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Thoughts on Productivity, Outcomes and Output

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I had some interesting discussions about efficiency and productivity over the weekend, and wanted to share some of the ideas with everyone.

The main idea was “What exactly is the point of being more productive?”

I believe it comes down to this – being more productive, gives you more time to do the things that you want to do. Not the mundane, everyday things that you have to do (like taxes or laundry), but the things you want to do, be it traveling the world, spending time with your family or even just watching a marathon session of Mad Men.

If you take this as the main reason why you should work on your productivity and ability to be efficient, you then realize that being efficient doesn’t mean that you should be working all the time. In our culture we tend to idolize people who work 12, 14, 16-hour days as some sort of career-driven superheroes. The reality is, if you are being productive, you shouldn’t need to work those long hours. You should be able to get in, do your 4-6 hours, get everything done and then get out and spend your time doing the things you actually enjoy.

Some people like to argue “well, if you can be productive for 4-6 hours, you should just be productive for 14-16 hours”. That’s just plain silly. To be Efficient Asian-levels of productive for 4-6 hours you need to get a good night’s rest, to take proper downtime and to take care of your health and nutrition. When you’re being productive, your burning away resources like concentration, self-discipline, focus and attention. You need downtime to renew those – check out The Power of Full Engagement (review) for more.

Let’s not go to the other extreme either. You realistically cannot run a proper business on 4 hours a week. Most lifestyle entrepreneurs that I’ve personally met and spoken to see it as cyclical: some weeks you get the time off, other weeks you’re working those 40-60 hour weeks to get things done.

The middle path would be a normal 20-40 hours a week, getting your work done and then getting on with other things. Obviously this applies mostly to business owners, entrepreneurs and freelancers – if you have a boss you still have to show up for your requisite 8 hours a day.

So how does this apply at different levels?

Think about your average day. If you decide to structure your day based on time, you’re always going to work the same amount of time every day. 8 hours, 9-5, day-in-day-out. Not that scheduling is bad, it’s just better to keep things flexible.

If you structure your day around outcomes, and make a realistic assessment of those outcomes, your day becomes much more productive. Say you have 3 big things to get done today. 1 of them ends up taking 2 hours, the other 30 minutes, the other 3 hours. 5.5 hours later (just after lunch), you’re done and there’s no need to fill in the other 2.5 hours just because everybody else does. One of my mentors mine calls this Outcome over Output.

This concept also scales to other levels. On a weekly basis, if you get all your important tasks done Monday-Thursday, who’s to say you can’t take Friday off as part of your weekend? On the flip-side, if you don’t get your most important tasks done by Friday, you should expect to work through the weekend.

This also applies on a monthly basis, yearly basis, and beyond. If you think about it, there’s nothing to say you can’t work hard and achieve all your important outcomes early on in your life, then simply enjoy the rest of it. Most entrepreneurs who have successfully sold their companies have done exactly that – outcome over output.

As you go about today, this week and this month, have a think about whether you’re just “putting in the hours for hours sake”, or if you’re really being productive. And realize, that you don’t need to be working 24 hours, 7 days a week to be truly efficient.

– Aaron

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4 Comments

Posted by Jonathan  | August 11, 2012 at 5:56PM | Reply

What happens when you don’t feel like you’re ever “done”? For me, managing by outcome and then doing something I want to do seems like a luxury. There always seems to be something else to do.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 13, 2012 at 1:41AM

That’s a good point. The way I address it is by setting boundaries and realizing you do need downtime. Once you have reached you’re output(s), you’re done. That’s where you hit your boundary and you should adhere to it. If you’re thinking “well I could do more” then you’re not enforcing your boundaries.

However, if you get this very frequently it also might be a sign that you don’t plan correctly which you need to address.

Posted by Rafal  | August 15, 2012 at 11:13PM | Reply

Interesting thoughts. I agree that spending 14-16 hours working isn’t a good long term strategy.

Isn’t the goal of productivity to help you define the important stuff and make sure this is where you put the hours in?

Although efficiency has some importance there are limits to it and most likely machines will do better than we in cranking out more things, at faster rate.

So the goal is you start with defining your goals and then move to outcomes which make easier to kick start the doing process.

Posted by Thanh Pham  | August 16, 2012 at 12:00PM

Yeah totally true and that is Aaron is saying (but phrased differently). A lot of people get caught up in the number of hours someone puts in instead of focusing on achieving outcomes.

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