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Are You Too Busy to Be Productive?

To achieve your individual and business goals in 2018, focus on minimizing the input necessary to achieve maximum output.

Elise Chowdhry
Are You Too Busy to Be Productive?

Productivity: “The effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.”

“I’m really busy!” is a refrain I hear often. You and nearly half of Americans may feel perpetually swamped, but how productive are you really?

If you and/or your organization are among those who failed to hit all your 2017 annual goals and ended last year with an unfinished to-do list, you are not alone. Research suggests that more than 90 percent of people who set New Year’s goals don’t achieve them.

With the launch of 2018 last month, lofty business and individual goals were being established across the middle market. Goals set by investment firms may have related to fundraising, deal flow and transactions closed. Company goals may have focused on sales growth, customer retention, and increased productivity or lower costs. Leaders pushed down goals to individuals across the organization. The question is: how can businesses and individuals avoid repeating the unsuccessful results of last year?

The problem of not achieving goals often centers on this: being busy often does not equal being productive.

Think of time and effort as “units of input” and progress toward goals as “rate of output.” Here’s a goal to bump to the top of your 2018 list: focus on minimizing the input necessary to achieve maximum output.

Productivity Bandits

Individuals and businesses alike are susceptible to these drains on productivity:

Lack of Clearly Articulated Goals
Recall the paraphrased refrain: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there,” drawn from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Below is the exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat from the 1865 book—accompanied by some modern goal-related translations.

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” (aka, “How should I be spending my time?”)

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. (aka, “What are your goals?”)

“I don’t much care where—” said Alice. (aka, “I don’t really know” or “I haven’t made any”)

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat. (aka, “There are many ways you can spend your time”)

“—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation. (aka, “I just want to be successful”)

“Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.” (aka, “Without goals, maybe you will be successful, maybe you won’t; but you will most certainly be busy!”)

Too Many Goals
How many times have you tried to accomplish many objectives at once, spread yourself too thin, and been left feeling none were fully successful? Too many goals are akin to multitasking—going down many roads in the name of success. Multitasking has been found to be detrimental to IQ and brain efficiency and can wreak havoc on individual and team productivity.

Goal Distraction
Even if you’ve set specific goals and they remain a strategic priority, the list of things that can get in the way is long. Distractions can include meetings upon meetings, the endless stream of emails, social media, office politics, a focus on too many and/or insignificant details (“can’t see the forest for the trees”), or something more interesting or fun. Again, you are not alone. Goal distraction has reached epidemic proportions, as shown by a recent study that found that U.S. office workers spent only 39 percent of their workday on primary job duties in 2016.

Goal distraction has reached epidemic proportions, as shown by a recent study that found that U.S. office workers spent only 39 percent of their workday on primary job duties in 2016.

For businesses, additional productivity thieves often include:

Lack of Trust
In his leadership fable “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” author Patrick Lencioni introduced an absence of trust as the foundational dysfunction that can lead to the other four. Team members who do not trust each other and are skeptical of one another’s talents and/or intentions tend to kill productivity in the following ways:

  • They do not collaborate
  • They do not admit mistakes or weaknesses
  • They do not ask for or provide feedback
  • They avoid spending time with colleagues
  • They create silos or cliques

Lack of Goal Accountability
Even when organizations have developed specific goals, they often fail to identify who will be responsible for tactical results, and who will be held accountable. Without accountability, productivity suffers as individuals are left to focus on their own agendas. A goal is just a goal. A team goal with specific team members held accountable is an achievable goal.

It’s Not Too Late

It’s only the first quarter of 2018—there is still time to set up yourself and your organization for goal attainment in 2018. Here are some time-tested, proven ways to dramatically increase the probability of recapturing some of your time and reaching your goals.

For both businesses and individuals within them:

Assess. What has gotten in the way of productivity and goal success? Document your lessons learned.

Set up goals for success. Develop goals with tactics, timelines and meaning. Resource appropriately.

Divide and conquer. Break down the tactics and identify what needs to be accomplished in each quarter/month/week and plan time accordingly.

Resist temptation. The temptations to become busy, not productive, are indeed many, but try to use your “lessons learned” to develop more effective strategies and behaviors. Try not to pile on the goals. Focus on quality, not quantity.

Revisit and recalibrate. To quote Confucius, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”

For businesses:

Assess your organization. Is it suffering from a lack of trust or any of the other four team dysfunctions mentioned above? Should meeting frequency and length be rationalized? Are there other processes that should be changed in order to foster increased productivity? Assess and then act on your conclusions.

Understand the power of goal setting. Research indicates that highly engaged employees are more productive. Engaged employees want to know that their input is valued, understand how their work fits in with organizational goals, and feel that their work matters. To boost productivity through goal setting:

  • Get input from team members to create goals with employee buy-in
  • Create team goals with individual accountability within a culture of accountability
  • Think about goals beyond revenue or profit targets—i.e., employee engagement, employee retention, etc.

Stretch, don’t strain. A 2011 meta-study into the effect of group goals on performance found that goals that are specific, difficult and group-centric have been shown to improve performance. “Difficult” can be subjective, but it is important to distinguish between a so-called “stretch” goal and a “Hail Mary” goal. A stretch goal requires vision, strategy, tactics and accountability throughout the organization and the resources necessary to execute on it. In contrast, a Hail Mary goal has unreasonable time expectations and limited financial and/or human capital resources.

Make this the year you are less busy and more productive. Work smarter, not harder, and reap the benefits of achieving your goals.


Elise Chowdhry is the managing principal of Optimum Advisors LLC, an organizational consulting firm focused exclusively on helping middle-market firms and companies hire and optimize human capital, align organizations, solve business challenges and drive growth. Learn more at optimumadvisors.com.