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Everything You Know About Productivity is Wrong

Productivity for humansWant to get more done at work? You need to buckle down, work consistently and hard for longer hours and quit procrastinating, right? Only if you work on a factory floor, counters blog Chief Happiness Officer from author and consultant Alexander Kjerulf. And as you're reading a blog right now, you probably don't work in an industrial job.

"For knowledge workers," asserts Kjerulf, the old ideas about productivity "are not only wrong, they're actively harmful." Instead, he suggests five new rules of productivity:

  • Your productivity will vary wildly from day to day. This is normal. In an industrial setting, you know that if the plant operates for X hours tomorrow you'll produce Y widgets. For knowledge workers, you can't possibly know in advance whether tomorrow will be a day where you reach a brilliant insight that saves you and your team weeks of work, or the day where you spend eight hours gazing dejectedly into your screen. This variation is normal -â€" if a little frustrating. You shouldn't judge your productivity by the output on any given day but rather by your average productivity over many days.
  • Working more hours means getting less done. A client asked me to conduct a study on the effects of work hours on productivity and errors, my findings were quite simply that... productivity decreased by half after the eighth hour of work. This may be counter-intuitive but it's important to grasp: for knowledge workers there is no simple relationship between hours worked and output!
  • Working harder means getting less done. In an industrial environment, you can most often work harder and get more done. For knowledge workers, the opposite is true. You can't force creativity, eloquence, good writing, clear thinking or fast learning -â€" in fact, working harder tends to create the opposite effect and you achieve much less.
  • Procrastination can be good for you. Sometimes you're in the mood for task X and doing X is ridiculously easy and a lot of fun. Sometimes doing X feels worse than walking barefoot over burning-hot, acid-covered, broken glass and forcing yourself to do it anyway is a frustrating exercise in futility. Sometimes procrastinating is exactly the right thing to do at a particular moment.
  • Happiness is the ultimate productivity enhancer. The single most efficient way to increase your productivity is to be happy at work. No system, tool or methodology in the world can beat the productivity boost you get from really, really enjoying your work.
For me, selling accomplishment without sweat and pain is a bit like selling snake oil. Writing, creativity and learning sometimes do involve beating your head (metaphorically) against the screen for hours, and every burst of inspiration is backed up by hours of donkey work. Still, I agree with Kjerulf's point that outright misery is counter-productive and that allowing for humans to actually be human (quirky, variable, susceptible to exhaustion and inspiration) is essentially productive. It's all a matter of balance. Do you agree?

Interested in reading more? Kjerulf offers much more advice on how to put his new rules to use on his blog.

(Image of keyboard mannequin by JulyYu, CC 2.0)

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