In the business world, productivity and high performance is not a nice-to-have, it’s mandatory. The Holy Grail you seek? Sustaining it.
We all want to know the latest app that time-hacks our to-do list; we google top tips to get more done in less time and pick up endless books on performance and living a balanced life.
But what if I told you that the one thing that really needs to change is our definition of productivity?
If you’re wedded to the idea that productivity means working harder and faster, and that’s the only way to get results, it’s time to evolve. This outdated approach to ‘getting things done’ no longer fits our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. Clinging on to this idea is a fast-track to overwhelm, poor performance and exhaustion. The impact? Not only operational delivery failure and reduced scope delivery in projects, but strategic risk for your organisation.
Productivity’s long road
It might help to know that the term ‘productivity’ was coined way back in 1899, as a definition for the output to input ratio. While increasing productivity was important in the industrialised era, in the 21st century, this notion fails to consider that those doing the work are humans, not machines.
Modern workplaces have evolved dramatically alongside technology, and the pandemic has accelerated the pace, further blurring the line between work and life. We no longer commute to offices, but kitchen tables; we juggle high-paced careers with homeschooling; we live online and in front of screens 24/7 – there’s no off-switch. So, if we’re willing to accept that work has outgrown the nine-to-five format, why have our limited notions of what it means to be productive stayed the same?
The ‘must work harder and faster’ mindset combined with the intensity of a global crisis has led to confronting stats like this: The 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index surveyed more than 30,000 people across 31 countries, finding that 54 per cent feel overworked and 39 per cent feel exhausted. Tellingly, one in five said their employer doesn’t value their work–life balance. No wonder that the same survey found that 41 per cent of employees are now considering leaving their current job.
A report released by HR firm Gartner earlier this year echoes this data: it found that for the quarter of Australian employees now seeking a new job, work–life balance was the top motivation for leaving. Compensation? That’s slipped down to 10th on the list of priorities.
This is one of the emerging silent organisational risks: it’s not simply a burnout epidemic, but a leadership gap in evolving our capability to perform in what the context demands next. The leaders who can’t (or won’t) adapt will lose the talent race.
Redefining it for the better
It’s clear that working around the clock to achieve results is no longer working. Busy is no longer the badge of honour it once was.
So, how do we define productivity after we accept that pushing harder to do more is inherently unproductive?
It’s time to take a cue from the sustainability space. While environmental sustainability is now a top focus for product and supply chain disruption, I believe we have an incredible opportunity to apply the same principles to our inner game.
In our rapidly changing world, you need to be able to sustain high performance over the long-term to have a meaningful impact. Fundamentally, this means expanding your current definition of productivity to include clarity on boundaries and time to rest and recharge.
This is often challenging for high-performing, ambitious people who have been conditioned to equate resting with wasting time, or even failure. Like an old version of Windows, we’re running an outdated operating system in dire need of an upgrade.
Sustainable high performance starts with reframing rest and recharge time as an essential ingredient for success. Just as you regularly charge your phone, cultivate the same sense of urgency and frequency to rebooting your body and brain.
Rather than getting up early to get a head start on the never-ending to-do list, sustainable productivity involves creating a personalised daily routine with rituals that energise you, prime your cognition and create conditions to do your best work – and sticking to them even when the pressure ramps up.
Instead of expecting to focus for hours on end and feeling frustrated when you get distracted, accept that your attention ebbs and flows across the day. Productivity’s superpower is self-awareness – it allows you to consciously switch off autopilot mode, tune in and find the best times within your day to do different types of work.
One of the most crucial pieces of the puzzle is recognising that every day is different. So, make the first meeting of your day one with yourself. What meeting could be more important than a personal check-in to consider your best approach for the day ahead? This can be as short as a few minutes over coffee: Research by the University of Florida found that a quick morning reflection can make you a more effective leader.
Productivity also means slowing down when a challenge arises instead of speeding up. This allows you to use your emotional quotient to navigate a strategic response, rather than reacting to come up with a bandaid solution.
I’m dedicated to shifting this conversation because I’ve seen firsthand how reframing productivity, and equipping leaders with a new toolkit of skills for the modern world, can have incredible, far-reaching benefits.
It has a ripple effect on everything – not just on what we do, but who we are. It celebrates our humanness. And it creates a healthier culture for our teams, too, moving them from reactivity to responsiveness, and empowering people to work sustainably at their own unique pace.
When you’re intentional about how you spend your time and embrace recharging as a key tool for success, you unlock far greater capacity. This becomes the only productivity hack you need.
Elana Robertson is an award-winning performance coach who completed post-grad studies in executive leadership and coaching at QUT and Harvard University. She is the founder and director of foundher and works with CEOs, established entrepreneurs and executives on the rise to develop a new toolkit for high performance in our modern world.