Are You Truly Productive or Just Crazy Busy? 5 Common Productivity Pitfalls

October 6, 2016 Heather Hurst

We live in a culture where busy-ness is seen as a badge of honor. It seems the most common answer to the question, “How are you?” is “Crazy busy...and you?”

In an interview with The Washington Post, researcher and author Brene Brown talks about “the burden of not getting enough done.” How is it that we feel perpetually behind, despite answering emails at 2 am? Brown says:

“I think it’s a combination of technology and the economic realities, where so many people are doing more than one job. It’s the whole adage of doing more with less. To be really honest with you, I don’t think it’s doable. The expectations of what we can get done, and how well we can do it, are beyond human scale.

"And because there’s always this readily available technology and you can get your emails all night long, there’s no stopping and celebrating or acknowledging the accomplishment of anything. Instead of feeling pride or recognition, what everyone is instead made to feel is, ‘Thank God, I can get to the next thing on my list.’”

Sure, We’re All Busy. But Are We Productive?

According to Workfront’s 2016 U.S. State of Enterprise Work Report, office workers are spending just 39% of their time on their primary job duties—down from 36% in 2015. And yet 92% of workers “somewhat or strongly agree” that they are personally productive. Those numbers don’t quite add up. If we’re so productive, why do we have so little time available to focus on our most important objectives? Our survey also reveals that workers rank themselves higher on the productivity scale than they rank direct reports, co-workers, managers, and company leadership.  

So what’s going on? Maybe a little bit of self-delusion. But I think there’s also that tendency to equate “busy-ness” with “productivity.” Because we’re so occupied with task after task, we’re often oblivious to the effects of the most common productivity pitfalls.

And that's why I’m here: to shine a spotlight on the top five barriers to true productivity and offer a solution or two for each of them.

Productivity Pitfall #1: Wasteful Meetings

Our State of Work survey identified “wasteful meetings” as the number one productivity killer, according to 59% of respondents. Many of them will relate to economist John Kenneth Galbraith’s claim that “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Meetings are a necessary evil that tie up time and resources, interfere with workplace productivity, and often fail to accomplish their stated goals. But how necessary are they really? Software company Atlassian estimates that superfluous meetings cost businesses $37 billion a year in lost salary. In our survey, 36% of respondents predict a drastic decline in the number of meetings in a few years. Wishful thinking? Or are they seeing the writing on the wall?

The Solution: Bye-Bye Status Meetings

Sure, you could cut the length of each meeting by 50% using such strategies as banning electronic devices and removing the chairs from the conference room. Or you could cut your total number of meetings in half by following Workfront CMO Joe Staples’ advice in a recent MarTech Advisor column.

Staples identifies four meeting types and claims that only three of them really require individuals to congregate in the same space at the same time. Why not use current technology to ban the most common (and unnecessary) meeting type of all? He’s referring to the dreaded status meeting. Status is better communicated via an asynchronous collaboration tool like Trello, Hip Chat or Slack—or your preferred cloud-based work management solution. Plus, it’s archived.

Bonus tip: Marketing guru Seth Godin suggests scheduling meetings in 5-minute increments and requiring the meeting organizer to justify the need for more than four increments at any one time.

Productivity Pitfall #2: Email

Email is the primary means by which many of us get our work done. People use it to communicate, update status, collaborate, and even as a to-do list of sorts. But it can also cause frustration and stress. Our State of Work Report found that email was the second biggest productivity pitfall, according to 43% of office workers. And despite it being so ubiquitous today, 27% of survey respondents predict that email will no longer be a main mode of communication in just 5 years.

Further, research from the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) estimates that the average “interaction worker” spends 28% of the workweek managing e-mail. And, according to yet another survey, almost 90% of workers say they check personal email at work and work email from home. That’s a lot of email.

The Solution: Put Email in Its Place

Don’t use email to collaborate, assign work, track tasks, or circulate proofs for approval. Email was not designed for these purposes, and there happen to be far superior tech tools that were designed to meet those objectives. While it’s unlikely to see email disappear entirely in our lifetimes (people are still using fax machines, after all), it’s time to stop treating it as a one-tool-fits-all solution.

Bonus tip: Email is still with us for the time being, so get on top of it by scheduling two or three specific times each day to deal with email. Then stay out of your inbox for the rest of the day. Your colleagues will get accustomed to this cadence soon enough, and hopefully some of them will follow suit. If someone emails you something that should have been put in a collaboration or work-management tool, hold them accountable.

Productivity Pitfall #3:  Inefficient Work Processes

The third most cited productivity killer in the State of Work survey was “excessive oversight” (42%), followed by “lack of standard processes for workflow” (32%). And the two are definitely related. When processes are poorly outlined or understood, a lack of alignment reigns, which can cause bosses to micromanage simply because there’s no transparency into where things stand.

According to the Marketing Dilemma Report by ProofHQ, marketing and creative teams are being asked to produce more creative content more consistently, regardless of whether there are tools or processes in place to support the increased output. Almost half of project management say there are more than four people involved in the typical process, and 53% of collateral goes through multiple reviews before reaching final approval. One individual cited in the report say as many as 29,000 proofs per year, with five reviewers and up to five revisions per proof. Manual processes added to the chaos of the situation and caused issues with timeliness, quality and consistency.

The Solution: Standardize Project Management Workflows

In our State of Work Report, 23% of office workers said “more efficient work process” would do the most to improve work productivity. This was the number two response, just a couple of points behind the winner, “uninterrupted blocks of time.” As it turns out, the former is likely to lead to the latter.

Additional research by ProofHQ and IntelliLink found that an optimized review and approval workflow increased speed-to-market by 56%. All work processes can benefit from this kind of standardization, transparency and accountability for all team members—whether on site or working remotely—and these benefits are most easily found in today’s cloud-based work-management solutions.

Productivity Pitfall #4: Your Mood

While it’s difficult to quantify with any specificity, research has shown that bad moods lead to procrastination, which leads to lost productivity. Poor mood could also cause increased dissonance at work, which has reached an all-time high. Our State of Work survey revealed that 95% of workers experience conflict with other teams.

One study of telephone customer service representatives, conducted by Ohio University, found that workers who started their shifts happy had better work outcomes for the rest of the day:

“Reps who were happy at the start of the day generally stayed that way as the day progressed. Those who came to work miserable, on the other hand, tended to feel worse after interacting with customers, which in turn led to a more than 10% decline in their productivity as they had to take more small breaks between calls to get through the day.”

The Solution: Meditate the Stress Away

Mindfulness and meditation aren’t just for hippies anymore. Recent research shows that they can also be an effective business strategy. The New York Times reported on a mindfulness training program at insurance giant Aetna, which instructed employees in how to take short breaks throughout the day to center themselves through yoga and meditation:

“More than one-quarter of the company’s workforce of 50,000 has participated in at least one class, and those who have report, on average, a 28 percent reduction in their stress levels. They also become more effective on the job, gaining an average of 62 minutes per week of productivity each, which Aetna estimates is worth $3,000 per employee per year.”

If that all sounds a little woo-woo to you, practice “tactical breathing,” as used by the military. This process was outlined in Brene Brown’s book, Rising Strong:

Inhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, hold for four seconds. Repeat until you feel emotionally calmer and mentally clearer.


Productivity Pitfall #5: Insufficient Sleep

Presidential contender Donald Trump may have the energy to Tweet at 3 a.m., but that doesn’t mean the rest of us mere mortals should make the attempt. Sleep deprivation can have series effects on mood, focus, concentration and even judgment—and it’s pretty widespread in our modern culture.

According to a Harvard study, sleep deprivation could be costing the U.S. economy $63 billion a year. Insomniacs who are consistently tired on the job cost their employers 7.8 days of work per year in lost productivity, or about $2,280 in salary per person.

In a more intimate study, reserchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital analyzed data from 12 participants whose sleep was reduced over a month-long period. They found that “the longer someone is awake while they are sleep-deprived, the slower their work production becomes.” A recent freeway sign on Salt Lake City’s I-15 corridor claimed that driving after being awake for 18 hours is the same as driving intoxicated.

The Solution: Better Sleep Habits

Energy drinks can’t make up for good, old-fashioned sleep. First, stop correlating your self-worth directly with your “busyness,” and then start practicing better sleep habits, like these from the National Sleep Foundation:

  • Get on a sleep schedule—same bedtime and wake-up time every single day
  • Practice a bedtime ritual, like writing in a journal, deep breathing or meditation
  • Avoid naps in the afternoon
  • Exercise daily, but not at the expense of your sleep
  • Keep your bedroom cool (between 60 and 67 degrees) and as dark as possible


Transitioning from Crazy Busy to Regular Busy

Yes, we all wish we had more hours in the day, but that’s not going to happen. We can, however, carve out more time for what truly matters if we’ll start by recognizing our tendency to equate busyness with productivity, plus the pervasive habit of viewing busyness as a status symbol.

To be truly productive, and not just busy, you have to actively combat the top three productivity pitfalls: email, unnecessary meetings, lack of standardized processes. Waging this war will be much easier (and more successful) if you arrive to work in a decent mood, powered by a good night’s sleep.


About the Author

Heather Hurst

Heather has enjoyed playing the game of marketing for the past 15 years, at the agency and corporate level, in both B2C and B2B companies. She's run PR campaigns that took her from the MTV Beach House to NASDAQ and many media outlets and content channels in between. She is currently the Corporate Marketing Director at Workfront.

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