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April 18, 2024
The obsession with productivity in the workplace.

Productivity vs Efficiency: The Battle to Make Your Time Count

If you had met me a couple of years ago, you wouldn't have recognized me. I was one of those keep-your-eyes-on-the-prize people. I had no time for chitchat or office birthday celebrations, even when there was cake with chocolate frosting and sprinkles. I spoke in grunts and thought in emojis - it's quicker that way, I told myself. All day, the only real eye contact I made was with my screen. And when anyone did approach me, I blocked them out with my bright red noise-canceling headphones. Do-not-disturb, they seemed to say. See, I was on a mission. And I'm guessing you are, too.

I was super driven and focused. All I cared about was crushing it at work. Which for me meant doing as much work as possible. The more work I took on, the more productive I felt. I was one of those productivity hackers you've probably read about and was obsessed with optimizing and designing every part of my day. I used the two-minute rule for small tasks, had templates for things I often did, I pomodoro’d (yes - it’s a thing), and set a daily goal. And I had a to-do list and an app for everything. You name it, I did it. I felt productive. This is what a productive workday looks like, I told myself. I was living the dream. Or so I thought.

And then, one day, between sips of hours-old coffee and the morning’s hardening sandwich, it hit me. I was just finding ways to take on more and more work. I was so obsessed with being busy that I found myself cutting corners just to cross things off my list. I willingly developed systems, took on more admin-y tasks, and created coping strategies to increase my workload. Because this is what it means to be productive, right?! I was working hard but not smart. And total burnout was just one lonely all-nighter and an undrunk cup of coffee away. I had to change things before I worked myself to death or wound up like Fred from accounting with stress-induced type two diabetes and a stack of lackluster Post-Its for friends. That's when I discovered efficiency.

Redefining success: Productivity vs efficiency 

One of the best things I ever did in my professional career was to stop chasing productivity. It's elusive and costly, and like the lottery, your odds of actually winning at productivity are about 1 in…a lot. At least, that's how it feels sometimes. But you get the idea. Now, I know that productivity and efficiency are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they're actually two very different things. 

Productivity primarily focuses on output in terms of quantity. It's all about measuring how much work you can get done in a given time frame. The harder you work, the more productive you are. And while on the surface, this may sound like a good idea and a reason to pat yourself on the back (not so fast, mate),  this approach turns work into something that closely resembles an assembly line. Henry Ford would be proud. But here’s the catch: work wasn’t meant to be churned out like a car part. And that’s why so many of us just can’t focus at work.

Productivity requires you to work harder but not smarter and often leads to bad work habits like multitasking and overextending yourself. This is a recipe for burnout because regardless of what you've been told, our brains just aren't wired to do multiple things at a time. That's right; it's actually scientifically impossible to multitask. And there's quite a bit of research to back this up. It's what's known as a switch cost - the cognitive price we pay for switching between different tasks. Multi-tasking has been found to lower productivity, increase errors, and even eat away at your mental health. 

And there’s even research to prove just how detrimental chasing productivity can be. A report from Asana found that the average worker switches between 10 apps at least 25 times per day. That’s insane! It’s what’s known as the fog of work, and it happens because our work days are drowned out by multiple communications and unnecessary data and app notifications. This leaves us feeling overwhelmed and distracted. Other common symptoms include information overload, an inability to prioritize tasks, and general grumpiness. You’d be grumpy, too, if you spent all day switching from task to notification and back again. Just imagine what all that context-switching will do to your focus and ability to get into a flow state

And as if that isn't bad enough, there's more research from Asana, which indicates that 27% of workers say they miss messages and tasks because they switch between apps so frequently.

Enter Efficiency

Then there's productivity's chill cousin, efficiency. He's the one lying poolside cocktail in hand with a smug smile that seems to say: I got this. "I want what he's drinking," you think to yourself. Efficiency doesn't rush through life's tasks or take on more than he can handle. He's all about optimizing input and managing time to achieve higher-quality output. I like him already.

With efficiency, it's not about doing more work but doing the work you have as best as you can. Quality over quantity, he seems to chant in his velvety, zen-like voice. It’s about freeing yourself up to think more clearly and add strategic value that really moves the needle. Ah - yes to that. 

Some call him a perfectionist, but I like to think he's just figured out a thing or two about work. Because with efficiency, there's less stress, burnout, and hardly any multitasking. The only thing is that efficiency does require a mindset shift, but come on, ... it's totally worth it. After all, with efficiency, your focus is simple: how many resources do you need to complete a given task? In other words, how long does it take you to get the job done as best as you can? And how much value would another 15 or 30 minutes add?

Efficiency is a refreshing departure from the quantity-obsessed mentality of productivity; here, it's all about the quality of the work. This means that we don’t worship to-do lists overflowing with tasks just to be able to cross them off. Rather, it’s about ensuring that every project, no matter how small, is done to the best of our ability. When you’re efficient, everything assigned to you gets the TLC it deserves. Say goodbye to hustle culture and hello to efficiency. 

Working efficiently has a widespread impact

Now, don’t take it from me. You don’t need to drink the efficiency Kool-aid. Even though it goes down smoother than a Moitjo on a sweltering hot day. See, there's actually tons of good research to back up how good efficiency is. 

A recently released report from Slack found that AI-based tools save office workers over 3 hours each week. Additionally, the report found that 90% of workers surveyed reported feeling more efficient once they started using AI and other automation tools. But working efficiently isn't just about saving time for the sake of cramming in more tasks; it's about investing that saved time to elevate the quality of each task in your current workload. Now that's powerful stuff

All this is good news for me, but even better news for the company I work for. Psychologist David Meyer found that while multi-tasking and content-switching may seem efficient, they actually end up taking more time and result in more errors. Meyer's research found that shifting between tasks (a big efficiency no-no) can reduce efficiency by as much as 40%. Isn’t that mind-blowing?!

What's even more eye-opening is research from Qatalog and Cornell University's Ellis Idea Lab, which found that, on average, employees waste 36 minutes switching between apps and tools every day. The impact of this is telling: on average, employees need at least nine minutes and up to 25 to refocus after task switching; 43% feel more tired, and 45% report feeling less productive. Now, just imagine what all this does for the bottom line.

I can hear him now, cocktail in hand, as he says: Choose me. I'm the healthy choice. He's snarky. He's irritating. But chill Mr efficiency has a point. After all, being efficient not only makes you a better employee, but it can make or break your well-being. Efficiency is the antidote to burnout and helps keep stress, anxiety, procrastination, and even job dissatisfaction at bay. Then there's decision fatigue and the Zeigarnik Effect, two psychological phenomena that you really don’t want, and efficiency actually helps safeguard against.

With decision fatigue, it's you against all the decisions. And try as you might, this, my friend, is a losing battle. The sheer volume of decisions depletes your mental resources, diminishing the quality of your decision-making process. Efficiency can help minimize your decisions and reduce decision fatigue. And that’s a good thing because trying to make sound decisions under the influence of decision fatigue is bad news. Then there's the Zeigarnik Effect, a psychological tendency to remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks more than completed ones. Efficient work practices are one way to avoid this effect.

But for me, it's personal and goes beyond all this psychological stuff. I feel it in my day to day. It's like the fog of work has dissipated and stopped impacting my personal life. I'm vibrant and rejuvenated sans the collagen mask, massage, or triple espresso. Now, instead of wasting hours on mundane admin tasks or getting information, I'm able to focus on the quality of my work and even have time to meet a friend for coffee. And like a recovered nail-biter, I no longer feel the urge to context switch. I'm just on it.

Working Efficiently requires a bold mindset shift

Now that I've told you about the wonders of efficiency, the golden question remains: just how does one become more efficient? Is it like becoming a Zen master, where you have to double down on meditation and mindfulness in the hope that, at some point, you'll reach enlightenment? Or maybe it's simpler, like a super green shake or overpriced multivitamin or pill you can sneak into your diet, like from the movie Limitless

Efficiency doesn't have to be elusive or out of reach. And even the most overwhelmed can become an efficiency guru. I know that if I can master efficiency, so can you. But you’re going to change how you work. Cue the mindset shift.

In The Mountain is You, Brianna Wiest makes the point that our brains are designed to maintain a state of hormonal balance known as homeostasis. When we're forced outside our comfort zone into something new or fear a loss of control, we experience emotional changes that alter our body chemistry. To avoid this, our brain sends signals to resist change so we can maintain homeostasis. This resistance to change is a natural human instinct, and it's what makes the transition to an efficiency-oriented mindset all the more challenging. It’s in-line with the familiarity bias. This is a cognitive bias where people prefer things they're familiar with. It's basically a fancy way of explaining why we stick with what we know because it's familiar. I'll say it again for the kids at the back: change is scary.

If all this psychology talk doesn't make you see how legit resisting change is, maybe this will. The fear of change is actually rooted in history. Take the seat belt as an example. Even though seat belts were installed in cars in the US in the 1960s, they only became required by law in the 1980s. Many people resisted this change, calling it an assault on their personal freedom and an example of the government overreaching.

Change makes us uncomfortable. But it's important to realize that not all change is bad. If I hadn't embraced a growth mindset, I'd still be obsessing about productivity. 

How do you actually become efficient at work?

There’s a lot you can do to become more efficient. And while I’ve included some of my go-to tips, I wanted to reassure you that this isn’t all on you. There are things you can’t control, like the weather, taxes, and, importantly, company culture. Nataly Kogan, an emotional fitness expert, makes the point that employee well-being is actually an organizational issue impacted by things like how flexible your manager is as well as the culture of your team. My advice is to focus on what you can control and ignore the rest.

  1. Ask the right questions

In my experience, a great place to start on the journey to efficiency is by asking yourself the right questions. Things like: Should I be doing this task? Can I delegate? Is there a better way to do this? Will another 15 minutes on this task add significant value? This simple process forces you to be mindful about what you're doing and how you're spending your time. These questions are a reminder that time is your most precious resource and that you can't afford to waste it. 


Instead of focusing on how many tasks you can work on in an hour, reframe the questions: How best can I add value in an hour? 

  1. Indulge in some digital decluttering

Spend some time looking at your schedule. Are there unnecessary, time-sucky meetings or calls? Could you perhaps ask for those meetings to be a weekly update email? I got rid of all my unnecessary meetings. With every 'no' to a meeting invite, I felt more empowered. It was cathartic, kind of like squeezing blackheads. Suddenly, there was space in my calendar. I had distraction-free time to think and plan. 


Ensure that every meeting has a well-defined agenda and a clear outcome.

  1. Get realistic about your workload 

I changed how I think about my work so that every task completed felt like an achievement, not some random checkmark on a neverending to-do list. It’s all about taking a strategic approach to your workload by prioritizing tasks based on urgency and importance. Recognize your capacity and set realistic expectations for what you can achieve within a given timeframe. This proactive mindset not only prevents overwhelm but also ensures that you can deliver high-quality results without compromising your well-being. Oh, and maybe read about Parkinson’s Law


Recognize that you don't have to do everything on your own—delegate tasks when possible.

  1. Embrace the power of single-tasking

In a world addicted to distraction, this may sound like a crazy tip, but it works. Reclaim your efficiency by embracing single-tasking. Focus on one task at a time, giving it your full attention. This approach enhances concentration, reduces errors, and promotes a deeper understanding of the task at hand. By immersing yourself fully in each activity, you'll find that you accomplish more with higher quality, making your work both efficient and impactful.


Set aside specific blocks of time to focus solely on one task, turning off notifications and minimizing interruptions

  1. Use automation tools to make work simpler

With the right tools, and when used properly, technology can empower efficiency. Look at me. Thanks to the right combination of tools and my efficiency mindset, I was able to transform my daily work routine completely. I use technology to take mundane, time-sucky tasks off my plate like summarizing Slack messages and text-heavy content, monitoring my apps, tracking and getting alerts on important activity, setting reminders and getting action items, and automating social media posts. These tools have been a real lifesaver, and on more than one occasion, they've saved me from dropping the ball at work. 


Avoid overwhelming yourself with an excess of apps. Instead, focus on those that truly enhance your efficiency and well-being.

Final thoughts

Embracing efficiency saved me from burnout and 12-plus hour-long work days filled with nothing but coffee and misery. It changed not only my work habits but my well-being. I'm happier and more effective at work than I've been in years. No longer confined by the relentless pursuit of productivity, I discovered how liberating doing great work can be. Efficiency isn't some buzzword; it's a philosophy transforming how we approach work and life.  

I now work smarter and not harder. I don't measure my success by how much I take on. And I wish you wouldn't either. Somewhere along the way, we got the messed up idea that our self-worth at work was defined by how overworked we are. So sad. Well, enough with that! I'm tired of it. And I know we all deserve better. It's time to rethink how we work. Here's to a healthier, simpler, and smarter approach to work. I'll drink to that.

Oren Langberg
Head of Marketing
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