Why Focusing Too Much On Productivity Is Counter-Productive

Too much of a good thing isn’t always beneficial in the long run. Increasing your productivity, specifically, is a necessity. Focusing excessively on it, though, neglects other core competencies that are just as vital. 

Today, an entire industry has sprung out of the relatively new cultural obsession with getting as many things done in as little time as possible. It’s helped many of us fit more into our daily schedules than we could before. There’s no doubt that it has greatly benefited our careers and life achievements.

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At the same time, is extreme productivity always a good thing? As satisfying as it is to cross things off our to-do lists, there’s a certain point beyond which working too much and over-emphasising productivity starts to harm us. 

Since the momentum of productivity is so addictive, though, these harmful effects can be relatively insidious. You’re likely not going to notice it until it becomes a significant detriment to you. To prevent that, here’s a look at why being too productive can paradoxically be counter-productive. 

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1. Equating busyness with productivity

Inbox zero. No new items in your “in” tray. A fully checked-off daily to-do list. That feeling of pride that accompanies productivity is undeniable. The more you experience it, and the more you want more of it. So you make sure there’s always something that you need to do; you stay busy all the time. 

Often, though, so many of us make the mistake of equating busyness with productivity. Getting things done in and of itself doesn’t guarantee that you’re progressing or growing at work in life. Cal Newport, New York Times bestselling author, differentiates between “shallow work” and “deep work.”

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The former is what most knowledge workers tend to concern themselves with; things like checking and replying emails. These are necessary tasks, but they don’t necessarily give you an edge over your peers in the same field. They just help you look busy when in reality, it doesn’t add up to much. 

“Deep Work,” on the other hand, is what counts. These are the “meat” parts of your job where, if you can maximise your productivity, you can push far ahead of others. 

Busyness alone isn’t enough to precipitate personal success. You need to identify the particular skill sets or tasks that will differentiate you over and above the rest, and devote yourself to mastering those things. Without intentionally and strategically directing your busyness in this sense, it can make your career stagnate.

 

2. More work, higher expectations

In some cases, if you’ve proven yourself to be especially productive at work compared to your co-workers, you get assigned disproportionately more work. This may not be particularly unfair; it might reflect that you’ve been earmarked for promotion or identified as a high-potential employee.

It does, though, bring along with a different set of challenges, especially if you’re someone who can’t say no. If you don’t assert your boundaries, you risk being overloaded with too much work. But if you’re too harsh in saying no, you might unintentionally alienate yourself from your co-workers. 

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Office politics factor in here, too. Being the most productive one in the team can sometimes make everyone else turn against you unfairly. 

In the long term, being super productive stops giving you an edge, career-wise. It could either be because everyone else has caught up with you, or because productivity alone is no longer enough to determine good performance. 

That’s when you tend to run the highest risk of being burnt out. The combination of being overworked and under-appreciated, as well as the feeling that the work you do doesn’t really matter that much to the company in the long term, can effect a particularly potent episode of job burnout. 

 

3. Restraining creativity

Productivity and creativity are a lot like water and oil; they don’t really mix. Being productive requires you to ritualise, standardise, automate, and cut out waste in the interests of efficiency. 

Conversely, creativity thrives on ambiguity, open-endedness, flexibility, and diversity. It seems like they’re polar opposites. Considering how critical innovation is to stay ahead of the curve today, over-emphasising productivity will penalise you greatly by stiffening your creative juices and slowing down experimentation. 

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4. Switching gears between work and life

Once you’re in a productive mindset, it can be hard to turn it off. Your mind is always looking for things to do, activities to fill time up with. It wants to squeeze every last bit of utility out of each second of your life. This might do wonders for you at work, but it can also make it that much harder to switch off your work mode when you want to wind down.

Consequently, you can’t seem to get work-related thoughts completely off your mind. When your work and life spill over in this way, and you haven’t learnt how to switch mental gears effectively, it can increase your stress and exhaustion exponentially, physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

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