still couldn’t seem to turn off a nagging thought in the back of my mind.

“You haven’t hit all your deadlines yet this week,” it said. “Should you really be seeing a movie right now?”

As the theater lights dimmed and the previews started to roll, that little whisper in my brain got louder and more insistent. Sure, I stayed and watched The Lion King (and it was magnificent), but was I fully there? Not really.

Even for just the two hours of leisure time it took to watch the movie, I struggled with knowing there were “more important things” I should be working on. Even though I had worked a full day already and it was way past 5 p.m., it felt wrong to spend a few hours doing something that wasn’t technically productive.

In modern America, we’re all a little obsessed with productivity—and it’s become a real problem.

We’re All Trapped in a Never-Ending Quest for Productivity

Apps, tricks, tools, and secrets abound on the internet. Many promise to help us hack our productivity and pack more output into every moment of work. Why? Because we’re obsessed with it.

For knowledge workers and manual laborers alike, endless productivity is often rewarded. That’s what makes it so easy to fall into a trap of faking productivity by just staying busy all the time.

Think about it. How often have you responded to someone asking how you’ve been by proudly saying “Crazy busy!”?

Unfortunately, being busy isn’t the same as being productive. Research shows that in the average 8- to 9-hour workday, a person is actually productive for just under 3 hours.

Chart showing how much time UK workers believe time is spent throughout the day on popular distractions

You might wonder what’s wrong with striving for better productivity than that. The answer is nothing—if being more productive than average is truly your goal. However, when we get caught up in our cultural obsession with maximizing productivity, we can find ourselves trapped in a soul-crushing race to become excessively productive. That’s where we find the dark side of productivity.

How Did We Get Here?

The pursuit of productivity in America is as old as the country itself. Economist Adam Smith wrote in his classic text Wealth of Nations in 1776:

“There is one sort of labor which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed; there is another which has no such effect. The former, as it produces a value, may be called productive; the latter, unproductive labor. Thus the labor of a manufacturer adds, generally, to the value of the materials which he works upon, that of his own maintenance, and of his master’s profit. The labor of a menial servant, on the contrary, adds to the value of nothing … A man grows rich by employing a multitude of manufacturers; he grows poor by maintaining a multitude of menial servants. The labor of the latter, however, has its value, and deserves its reward as well.”

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, as the production of goods shifted from being made by hand to being made in factories, productivity was a driving force. Low-wage factory workers (many of them children) worked long hours to keep production happening around the clock. New labor laws were even passed as the pursuit of productivity became the driving force of America’s rapidly-growing middle class.

During the same time, day planners were becoming common. One of the nation’s richest men was the owner of a company that produced blank books where people could write down (and check off) their to-do list items.

In the early 1900s, Philadelphia man Frederick Winslow Taylor became famous for inventing productivity consultation. He would spend a few days observing a company’s workers with a stopwatch in hand and then generate a report telling the company how its work could be done faster and more efficiently. Taylor didn’t only become rich for this practice, he sparked an entire industry of productivity gurus ready to tell businesses how to get more out of their workers in less time.

And today, we have In Search of Excellence writer Tom Peters, Competitive Advantages writer Michael Porter, and Six Sigma creator Bill Smith—a new generation of productivity gurus promising that with this framework or that self-help book, you too can triple your output.

Modern Productivity: Our New Addiction

After more than 200 years of building our national economy on the idea that long hours of hard work equate to productivity, we’re conditioned to try to squeeze as much work out of ourselves as possible, as often as possible.

Addiction to productivity is a real thing.

Clinically, a person is considered addicted to something when their continued use of that thing interferes with their life and responsibilities such as work, family, and health. Since being productive feels good to most people, it’s absolutely possible to develop an unhealthy addiction to that feeling and neglect health and personal relationships in the endless pursuit of more and more of that productivity high.

Career coach Melody Wilding lists these as potential signs that you’re addicted to productivity:

  • You’re extremely aware of when you’re “wasting” time by not being productive, and you tend to beat yourself up for doing so.
  • You have to use technology (like site blockers or work timers) to make sure you’re optimizing your time.
  • You think “hustling” is something to strive for while “relaxing” sounds lazy.
  • You’re attached to your devices and check for notifications constantly.
  • You feel guilty if you only manage to cross one thing off your to-do list in a day.
  • You keep putting off passion projects or hobbies because you’re too busy to get them started.

One of the most insidious things about productivity addiction is that, unlike alcohol, drugs, and other common addictions; productivity is seen as a largely positive thing. That means many people who are addicted might not even know it, or might not see it as something they need to address or change. But like any addiction, addiction to productivity has consequences.

The Dangerous Impact of Productivity Addiction

By its very definition, addiction interferes with personal relationships, family life, health, and other aspects of a person’s life. But ironically, productivity addiction can have a negative impact on a person’s work, as well.

When your only focus is on creating as much output as possible, it’s easy to lose sight of the other things that are important about your work. The result? Dead-eyed work that’s done with no heart, soul, or care. It’s a classic case of quantity over quality—you push yourself to create more. And you do, but it’s not your best work.

Another common consequence of productivity addiction is the urge to play calendar Tetris. That’s when you have a tendency to fill any gaps or breaks in your schedule with anything you can squeeze in. It’s not the most efficient use of your time, but since you’re busy all day, it feels productive.

But neither of these is the worst consequence of productivity addiction.

Productivity Addiction Paves the Road to Costly, and Deadly, Burnout

The consequence of productivity addiction that’s likely to have the largest negative effect on your life (and the one that’s hardest to reverse) is burnout: Complete emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion that comes as a result of spending too much time in a state of stress or overwork.

Illustration showing health problems linked to burnout

Burnout is becoming more and more common. A recent Gallup poll found that two-thirds of full-time employees reported feeling burned out at least sometimes. Not only does burnout cause exhaustion and poor work performance—it’s also linked to serious health problems including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol, and even death.

The Harvard Business Review studied the link between burnout and poor physiological health and found that burnout accounts for as much as $190 billion in healthcare spending each year.

Our constant need to be productive and our constant striving for more productivity comes with consequences that could be killing us—literally. But in a culture that puts so much value in being productive, what can we do about it?

How to Lighten Up The Dark Side of Productivity

As is the case with most of the issues we cover in this series on WorkWoes, the most impactful changes must start at the top. Here’s how leaders can help their organizations reframe the way they think about productivity and instill business practices that re-humanize what it means to do great work.

Reframe What Productivity Means

Would you be happiest if your employees or direct reports worked at 100 percent productivity? What if they worked at 70 percent productivity? 40 percent?

Here’s the more important question: How would you measure their productivity as a percentage? By hours spent at their desks? By products assembled? By lines of code written or illustrations designed?

This is the problem with always striving to be more productive—it’s really hard to effectively quantify the effort.

And that’s why we’re so obsessed with it. Without being able to measure productivity effectively and comparatively across industries, positions, and people; it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that with the right tip, trick, or lifehack you can make your workday just a little bit more productive. Then that cycle repeats until you’re trapped in the endless pursuit of maximum productivity—which looks like what, exactly?

Stop the never-ending pursuit of productivity that comes at the expense of everyone’s health by putting clear guidelines around what it means to do a good job—and limits that help squash productivity addiction.

Recognize That Workers Aren’t Machines

At the height of the Industrial Revolution, when factories were booming and our national love affair with productivity was really taking hold, it was standard for a factory worker to clock 16 hours a day on the assembly line. But the Ford Motor Company wanted to try something new. So in 1914, Ford started paying workers $5 a day—which was more than double the $2.43 the average factory worker made for a day’s work at the time. But here’s the really crazy part: Ford was offering that pay for just eight-hour shifts.

Hundreds of people lined up to try to get a job at Ford. And the company reaped the benefits of its bold strategy. Its workers were happier, more engaged, and way more productive. Car production started going faster and Ford saw a boost in profits. The eight-hour workday became the standard moving forward.

Ford’s plan worked because they treated people like humans, not machines. More modern companies need to take this approach and treat workers like humans instead of cogs in a machine. People have on and off days. They get sick. They get injured. They get distracted. And when they’re happy, engaged, well-rested, and treated well is when they do their best work—not when they’re required to produce as much output as they possibly can.

Encourage Breaks—Because Science Says So

Another way businesses can cultivate a more productive culture (without encouraging obsession) is to allow workers plenty of time and opportunities to rest and unplug.

More and more science is showing that being your most productive doesn’t come from spending as much time as possible hard at work. According to a 2013 New York Times article: “A new and growing body of multidisciplinary research shows that strategic renewal—including daytime workouts, short afternoon naps, longer sleep hours, more time away from the office, and longer, more frequent vacations—boosts productivity, job performance and, of course, health.”

That’s right—in order to be your most productive, you have to take breaks. Our brains are simply not designed for long periods of uninterrupted concentration. Without proper rest, research shows we can actually become less and less productive.

Graph showing the decrease in productivity with overtime

When you try to work long hours over an extended period of time, you may start out strong and produce a lot of output. But over time, exhaustion builds and productivity gradually decreases.

Research has shown that, eventually, a worker can be even less productive working more hours than they would have been working less because they’re simply too worn out to reach their true potential.

Not just allowing, but encouraging workers to unplug and get real rest will keep them working at their highest possible levels of productivity—without burning out.

Act II, Fin: Encourage Better Work Habits to Fight the Spread of Work Woes

Benjamin Franklin is often credited for creating the first to-do list in 1791. On his list? Wash, work, read, work, and put things away in their places.

Image of Ben Franklin's 1971 to do list

His thinking behind what made for a productive day was pretty simple: Start the day by considering what good you might be able to accomplish and, at the end of the day, take a minute to evaluate how you did. It wasn’t about numbers or items checked off. It was just about attaching as much good as possible to your day.

In a culture that strives to create more, earn more, and do more; it’s easy to lose sight of simple yet valuable goals like Ben’s. But perhaps once we face the fact that productivity obsession is literally killing us, business leaders will finally strive to treat their workers and their work goals with more rest and humanity.

Now that you’ve shined a light on the dark side of productivity, don’t stop there. Stay tuned as the HelloSign team explores the woes that plague today’s knowledge workers—from finding the right work-life balance to fixing the outdated hierarchies that keep employees from doing their best work—and what it’s going to take to fix them.

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