Our time is worth something. Too often, though, we’re guilty of spending it foolishly or out of habit, or without intention… despite our lousy track record, though, it is possible to spend it wisely, just as we try to spend or invest anything valuable.
We wouldn’t buy medicine that we knew didn’t work, or invest in ads that never ran. It seems, though, that time doesn’t have to meet the same bar.
If you had a factory job, it wasn’t your job to worry about productivity. Somebody else was in charge. You did what you were told, all day, every day.
Now, more than ever, you’re likely to be running a team, managing a project or deciding on your own agenda as a free agent. Time is just about all you’ve got to spend.
And yet, we hardly talk about productivity.
Productivity is the amount of useful output created for every hour of work we do.
You can measure that output in money if you want to (it makes the math easier) but in fact, it’s everything from lives changed to knowledge shared. What matters is the answer to a simple question: did I spend my day producing enough benefit for all the time invested?
A teacher has a class for 160 days—an hour a day … How to spend that time, how to spend today, how to spend the next five minutes? What’s the most productive choice?
Henry Ford and the other productivity pioneers of the industrial revolution understood this to their bones. He designed the Model T to be efficient to build. As a result, each of his workers produced far more value per day than they could working at a competitor down the street on a car that wasn’t as thoughtfully engineered.
Since his workers were more productive, he could charge less for the car. Since they were more productive, he could pay them more and thus get better workers. And since they were more productive, he could invest in advertising and brand building. The end result is that the car industry went from 2,300 companies (!) to a dozen or so.
It’s worth pausing there for a second. The competitors didn’t have workers who tried less, or who took more breaks or who were weaker, less skilled or lazy. The other companies lost because Ford focused on productivity in a way that they didn’t.
The internet has opened the door for more people to organize and plan their day than ever before. And we’re bad at it.
Because we associate busyness with business with productivity.
Here are some useful ways to think about it:
1. The best way to improve productivity is to measure it. That means identifying the inputs (how much is your time worth? Is there anyone beside you who is working for free, trading favors, burning all the candles?) and identifying the outputs (what’s the worthy final output of all your effort?)
Hint: likes and friends are not an output. Social media might offer metrics that tell you if you’re moving toward what you hope to produce, but don’t confuse the map with the territory. As soon as you try to make a temporary metric go up at the expense of the real goal, you’re on your way to mere busyness.
2. Once you know what you seek to produce (not an easy task), add up all the time you spent to create it. That’s your current productivity. So, for example, if you’re a musician and you have to work 60 hours on the side to organize, prepare for and run a gig that makes you $600 in revenue, your productivity is $10 of value created per hour. Given that your time is finite, the objective is to compare time spent on that project with time spent on an alternative one. If you need 120 hours to write, mix and launch a track on SoundCloud that earns you $3 in royalties, it’s pretty clear which path created more value (if you’re using money as a metric). Of course, once you decide that being popular on SoundCloud makes those tickets easier to sell, it gets complicated again…
3. Get focused on the challenges and benefits of connection. Imagine two buildings under construction. Both have 25 well-trained, well-paid, hard-working construction workers. One building, though, was built in half the time of the other. What happened? It turns out that construction almost always slows down because people are waiting. Waiting for the waterproofing to get done (while they wait for the specialist) or waiting for parts or waiting for another part of the project. The internet is the home of the connection economy, which means that this challenge is multiplied by 100. What are you waiting for? When you’re waiting, what are you doing to create value?
4. Unlike factories (which are very special cases) our productivity varies wildly. It depends on the project, on the connections, on where we are in the process. If you’re working the same number of hours every day and getting very different amounts of output each day, it is definitely worth figuring out why. What happens to your output if you quit when you’re done, not at 6 pm? What happens if you take on more of the high-output projects and choose to walk away from the low output ones?
5. And finally, embrace the fact that trained people are more productive than untrained ones. That skill matters. That leaning into what you don’t know makes you more productive… that hiring someone who knows what you don’t know makes you more productive as well.
Busy is not your job. Busy doesn’t get you what you seek. Busy isn’t the point. Value creation is.
You only get today once. Your team does too. How will you spend it?