Productivity For The Knowledge Worker

For many, productivity is simply getting more done with the same or less of given resources (time, money, attention, etc).

The more work you can squeeze into the limited given time, the more productive you are. The more successful you are / will become. And this is true for manufacturing. The more efficient, the more productive.

It couldn’t be more wrong with knowledge work.

Yet people boast with long working hours. And we perceive them as the hustlers, the grinders. Those who regularly burn the midnight. But are those really more successful in their work than the person who leaves the office early on a Friday afternoon?

Industry promotes the more-is-better philosophy

Look at the business world: Growth is good. More, more, more is good. No wonder then that one working long hours is seen as productive (without any attest to measures of productivity). No wonder that getting more done in less time is seen as success.

How can it not be? The formula for productivity confirms it:

Productivity = total output / total input. The more output per given input, the more productive.

Take manufacturing: if your company produces 150 items per 1 hour but your competitor produces 200 items per hour, it’s easy to understand your organisation is less productive. And that’s true for the manufacturing business.

A business that increases its productivity, means more income per dollar spent. Productivity is a simple definition for manufacturing businesses. But does it apply the same way to knowledge workers?

Productivity measures output per input. It measures the efficiency. That’s why it’s great for manufacturers where increased output means increased income as the machines produced 25 items more per hour.

Knowledge work can’t be measured on efficiency alone

Measuring productivity works in manufacturing. It doesn’t with knowledge work.

When industry shifted from traditional industry brought through industrialisation to the information age with, business were quick to adopt the same principles to measure the productivity of their workers. Only recently this mindset began to shift.

Measuring the productivity of knowledge work compared to manufacturing is more difficult, simply because the measures for knowledge work output are ill defined. The input remains the same for both knowledge work and manufacturing. Whether you’re given one hour or $10,000. But the output is completely different. Hence, the measures must be as well.

Whilst manufacturing produces a measurable output in form of a number (i.e. number of nails), the output of knowledge work is more vague.

Parts of knowledge work cannot be considered productive. This is the work that Cal Newport calls “shallow work” in his book “Deep Work”.

Take emails for instance. If one boasts with long working hours but spends the majority of the time on emails, one cannot be considered productive. Even though work is being done.
Emails are a form of communication. Communication in general doesn’t produce any outputs but exchanges information between different parties, whether written or verbal. Communication enables productivity but doesn’t produce.

A McKinsey Global Institute research study found that workers spend 28% on reading and answering emails. That was in 2012. This percentage could be much higher now.
It’s scary to think that the average knowledge worker spends 30% of their time on unproductive activities. It’s scary for businesses who pay workers not for reading and answering emails but for producing results.

Stop boasting about your long hours – you’re just proving how unproductive you are

Long hours are simply not a measure for knowledge workers to be considered productive nor successful. Let’s look at two examples.

Wayne and John both have the same job title, in similar companies, with similar responsibilities. But one thing is different:

Wayne, working 10 hour days and spending 3 hours on emails (not uncommon. I fall trap for the same when I don’t have the self-control to open my inbox at scheduled times throughout the day.)
This scenario is quite common. Wayne works long hours and 30% spends on emails (as found in the McKinsey Global Institute study).

John, working 8 hour days and spending 1.5 hours on emails.
This worker works two hours less but spends 10% less on emails than John.

Wayne might seem to be more productive than John, working two hours longer every day.

Wayne’s actually much less productive than John. John spends only 19% of his time on email whilst Wayne spends 30%.

Your number one goal as knowledge worker must be to maximise time spent on deep work.

But there’s an upper limit. Deep work is demanding. On energy levels, on focus, on will power.

The human brain is only able to focus on deep work for so many hours per day. On average 4 hours. Cal Newport attests to averaging 15-20 hours per week.

So, you still have enough time in a day to get all the shallow work done. Just remember: despite looking productive, you aren’t. There’s a difference between being productive and being just busy.

What then should the measure of productivity for knowledge workers be?

So, you say, if the number of emails one reads and answers cannot be a measure of the knowledge worker’s productivity, what can? Results.

The industry slowly starts adapting this concept, acknowledging that it’s not the hours someone works but the results that someone produces that count.

Results count in professional services, at companies like PWC and Accenture. Those organisations restructure their whole work environment to aid the concept of results-driven productivity. PWC, one of the Big Four accounting firms, runs a activity-oriented work environment. It’s not important for the worker to be at their desk 9-5. What counts are the results. Wherever they are produced. Whether from home, from the office or from the beach.

Ok, let’s deliver results. But hang on: what results?

A productive knowledge worker is one who delivers results. Next question: What results? Let’s look at Project Management for help.

Ever wondered whether what you’re doing right now is actually the right thing to do in that very moment? I do so often.

But since I started adopting project management principles to my work, I no longer hesitate what task to tackle next. My framework allows me to finish one task and without much hesitation decide on the next, knowing that it’s the only one that makes sense to tackle next. Because the what I do aligns with my why.

Project Management has a simple goal: deliver an organisation’s strategy through projects. Whilst most consider projects to be successful when they’re completed on schedule and on budget, it’s much more important for a project to deliver the organisational strategy.

Here’s why. Imagine the following: you’re running a campaign (which is nothing else than a project) to gain market share in a certain group of customers. What’s more important to you:

  • Finishing your campaign on-time and within the allocated budget or
  • Whether the campaign actually succeeds in gaining (or exceeding) the desired market share.

It’s the same with your productivity in your small business and at work. Your productivity must be strategic. What you work on each month, each week, each day, each hour must align wiht your why. Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” emphasises this fact. How can you do what you do when you don’t know why you do what you do?

The knowledge worker must shift from simple productivity to what I call Strategic Productivity.

Strategic Productivity – how it’s different from the Productivity you know

When speaking about productivity, most people are only concerned with efficiency. Get more done in the same or less time.

Efficiency measures the ratio of work performed with a given amount of resource (i.e. time or money). What it doesn’t measure, is the alignment of your work with your why. With your vision.

Peter Drucker, Management Consultant, said it right: “Doing the right thing is more important than doing the wrong thing really well.” You must make sure that you’re doing the right thing first before you do anything. As Drucker continues: “There’s nothing so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.”

Strategic Productivity is different. If I had to describe Strategic Productivity mathematically it would look like this:

Output / Input x Alignment Factor.

The Alignment Factor describes the degree in percent of how much the output aligns with your vision.

Let’s get back to Wayne and John.

Wayne comes in to work in the morning and responds to emails for 60 minutes in the first hour of the day. Emails don’t really accomplish much for his vision but deliver some value in form of delegating and managing tasks. The Alignment Factor is 5% for Wayne working on emails.
Whilst Wayne’s Productivity score is 100% (60 minutes of emails in the first hour), his Strategic Productivity score is much worse: 5%

John drafts a new customer retention strategy. This takes 45 minutes in the first hour of the day. The strategy is well aligned to his vision of growing the company’s market share in international markets. The Alignment Factor is 80%.
John’s Productivity Score is 75%. He worked on shallow tasks for 15 minutes in the first hour. John’s Strategic Productivity score however is 60%, because his deep work was well aligned with his vision.

How to apply Strategic Productivity to your business and life

The examples above are only to show you how easy you can get trapped by becoming busy with emails or with other shallow work. Working long hours is not a measure of strategic productivity. The alignment of those hours with your vision is.

#1 Aligning your What with your Why

Your why, your vision, must determine your actions. Become crystal clear about your vision. This doesn’t have to be a written vision statement (although it supports clarity of your vision by laying out your thoughts).

If you can pinpoint the task you’re about to tackle to an area of your vision, you got it right. If you struggle to make a decision on what to do next, you’re not clear on your vision. As Simon Sinek’s book says: Start With Why.

#2 Your vision determines your strategy

Once you’re clear on your vision, it’s time to translate it into your strategy. Reverse engineering is one of the best techniques to do this.

Become clear on your vision, then break it down into actionable steps. The framework for these steps becomes your strategy, the sequence becomes your plan.

#3 Execute the plan

Now it’s time to action the plan. It contains only tasks that are contributing to your vision. At regular intervals you must make sure that your plan is still aligned with your vision.

Distractions will try to throw you off your strategy wagon. Emails, Social Media, meetings and many others. To ensure that I stay on track, I review my plans every two weeks. I go even further: every day at midday, I reevaluate my priorities for the day.

What might have seemed to be important for the afternoon when I started the day, might no longer be important in the afternoon. Reevaluate regularly!

The application of Strategic Productivity

My example: I’m pretty clear on my vision. I will teach you how to align your what with your why, so you get the important stuff done at the right time and achieve your vision. Faster.

From there, my vision translates into a strategy that brings me, with every single task, closer to achieving my vision.

For instance, one of my goals is to publish a blog post every week on To be strategically productive means prioritising tasks that are aligned with this goal (i.e. writing 500 words daily) over other tasks.

In the end, my goal is to be as productive as I can be. But whatever I get done, must align with my strategy. Or in Derek Sivers’ words: No “yes”. Either a “HELL YEAH!” or “no.”

I wasn’t given enough time to be sucked into the maelstrom of urgent tasks.

My effectiveness must trump my efficiency. Always.

“There’s nothing so useless as doing with great efficiency something that should not be done at all.” Peter Drucker