Be Productive By Not Being Productive

I’ll be honest, I had to force myself to write this blog post today. But I already skipped writing for almost two weeks, and I told myself that I could not have another sandwich today until I wrote and posted a blog post. And I have to learn to be disciplined and keep my promises to myself. Because if I don’t, that starts the slippery slope towards falling out of all the good habits I’ve built up over the years.

I remember in the past writing my blog posts was fairly easy. I had a 30-45 minute one-way commute to and from the office, so that’s over five hours a week that I would spend just pondering thoughts and ideas. Frequently I could have my entire blog post organized and narrated in my head and I could get home and just write it out fairly quickly. (In fact, I experimented with using a voice dictation app on my phone and would dictate the first draft of the blog post in the car. That worked out well.)

There are several lessons to be learned from this narrative, that are critically important to realize as a manager of technical personnel.

The number of hours worked is not always directly correlated to productivity.

When managing people in the knowledge industry, it is important to remember that accomplishing tasks and creating value is not necessarily directly correlated to the number of hours those people are sitting at their desks. I’m sure you are very well aware of the anecdote of a great programmer who can write more code in two hours than a mediocre programmer can in ten hours. Yet if the mediocre programmer is at their desk for ten hours one way, and the great programmer works for two hours and then goes to lunch, which one is perceived as the more productive worker?

People need mental recovery time to be productive.

I heard an anecdote one time, which is: when work is mentally boring and trivial, people like to play complex and challenging games and hobbies. But when work is mentally challenging and taxing, people like to play games that are more relaxing and diverting. What I’ve found is the best way to recover and recharge from work that is deeply immersive (like programming) is to find games and hobbies that require you to utilize all of your attention, to disconnect from work. This could be an immersive video game, it could be a hobby that requires concentration such as golf or woodworking, or it could be reading an engrossing book. The key is to find a way for your brain to not be actively thinking about work, or you are not going to feel mentally refreshed and recovered. Instead, you’ll feel like you never left work, and that just leads to more burnout.

Sometimes the best way for a knowledge worker to solve a problem is to stop working on it.

Over the years I found that I would be struggling with some technical or programming problem, getting more and more frustrated staring at my computer screen. And more often than not I would suddenly have a mental breakthrough and solve the problem while out for a run, or in the shower, or just taking a walk. I learned that by getting away from the problem and thinking about something else.

This was a self-taught lesson that resonated with me, and that I remembered when I was in a leadership position. If someone was working hard on a problem but seemed to be struggling, I would encourage them to just take a break. Whether that meant to go to lunch, or take a walk, or get away from the computer screen and explain the problem to me on the whiteboard. Or sometimes even, go home! And come back tomorrow fresh and ready and full of ideas!


In hindsight, many of these ideas above seem self-evident, yet when you are caught up in the day-to-day as a manager it is very easy to forget these and instead fall into the age-old pattern of counting the number of hours that people are typing on their keyboards. So remember to foster people’s recovery and mental energy, and in the long run, you will have a team that is more energized, productive, and less prone to burnout.

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