How not to measure productivity

June 13, 2021

Here’s how not to measure productivity.

This week’s Economist—my favorite magazine—writes that remote workers work longer, not more efficiently. That’s a broad statement and it isn’t my experience. I find it very efficient to work from home. Then again, I don’t work at a company.

The article describes a study at an Asian technology firm, which aimed to discover how productive employees were when working remotely, as opposed to working at the company office. In the study,

The firm uses software installed on employees’ computers that tracked which applications or websites were active, and whether the employee was using the keyboard or a mouse.

Sounds creepy, but okay. What was the result of the study?

Total hours worked were 30% higher than before the pandemic, including an 18% increase in working outside normal hours. But this extra effort did not translate into any rise in output […] the correct way to measure productivity is output per working hour. With all that extra time on the job, this fell by 20%.

Should we really measure productivity as “output per working hour”? This is indeed similar to the definitions of productivity I learned when studying economics in college. And such a definition might be useful at the level of entire economies or even at the level of a large firm. But for your personal productivity, you don’t want to measure productivity this way.

In fact, some of the first questions we ask in Big-Picture Productivity is: how are you currently measuring your productivity? And how should you measure it?

I like to measure my productivity by how much progress I’m making on my long-term goals. Who cares how many tasks I check off today? As long as I’m happy pursuing my dreams.

What’s your personal definition of productivity?

Another fun tidbit from the Economist article:

Despite working longer hours, the employees [in this study] had less focus time than before the pandemic. Instead, all their extra time was taken up by meetings. Long-time readers may recall Bartleby’s law: 80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted. This study certainly offers evidence for the proposition.

Does that ring uncomfortably true? Maybe it’s time to learn how to say no (in this case, to meetings). Oh wait, isn’t that one of the topics we cover in Big-Picture Productivity? Why yes, it is! ;-)

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