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When I think back on my childhood in Turkey, I remember summers on the family farm, where my cousins and I would play outside for hours, inventing our own games and make-believe worlds. Our parents would only appear when it was time for dinner — poking their heads outside and calling us in from the olive groves.
Nowadays, parents like myself feel pressure to ensure our kids are engaged in structured, enriching activities year-round. Summer isn’t just a time to kick back and do nothing. Instead, it’s an opportunity to get a leg up on the next school year. As author Anne Helen Petersen has observed, this obsession with optimizing children’s time has a pronounced impact. Writing about her college-aged students in a 2019 BuzzFeed article, she explains that they were diligent — skipping few classes and religiously attending office hours, but were also “paralyzed at the thought of graduating” and stymied by assignments that required creativity. They were, as Petersen puts it, simply scared.
Our society’s emphasis on productivity has all sorts of unintended consequences, and they’re certainly not limited to young people. The drive for near-perfect efficiency is infused into both leadership and the work culture broadly, and in many ways, it’s backfiring. As CEO of my company Jotform, I’ve witnessed occasions when over-prioritizing productivity had decidedly counterproductive results for both employees and the business. Let’s take a look at some of those unintended consequences.
Related: Are You Too Efficient to Innovate?
What are the telltale signs of an organization that values productivity and efficiency above all else? In my experience, certain behaviors — such as being always on, skipping lunch breaks and otherwise burning the candle at both ends — are often encouraged and rewarded. And yes, employees may get more done in terms of boxes ticked on a to-do list or hours billed to clients, but this kind of environment also breeds corrosively competitive behavior among colleagues. Those willing to do more and do it faster will rise, and those who aren’t will fall.
That may sound just like good old-fashioned capitalism, but there’s a hitch: Writing for Harvard Business Review, Roger L. Martin explains that as systems become more efficient, certain players will game them. In time, goals will emphasize less the long-term good and instead embrace a paradigm of “that which delivers the greatest immediate value to the dominant player.” In short, when every employee is out for themselves, the long-term health of an organization suffers.
Before I started my own company, I observed that kind of workplace culture firsthand. There was less collaboration, more burnout, and worse yet — those who survived and went on to management perpetuated the same culture. When employees are less collaborative, innovation wanes, and when they are always worried about getting more done, there’s no room for the kind of unstructured time that’s so vital for creativity.
Nancy C. Andreasen, chair of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, studied a small group of high-performing creatives — successful professionals in arts, sciences and mathematics. In a 2020 Washington Post article, she says that for many of them, “letting their mind run freely is a big resource for their creativity.”
It’s hard to escape such a dominant culture of promoting productivity, but as I discovered in my own company, there’s a far more positive approach to take.
Focus on meaningful work
In the never-ending quest for maximum productivity, we can lose sight of the “why” of it all. Why did I choose this job, launch this company or build this brand, and what kind of work reconnects me with that greater purpose?
Each time I remind myself of my and my company’s mission (to make our users’ lives easier by automating everyday tasks), it’s easier to focus on truly meaningful work. I worry less about how much I’m doing and more about doing things that make an impact. In order to dedicate more time to these efforts — and as I outline in a recent book, Automate Your Busywork: Do Less, Achieve More, and Save Your Brain for the Big Stuff (Wiley) — I take advantage of automated tools and systems. That way, I make headway on valuable work without risking burnout.
So, get in the habit of reminding yourself of the “why.” Consider what kind of work you want to do more of and which things will actually move the needle for your career or company.
Create jobs with true value
Leaders can also take an active role in making employee roles more meaningful. Operational efficiency can’t be ignored altogether, but it’s critical to remember that staff members are more than just tools to be optimized.
In the same above-mentioned Harvard Business Review article, Martin explains how we can make jobs valuable in the long term. He describes companies investing in employee engagement and education and why this leads to better customer service, lower turnover and increased sales and profits. One way to do this is by building in slack periods so team members have time to serve customers in unanticipated yet valuable ways. It may not be the most immediately efficient approach but it is demonstrably more beneficial over the long term.
The broad takeaway is that when we focus less on individual and organizational efficiency and more on the essence of our work as entrepreneurs (serving customers in one form or another), the payoff is seen in ways more nuanced and valuable than simply boosted productivity. Efficiency may be drilled into us from an early age, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make a conscious effort to accomplish meaningful work rather than just more.