“Remember, that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad, or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides.”— Benjamin Franklin
It was five years ago today that I learned I had been doing it all wrong.
Stuck in a hotel bed in Brighton, the blinds drawn, with one conference talk behind me and another looming hours ahead, I had felt like a failure.
The night before, I was high on the fumes of a conference talk well-presented, mingling with speakers and audience members — cocktail in hand— while planning my next talk in my head. I returned to my room at three in the morning with three packs of ready-made snacks from Tesco’s and continued refining my afternoon talk at a large corporate the next day. The plan was simple: finish the talk, get an hour of sleep or so, a quick brunch with conference friends, pack and I’m out, on my way to teach a classroom of sales people about listening to end users.
But my body had a different idea. When the alarm rang at 8am, I peeled my eyes open, washed my face and began getting dressed, feeling nauseated all the while. I ignored the nausea, the first and second bout of vomiting, and the dizziness and went down to breakfast. When I arrived, I excused myself and vomited again in the bathroom of the restaurant, noticing the shorter breaks between bouts of sickness. Worried that I would be seen as hungover, I didn’t mention it to those near me. As minutes ticked along, I felt worse, eventually retreated to my hotel room and remained by the toilet bowl as I typed the last slides of my talk.
Soon, it became clear I couldn’t go. Between the first few times being sick and the moment I accepted defeat, I had attended a conference breakfast, finished my talk, packed my bags and went down to the hotel lobby. Eventually, my boss and colleague convinced me to give up my plans and stay put.
'I worked way too hard for too long,' concerned friends and family would say. But I knew differently. Having worked for four weekends in a row, given a conference talk and woken up at 5:45am daily for weeks to complete an “Insanity” workout was a normal pace for many people I knew. Books and articles about successful people boasted early wake-up calls, ruthless productive mornings, multiple ongoing projects. Like a frail muscle destined for future glory, I was training myself to be better at productivity. And I wasn’t going to let some tiredness stop me.
The Brighton Incident was a glitch in my mind. An error in the system. A miscalculation. I slept it off and continued. Two years later, I began having routine panic attacks that led to time off work, medication and a profound reassessment of who I was.
See, it wasn’t the productivity articles and self-improvement gurus that failed me. It wasn’t the speed of the tech industry or workplace pressure. It was my fundamental blindness to what poisonous legacies embedded in the traditional notion of productivity I was supporting.
The word itself is rooted in capitalist industry and is entangled in economic and social histories far greater than a recipe for a perfectly-planned Monday morning
Traditionally, productivity is measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input — being able to count, increase and improve the tangible products of your efforts. The word itself is rooted in capitalist industry and is entangled in economic and social histories far greater than a recipe for a perfectly-planned Monday morning. The consequence of equating this productivity with success means that only those things you produce which can be sold or consumed by others grant you a sense of accomplishment.
I propose another way of defining productivity: one that is rooted in the effects of our action but not in the artefacts we create.
To find this alternative definition, I scoured dictionaries and thesauruses and made a surprising discovery: the etymology and definition of “productivity” and “product” already contain the ingredients we need for a new recipe of productivity. Words like “effect” and “result,” which can embrace activities such as supporting a colleague on a hard day or learning a new skill. Words like “action” and “outcome” which can include intangible concepts like communication, gratitude, patience, and self-reflection.
To illustrate the need for this complementary way of considering productivity, ask yourself the following questions:
In deciding whether or not I’ve been productive, I now consider how fairly invisible actions or thoughts cause similarly abstract changes in my surroundings. This has been particularly noticeable to me in the way I manage my team. I often hear these kinds of complaints:
I’ve not made anything today because I spent the day training someone else I don’t have time for a team activity because I need to be productive I didn’t get as much done as I wanted to because I was learning something new
Every day, I try to set the example that seemly idle activities can have incredible consequences. Recently, during a team retrospective meeting, we came to the joint conclusion that the biggest achievements we’ve made this year have been in learning to support each other. Helping one another, creating shared ideas, offering help, taking time to teach one another - all those things that are never seen on the pages of our wireframes, between the lines of our code, or in the gradients of our designs.
Creating the right conditions for trust to flourish takes tireless hard work. And yet, this kind of work is not traditionally recognised as productive. I think it ought to be.
I’m heartbroken to think back to a time when failing to do this made me physically sick. Taking time to consider the results and consequences of my work, not just the commodities I create, means I can now give myself the permission to lead the healthy life I should have led half a decade ago. It means giving my team permission to consider their whole person when they reflect on their achievements.
Next time you feel unproductive, I invite you to join me in asking yourself: what effects or consequences have my actions yielded lately?
I assure you, you’ll find something to be proud of.