workstyle · Nov 4, 2015

Why Focusing On Productivity Makes You Less Productive

Julie R. Neidlinger
Artist, writer, and pilot.

My helpful screenshot

You are the most productive person you know. Your phone is filled with to-do lists and productivity apps. You’re busy all the time. Your appointment calendar barely has an empty spot. If there ever was a picture of someone who is getting things done, it’s you. You’re the poster child for productivity.

Except that you aren’t getting all that much done. Truth be told, if anyone bothered to check, your output isn’t all that great, and you can’t figure out why.

Being busy doesn’t mean being productive. It may simply mean you are using up all of your time doing things but not necessarily getting things done. What keeps productivity fans like yourself from being productive?

1. Working More Hours

If productivity could be reduced to the simplest numbers, you might measure it in hours.

High output isn’t bad. It’s how businesses function and how things get done. But a focus on high output as measured by time dedicated to work is the wrong approach. Too many productive people think pulling long hours is a badge of honor for productivity.

The truth is, working more hours in a day is detrimental.

Research by John Pencavel, of Stanford University, has shown that working beyond 50 hours a week leads to a noticeable drop off of output. Once you hit 55 hours a week, that reduction plummets even more sharply. Even Henry Ford realized that longer hours hurt productivity as tired employees worked slower and with less accuracy. Ford slashed work hours down to 40 hours to increase output.

Employers pay for the extra hours. Employees give up valuable personal time with family and for rest, and what do they have to show for all of that productivity? Not much at all.

This is tough to believe today, particularly in the tech world where blurring the lines between work and play to encourage people to stay at the office longer is an accepted norm. Just remember, you’d be better off working less than 50 hours a week, with 40 hours a week being the sweet spot for steady output.

Fewer hours, more output. Measure the output, not the hours.

2. Working More Efficiently

Being efficient is part of being productive, but there is a particularly onerous misconception about what is required to be efficient. Namely, the need to multitask.

Is multi-tasking part of using your time more efficiently? Most people would answer yes, believing the myth that being efficient with time means doing several things at once. After all, you can get three things done in the time it would take you to do one, right?


Multitasking is a horrible beast when it comes to actually being productive. Your brain can’t actually multitask, only capable of truly doing one thing at a time. By trying to make multiple things happen, you are inducing high levels of stress in yourself. Multitasking destroys your focus, trains your brain to short circuit its ability to concentrate, encourages you to cut corners and avoid detail-oriented work, and in the end, reduces your output by 40 percent.

Not one thing on that list of multitasking negatives promotes productivity, yet most people consider multitasking to be a crucial component to being efficient. The truth is, working more efficiently really means one thing: no more multitasking. You must focus on only one thing at one time.

Part of working more efficiently, once you get rid of multitasking, is understanding your own willpower and the need to say “no” once in awhile. Gregory Ciotti, from the Sparring Mind blog, agrees with the importance of doing one thing at a time, but adding that you must make sure that you are doing the right thing.

The right thing, of course, is the project you have to finish first. That’s it. This is a question of keeping your focus, and that is going to require saying “no” frequently when distractions or new work is about to be dumped in your lap.

3. Addicted To The Idea Of Productivity

Focusing on productivity can lead to a strange addiction, particularly for people who are hyper-organized and perfectionists. They know (and have probably tried) every productivity app, notebook, system, and device around. They are not so much productive as they are addicted to the idea that they could be if they only found the perfect system. In other words, they are addicted to the idea of productivity.

They spend a lot of time reading books and blogs and listening to podcasts about being productive. They memorize systems that will help them get things done. They write endless lists, and are always mindful that there might be a better alternative to their current system so they must stay on the lookout. They read any blog post that promises yet another “productivity hack”, thinking there’s a shortcut they missed.

The key to productivity is to find a system that works, yes, but to stop chasing after something new or better. You don’t get things done by fussing around with new apps and systems, or by constantly reading about how to be more productive or how to hack an otherwise good habit that has worked for you for years.

Choose a system that helps you get things done and stay focused, whatever that system looks like for you. Stick with it. Chasing after a continual promise of something better is a distraction.

Change Your Focus From Productivity

How do you get things done?

You do them.

It is so easy to think that being busy and doing lots of things at once means being productive, but most often it merely means you’re simply busy and distracted. Stop being infatuated with the idea of productivity (and all of its trappings), and instead focus on what needs to be done until it is done.