Productivity illustration with a man sitting at a computer table working while listening to music.

We have an obsession with productivity, not only as a measure of our collective progress as a society, industry or business, but also as a measure of self-worth for the individual professional.

There is a difference between working a lot and being productive. We may be working a lot, especially in this time, that does not mean that we are being productive.

[You can also listen to me read this reflection here]

I do not buy the countless claims of productivity increases that employers, employees and the media are claiming in this time of work from home.

I never thought we were that productive to begin with or that we cared to be. I believe we have been after something else.

There is science to explain our obsession with productivity. Every time that we finish a task, be it as simple as responding to emails or clearing unread messages on Slack, or as complex as troubleshooting a client issue or developing a multi-month project plan, our brain releases a hormone called dopamine. Dopamine feels pleasurable. Similarly, scrolling through an Instagram feed, drinking alcohol or eating fried foods also releases dopamine in our brains, which feel equally pleasurable.
I do not believe that we have a desire for productivity as much as we have a desire for pleasure. Pleasure feels good.

Modern culture has us believe that we are logical beings who sometimes experience emotions. That is why, for example, you rarely hear of leaders in business talk about one of the rawest expressions of emotion known to humans, to cry. I cry, all the time, and wrote about it recently.

I believe that we are emotional beings first, who sometimes use logic to try and explain or justify our emotions.

To feel is to be human. Lately, we have been very human, in that we have had a lot to feel about. We feel for the people impacted directly by the health pandemic, including health care professionals on the front lines and essential service professionals keeping us connected, fed and safe. We feel fed up with the social inequalities, many so deep-rooted and long-standing that they have become ingrained within our systems. We also feel good when we believe that we have been productive and feel bad when we believe that we have not been productive.

In many industries, we have glamourized over-work, the way fashion magazines and advertisers have popularized one specific image of beauty in the minds of the masses.

If I felt productive today, then it was a good day at work. If I felt distracted, scattered or inefficient today, then it was a bad day at work.

More Is Not More

In the industries that I am directly involved with, like digital media and mental health, more effort does not equal more value for the clients or users that we serve.

More products, more features, more customers, more press or more team members does not always mean more business.

It is linear thinking to believe in business that “more is more”. Businesses are far more complex to lead and manage.

For example, we have seen how large multinational corporations have acted on this humbling truth. Many have been quick to consolidate, divest and reduce their product lines and geographic footprints. In my business, I have clients now in 40 countries but in reality, most of our revenue comes from clients in 8 countries. At the start of the year, I had ideas to invest in several new product lines however now have decided to put the weight of my team behind one product and make it the best that we can for our clients. While it may be intellectually pleasurable to create new things, the most productive thing that we can do is to focus.

Constraints cultivate focus.

Focus leads to effectiveness.

To be effective is to be productive.

How We Work

What I first experienced at the start of the pandemic was that more work led to more burnout, more fatigue, more impatience and more confusion. More is clearly not more for how we work.

I see the symptoms of fatigue and burnout everywhere I look. It is time to evolve what it means to be productive as more than pleasure, and that starts with how we work.

Less can be more. In the past month, I have experimented with this idea when it comes to collaboration in a distributed setup. Here are four ideas that I have tested and now chosen to keep in our culture.

1. 30 minute meetings by default instead of 60 minutes. The constraint of time encourages focus.

2. No internal meetings after 1pm. An intentional effort to create more space for uninterrupted time to be productive.

3. Less Slack. We set a mandate to reduce Slack usage by 50%, and so far have cut it by 30% by simply asking everyone to be more intentional with it.

4. Bi-weekly is the new weekly. Moving my 1-1s and other team meetings to every 2 weeks is fine and gives everyone more space (including me).

The above changes alone have given me and my team a lot more space to actually be productive and produce better work, by working fewer, better hours.

A Marathon, Not A Sprint

In the first few months of lockdown, I found myself working at irregular times. My days would start around 7am and continue sometimes into the evening (I am single and do not have kids or a partner). I felt exhausted working this much, and all through a screen without the benefits of IRL (in real life) interactions.

With our current lack of structure, there are fewer separations for when the work day starts or ends, and even when the work week begins or finishes. Furthermore, there is an added complexity, which has always existed, called time zones. Running a global business means that I have clients and teams available to me at literally any hours of the day. I took advantage of that at the start of lockdown and quickly saw how it took advantage of me.

About one month ago, in a moment of burnout, I realized that this is a marathon and not a sprint anymore.

This insight inspired me to make 3 specific changes to how I work:

1. Start time. Each weekday morning, I lead a 20-min live meditation on Zoom for friends, clients and my team at 930am (you are welcome to join us, I now begin my workday at 10am after the group meditation. This has given me the space each morning to reflect more deeply about important business ideas and issues that are on my mind, invest more in practices that support my wellbeing (writing, meditation, yoga), and read the newspaper (which I have come to really enjoy).

2. End time. I am an active volunteer with several organizations and entrepreneurs in the mental health space and now intentionally schedule my phone calls (not Zoom calls) for 4pm or 5pm. This has helped create a forcing function for me to unplug from work through screens for the rest of my evening.

3. Technology. I do not have notifications, email or Slack on my phone. I never did but now more than ever, given that we do not go anywhere, we do not need to be connected to work through our phones. If something urgent happens, I trust that someone will call me.

While these practices sound simple, they have required a healthy dose of discipline for me to stick to and I am grateful for them. The constraint of time has helped me be more focused, effective and strategic with how I work and what I choose to invest time with.

The Space To Be Well

To think of vacation may be difficult during this time however taking time away from the day-to-day has always been helpful, if not one of the most productive things that I can do for both my business and myself.

Making space for our mental and emotional wellbeing is important but not always intuitive.

Last month, I asked my team to take a few Wellness Days. On a Wellness Day, they were asked to disconnect fully from email/Slack, to not do any work and more importantly, to invest the time intentionally to support their mental and emotional wellbeing. The next day, everyone shared with me what they did, however I was more interested in how they shared it, as a sign of how they felt. Everyone’s energy and enthusiasm for life was lifted. People were inspired again.

Over the next few months, I have asked everyone on my team to take a Wellness Day every two weeks, in addition to taking one full Wellness Week.

I am encouraging dedicated space for mental and emotional wellbeing not because it leads to more productivity, loyalty and focus (which it does). I am doing it because it is the right thing to do. In the end, that is what leadership asks of each of us.

One of the central teachings in meditation is to “see reality as it is, not as you wish it to be”. What this time has highlighted for me about reality is that we need space to be well, less can be more, now is a great time to reset how we work and most importantly, being productive does not mean working a lot. While filled with pleasurable dopamine hits, working a lot leads to only one thing: fatigue. I do not want that for my team, for myself, or for any of you.