February 22, 2024

Redefining productivity in 2024

Arnel Šarić, Community Manager
The universe of humans is based on changes that drive our inner, individual evolutions. These "small revolutions" are part of the collective effort to survive as a species. Every change requires a decision, and decisions are often made based on symbolic values. Take New Year's resolutions, for example; inspired by the idea of a new beginning accentuated through societal cultures and calendar numbers, we make decisions that fit into 365 days.

No wonder these decisions, made with enthusiasm and without a concise plan, often lead nowhere. One study says that 80% of people give up by February, and only 8% fulfill their resolutions by the end of the calendar year. On the list of New Year's resolutions in the last decade, alongside classics like quitting smoking, losing weight, and spending more time with family, another one has emerged - the decision to be more productive.  

What is productivity?

Unlike the decision to quit smoking, which is conceptually simple (stop consuming tobacco products), the decision to increase (and rarely decrease) productivity is problematic from the get-go due to the unsuitable definition of productivity.

Cambridge Dictionary defines productivity as "the rate at which a company or country produces goods and is usually calculated in relation to the number of people and the amount of material needed to produce goods." The dull definition seems like an atavism, parole forgotten on the Industrial Revolution factory floor, hardly connected to personal productivity ideas.

Nevertheless, these words have eerie familiarity, recognized by those of us whose jobs involve content creation for social media or by those bending their backs in the warehouses of e-commerce megacorporations. The truth is that all definitions are more or less dull, and they can hardly represent the comprehensiveness of a real-life situation.

In the search for the ultimate definition, the opinions of individuals clash with the trends of societies, the trends that we consciously or unconsciously create with our behavior. A productive day for a surgeon could include three well-performed surgical procedures, from the first incision to stitching. But if you ask the hospital, their norm of six operations, even if the final scar is aesthetically less appealing, suggests that the surgeon was unproductive.

Social media managers continuously chant, "Content is king"; many believe that one well-thought-out video a day is a sign of productivity. But what if the networks' algorithms require more videos, stories, and everything?  
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4000 weeks - a harsh truth

In the book "4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals," author Oliver Burkeman offers unconventional yet practical advice on productivity. The essential ingredient of his advice is the truth - 4000 weeks is the average length of a human life. When we realize how short that is, especially from the perspective of employed individuals for whom weeks fly by, the question arises: how do we fit all desires into that period?

Simply put, you can't.

The brain is an endless source of ideas. If we were to live forever, we wouldn't be able to finish everything we planned. So, what should we dedicate ourselves to? The answer to this question is the precursor step in becoming a more productive person, which, unfortunately, is skipped to move on to the time management story immediately.

That step is prioritization.

Prioritization is the process of arranging tasks by priority. Let's take hobbies as an example, the optimal number of which is often debated. One of the popular opinions is that a person should have three hobbies - for money, physical fitness, and creative development. If, in addition to work and personal life (family and friends), you add three hobbies to your list, you will realize that your days will be jam-packed.

Recognizing small tasks devour time without us being aware is vital. If one of your hobbies is baking cakes (for money), time does not only pass when you bake the cake, but it's slipping away while you take pictures for social media, edit profiles, and deliver cakes to the address...

Prioritization should go hand in hand with analysis of what has been done. One priority depends on another. If we lose jobs, an expensive hobby such as collecting Warhammer figurines should not take precedence. Analyses and revisions are the keys to success. Choose a smaller number of activities, make sure they do not overlap in time, and stimulate a „different you“ with each one.  

Multitasking: Just say NO

Once the first set of priorities is defined, it is important to achieve conditions enabling the implementation of processes leading to results. Regardless of the amazing power of the human mind, it is fragile, and certain conditions must be met for it to perform optimally.

Setting time limits is one of the most important conditions. After prioritizing goals, it is necessary to set realistic time frames in which goals can be achieved. These time blocks help in two ways. If we visually arrange blocks in a calendar application, we will see when overlaps occur so we can eliminate them.

Belief in multitasking, or simultaneous performance of multiple tasks, is a retelling of a blatant lie that completely contrasts human nature. The human brain is not capable of multitasking. Every time a person's attention shifts from one task to another, there is a change in the brain's "processing work." The result of multitasking, which unfortunately is still insisted upon and paradoxically praised in the modern business environment, is the weakening of cognitive abilities. The result is anti-productive: our attention weakens, we miss deadlines, and the results of our work are often full of errors.

The mere thought of deadlines is not pleasant because human beings love freedom. However, deadlines are important because they give a sense of urgency, encouraging a structural approach and strengthening the sense of responsibility. Setting the correct deadlines is a matter of experience: analyze past deadlines and consider possible unforeseen situations (such as calls for multitasking or getting sick).

The popularity of the mnemonic acronym SMART never wanes precisely because a universally proven and useful goal organization system is hidden behind the letters. The first level of organizing goals is determining the parameters of the goals, i.e., checking if our goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. These goals are more concise, and performing toward them and achieving them is motivation-inspired. Just as a palace is built stone by stone, goals should be divided into smaller tasks whose completion brings a sense of progress while maintaining an optimal level of inspiration.

Tidiness, your secret weapon

Creative chaos as a source of inspiration or a tool for productivity is continuously debunked as the idea. When we cite examples of famous individuals who supposedly advocate the theory of creative chaos, we miss the opportunity to see that all tools in their environment are there for a reason. Optimizing workspace is one of the most important elements of true productivity. It doesn't necessarily mean following the idea of minimalism but instead carefully selecting tools and maintaining the space in which we work.

Why should our physical and digital spaces be tidy? Neatness directly impacts concentration levels by reducing stress. Suppose there are many potentially useful tools around you. In that case, you will reduce the paradox of choice (more choices lead to difficult decision-making, a familiar example to anyone who has spent hours choosing movies on a streaming service and ended up watching nothing). Ergonomic workspace setup is also critical as it reduces body fatigue.

Three additional aspects are equally important in improving business and personal productivity. Effective teamwork communication should be unambiguous, direct, and timely. It should address questions and doubts. All team members must have appropriate access to the same collaboration tools and be familiar with their usage. The entire team must regularly undergo the process of communication analysis to keep all communication channels clear.

Millennials were the last generation to (so far) put the most significant emphasis on formal education. Education is becoming increasingly fragmented, and acquiring skills continues beyond the point of obtaining a diploma. Leave enough time to explore new methods, check and upgrade knowledge, and, most importantly, learn from mistakes. Mistakes are a source of stress, mainly when they occur in combination with deadlines, but if analyzed after the initial adrenaline shock, many lessons can be learned.

If you ask competent athletes and their coaches, you will hear that rest is as important as the period of activity. Rest is extremely important even within the framework of productivity. Even small five-minute breaks can greatly influence postponing or altogether avoiding burnout. Combined with integrating methods that enhance awareness, such as breathing exercises or meditation, your productivity level will increase, along with the quality of the final results. 
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Traps of toxic productivity

No productivity technique is suitable for all humans, and often, finding an appropriate method is the result of years of searching or combining different elements into a hybrid that suits one person.

However, all great productivity methods have in common that they do not insist on using tools but on changing human habits. Some writers write novels with a pen and some type on a keyboard - what they all have in common is that they have designated a part of the day in which they will write without surrendering to the idea of merciful inspiration.

We live in an era of intensified toxic productivity culture. It is the result of new trends and technological progress. The harmful idea of productivity is not only the result of our perception of our productivity but also of how others see our results. Therefore, there is a possibility that we are trapped without even knowing it.

These are the ages of perpetual hustle mentality. Through social media, including the most prominent business network, LinkedIn, the algorithm rewards posts that glorify busyness rather than productivity. Emphasizing quantity over quality of work leads to burnout and dissatisfaction with the work process. Messages that emphasize continuous work without breaks often amplify feelings of dissatisfaction because they never come with additional explanations; a 45-year-old person who works, has children, and is slowly writing their first novel will likely feel bad if bombarded with ideas that they should have written three books by the age of thirty, just after earning their first million.

This setup has given birth to a specific niche in influencer marketing, a marketer selling the idea of Productivity. Unlike productivity and mindfulness (just simple awareness), Productivity and Mindfulness are concepts achieved through Gurus, paid Courses, and by using specific Applications.

Team collaboration software Notion is an excellent example of an influencer polygon. Although Notion itself is ideal for customization for any team collaboration and solo work (its free plan is more than enough for personal needs), you can buy millions of templates that greatly overcomplicate the use of the software, making you dependent on the tool without analyzing the real positive aspects of its use. Excessive obsession with tools leads to a sense of false progress, and if your job does not primarily involve team management, it is a clear sign of procrastination.

Regarding team collaborations, one of the traps in the productivity cycle is not setting boundaries. It stems from on-site work but has expanded to remote and hybrid work models. If you do not set clear boundaries and nurture work-life balance beyond uttering the words, boundaries between free time and work will blur. Then expectations will begin to rise, mental health will start to suffer, and you will find yourself in a difficult situation: how to refuse a certain task without appearing unprofessional or a threat to a loosely defined team structure. 

You are productive enough

In his book "Forces of Production," historian David Noble notes that people who behave like machines paved the way for machines without people. Such a seemingly banal and science fiction-like future is already present regarding our characters and what most expect from productivity today.

So, this article is a well-conceived trap that you can also view as an argument against today's idea of productivity. It does not contain the answer to being more productive but includes scientific results and conclusions from personal experience.

It is up to us to redefine productivity due to our desires and imposed needs. If you are among those who equate productivity with quantity, it does not necessarily mean that they are correct, especially in professions that are not measurable by simple mathematical methods.

In 2024, many ideas and work expectations are nothing more than deconstructed myths that, unfortunately, we have not yet replaced. And while we wait for better times, let's remember - hundreds of weeks are behind us, possibly a few thousand ahead. We are productive enough. As humanity, we have never been more productive. We don't need to produce more but to be better focused on what we do, with a maximum understanding of our limits and respect for mental and physical health.