We all want to be a little more productive at work, right? But what does that mean exactly? And how is that any different from being more efficient at work? Wow, so many great questions! Let’s answer ‘em, shall we?
While productivity and efficiency are sometimes used interchangeably, they actually have two separate meanings. The two are deeply intertwined for sure, but there’s an important distinction between them that has quite an impact on how work gets done.
Let’s get right into it.
What is productivity?
The dictionary definition of productivity is this: the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input. In other words, if you produce 1,000 units one week and 1,100 units the next, the second week was more productive.
Your level of productivity is therefore how successful you are in producing a result. What you produce is going to determine what kind of work you’re in, of course, so sometimes measuring your productivity can be a challenge.
For example, if you’re a bricklayer, you can see your work literally taking shape before your eyes. If you’re a financial analyst, on the other hand, your job might entail analyzing complex spreadsheets and formulas, and how you determine success is therefore a lot more intangible and not immediately clear.
In any case, you and presumably your manager will have a shared idea of what productivity looks like for your role, and achieving (or exceeding) that result or expectation is what determines just how productive you are. Your productivity level will inevitably fluctuate day to day, but since you have direct influence over how productive you can be in the long term, your role can change or you might even be promoted depending on your success.
What is efficiency?
Efficiency, on the other hand, is about working smarter, not harder. If you’re able to work in a well-organized and competent way, you might be able to complete a task faster than you normally would. For instance, if you can write a 600 word blog post in 30 minutes instead of 40 minutes, you’ve boosted your efficiency.
But if that blog post is not a productive task for you—even if it might feel like it was after you’ve completed it—or the quality suffers, then the time saved doesn’t really matter in the long run.
Back to my bricklayer example. If you’re able to lay bricks more efficiently while (this is important) maintaining quality, then your level of efficiency has a positive impact on your productivity. However, if you’re a financial analyst, finding a balance between efficiency and productivity is perhaps more complicated. You’ll probably need to find out which tasks are productive, which aren’t, and figure out how you can shift focus by doing the right things more efficiently.
In short, the difference is partially about quantity vs quality. Doing a task faster might not equate to doing something better.
Why is this important?
The difference matters because it impacts how you organize and complete your work day to day. The goal is to achieve or exceed a certain level of productivity, and you’ll have to choose wisely which tasks to make more efficient in order to accomplish this.
Of course, this isn’t always easy to do, especially if your responsibilities are constantly shifting. But it’s an important skill to master because it forms the foundation of effective time management going forward, for the rest of your career. You should always be asking yourself, “What tasks can I make more efficient to be more productive under these circumstances?” It’ll also help you decide what’s going to be your priority during a given day or week or month.
Balancing efficiency, productivity, and your organization’s goals takes a lot of practice, but it’s something that should always be top of mind no matter the setting.
When focusing on productivity goes wrong
Increasing productivity is undeniably the goal of your organization, but sometimes concentrating too much on it can lead to huge problems.
Here’s an example: You’re leading a tech team and, to make your monthly production goals, you need each team member to work 10 additional hours per week. The team also wants to get the product out on time, so they’re happy to put in the extra work. As the month goes on, your team’s pushing extra hard, productivity is up, and it’s looking like the monthly goal is going to be exceeded. You and your bosses are happy, and together you decide that this model was a success and you can rely on it next month if you need another extra push.
Except you can’t rely on it next month. What’s the problem? Well, your people are recovering from the increased stress from overwork and, if pushed harder next month, are eventually going to start burning out. At a certain point, concentrating too much on productivity actually achieves the opposite effect: it could lead to increased stress, burnout, and higher turnover.
When focusing on efficiency goes wrong
Likewise, focusing too heavily on improving efficiency can have a similar effect. We’ve all known the new manager who’s excited about innovating processes and isn't afraid to break some rules. They come in ready to cut what they see as inefficiencies. But some of those rules and workflows are there for a reason, and pretty soon what was initially intended to increase efficiency has only created another hoop to jump through.
Creating a more efficient workplace is an admirable goal, but getting fixated on disrupting the way things are done can rub people the wrong way and create additional obstacles. The effect is twofold: it saps your people’s energy and it makes them less productive.
Leaders should nurture both
The ways in which productivity is measured will inevitably vary by role, company, field, and industry. Sometimes two people doing the same job on the same team will have wildly different levels of productivity. Although there are about forty billion factors that can impact someone’s productivity, in some cases it just comes down to inefficient planning and time management. As a leader, your job is to care about productivity, but you’ll also need to strike a balance that makes sense for your people.