The cost of productive systems

“The greatest enemy of good thinking is busyness.”  John C. Maxwell

The ‘value’ of being productive

 How many times have you read and re-read something, desperately trying to finish a task so that you can move on to the next one because they both have to be done today? When your brain feels foggy and you’re struggling to see things clearly – things that would normally come easily to you – the big picture is blurred, or at least comes in and out like a television that isn’t quite in focus. ‘I used to be good at multi-tasking’ you say to yourself, ‘I can normally do three things at once and still deliver quality work’, berating yourself over and over again. How much value is there in continuing that cycle, in delivering to satisfy the ‘busyness’ inner critic?

It is one of life’s many traps. ‘It’s such a shame we never get time to see each other’. ‘It’s such a shame we didn’t have more time to chat.’ ‘Let’s schedule another meeting to go over that point.’ Sound familiar? It begs the question of how efficient and focused we really are, both individually and collectively. How we use our time is, after all, a choice. The irony is that we want to figure out why we are so busy, but we can’t find the time to do it!  

Slogging away when you’re mentally fatigued, when your energy cup is empty, when you are under pressure to do other things, kills not only creativity but also joy and motivation. We cannot be in creative flow 24/7. In fact, setting boundaries around your working hours, and those hours during which you do intense work in particular, is key to producing both value and valuable results – whatever this means for you.

Here we see the productivity vs. busyness paradigm: I am productive because I’m busy but just because I’m busy doesn’t mean I’m necessarily productive. Working can also be one of the most prevalent and dangerous forms of procrastination. We work so hard delivering and not taking the time to think or let things unfold. Procrastination has such negative connotations, and it doesn’t necessarily mean being less busy.

Productivity is personal, and people’s preferences and models differ. It isn’t necessarily about getting up at the crack of dawn if your body clock doesn’t work like that, or getting everything on a list ticked off. When was the last time you thought about how to use your time, and looked at your daily practices around how you spend it? Do you get a feeling of importance and status from running around saying ‘I’m busy’? The implication here is ‘I’m busy being successful’, and this is perpetuated by the culture in which we live, work and breathe. Definitions of success are so personal, yet we allow ourselves to be conditioned by the way it is defined generically, and almost exclusively, through financial value.

How we define what is and is not valuable is completely individual. For sure, being busy is one thing, but being productive and delivering ‘value’ is another thing entirely. It is possible to be mind-blowingly busy without being very effective, and we must take a step back, and stop to listen intently to our own narratives and assumptions of what success is. Our internal operating systems are all working based on how they’ve been programmed, what they’ve experienced to date and the learnt behaviour we perpetuate with the stories we tell ourselves. This applies on a collective systems level too, and the digitalisation of the workplace has only made this more acute, with the ‘must be on 24/7’ paradigm creeping into and embedding itself in the definition of busyness.

 Regenerative performance in human systems  

This constant focus on ‘doing more with less’, doing things faster, bigger and better ultimately generates value that is short-term, narrow and unsustainable (over and above the buzz of ticking things off a list). When you are working at full throttle, under pressure, for a long time, you inexorably burn out your own most useful resource – your mental, physical and emotional energy. This energy cup is what keeps you alert, creative, curious and effective. My favourite adage of ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ reflects how the prefrontal cortex goes into fight or flight mode, your perspectives narrow and your ability to counter your own bias lessens. I love the simple visualisations from Liz & Mollie on all these topics, which help us to cut to the heart of the debate surrounding these messy human subjects.

When your cup is empty, your mental energy wanes and you revert to poor decision-making, impatience and tunnelled biased vision. Yet we all strive to stay in that hamster wheel because being busy is what it’s all about. In this scenario, you lose your sound decision-making skills, you sacrifice attention to detail and the big picture slips away – along with the ability to think more strategically and more long-term. 

This is such a familiar situation and brings with it the danger of what Rahaf Harfoush calls ‘hustle culture’: a set of beliefs developed to prioritise being busy and glorifying the effort of working long hours as opposed to the end goal (listen to the podcast here). In reality of course, the quiet mind is a hive of creative activity and can yield far more ideas than a forced eight-hour day spent trying to figure things out. Alice Boyes, author of Stress-Free Productivity, tells us that “the unfocused mind can make creative connections and solve problems for you when you allow it to wander.” Disconnecting from the world to connect with your intuition and let your mind literally wander is when the magic happens: the mind is resting, you are resting, your ‘task focus’ is switched off.

Efficient vs. effective: the hybrid model

The paradox of disconnecting to connect more deeply brings me to the age-old discussion around efficiency. We do not often ask ourselves about it – if we did, we may have more insight into working smarter! The move to hybrid is an opportunity to look at these issues and not to delve straight into finding solutions and trying to ‘fix’ the systems to increase efficiency when, in reality, we are not being effective. We need to look into our stories and patterns as well as those of the system in which we live and ask: what would make us more effective in the workplace? We must disrupt the narrative and embrace the notion that more is not always better, and that rest, reflection, and renewal of our energy are critical to creating a longer-term perspective and value that lasts.

Measuring performance by the number of hours people put in could be replaced with measurements based on the value they create. How often do we ask ourselves what our value proposition to the organisation/team is, and not what is written in the job description, but what the value is of the results we deliver? This is a very different question, which yields very different answers from the number of hours it took me to deliver this, or how many hours I spend working a day/week/year. Rejuvenation and restorative rest are an integral part of high-performing teams and individuals and should be recognised as such. We have the opportunity to create more inclusive and regenerative models for the business and human systems of an organisation. This is good for the bottom line, good for innovation, good for individual mental health and good for enabling us to have an identity beyond work and status in the workplace.

The revamp of performance management systems aims to shift the paradigm to look at performance beyond KPIs, to look at self-compassion and growth instead of ‘self-improvement’ based on the precept that there are defects to be fixed. We should measure people based on the value they create and how they produce results. Is it through fear or through inspiration? Through control or through collaboration? This should be one of our primary metrics, for example, allowing rest periods and four-day working weeks to be part of an indicator of high performance. We should encourage people to take requisite breaks during the working day, and on weekends, and to take holidays, so that when they’re working, they are really there, mentally, physically and emotionally.

To set ourselves up for success we must recharge and reset – frequently. How often do we ask ourselves if our leaders role model this way of being? Or if our workplace culture reflects the skills and values we need to adapt and evolve in today’s world? Or if we are intentionally creating an environment and tools that allow us to thrive, co-create and challenge each other and the system healthily for the greater good? We must take heed of patterns and bust the myths around productivity and busyness.

Hybrid working models are an opportunity to reframe the narrative and install new norms, for example, reprogramming the system and using tech to make the right decisions for people and to enable a more inclusive working environment. We have the chance to change working patterns and endorse other definitions of success. As we transition from one industrial era to another, life is not just about productivity, and we should aim to live our best lives and deliberately choose our beliefs to enable that.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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