A grasp of the ethereal productivity

Productivity is a word that is often splashed in the business world like a bloke putting ketchup on his bag of chips – indiscriminately and with great gusto! But, what do we really mean by this and just as important, how can one deliver consistently high productivity?


Let’s take a moment for contemplation and clarify what we mean by productivity when applied to the workplace.

According to the dictionary, the definition of productivity is the rate of output per unit input.  This is pretty simple then, the more effort we put in the more we get out and therefore we are productive? The relationship between output and input is not fixed. The output will be a function of how efficient we are in turning the input into output. For example, it takes me ages to make a burger; especially if this process involves a barbecue (this brings another level of disaster to the arena). I have no doubt that any of the workers in McDonalds could do it faster and better than I. They are simply more efficient in the process than I from the practice that they have had. Lastly, especially when applied to the workplace productivity usually brings with it connotations of “contribution”, whereby something of value is produced by this splurge of productivity. Normally we don’t get attributed in being particularly productive in activities that have no relevance to the objective. For example, when was the last time you were complemented for the sheer volume of web pages you can go through in one hour?

So, it would seem to be productive,

  • We should be producing something of value
  • We should be efficient in producing it to maximise the output-input ratio and maintain that ratio for as long as possible

Essentially, doing the things that add value and doing them efficiently.

Let’s take these points and consider some practical steps to going about it. But first, I add a brief pre-requisite point – work.


Work is needed

Guys, I need to mention this, if only for a moment. Work is a pre-requisite for productivity. I won’t go into the whole procrastination thing. That topic has been covered many times over and I assume you have your ways and means to deal with it.

Doing things that add value

Which are the right things to do? On any given day of the week there are multiple options for what one can choose to do.

There are many ways to select the next task from a list of pending activities. Here are a few to guide you on your way,

  1. Fixed landmark tasks: these are items that have a fixed/permanent position in your calendar around which other tasks coalesce. Examples of this would be meetings. Should they be obligatory then no thought is needed here. Attend and move on. If one has the choice, then decide if participation is necessary based on the simple question, Will my participation move me or the other meeting attendees closer to the objective? Each time a meeting comes up, pose that question.
  2. Priority: In many cases not a great indicator as they can change from day to day. However, one approach from Brian Tracy is to prioritise based on task description. Each level of priority has associated attributes which tend not to vary so much. For example, Priority A tasks would have serious consequences if not completed. Going down the scale results in less severe implications until we reach the bottom end of the scale where not doing the task has zero consequences. Such “E”, priority tasks can be Eliminated.
  3. Start/Due dates: If one has the luxury of clearly defined start and due dates for each task then selection of the tasks becomes child’s play when these fall in a sequential manner. Simply look which task is to start today and execute. The con of this system is when tasks cannot be completed as per the entered dates and it has a knock on effect to all other tasks. For the system to be kept up to date it would then mean re-jigging all of the dates for tasks which can be burdensome.
  4. Which contribute most to the objective? No matter what the context this is always a good question to ask as it provides clear indication where the focus should lie. Unless these key tasks require pre-requisites they are clearly a top priority target.
  5. Which tasks align with the current context? This is a take away from Getting Things Done. The context is the situation in which the task should be executed. For example, some tasks are conducted on the phone, at home, on the computer, walking the dog etc. Each of these is a context and tasks can be labelled accordingly. So, if you are walking the dog, list the tasks that fit that context and execute on the way! Contexts can help to ensure maximum benefit is gotten from the available situation.

These are but a few of the methods available and indeed it may be down to personal preference which ones work best. For me, I have two considerations in mind – which tasks are pre-requisites for achieving the goal and when are those tasks needed. Essentially points three and four.

This is also a good time to mention that it is beneficial periodically to touch bases with your raison d’etre and to ensure that the tasks are in alignment with that. Raison d’etre is your reason for being, your goals, top level objectives, why you get that pay cheque at the end of the month.


Do it efficiently

In many cases efficiency comes with practice but there are a few tips that can be applied that don’t come for free with practice. Here I mention a few.

Standardise Tasks

Each time a task is different it requires adaption or learning, both cost time and effort. If you can structure your tasks to have the same input, output and process steps then they lend themselves to quick and easy processing. So, consider the repetitive tasks which can be adapted into the same form every time.

Automate tasks

One step beyond standardisation is automation. If you have fixed the required inputs, outputs and required processing then it may be possible to automate that task taking yourself completely out of the picture and freeing you up for something else. An example could be MS Excel macros to format, analyse and plot fixed structure data or even fixed email statements or standard answers to prevent re-writing common replies.

Lump tasks Together

Each time we transition between tasks some time can be lost as we get together the materials needed to complete the task and get our brains in gear to get it done. One way to minimise this transition time is to cobble together tasks of one sort and execute them sequentially. If you work from a task list, tag or label similar tasks that can be executed together. For example, for all phone calls you can tag them “phone”. Then filter your tasklist by “phone” to arrive at a list of the calls you need to make. Then you can rattle them off one after another.

Link necessary materials

Another way to minimise transition time between tasks is to enable all supporting material to be quickly and easily accessible. One way to do this is to have the files linked to the tasks to be done. An example of this is shown below with Abstractspoon todolist where the file locations have been entered along with the tasks. A simple click on the icon beside the task opens the file and one can begin on the activity.

 Linked Files with Todolist

Consider your workflow and eliminate unnecessary tasks

One should contemplate the principles of Gemba in relation to the work. Simply put, Gemba is the critical resources and sequence of inter-dependent activities which add value for the customer. Look closely at how you fill your time during the day. Which of those activities are either contributing directly to the end goal or are supporting those critical activities. If the things you do are neither then what are the consequences of stopping them? If they add no value and the consequences of not doing them are minimal then can they be eliminated entirely? In addition to spending time on Gemba tasks, one of the greatest contributors to productivity is eliminating tasks that add no value to the Gemba. In eliminating these, time is made available for more critical items. If you want to find out more about this Gemba concept, further material is available in “Productivity, the Gemba way“.

Eliminate Error

This should also be considered in relation to examining your workflow and is inherent in the Gemba mindset. Not only should one clear our non-essential activities but for those tasks that remain then should be streamlined and error prone steps identified. Each time we have error we cause re-work and it can be the case that as the error is perpetuated from one worker to the next the amount of work to correct it is amplified. So, determine what causes re-work and what can be done to eliminate it. One such example draws upon the automation. Simply by removing the human element a major source of error and loss of productivity is removed.

Work from a list

When you don’t work from an orderly system there is a tendency to work on a last in first out basis. In other words, whatever task you get last is the one that will then occupy your time. To avoid this, it is best to work from a list and any new tasks that come along become part of that list and go through the same criteria for task selection. This helps you to keep in mind the tasks that are important and should be focused on.


Round up

Must we simply do value added tasks efficiently to be productive? I propose that if systems are in place to ensure that both elements of this, selection of value added tasks and efficient practices can be consistently achieved it would seem logical that productivity will follow. But, as always, the devil is in the detail. In this case, each of these two elements require honing of skills, discipline in execution and practice! Hopefully the tips given are a starting point for that.


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