Overwhelming number of tasks.

Efficiency vs Effectiveness: Resisting the Tyranny of To-Do

Have you ever had a day, a week, or even a year where you have a nagging sense that, despite being exhaustingly busy, you haven’t been that productive? You’re not alone. Whether you work for yourself or someone else, it’s easy to focus on getting things done and lose sight of why any of it matters to begin with. Understanding what real productivity looks like is the key to transforming work from a source of overwhelm to a source of inspiration.

Welcome to part six of our eight-part series on leading transformation in your workplace. Check previous installments for insight on shifting from control to creativity, status to service, profit to purpose and on how slowing down can speed you up. Check previous installments for insight on moving from control to creativity, from status to service, from profit to purpose and slowing down to speed up.

Defining Productivity

Let’s start by looking at what it means to be productive. Productivity is defined as, “having the quality or power of producing, especially in abundance; yielding in results, benefits or profits”. Based on this definition, most people believe that the path to productivity involves being busy doing something all the time. The pursuit of productivity challenges people to jump from one thing to the next with as little space in between as possible. It encourages you to measure days in “tasks completed,” no matter what those tasks are. If you love packing meetings into a tight schedule and checking tasks off as quickly as possible — and if you get annoyed when you see colleagues or staff having down time — you’re a productivity addict. Unfortunately, this “constant activity” approach seldom produces an abundance of results in proportion to the abundance of activity invested.

Is Improving Efficiency the Answer?

So maybe, you think, the answer is to focus on efficiency instead of productivity – working smarter, not harder. Efficiency is defined as, “maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense” , so an efficient person can get more done with less. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, the ultimate goal of this approach is still simply producing larger volumes of output. Why is this a bad thing.

If your feelings of self-worth and definition of success center on getting everything on your list done, or on endlessly creating and optimizing systems you’re doomed. While the “work smarter, not harder” mantra spurs creativity and systems thinking that allow both people and businesses to produce more, there is a limit to how much faster you can get, how much you can streamline, and the degree to which you can do more with less. Task lists balloon endlessly. There will always be more on your list than you can ever complete. Focusing on increasing productivity and efficiency alone keep you stuck in the loop of being busy without feeling productive because the goal is to create an abundance of results with the least amount of effort. This is a goal that can never be achieved. It’s a no-win situation that leads to stress and overwhelm.

Begin with the end in mind.

To be truly successful — to make an impact as well as in income and stay out of overwhelm along the way — you need to understand that productivity and efficiency can only be achieved when you get clear on what results matter most. This is where effectiveness comes in. Defined as “Successful in producing a desired or intended result”, effectiveness requires high-level clarity on the big picture and the qualitative aspects of the desired result (such as values and principles), not just quantitative ones. It requires a clear understanding of what the result is and why. Effective people don’t do aimless busywork. They also don’t obsess about optimizing systems and increasing efficiency unless doing so supports them in achieving what organizations who experience exponential growth refer to as a “massively transformative purpose”.

The first thing you need to be more effective, is to have clear goals. More importantly, you need to have goals that matter to you, not just to the organization. When your goals truly matter to you, you’re more invested in achieving the results and you’re naturally more motivated to look for creative ways to get to where you want to go. When the goals you’re working towards aren’t compelling for you, it’s more likely you’ll stop at good enough because it feels like a slog anyways.

Increasing efficiency is not the same as increasing effectiveness

The constant struggle between efficiency vs effectiveness is implicitly linked to our last topic, slowing down to speed up. Both are key to sustainable productivity. Consider this: Doubling the revenues of your business in six months (vs. say, 12) is a major leap in efficiency, but if it was accomplished by coercing employees to work 80-hour weeks, the results are unsustainable because your team will be burnt out. In your rush to keep busy, it is easy to neglect taking the time to do the seemingly unproductive activities that are critical for sustaining the focus, confidence and energy required to engage your full potential.

Building effectiveness requires building “efficient inefficiencies.” These are activities that may not appear to add value to your product, but will ultimately contribute to a happier, healthier, more effective team. Consider encouraging employees (and yourself) to take the time to do the following during their work days:

  • Exercise
    Most people sacrifice daily exercise when they get busy because it seems unproductive, yet research shows that physical activity releases a variety of happy chemicals in our bodies. These chemicals reduce stress, boost focus and creativity, and make us able to work both faster and better.
  • Socializing
    A certain amount of time spent bonding with colleagues in a social manner builds trust and the sense of caring about one another beyond just the work that needs to get done. This cements teams, smooths conflict, and increases employees’ willingness to take risks and express the types of ideas and opinions that fuel innovation.
  • Doing Nothing
    Mental activities, such as planning, strategizing, evaluating, daydreaming, and general contemplation may appear unproductive to outside observers. But without time to think and decompress in your day, your priorities get dictated by external events and (too often) crises. If you focus on chopping down trees as quickly as you can, you forget to stop and make sure that you’re still in the right forest.
  • Napping
    A quick after-lunch nap might be just the ticket to keep focus and energy up.

The more you prioritize time to plan, dream, strategize, collaborate, optimize, evaluate and rejuvenate, the more likely it is that you will do work that matters, get results that make a difference, and build a business that helps you, your team and even the worl to thrive. Tasks still need to get done, but the right quantity takes care of itself when you focus on ensuring that the results you are working towards are aligned with your values and fueled by a strong purpose. This ensures that, no matter how long it takes to achieve your desired results, you will feel both productive and fulfilled every step of the way. Why? Because you will be growing your character and integrity with each action you take. What you achieve is ultimately less important than what kind of person you become along the way.

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