Productivity has been a popular topic for quite some time now. Ever since the industrial revolution introduced a focus on maximizing worker productivity we’ve been looking for more ways to get more output in less time.

In the last decade or two, we’ve seen a shift in interest from industrial productivity to interest in personal productivity. It’s quite common now to see articles that begin with “7 ways to improve your productivity” or “What the most productive people do before breakfast”. Websites like Lifehacker are focused on helping us find ways to be more productive with tips, tools, and advice.

Personally, I’m fascinated by the topic of productivity. I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years reading books like David Allen’s Getting Things Done and attending Ari Meisel’s Less Doing Live conference to learn more about the systems, tools, and habits that can help maximize my day.

When I began my research on how to be more productive I spent a lot of time in the weeds. For example, I spent hours setting up a to-do list application to fit David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) model and hours each week to keep it updated. After a while, it started feeling like I was trying to be productive to keep up with my productivity tools!

This is not a knock on the GTD system or any other organizational system out there. In fact, I think it’s a great tool. The real issue was that I wasn’t using these tools in a way that was connected with my overall goals.

I found it a lot of fun to test different apps, buy fancy notebooks, and spend time learning techniques to manage my to-do list. It was easy for me to get lost in the world of productivity for productivity’s sake. It felt like I was making progress but the more I delved into this world of productivity, the more I felt like I wasn’t getting any closer to my goals.

Eventually I came to the realization that the process around productivity shouldn’t be starting with the tools, tips, and tricks. I was looking at “being more productive” as the end goal rather than focusing on what I truly wanted to accomplish. When I zoomed my perspective out, I realized that I wanted to be more productive so I can make a bigger impact, add more value to people around me, and focus on the projects that truly matter.

Take a moment to think about teams in the Formula 1. Their ultimate objective for every race is to win the race. They pay meticulous attention to all the details around the vehicle, the race course, the conditions, the pitcrew efficiency, etc. They look to squeeze out every bit of productivity from both the driver and the vehicle for a very specific purpose.

Photo courtesty of Bert van DijkPitstop F1 ING Renault

Formula 1 teams are very deliberate in deciding which area to improve. If a team loses a race due to the inefficiency in the pit crew speed, they’ll fix that. If they noticed something was off in the handling, they’ll work on that. All with a lazer focus on helping them get closer to getting the checkered flag.

We’re generally pretty good at identifying areas we want to be more productive at. We know we want to be making more money, responding/sending more emails, connecting with more friends, reading more books, etc. We know all the areas that we want to do more and get more out of. But the crucial difference between us and teams in the Formula 1 is often times we forget (or don’t think enough about) how greater productivity in “x” is connected to our goals and dreams.

For example, if you’re interested in making more money – what is your purpose around that goal? For some it could the freedom to retire early and for others it be a feeling of recognition for the value that they bring to the company. Whatever it is, it’s important to think about the purpose in the area that you’re looking to get more out of.

It’s liberating to know what the purpose for greater productivity is because you can stop doing something if it’s not helping you get closer to the purpose. Maybe your time may be better spent working on something else? We have the incredible ability to persist and push but the great tragedy is sometimes we’re pushing on the wrong cart and we don’t even realize it.

So how do we go about shifting the way we think about productivity? Here’s a checklist of questions to ask yourself before you start exploring greater productivity in a specific area.

  1. Does being more productive in this area match my priorities in life?
  2. Will this bring more joy/happiness/satisfaction in my life?
  3. What does success look like?

Before jumping into improving productivity use the questions above to reflect, ruminate, journal, etc. to clarify the why behind the desire to be more productive. Personally, I find that it really helps to journal and let things sit before you jump in. Your process may be different and that’s okay.

The hard part about productivity is not the actual being productive but it’s thinking about why being more productive will positively impact your life. That’s the higher level of thinking we need to be doing more of. The Richard Bransons, the Barack Obamas, or Steve Jobs of the world didn’t become who they are because they were focused on the minutea. They became who they are and changed the world subsequently because they were focused on the bigger picture. I believe we can all do the same.