Are you productive, or just busy?

Are you delivering outcomes, or just outputs? Last week was a particularly busy one, as I tried desparately to clear my pile of work down ahead of a week’s holiday. As I found myself shedding my morning gym visit to cram more work in, and staying at the office later and later to get things done, it reminded me of an article I’d read:

Are you being too productive?

Reading the article, I’d observed that all too often people get confused about productivity – they think it’s about increasing the amount of output, whereas I prefer to think of it as increasing the amount of outcome.

Busy or Productive!

I’ve used this quote before, but it I think it worth reusing:

Productivity is the act of getting where you want to go for the least amount of effort.

Think of the “where you want to go” bit as being the outcome. The “amount of effort” is the output.

Outputs vs. Outcomes.

What do I mean by this?

Simply, an output is a thing that is produced in order to be consumed. Intrinsically it must be of some value in order for someone to want to consume it, but in of itself it does not represent an end state or goal.

An outcome on the other hand, has significant value to you. It represents something you have been working to achieve, either from personal gain (such as self-improvement, or personal happiness) or to serve a wider life objecive (helping your family, improving your career etc). They can be “big” things (run a marathon) or “little” things (read a new book every month).

One or more relevant outputs typically need to be produced in order to achieve outcomes, but there will be many times where you’ll produe “stuff” that doesn’t contribute directly to any of the outcomes you’ve defined for yourself.

This is the point that I think confuses many people; that you can work really hard, produce lots of “stuff” and still not be any more productive. It’s what makes the difference between being busy and being productive.

A worked example: My ‘busy’ week.

I always find the week before a holiday is a crazy one, because you’re trying to achieve three things:

  • Getting your list of action items (urgent, important or otherwise) to zero against a fixed deadline
  • Dealing with stuff that crops up throughout the week that can’t be delegated or deferred
  • Making arrangements for urgent items that could occur in your absence (or that are outstanding when you leave) to be addressed

Because I’m not yet a fully-fledged productivity ninja, trying to achieve all this against a fixed deadline creates a significant amount of stress and effort for me (a problem that I need to add to my “list of stuff to sort out”).

But how much of the extra work is output, and how much is outcome?

Here are some of the things I did during the week, and my assessment of them:

  • Produced a number of different slide packs for a presentation to be used whilst I’m away. Outcome: The project I am accountable for had quality material to support it at a key meeting. Required? Yes
  • Attended numerous update/progress meetings on aforementioned presentation. Outcome: None (happy stakeholders?). These meetings did nothing to move things forward and I should have been more assertive in keeping them to a minimum. Required? No
  • Prepared for, and delivered a senior stakeholder presentation. Outcome: Corporate Brownie Points. This was a longstanding ‘update’ meeting that served no urgent purpose, but it provided a rare opportunity to get one-on-one time with people much further up the chain than I normally speak to. I could have rescheduled, but it would have undermined the opportunity. Required? Yes
  • Completed a small number of statutory online training modules. Outcome: Maintained my professional reputation and good corporate citizenship. These modules were ‘mandatory’ training for which I could have requested an extension, or even let slip and faced the consequences later, but this would have been a small ‘black mark’ against my reputation, ultimately putting back my efforts to progress. Required? Yes
  • Numerous stakeholder management meetings/calls. Outcome: None. These are the types of meeting that soak up so much of my diary. They are important at the Macro level – they all help to grease the wheels and keep everybody on side – but I could do better to assess the validity of the meeting in context of the outcomes I’m currently focusing on. I should have done better at refusing these meetings in a pre-holiday week. Required? No

The learning.

This a just a snapshot of a particularly crazy week – and I haven’t even talked about all the things at home that I let slip through the cracks as a result of being at work.

The point I wanted to emphasise is that there are opportunities at every step to assess whether the effort we’re currently expending – the output we’re currently producing – is contributing to a valid outcome. Where an honest assessment reveals outputs without outcomes, we should act swiftly and decisively to discard them.

Do you produce too much?

Are your outputs moving you towards your outcomes?

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