Time is On My Side: Rethinking Productivity
Updated: Nov 23, 2021
You can learn a lot about a society by its heroes. America has always championed “builders,” “doers,” “innovators,” “entrepreneurs.” We use words like “hustle” to describe them, and we cheer them on when they’re working 80 hours a week.
We live in a culture of optimization. Maximizing productivity is the holy grail of the day. From technology that can track a person’s behavior and distractions at their desk to an ultrasonic bracelet that sends vibrating pulses into a worker’s wrist to get them to keep working, or a diet built specifically for productivity, there’s a subliminal message whispered that makes us feel that we have to become machines in order to be self-actualized and achieve our full potential.
And time has become the currency through which we value productivity. Minimize the time per task, maximize the number of tasks per day, and maximize the number of hours worked per day – a winning equation for productivity, or at least that’s what the prevailing wisdom says.
We’re human beings, though, not machines. We’re more than just our ability to complete tasks, more than something that responds like a variable in a mathematical formula. Part of what each of us brings to our work are our experiences, our emotions, our worldview, our creativity, our imagination, our critical thinking. Those are tough to capture in an equation in a spreadsheet, yet we know that they are the main generators for the value and quality of what we do.
If we want to bring our whole selves to our work and not just become machines, we have to rethink productivity and move towards a more human-centric perspective.
Data can help inform this new perspective. But just as we need to balance our work ethic with everything else we bring with us in order to be productive, so too do we need to balance data and empathy when thinking about productivity.
In my previous work as an independent contractor in a billable hours model, I built the routine of tracking my time in Toggl. I had a number of hours I needed to log in Toggl each day in order to meet my goals for how much income I needed to make to pay the bills and keep the lights on.
Some days, the hours came easier, when I had a project (and time free of calls, meetings, and interruptions) where I could get into a flow and focus. I’d look up after finishing the project and be way above my target number of hours for the day.
The hours weren’t as easy to rack up on other days. Maybe I had calls and meetings scheduled throughout the day with only a few minutes in between each. Maybe I kept getting interrupted while trying to work on projects and had to bounce between emails, calls, and work and constantly refocus throughout the day. Maybe I just woke up on an off day and didn’t have as much to give.
Whatever the case was, I’d check Toggl and wonder how I worked all day and yet wasn’t anywhere close to my target number. I’d feel guilty, as if I was not working hard enough even though I was working almost all of the time.
I knew that oftentimes I didn’t hit my number of hours for reasons outside of my control, but I also felt deep down that the equation was fundamentally misguided. I knew that I was being more productive than what showed in Toggl because so many other activities that cultivate the basket of intangibles necessary for my work – my emotions, my worldview, my creativity, my critical thinking – were not being tracked because they were not seen as productive or contributing to what I produced.
When I began working on launching Ambedo Audio, I knew that I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to change the equation that I set for myself to calculate my productivity in a way that recognized the things that I do away from my desk that help contribute to the work that I do when I’m sitting (or standing) at it.
In 2020, I started tracking the time I spent both on Ambedo Audio – podcasts, social media, content creation, bookkeeping, business development calls and meetings, CRM updates, networking, research, analytics, etc. – and the time I spent on personal development.
Here are a few of things I started tracking and why they contribute to our overall productivity and success:
The world is changing faster and faster every day, and it’s essential to keep up in order to stay relevant and adaptable.
While it might not directly relate to podcasts or marketing, I’ll still spend time every day reading the news, blogs, and social media. Sometimes I’ll see something that sparks an idea for me to pursue for the business – a new prospect to research and reach out to, a new way to approach producing podcasts for our clients, or a new creative way to leverage social media.
But even if nothing directly actionable comes from that time, it’s still valuable for me to keep my finger on the pulse of what’s happening and to track that time. More information is never a bad investment.
Maya Angelou said, “You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”
We use creativity in many ways both at and away from our desks. I track my time reading books – I always have about four or five going at a time – because seeing examples of how others tell stories helps me tell my own and that of our clients’.
I also track my time writing. I’ve been working on a manuscript for a novel for a few years, and I also write short stories and flash fiction. I grew up as a writer but struggled to write for myself on my laptop without it still feeling like I was at work. So, a few years ago, I invested in a 1960’s Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter, which helps me get into a different mental space for my creative writing, and it’s made all the difference.
And since I started writing on my own projects, I’ve seen that my writing for work has improved, too. My stories are more structured and tighter, and my writing comes easier. My creative writing helps to build up my store of creativity that ultimately brings more value to the work that I do for Ambedo.
Over the years, I’ve developed a mindfulness practice that helps me focus on the present moment and silence any judgments or anxieties that may be holding me back and bringing me down. Meditating helps me maintain my balance and helps me keep my perspective of things.
Research shows that mindfulness can reduce stress, improve our immune system, boost mental health, support our performance at work, and make us happier and more fulfilled in our work.
If we’re not okay, our businesses and our work won’t be either. So the time that I spend meditating or slowing things down for myself is not a step back, even though it’s taking a few moments away from my desk. And seeing that time in Toggl helps reinforce its value in keeping me even-keel and able to move forward.
There are innumerable benefits to physical activity, and it’s an important part of bringing my healthy whole self to the work that I need to do. That’s why I track the time that I spend riding my indoor bike and doing yoga.
But I also count mental exercise as essential for my productivity, too. In the past year, I’ve dedicated a good amount of time to studying and practicing chess, which helps me exercise both sides of my brain, make decisions, learn how to win and lose, build confidence, and stay calm under pressure. I like to use the breaks I take during my workday to play on my own chessboard or on the Chess.com mobile app. Rather than just scrolling mindlessly through social media, those few minutes of chess help me reset and re-engage my whole self and mind for whatever comes next.
Since I started this new approach, I haven’t felt as guilty for not being productive because I can see that I’m logging consistent hours in Toggl everyday with a mix of hours for the business and for myself.
Having the data in Toggl to reinforce this new holistic approach to productivity has given me the power to be even more productive and, most importantly, happier. We all can break out of the limited view of productivity and free ourselves to develop our whole selves.
Originally published on Ambedo Audio's blog on May 4, 2020.