Being Present vs. Productive – the Modern Mindset

It’s the same story every time; in an effort to prove how hard we work, we use very similar rhetoric; “Another 16 hour day”, “100 hours this week and counting”, “28 hours straight”. I used to be the same way. We validate our need for recognition and affirmation in a simple way – the number of hours we have worked. But is there any real value in that, and could it perhaps be the foundation for a very negative mindset?

Coming from the world of finance (as a former desk analyst on an equity sales & trading desk) I am used to the acid test of accomplishment – hours worked. After work, the ritual goes, you enjoy a beer and compare the number of hours hammered out over your last week. The usual banter would include something along the lines of “oh, I got crushed this week, was hammering out 16 hour days, everyday”, followed by a chorus of admiration, and the usual one-up’s from someone else who has worked longer than you.

However, I would argue this creates a dangerous mindset. It focuses on the process much more than the result. Even worse, it doesn’t really focus on the process at all – it focuses purely on the time spent in the process. So someone worked 23.5 hours today, taking a 30 minute nap. All that may mean is that they are terribly unproductive, something that should not be condoned through a chorus of applause. Essentially all this person has proven was that they were present during the day, not productive.

Even worse, this mindset gets rewarded. It’s due as much to peer reinforcement as it is to logistics. It is very hard to quantify to your colleagues how productive you were, after all, we aren’t machines. To say “I was punching out 300 mb of data every hour”, would most likely not be met with pats on the back – in fact it would most likely result in being socially ostracized or submitted to the nearest insane asylum.  However, saying “I worked 18 hours today” is immediately understandable. Everyone can put that in reference, and understands.

Additionally, productivity is much harder to observe. Someone can walk in at 6:00 am and our at 8:00 pm and see you there, sitting at your desk, working away. You are present. However, what they cannot tell on their way in and out, is whether you are being productive.

Therefore employees tend to gravitate towards being present, as it is easily comparable and observable. Consider: anyone who walks out at 5:00 pm, patting themselves on the back for being so productive during the day, would most likely be considered lazy and even arrogant by co-workers, especially if those coworkers were staying late.

So how do you fix the issue between being productive and being present? I have a couple ideas (which, as you are reading my blog, I will assume you are interested in)

  1. Free the work day – where possible, give breathing room around when to come in, when to leave, and when to take breaks. By breaking up the day, you not only get the obvious benefits of liberating employees, but you also make it harder for employees to track each others timesheets. When I see someone leave at 5:00 pm, I can’t be sure if they were in for 10 or 15 hours, it’s impossible to know.
  2. Focus on productivity – instead of setting hours to work, set projects to be done. Employees need to know that by acting quickly, efficiently, and effectively they will get to leave early – they dont need to be in the office.
  3. Reward efficiency – if people have nothing to work on, encourage them to leave. Don’t let people stay around to do busy work, just so they can be the ‘last to leave’. It makes people unhappy (they get no free time) and drives unnecessary competition. Openly support those who embrace a productive mindset vs. a present mindset.

At the end of the day, it’s good for business too. Employees lead more balanced lifestyles, have more time to devote to personal interests, and are more productive at work. After all, business is about getting the work done. In the words of Jim Rohn, we are paid for adding value to a customer, not for devoting our time. If work was just about the time, we could sit at home and collect a pay check. Work is about adding value to the marketplace. It’s about being productive!

The key idea is to shift the paradigm from one that states “I worked this many hours today”, to one that states “I got this much done today”. One focuses on being present. The other focuses on being productive. You decide which is better.


2 thoughts on “Being Present vs. Productive – the Modern Mindset

  1. It’s also because the idea of being “present” is misconstrued. Those that are putting in hours for the sole sake of putting in hours are not present at their desk, they are thinking about going home, being productive in the future mindset as opposed to the task at hand. “This many hours until I go home (or I’m the last one here)” are more common than, this much more productivity until I go home – just contributing to your idea and solution. If the work gets done, and gets done well, it shouldn’t matter whether they are on a beach or in a cubicle. The assumed 9-5 work day has its practical purposes (i.e. for sales calls – knowing that people are going to be in the office during those hours helps the productivity aspects), but if it doesn’t currently serve that purpose or there are alternatives, the assumption is unwarranted. Completely agree with this, and like the past posts too, keep ’em coming.

  2. Its going to be interesting as our generation fights back against the rigid organization that has characterized the last 100 years – I am glad I’m not alone in thinking this way! The real question is, how do you warm up management / senior staff to a new mindset?

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