Being productive doesn't mean squeezing more activity into your day

Elena Shalneva
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Tony Blair Attends EU Summit 2007
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I received a press release the other day, which claims that half of the office workers in London are unproductive for up to an hour every day.

If true, this would be excellent news, as it would mean that we are lucky enough to operate at peak level for at least seven hours every day.

Which, on anecdotal evidence at least, is sheer nonsense.

Let’s say that you are a knowledge worker in a position of reasonable responsibility. Let’s say that you are writing a proposal for a potential client. Let’s say that you decided, just this time, not to copy and paste chunks of a similar proposal that someone else had done for another client a year ago and fill in the gaps with stuff that you have found on the internet.

Let’s say that, instead, you decided to immerse yourself fully in the client brief and develop, from scratch, a proposal which has clarity of thought and elegance of expression, which contains genuine analysis of the client’s requirements and offers some original insights. In other words, a proposal for which the preparation had involved a cognitive process with a fair degree of rigour and complexity.

Can you really do this for seven hours a day? I can just about manage three.

After that, I find myself stoically staring at the screen, willing for some good ideas to come, but mentally exhausted, struggle to break through the banality.

And everyone I know admits to the same. In my early career, I used to look around the office with envy, marvelling at how poised and focused my colleagues looked, hoping that one day I would have the same capacity for hard work. But in time, I learned to feign that slightly disdainful, “can’t-you-see-I’m-busy” office look myself, while allowing my thoughts to happily drift to dinner and last night’s episode of Lost at the same time.

Can it be that the authors of the press release confuse productivity with squeezing more activity into one day?

Recently, a good friend left a top strategy consultancy for a tier-two equivalent. Tired of his old firm’s exacting standards, he was relieved that his new employer accepted work that was “just good enough”. He does things faster now, goes home earlier. But is he more productive? By his own admission, he is not. Instead, his work became more process-driven: if before he used to get engrossed in a client’s brief, now he often works on autopilot.

I am not saying that process-oriented work is worse than creative work. Or that it’s better. What I am saying is that efficiency cannot be the sole measure of productivity. If your job is to update the company creds deck for new clients, then indeed what matters is how many of those decks you can knock out in a day.

But if you have to draft an investor presentation for a business which calls itself high-growth, but whose earnings had been declining for three quarters in a row, then good ideas matter more than speed.

Martin Amis once said that he works for two hours a day. Although most office workers will never handle work of Amis’ intellectual intensity, the principle stands: creativity declines sharply after the first two hours. If you want to know what happens after that, get in touch: I’ll show you the quality of some of the press releases that I receive.

Which reminds me – I’ve now been working for three hours.

By my own standards, I’ve been fairly productive. I better stop now, before my writing gets (even) worse.

Elena Shalneva is a communications consultant and non-executive director.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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