Getting Off of the Productivity Treadmill

By Annie Andre | Updated: 07 Aug, 2013

Out-of-shape dads and overwhelmed executives have one thing in common: they are struggling to improve themselves by changing their habits. The dads buy new treadmills and pay for personal trainers. The executives hire management coaches and download GTD templates. Both parties do all this in the hopes that they’ll be able to rewire their routine to make themselves better.

In most cases, the idea that you can change yourself to make things better is accepted as a truism. But in the executive’s case, she doesn’t even need to go as far as changing herself to solve the problem. A little introspection is all it really takes.

Consider this: It’s much easier to make yourself more effective and productive if you take the things holding you back off of your plate completely. So, unlike becoming fit, you don’t need to put in the hard work on a treadmill to become productive. Instead, hand your problem over to someone who’s been running that treadmill every day for a lifetime.

Harvard Business School’s Perspective

In a recent Ideacast, Harvard Business Review took on the question of how people can make their time more effective. Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, co-authors of the forthcoming article "Make Time for the Work that Matters" explained a little experiment. They took hold of professionals’ calendars and asked them what tasks they could delegate to someone else or do differently to generate more empty spaces on their schedules. The result? As brutal as it was, every single knowledge worker that they worked with found a way to hand something off to someone else and became more productive.

The HBR interviewer then asked a great follow-up question: If these executives were so smart, why did they need Birkinshaw and Cohen to show them the light? The co-authors’ response matched our own observations here at Prialto. The foremost problem with productivity solutions is adoption. It takes time to sit down, to carve out time, to learn, to focus on and to change your workflow to make things easier. Even though the workers in this experiment weren’t being asked to learn any new skills, they were still resistant to making the change without being pushed.

That tends to be true more often than not. Why would a successful, mid-career professional make time to change the way he works? Most often, it’s the people that most the need the changes in their habits who are least likely to seek them out. That’s also why Birkinshaw and Cohen’s solution here worked so well. Instead of asking the executives to change anything about their own habits or skill sets, the work was handed off to someone that could do it for them. While this may not work for your paunch, it can do wonders for your time.

Building Flexible Tools

Several popular team-building and personal productivity tools work on this premise. Gallup’s ever-popular Strengthsfinders series specifically dictates that people be grouped with others who have opposite strengths from their own. This not only leads to a creative and productive workspace, but it allows people to work to their talents every day and complement their teammates. Similarly, productivity-enhancing applications like Evernote and Salesforce are built and marketed around flexibility – letting people do what comes most naturally to them instead of prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution. When things get too complex, you can also share the platforms with others who can maintain them for you, much as a sales assistant tracks Salesforce on behalf of her individual sales rep.

Being productive should not, and does not, mean that you’ll have to rewire yourself. Getting off that treadmill is actually the best thing you can do for your time and your sanity. Stop trying to figure out how to change yourself. Spend the time focusing on what you do best instead.

The only habit you’ll need to adopt to get there is to take a long, hard look in the mirror and come up with a plan before jumping in. That’s where the executive’s to-do list and the dad’s dreams of his high school physique have everything in common.