Productivity paradox: why more output isn’t always a good thing

The drive for productivity is long-standing. It feels good to get things done; to make progress in our projects.

To that end, we invest time in new productivity ‘hacks.’ We hold meetings to make sure we’re collaborating efficiently. We make countless to-do lists.

But there’s a pitfall to avoid when pushing for productivity. Paradoxically, more output doesn’t equal more productivity.

Here, we explain the productivity paradox, and why more output isn’t always a good thing.


In its coldest terms, productivity is a measure of efficiency. It’s the rate of your output (what you achieve) per unit of input (time, costs, resources, etc.). It’s a key determinant of cost efficiency in a business.

In short, productivity means getting more done per time/cost/resource.

This would suggest, then, that the more tasks we complete, the more productive we are being. So, naturally, teams focus on their output — on completing as many tasks as they can. To that end, it’s easy to get drawn into following tips, advice and ‘hacks’ that will offer a boost to your productivity.

And herein lies the productivity paradox.

The productivity paradox

The problem is that this outlook on productivity overlooks a key point. True productivity isn’t just about the quantity of output; it’s about the quality and value of the tasks that you complete.

In other words, sometimes, more output isn’t a good thing and doesn’t mean that you’ve been productive. In fact, it’s possible that in the pursuit of productivity, you’ve only added to your workload, rather than completed anything worthwhile. 

The productivity rabbit hole

The internet is full of tips, advice and hacks that claim to boost productivity. But following these shortcuts rarely helps. All too often, we end up spending our time organising our tasks into to-do lists, spreadsheets, graphs and so on. (Rather than actually completing them.)

In this sense, all we’ve done is create more work for ourselves.

Then, there’s busywork. These are tasks that are quick for us to complete — or that seem to hold value — and so make us feel like we’re being productive. (Think meetings and emails to improve collaborations or manual data admin, for example.)

But busywork tasks don’t contribute to the core goals of our work, and so don’t provide as much value. As a result, we’ve not been as productive as we may think.

It’s ironic, we’re so busy chasing productivity that we have little time left to spend on being productive. Busywork and organisation hacks lead to lots of completed tasks, but little-to-no progress. And, in some cases, more work than when you started.

Quality over quantity

So, what’s the solution? It lies in the quality of our output. In the drive for productivity, emphasis can mistakenly shift onto the quantity of output.

Value is a core ingredient to productivity. The tasks we complete need to have some value to our ultimate goals for our input to be well-spent. We need to make sure that the output we produce drives doesn’t have us running in place.

In the pursuit of productivity, we need to look for more quality, more efficiency, and more growth.

Automation can help

The problem is that the little tasks can still prove obstructive. They need doing, and you need to keep track of them. You need to collaborate with your team, organise your emails, and make sure that data gets recorded.

Deploying automation is a good way to recognise the higher-value tasks. Often, the tasks that it pays to be productive on are the ones that automation isn’t suited for. That is, the ones that involve detailed decisions and flexible problem-solving. Automation, meanwhile, is great at dealing with the distractions.

Plus, you’re not stuck trying to keep on top of the little niggly tasks, because automation handles them for you. So, there’s less need to spend time ‘productively’ organising your to-do lists. 

Avoid the productivity paradox

It’s painfully easy to fall into the productivity rabbit hole. To fall for the sense of productivity simply because we’ve completed lots of things on our to-do list.

A key ingredient to productivity is value. The more time we can spend on valuable tasks, the more productive we can be.

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