The Myth of Productivity

Productivity is not objective when employers think that you should be working every minute that you are at work.  In order to be productive we have to have those moments where we can take a break and let our mind have a little bit of a rest; it is not possible to be productive 100 percent of the time.  A quote from Abraham Lincoln states: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend four hours sharpening the axe.”   When we try to be productive all the time we cut into the time that we could spend preparing for the job and therefore minimizing the quality of the job that is eventually done.   If you are having trouble accomplishing goals, figure out what you can do to maximize the effort and be prepared for the task.

Have you ever had a productivity study done where you work? They’re kind of funny, if they’re not being inflicted on you. The idea is that you can measure how “productive” someone is, and tell them how to maximize the use of their time and be “more productive.”

The problem is that productivity is not objective. Employers like to complain about how much time their employees spend at the water cooler or surfing the web, and sometimes those complaints are valid.


But often the complaints are based on some erroneous belief that we should be “producing” during every minute we’re at work, except for our approved breaks and the occasional bathroom break, which should be strictly limited in number and length.


When we’re on our own time, trying to accomplish things that really matter to us personally, we’re not productive every second. It is not humanly possible to be productive 100% of the time.

It’s also not really desirable. You see, what most people mean by “productive” is producing actual concrete results that can be measured. That’s just not practical for most people. If your job involves any thinking at all, and you were expected to be productive 100% of the time, you would not be allowed to think unless you were doing that thinking while you were also producing maniacally. How much sense does that make?

But we often do this to ourselves. How many Saturdays have you gotten up in the morning with the intent of “doing something productive?” How many times do you get on your own case about “wool gathering” or daydreaming when you feel you “should” be working?

I do it often and enjoy that time.

When we push ourselves too hard to be productive, we’re missing out not only on the balance we could have in our lives, but also on the benefits of this time when we feel we’re not being productive.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” If you happened across Lincoln during that first four hours, he wouldn’t look very productive. He’d probably be sitting down, and while he would obviously be doing something, he wouldn’t be cutting on that tree.

But when the time came to cut the tree down, he’d chop circles around anyone else, because he would have the right tool for the job and he would be well prepared.

When we try to “be productive” all the time, we cut ourselves off from the opportunity to sharpen our saws and be more productive during our true productive periods. This means we spend more time just trying to stay caught up, and have less time to live the lives we really want to live.

How can you “sharpen the saw” and be more truly productive, while maintaining balance in your life?

  • Focus less on how much time you spend “being productive.”
  • Spend your time and your awareness paying attention to what you accomplish.
  • If you are having trouble accomplishing reasonable goals, figure out how to sharpen your saw.

Thanks to Interview Chatter for featuring this post in the Career & Job Advice Blog Carnival.

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