I follow the excellent John Cutler on Twitter. He regularly tweets thoughtful remarks on product development and has a talent for creating hard-working diagrams. The picture below shows the danger of focusing on near-term productivity.

John’s tweet struck a chord because less than 24 hours earlier I had given an internal presentation on a related topic at our regular All Employee Meeting. Although I wasn’t talking about Lean Product Development (it was a broad audience) I had stumbled onto some interesting and related research into psychology and mental health that I wanted to share.

The rest of this article is mostly a transcript of what I presented to the company.

One topic that has come up in many 1:1 meetings I have with people around the company, and that we’ve spoken about at past employee meetings, is that people feel busier than we used to.

We feel busier but are we more productive?

I wanted to write about that tension and give some pause for thought and reflection from all of us. I’d like us to have more confidence that we can improve.

What do I mean when I say productive? I suggest one simple model to measure productivity could be: how we turn our time and effort into some valuable outcome.

Our goal as an organisation is to provide value to our users and partners. We do this in a number of ways but an obvious one is our continued work on improving the on-site consumer journeys. Those journeys provide a way for consumers to simplify the problem of choosing a new utility provider. Our goal is to help people make better choices, and to do so with less effort. Productivity, in this case, is how much time and effort we expend in achieving these goals.

When we think of productivity though we typically think of being busy; to get more done we, as individuals, work faster and longer.

When we say we feel busy I think this is what we mean.

When we’re busy we feel like we’re working on lots of things at the same time, multi-tasking away. Perhaps working at home has made this even more complicated: people must now balance home demands and working in a way we didn’t before.

The faster we work does increase our productivity (our model would predict that) but only to a point.

In 1965 Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore coined Moore’s Law. The law predicted that computers would double in speed every two years, and proved correct for decades.

It was a fantastic experience for end-users. You could buy a new machine every 2 years that would make everything you were already doing faster. The only change you needed to make: buy and plug a new processor into your computer.

But it’s not really true any more. Constraints in the manufacturing process inhibited progress and in the early 2000’s manufacturers needed a way to overcome this to keep innovating. They achieved this by creating chips that had more than one processor. Your computer could now perform tasks at the same time (and not just switching between tasks really fast).

One thing we believe makes us faster is multitasking: doing more things at the same time. Just like the computer processor. Intuitively, it feels like we can accomplish the same. But it’s not true.

Psychologists have performed research and experiments to show that participants perform worse in tasks when multitasking. This is even true for people that claim to be good at multitasking.

Task-switching leads to time lost as the brain determines which task to perform

Interestingly the above quote, although written from the experience of the studies of multi-tasking in people, is actually the same constraint for a computer and is referenced in another law we’ll come back to called Amdahl’s Law.

Even worse than just being suboptimal, research by David Meyer has shown that task switching also creates stress

Research has also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.

Of course, we’ve already been told this. To quote Ron Swanson “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing”.

So if through multitasking we do worse, and there’s a limit to how fast we can turn the wheels, what if we focus better.

When we think of focus we think of intense concentration; getting in the zone and working hard. To be more productive we should pick one thing and focus intensely upon it.

Well interestingly there is also research to suggest that’s not optimal either.

Research into how Nobel prize winners and eminent scientists worked showed that what differentiated them wasn’t intense focus. Instead, they were more likely to adapt:

… creative people are better at adjusting their focus of attention as a function of task demands. When the task is ill defined and ambiguity is high, attention is defocused, resulting in slower processing on the task. In contrast, when the task is well defined and ambiguity is low, attention is focused, resulting in faster processing on the task. This flexibility can confer distinct advantages to creative people in the course of problem solving as changes in the structure of the problem necessitate corresponding adjustments in solution strategy

Many of us need to be creative throughout the day. We’re often working in problem domains where cause and effect aren’t obvious, or sometimes even predictable at all. It requires us to respond and think creatively more readily.

Given that, let’s think about the implications as we go back to thinking about productivity.

If one simple model for productivity is how effectively we turn time and effort into a valuable outcome; there is a limit to how fast we can go as individuals.

There’s only so much focus our brains can, and should, give. There’s a limit to how fast we can type and a limit on how much time we can spend doing this each day.

As an organisation, we can go faster through having more people. This is the same approach to scaling as the computer processor manufacturers. But, also like the computer example, this has a limit through increased coordination; each person adds more capacity but this incremental capacity diminishes over time.

For anyone that studied Computer Science you may have come across Amdahl’s Law that describes exactly this.

I’m proud of how we’ve been able to scale our company over the last decade; we’ve focused on productivity and automation to achieve more with a relatively small organisation.

So if there’s a limit to how much we can individually do, multitasking is counter-productive (as well as bad for long-term health problems), and adding more people doesn’t ultimately solve the problem. What should we do?

One way is to increase our impact.

I suggested a simple measure for a model of productivity is how we turn time and effort into a valuable customer outcome. The model would predict that we can increase our productivity by increasing the impact of the task we work on.

To be clear, sometimes it is just about finishing something quickly (or even just doing as much as you can in the time you have). But, as we learned with the research into Nobel prize winner workflows, when working on a task that demands more creativity, the most creative and successful were able to adapt their style to the task.

I think this is also really important for us to be aware of as we get more used to working remote-first, and the internal beliefs around being busy. We should be giving ourselves more time and space to explore ideas when we need to be creative.

At the start I mentioned that a prompt for this talk was from speaking to people in 1:1s and people saying they felt busier now everyone was working from home. I’d suggest that because people can now physically sit in one location for a whole day it’s much less likely we accidentally give ourselves time to think as we move between spaces, or as we commute. It’s probably also harder because when you do leave wherever you’re working you’re immediately surrounded by other home demands that diminish your mental energy.

I’d encourage everyone to think about how we spend our time and find ways to create space for thought as we reduce the opportunity for it accidentally.

Beyond just creating time, there’s also research to show that physical activity can beneficially influence brain function. Even better, this ought to improve through being at home

Participation, in a greater variety of activities (e.g. walking, cycling, housekeeping, doing odd jobs, gardening, sports) was associated with significantly better performance on all evaluated cognitive domains

Not only should we create more space for thinking to adapt our focus flexibly as our task changes, working at home gives us the opportunity to improve through the variety of physical activity we can be exposed to; we shouldn’t feel guilty about going out for a walk, or putting the washing on when our task requires creativity.

To finish I’d like to pose a couple of questions for us all to reflect on.

I encourage everyone listening and watching to take a few minutes later to think about what your answers mean to you.

  • When was the last time you spent time thinking to explore a problem, or focusing deeply, and not just multi-tasking across Slack, Email etc.?
  • When was the last time you physically moved around today as you worked?

We have to help each other spend our time well. We need to use our focus flexibly, and not only spin the wheels faster. We can be more productive and less busy.

It was a fun coincidence that I saw John’s tweet the day after I gave the above presentation. I believe they’re expressing similar things

  • Constraining work-in-progress (flexible, task-relevant focus) to ensure we finish more work, not just start more.
  • We need to invest time in ensuring we’re solving the right problems (giving ourselves time to think, moving around and letting our minds wander creatively with less focus).

Productivity is not just about faster, it’s also about smaller and impact.

CTO. Formerly of Forward, ThoughtWorks and more. pingles almost everywhere (GitHub, Twitter etc.)

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store