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Last Updated on October 15, 2019

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

“You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

What is the productivity paradox?

There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

He wrote in his conclusion:

“Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

How do we measure productivity anyway?

And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

Possible causes of the productivity paradox

Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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  • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
  • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
  • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
  • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

The paradox and the recession

The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

“Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

Looking forward

A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

“Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

“Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

Featured photo credit: Cathryn Lavery via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Tucker Cummings

Writer and social media professional sharing productivity tips on Lifehack.

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Last Updated on May 26, 2020

Top 10 Reasons Why People Don’t Reach Their Goals

Top 10 Reasons Why People Don’t Reach Their Goals

With everything that happens around us, it is sometimes difficult to reach our goals. This is compounded if you have any of the reasons on the list below.

Luckily, in addition to the top 10 reasons why people don’t reach their goals, I’ve included a quick fix for each of them. So let’s get to it.

1. Creating Vague Goals

When you don’t know where you are going, it is really hard to get there. Many people set themselves up for failure when they set goals that are unclear. “I want to lose weight” sounds like a great goal but the people who set this kind of goal will never reach it. It is not because the people are not motivated or disciplined but because the goal is too general. Do you want to lose 5 lbs or 50 lbs?

Quick Fix:  Set SMART goals by being Specific, making sure they are Measurable, Achievable and Realistic, and last but not least — give yourself a Time deadline. If you want to go one step further, you may want to read The Missing Letter in Your Smart Goals.

2. Lacking a Higher Purpose

Goals can be set on any topic imaginable but if you don’t have a higher purpose, it makes it is easy to give up once the initial motivation and excitement wears off. Understanding how your goal is relevant to you allows you to persevere even when the going gets tough.

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Quick Fix: When setting your SMART goal, ask yourself how the goal is relevant to your life and what you want to achieve.

3. Procrastinating

Even when you have SMART goals that are relevant to your purpose, if you don’t get started, you’ll never achieve your goal. One of the most dangerous phrases is “I’ll do it later.”

Quick Fix: Make sure the goal has been broken down into manageable pieces and then start right away. Here are 11 Practical Ways to Stop Procrastination.

4. Not Taking Responsibility

Things will go wrong. That’s a fact of life. When something comes up and you don’t achieve your goal, who do you blame? Your boss who kept you at work late so you couldn’t work on your book or maybe the horrible weather that stopped you from going to the gym. If it’s not your fault, there is nothing you can do, right?

Quick Fix: Own up to not reaching your goals. When you take responsibility, you’ll become resourceful knowing that you have control over the attainment of your goals.

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5. Listening to People Who Discourage You

When you go for your goals, especially the big ones that really count and fit in with your purpose in life, it is inevitable that people will discourage you. There are many reasons for this: concern, jealousy, ignorance, etc. How many goals have already been given up on because other people decided they were not worth pursuing?

Quick Fix: This one is easy. As long as you know the purpose for your goal, ignore the naysayers. You can take what they are saying into consideration but make sure you make the final choice.

6. Starting Too Many Projects

I’m a starter. That sounds like a good thing but not when you start too many things, you don’t end up finishing many of them. This usually stems from the fear of missing out (FOMO) or being someone who has many ideas.

Quick Fix: Understand that you have a limited amount of time and that you can’t do everything. To deal with FOMO, realize that by not finishing, you are missing out on all the opportunities that open up when you finish the projects you are working on.

7. Being Negative

If you think you’re not going to make it, then you’re probably not going to make it. If you don’t believe you’re going to reach your goal, then when you fail, it is expected which makes it easy to stop trying. When you are optimistic and a setback occurs, you focus your energy on finding solutions because you truly believe there is one. If you believe that you suffer from bad luck, check out this article.

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Quick Fix: Consider the idea that optimism and pessimism are both expectations of the future. Each are equally likely to be true but which belief will help you lead a happier more fulfilled life? Instead of wasting your energy on complaining, spend that energy on learning.

8. Being Selfish

There are people out there that think it is silly to help others. They believe in taking and not giving. They are misers with their time, money and knowledge and are only interested in opportunities where they stand to benefit. Most big goals require the help of others and it is very difficult to help people who only care about taking.

Quick Fix: Serve others first. Always look for ways to add value to other people.

9. Surrounding Yourself with People Who Don’t Reach Their Goals

You are who you associate with. This may be hard to swallow for some people and there are always exceptions to the rule but for the most part, we act in accordance with the people around us. This comes from the strong ad natural desire to belong and to be accepted (think of all the dumb things you did in high school just to fit in).

Quick Fix: Associate with people who always reach their goals.

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10. Watching Too Much TV

Not all TV is bad but if you are watching TV then most likely you are not doing anything to move one step closer to your goal. The problem with TV these days is that it is captivating. There are programs for all interests and hobbies and the shows keep getting better and better. Those who watch alot of TV usually don’t reach their goals and perhaps people watch TV because they don’t have any goals.

Quick Fix: Shut off the TV. Cancel the cable. Pick up a book that will help you move one step closer to your goal. Here are 6 Steps to Remove TV from your Life.

Do you have anything to add? What do you think are the reasons why people don’t reach their goals and what are your thought about the 10 reasons we have listed here. Feel free to give your own effective quick fixes for the different reasons in the comments section below.

Featured photo credit: Kyle Glenn via unsplash.com

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