Where should you focus your time and energy at work, on being efficient or on being productive?
It’s not a trick question, although you might feel like productivity and efficiency are pretty much the same thing.
They can be sometimes, but there is a crucial difference that you need to consider.
It comes down to this:
If the work you are managing is highly structured and routine, then you are likely going to be more productive by being more efficient. More time on task translates to higher output.
If, however, the work you are managing is more project-oriented, strategic, or innovative, then you might be far more productive in ways that are not so efficient. The way you spend your time can seem wasteful, but end up being incredibly impactful.
The problem is that it can be hard to tell the difference.
It can feel productive to be in back-to-back meetings all day, working through lunch, and taking calls on your commutes in and out of work, making full use of every minute of your day.
And it can feel unproductive to take extra time to re-read a report, do another round of edits on an email, or meet a colleague for coffee.
However, the opposite can be true. Back-to-back meetings can not only be unproductive, they can be downright counterproductive when people are unprepared, discussions are unfocused, and outcomes are unclear.
In a similar way, that coffee with a colleague can yield a crucial insight that pays huge dividends in results.
You can’t always trust your feelings on these things, mostly because those feelings are informed by misinformed cultural norms.
The busy executive is productive. The worker taking a walk at lunch is lazy.
Often, the opposite is true. And you know it. You just have to trust your instincts and be willing to be a little different.
Take time to think
With all the emphasis on action, too many shortcuts on thinking can lead us in the wrong direction.
Too much doing can lead to too little thinking. And that’s a problem.
Because for much of your work probably involves complex tasks, collaboration among a number of people, and coordination across a variety of functions.
To do that well, you need to consider and address a wide variety of variables. Sure, there is the logistical process of whatever work that needs to be done. But there are also politics, relationships, competing priorities, marketplace dynamics, individual agendas, personal interests, and a variety of other things to consider.
If you are managing complicated work, you need to give yourself time to think.
That can be as simple as driving to work while quietly contemplating things. But it may also mean that you need to carve out time during the day for thinking too.
Maybe you should take a walk at lunch (getting out of the office and also moving around can be hugely beneficial to thinking time). Or maybe you should block out some “meeting” time in your calendar, to meet with yourself.
You can also think with other people. A strategy meeting can really go a long way toward working smarter.
However you do it, give thinking the priority it deserves. Feel good about taking time to do your work to the best of your ability by putting your energy where it matters most.
Focus on results
You need results more than you need to feel busy. It just doesn’t seem that way in the moment.
Let’s face it, it feels really good right now to be busy. But it doesn’t feel so good later on unless you have gotten the important things done.
I think that’s why we often feel so frustrated. We keep working hard but it feels like real accomplishments are elusive.
One way to help is to focus on results. You can do this by asking yourself if you are busy with the right things right now.
For example, if you think about what you want to have done by Friday afternoon, you can ask yourself if the things you are working on Monday morning are the right things.
By looking just a few days ahead, you can usually find good answers to the “right things right now” question. It’s a simple adjustment to trying to work backwards from goals a bit more than working forwards all the time.
The same is true for meeting preparation. By asking what outcome you want at the end of the meeting, you can setup a better agenda. And you can work more deliberately toward those goals during the meeting.
Your projects will be better served by your focus on results too. If you are a project leader, helping keep people aimed at the right targets is one of the most valuable things you can do for the team.
If you keep yourself busy with this focus on results, you will feel good now and in the future.
Be efficient at being productive
You can grind out strategic work too. So maybe a good way to feel and be productive is to see if you can be efficient with it.
You can fill your day with tasks like thinking and focusing on results. While they are not as clear-cut as more routine work, these things can follow a structure.
For areas that require thinking, you can break them down to steps like developing a thesis, creating a draft approach, gathering input and feedback, revising the draft, presenting it to stakeholders, and so on.
To keep a focus on results, you can make that a series of running tasks to define, refine, and track them.
Anything that takes you out of the “busyness” of the day and focus on the business at hand will help make you more productive.
You can’t worry about what other people think, though. Because most people seem to get this wrong. The short-term mindset is sometimes a little too prevalent even though everyone may seem equally frustrated that progress isn’t happening fast enough.
To be more productive and efficient, you have to be willing to do things a little differently than everyone else. That may feel a little strange now, but they will probably be thanking you for it later.