Effective productivity and a sense of accomplishment

15 July, 2010

Provoked by Tim Ferriss’ discussion on effective productivity at work I embarked on an experiment this week to discover how much of my week is spent on effective work — that is, work that makes the best use of my skills within my defined role to achieve real positive outcomes. What doesn’t count as effective productivity includes interruptions, needless meetings and manual work or rework that should have been automated or handled elsewhere where I add no value to the process – aka: paper shuffling.

The result both depresses and satisfies me.

Based on activity-time recording over a week at a resolution of ten minute intervals only 10% of my time in the office was spent actually contributing to valuable, positive outcomes. Just over three hours of my working week.

Now that’s taking a pretty hard-line definition of effective productivity and I’m sure my colleagues and supervisor would think my methodology too critical but I feel it’s accurate. Obviously I’m working the rest of that time (lunch breaks are excluded from the calculations) but as I said, either attending meetings where the knowledge shared was not relevant to my job and I wasn’t an active participant or in reading emails I didn’t have to read, switching between tasks, distractions and interruptions, doing mundane copy and paste work that whilst productive in a sense could and should have been automated or integrated better into the process to make that rework unnecessary.

The reason this result satisfies me is that it explains why I struggle to feel a sense of accomplishment at work. What it means is that I still love doing what I do but when 90% of my time in the office is spent ineffectively then of course it’s going to be hard to spread the satisfaction gained from 3.5 hours of work across my entire week.

Has this been a typical week? Probably not. Recording my time in 10-minute increments is intensive so I’m not going to continue it across the several months it’d require to get a reasonable sample, but the result feels representative.

What does this mean? Well – first thing, I’m not under-performing. That’s not what this is about. If my employer had a problem with my performance I’d know about it. A low level of effective productivity doesn’t relate to performance. What it does mean is that in future I will take a more proactive approach to defining and defending the scope of my role and speaking up more when it comes to being tasked in order to propose the most effective way of tackling a deliverable. This means clearing mental negative space around me to give myself the time to think about new work and tasks prior to automatically accepting them and having a less-than-optimal approach locked in and that expectation set.

I’m sure that shifting from being an automatic “Yes” person to “I’ll need to think about that first” would probably annoy my boss and co-workers — I think it’s too late to try and implement this approach with my current organisation — but for the sake of feeling happier on the job and gaining that sense of accomplishment this is a change that I need to implement. It’ll give me the opportunity to add value to the process which as a designer is where I can add some of the greatest value I have to offer. Questioning assumptions, asking the dumb questions, helping visualise outcomes. At the moment I feel much of that value offering is being bypassed by my failure to speak up and push back.

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