Ever since I began blogging, productivity has been one of my most popular topics. But I’m convinced we’re not always productive for the right reasons. Maybe this is why many people are productive but miserable.
Over my career I’ve been entrusted with a lot of responsibility. At one time, I was responsible for the well-being of over six hundred employees and a company legacy two hundred years in the making.
I found unplugging difficult. I couldn’t rest because I was always on. If I didn’t perform well and efficiently, disaster loomed—lots of people would be hurt.
At least, that’s how it felt. But that meant my focus was sometimes on the wrong thing.
Make It Happen, Faster
This mindset didn’t just happen. It is deeply rooted in the history of the productivity movement.
When industrialization ramped up in the twentieth century, factory owners hired experts to improve efficiency. Armed with stopwatches, these experts roamed factory floors trying to spot needless activity and waste.
The faster someone fashioned one thing and assembled another, the more profitable the business could be. Henry Ford is the classic example of what greater productivity meant for a business.
It used to take workers half a day to assemble a car. After installing the first full automobile assembly line in his plant in 1913, he cut that down to two and half hours!
The benefits were massive. His profits soared. But there was an unexpected tradeoff, too.
The Wrong Paradigm
Instead of work existing for people, people began to exist for the work.
The most famous of the efficiency experts, Frederick Winslow Taylor, said it this way in 1911: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”
Do you see what’s underneath that statement? The person needs the system, but the system doesn’t always need the person.
As a result, we accidentally created an Anxiety Machine where fear became the driving force of productivity.
Corporate life became like running from the wolf. The faster you moved, the better your chances for survival.
By the time I entered business this mindset was well engrained. Its influence was pervasive. I adopted it unconsciously.
Sadly, though my commitment to excellence usually drives my productivity, many times, I’ve found myself motivated by fear—when, for instance, my business failed; or when the Great Recession threatened my company.
Whenever I started thinking of the wolves, I saw more wolves. Pretty soon I was more consumed with running from them than running my business.
Not the best paradigm, right? Fortunately, there is a better way.
Productivity Is About Stewardship
I believe God has entrusted us all with certain ideas, talents, and resources. We’re responsible to improve and increase what we’ve been given.
If we shrink back from this in fear, seeing it only as an opportunity to fail, we’ve embraced the wrong paradigm.
But if we embrace it with gratitude, seeing it as an opportunity to grow—to step into our abilities and exercise our gifts—then we’ve embraced the right paradigm.
It’s like trying to beat a “personal best” on the race track. Instead of running from the wolf, we’re running toward a goal. Anticipation, not anxiety, pushes us forward.
To view productivity this way involves a conscious change of thinking—one from scarcity to abundance, from fear to hope. But it’s worth it.
Unplugging finally becomes possible. Rest, too. And the unexpected bonus is that this paradigm actually enables more productivity because it’s finally for the right reason.
5 Questions for Self-Evaluation
So how can we discover our primary motivation? As I think about increasing my productivity, I use these five questions. They work best when I can apply them to particular circumstances. See if they help you:
- Do I feel proactive or reactive in this situation?
Do I feel that my self-worth is tied up in the outcome?
Do I dread the outcome, even if I win?
Do I feel like victory will be short-lived?
Do I feel energized or drained?
To be truly productive, we need to have the right focus.
Productivity driven by anxiety is unsustainable. But seeing productivity as a chance to grow what you’ve been given can radically change what’s possible in your work.