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Don’t Measure the Value of Your Work by the Time You Spend Online

When so many of us are working remotely, being constantly online can feel essential to getting your work seen. But being always available may actually work against you.
by Juan Salazar | Jun 4 2020

When Sally Page started working remotely at Blinkist, she found herself focusing on one thing: always being available. Not being physically present in the office among her team made her feel like she needed to find a different way of doing so. And the way she seemed to settle on was competing for the world record in email-response-time.

She started to realize that she was not able to get to work on important, sometimes time-consuming tasks, because she was too focused on constantly hitting ‘Reply’ on incoming messages. And yet, she was working longer hours than she normally would in the office, going through endless piles of work.

This story might sound familiar. As we grow more accustomed to living and working remotely, we are being confronted with the fact that our cultural understanding of productivity might be based on how others perceive us, and how inextricably tied that is to our fixation with being busy.

Presenteeism, or The Art of Always Being Online

Presenteeism is a common workplace behavior. In scientific literature, it is referred to as the act of going to work, even when you are not fully able to fulfill your duties because of illness, stress, or other conditions that affect your health and your productivity.

We might do this out of a (perceived) lack of job security; because of large, intimidating workloads, or because some of us derive their self esteem from their sense of performance.

More broadly, the meaning of presenteeism encompasses the practice of always being at work (or at least trying to be) – physically or virtually. As was the case with Sally, some people believe that they need to be constantly available, responsive, and involved in the daily workings of their company.

Being Reactive v. Being Proactive

Working incessantly and still feeling she had achieved nothing took a toll on Sally. She felt anxious, frustrated, and exhausted. She felt she had been busy all day, but had nothing to show for it. She was being reactive, instead of proactive.

Reactivity refers to being constantly available for others, usually by prioritizing responding to incoming tasks, or focusing on resolving issues right away.

Proactivity is the ability to self-motivate in order to tackle tasks with long-term returns. Proactive people tend to occupy their time with projects that require time, effort, or concentration; all of which tend to be in short supply in office cultures that value being busy over being effective.

Focusing Only on the Now Can Affect You in The Long Run

Proactivity as a mindset is the antithesis of reactivity. Proactive people tend to be preoccupied with a mid- or long-term vision, whereas reactive people focus on what’s happening right now, especially when it comes to communicating with others.

When reactivity rules over proactivity, we find ourselves prioritizing responding to emails or messages quickly, instead of concentrating on important projects. The biggest problem with measuring the value of someone’s output in terms of quantity, is that we give less importance to high-investment/high-reward work, by enforcing the notion that, in order to add value, we always have to be busy.

The Myth of Productivity

In Free to Focus, Michael Hyatt criticizes the way in which we have constructed the concept of productivity in our office cultures, which has become tied to the word more. We expect to find a sense of accomplishment in being able to do more, sometimes regardless of what kind of work it is. As we find ways to be more efficient with our time, we use the extra minutes to start more tasks.

Tim Ferriss, in a bestselling book that has become required reading for entrepreneurs, The 4-Hour Workweek, describes the problem in detail.

In general, people lean towards efficiency – that is, the most economical completion of all work, no matter how unimportant – over effectivity, the efficient completion of crucial tasks. A door-to-door salesman may be efficient, but he’ll never be effective; he could be selling his products by other means, such as mail or email, and focusing on other important activities.

What Does Real Productivity Look Like?

Michael Hyatt suggests we should let ourselves focus on work that yields high results, but that takes time, also known as ‘deep work’. We need to go back to the sometimes overlooked link between the concept of productivity, with the word freedom. Instead of trying to finish tasks just to be able to start new ones, we should do this in order to have more free time to think, and to be creative – or to work on something that is actually productive.

Tim Ferriss is an enthusiast of the Pareto principle, named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. One day in 1896, during his tenure at the University of Lausanne, he discovered that 20% of the pea plants in his vegetable garden yielded 80% of all healthy pea pods. After this discovery, he started finding the 80/20 ratio in many different places. And so the rule goes – we usually see 80% of results coming from 20% of our efforts.

Productivity is a Matter of Context

In Getting Things Done, David Allen teaches us to prioritize our tasks progressively, with an emphasis on context. He does this by asking four simple questions:

What can you do in your current context?, meaning which of your to-do’s you are able to complete in your current situation. If your daily tasks start with booking flights to Thailand, but your internet connection isn’t working, how about starting with the next item on your list — Call the phone company?

What do you have time for?, is very straightforward. If you have 15 minutes to spare, start a task you can actually complete during that time.

What do you have energy for?, means that you should choose your next task based on how you physically and emotionally feel at that particular moment of your day. If you’ve worked long hours, move on to easier tasks that don’t challenge you cognitively.

Which task has the highest priority?, is a reminder that your daily tasks are only a product of your long-term vision and your life purpose. The road to fulfillment is divided into current projects, areas of focus, and event horizons. Choose the task with which you will progress furthest.

Remind Yourself of Your Goals

Peter Bregman wrote 18 Minutes, based on this simple productivity ritual:

Take 5 minutes at the beginning of the day. List the things you would like to accomplish that day, as well as an ‘ignore list’ of things you should not distract yourself with.

Take a minute of rest for every hour you focus. It will be helpful and encouraging to think about what you have already achieved, and what still lies ahead. These moments of quiet reflection will help you find the right path to mastering your to-do list.

Take 5 minutes at the end of your day. List the things you accomplished, and the ones you didn’t. Life-long learning and habit-building feed both from success and from failure.

The Effect We Have on Others

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson co-authored the book It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, to explore how the business world has noxious beliefs on self-worth, productivity, and commitment. They emphasize how pervasive the notion of ‘non-stop working’ as the only path to success has become, and use the way we talk about business on the media to point towards a shifting cultural notion of business as a battlefield.

Additionally, Fried and Heinemeier Hansson believe that the ever-growing use of analogies of teams as families, lies in the belief that employees can be primed to prioritize work first, if it is equated to such an integral part of their lives.

Your value is not the time that you spend at your desk. As employers, business owners, or even as company seniors, we should focus on improving our lives and the lives of our colleagues, by giving everyone the freedom to focus on what’s important, and to enrich our lives outside of the office.

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