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There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management

There’s More to Productivity Than Time Management
Being Productive

What does it mean to be productive? A typical definition might be something like, “Getting the most done in the least possible time.” In a workplace context, this means one and only one thing: more work. If the process for a task can be streamlined so it can be done in half the time, then you can have your employees do that task twice as many times.

In order to cram more into the same amount of time, we need careful time management, but I want to suggest that productivity is far more than just time management. That in fact, the definition of productivity above might be fine if you’re an employer and paying your employees by the hour or the workday, but it’s absolutely dreadful for just about everyone — and everything — else.

Another definition of productivity

Here’s a different take on what productivity is: You’re being productive when your work is entirely satisfying and fulfilling.

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Although the specific things that are satisfying and fulfilling to you are, of course, a matter of individual tastes and preferences, here are a few qualities most people would consider important:

  • You grow as a person.
  • You enjoy the company of others.
  • You are proud of what you’ve completed.
  • You feel confident about your abilities.
  • You look forward to undertaking the same or similar projects in the future.
  • You help others.
  • You receive the acclaim of your peers.

Notice, the qualities that make work satisfying are all about you, not about the work. There is no job that is inherently so dirty or demeaning that nobody could find it satisfying and fulfilling. (Unfortunately, that isn’t at all how work gets assigned in our society, where race, class, gender, social standing, ambition, educational certifications, and other irrelevancies determine who will do what job, leaving only a small amount of “wiggle room” for each of us to choose among a limited number of options.)

There are dirty jobs, and you have to do them

There are, of course, lots of tasks that are neither satisfying nor fulfilling that have to get done nevertheless. Few people enjoy doing their taxes or getting a root canal, but they need doing. Since it’s unlikely that every routine, boring, dangerous, or repetitive task that our society needs to keep running will be automated within our lifetimes, there is still a need to manage our time.

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But the goal of time management should not only be to get the most done in the time allotted. At it’s best, time management offers a set of strategies for maintaining balance between “work” and “life”. I’ve put those terms in quotes because a) our work is, of course, not a thing separate from life, and b) by “work” I don’t mean our job but all the least satisfying and least fulfilling tasks that we need to take care of in order to live. Frankly, if your job consists entirely of that sort of work, you’d best be considering a switch!

Looked at this way, the hoary phrase “work-life balance” that so many employers are paying lip service to these days takes on a new meaning (and one most employers don’t have even remotely in mind): to balance our lives more in favor of tasks that are satisfying and fulfilling.

Those tasks that are draining and unstimulating should be done as quickly as possible, not to maximize shareholder value but so that people can get on with the stuff that makes them human. Sometimes that means giving employees family days or setting them up to telecommute, but often that means giving employees room to do things that challenge and stimulate them, and minimizing or automating the things that don’t.

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This applies outside of the workplace, as well. If your family life consists entirely of chores and drudgery, you’re not in balance no matter what percentage of your time is spent at home. Household organization and chores should be, as much as possible, systematized and routinized so it can be gotten out of the way with the least possible investment of time and effort, so that you and your family can get on with the things that make you grow closer together.

Getting to doing

When you have the “work” under control, you can afford to give time to the projects that turn you on. In fact, you can afford to take pleasure not in getting things done but in doing them. While a completed task or project can give you a great deal of satisfaction, the act of doing should also be fulfilling. Consider fishing: everyone loves landing a big fish, but at the end of the day what counts is not how many fish you’re bringing home or how big they are but the time you spent sitting in the boat watching the line.

For a writer, having a finished manuscript to send off to a publisher is great, but it’s the daily flow of words that makes writing worth doing. Same thing for a painter, for whom the feel of paint on canvas is as important — if not more so — as having a finished work to hang or sell. There are sales people who love being in the thick of a negotiation, actors who love the thrill of the stage, athletes for whom the feeling of pushing their bodies is far more important than a win. And when they’re finished, they move on to the next one.

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The most useless thing you do

There’s a word in Yiddish that I’ve always loved: “Luftmenschen”. Literally “air people”, Luftmenschen are people who deal in “air” — in the non-tangible: ideas, thoughts, dreams. While it’s a bit of a put-down to be called a Luftmensch, I’ve always felt is seemed like an admirable occupation.

The Luftmensch knows something the rest of us don’t: that the most useless thing you do is the most important. That is, the things we do with no final purpose in mind, solely for the enjoyment of doing them, are the things that make us human — that make us Menschen. (A Mensch is a genuine, authentic person.)

If we’re lucky, these things are part of our job — we get paid to do things we’d do anyway just for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. But lucky or not, they are the key to real productivity — not doing as much as possible in as little time as possible, but doing the least fulfilling stuff as quickly as possible so we have plenty of time to do the “useless” stuff — thinking, dreaming, living.

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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