Efficiency vs. Productivity

People in our society prize productivity. They also value efficiency. You might wonder what the difference is between the two.

Productivity has to do with how much you accomplish. Efficiency takes into account the resources and waste that are involved in getting everything done.

Is Productivity All About Quantity?

If productivity has to do with the volume of production, you might say that it’s all about quantity. In the workplace, productivity is usually measured by the units that are generated. However, you have to have some indication of inputs to understand how much productivity is possible. Once you fall into that arena, you’ve begun to assess efficiency.

It’s essential to understand the metrics of efficiency and productivity. It helps to know how many units your company can produce in one day. However, knowing the quantity doesn’t mean much if you don’t track your resources.

You might generate 100,000 units of your product per day. That number sounds impressive until you realize that 100,000 employees worked 8 hours each to produce those units. Still, that doesn’t give you the full picture. To make a measure of productivity meaningful, you might also want to know how much you paid those employees. You should also take into account the quality of the product that’s produced.

Also, if you don’t work in a product-based industry, productivity is more difficult to measure.

You might gauge productivity in a service-based organization by:

  • How well an individual has met their goals
  • How many of someone’s responsibilities have been accomplished
  • How satisfied the customers were
  • Length of time gone without an accident or safety violation
  • How complaints or issues were resolved

In these circumstances, productivity is not all about quantity. It doesn’t matter how many customers a waiter served if the food was cold and the guests weren’t treated respectfully.

The same goes for productivity in a personal setting. Does it really matter how much you accomplish on a given day if your work isn’t meaningful and you don’t feel fulfilled?

How Are Productivity and Efficiency Related?

If you look at the way that productivity is calculated, you’ll notice that some formulas take inputs into account. When you divide the output, such as goods and services that are produced, by the inputs, such as labor or time, you get a measure that helps you manage efficiency.

This formula tells you how many units you produced per hour or employee. For example, if a company used 5,000 hours of labor to create 50,000 units, you would say that the workers produced 10 units per hour. Once you know that number, you can tweak your efficiency by:

  • Reducing the time spent on production
  • Reducing other resources
  • Increasing the quantity produced

Efficiency has to do with producing the same quantity using fewer resources. You won’t necessarily improve your volume by enhancing your efficiency. However, focusing on efficiency can help you cut costs, reduce waste and improve profitability.

You can boost efficiency by enhancing productivity. However, this isn’t always feasible without changing some of your efficiency metrics. Let’s say that the average employee can make 100 outgoing cold calls per hour. You may not be able to improve productivity by asking that person to work faster. In this case, one of the only ways to make more outgoing calls per hour would be to hire another employee to do the same task.

Automation can often improve productivity and efficiency. You could create software to make outgoing calls and connect them to a human operator only when the person on the other line picks up the phone. In that case, you might increase the number of outgoing calls that the company makes per day. You might even be able to do so without hiring an extra employee. After compensating for the cost of software development and maintenance, you might find that your efficiency is still high.

Increasing productivity has to do with using the same amount of resources to generate more. In business, this might involve manufacturing more products during one workday or making more cold calls in one sitting. As long as the quality doesn’t suffer, you might say that boosting productivity without securing more resources to do so also enhances your efficiency.

Which Is More Important?

Many organizations track productivity inappropriately. Harvard Business Review describes a story that involves a significant corporation hiring a math expert to create a system for evaluating its operating efficiency. A great deal of time and effort was spent developing the model.

When the mathematician had finished, his formula showed that no department in the organization was performing efficiently. However, the company was making high profits and had decent cash flow. Why did the model show that productivity wasn’t high?

Numbers don’t mean much when you take them out of context. Tracking productivity is important, but only when you gauge it in relation to other important metrics.

Let’s say that two salespeople are comparing their productivity and efficiency. Joan sold $15,000 worth of products last month, while Chris sold $10,000. Joan was more productive.

But Joan spent $8,000 on travel costs visiting prospective customers. Chris stayed in the office and secured his sales by making phone calls while avoiding racking up any expenses. Chris was more efficient.

Now, imagine that neither Joan nor Chris accumulated any expenses while securing their respective $15,000 and $10,000 in sales. You might think that Joan was more productive and efficient.

But Chris was able to secure the $10,000 in the first two weeks. He spent the rest of the month in a leadership training course that would allow him to contribute better to the company. Joan, on the other hand, spent four weeks securing the $15,000 in sales. You might say that Chris was more efficient because he generated $5,000 per week, whereas Joan brought in only $3,750 per week.

However, the leadership skills that Chris gained during his training could be a long-term asset for the company. Looking at numbers alone doesn’t always give you a big-picture image.

Focusing on Efficiency Doesn’t Improve Performance

For about two decades, major corporations focused on efficiency. But even with that level of concentration, S&P 500 earnings started to fall after the first quarter of 2015. If top-line growth is falling, focusing on efficiency will get you nowhere.

Boosting productivity may be more important than looking at efficiency alone. Because the two are so closely related, though, enhancing productivity usually involves an improvement in efficiency.

In many organizations, a few star workers produce the majority of the output. The less-than-stellar employees are holding productivity down by reducing efficiency. If a business can fill its workforce with employees that work at maximum capacity, they can improve their productivity and efficiency.

They don’t have to hire new people to make this change, though. Moving people to departments in which they can optimize their abilities can make a huge difference. In this case, efficiency doesn’t change, but productivity does.

One way to think about this is to identify the ways that you can reduce organizational drag. Think about all of the structures and workflows in your business. Are there cumbersome arrangements or bureaucratic complexities that are slowing things down? Changing or rearranging operations can improve productivity.

Improving Productivity via Inspiration

In many cases, you can also enhance productivity using hard-to-measure elements, such as inspiration. Think about the factors that influence your productivity, whether on a personal or professional level. When you feel like your skills are put to good use, and your efforts are recognized, you’re more likely to push forward with your actions.

Now, consider those days when you wake up and don’t feel like doing anything. You are uninspired, and the result is a lack of productivity. Of course, you don’t need the inspiration to go about your day and complete all of the tasks on your to-do list. But over time, diminished incentive can make your motivation dwindle.

Without motivation, you’re less likely to take the actions that are necessary to accomplish your goals. Even if you force yourself to get the job done, your performance or efficiency might suffer.

Your level of productivity changes when you’re satisfied, engaged and inspired. A satisfied person might make a plan to break down the walls that are posing as obstacles. An engaged person will look for resources to help them climb over the walls. An inspired individual will break down the walls.

In other words, you’re going to accomplish more when you’re inspired. This may not mean that you produce the most quantity, but the quantity, quality, and efficiency will balance out to result in the best outcome possible.

You might say that productivity is all about purpose. If you don’t feel like what you’re doing is meaningful, what’s the point of taking action? On the other hand, if you’re inspired by your mission, whether it’s your personal plans for the day or a project at work, you’re more likely to take action, stay focused and do what it takes to overcome hurdles.

Efficiency vs. Productivity on a Personal Level

You can consider this on a personal level. Ask yourself, “How productive was I yesterday?”

What elements will you take into account to determine your productivity?

  • How many items did you cross off your to-do list?
  • How much work did you accomplish?
  • How many loads of laundry you did?
  • How much time did you spend on the internet?
  • How much time did you spend off the internet?

Understanding these numbers don’t really matter unless you relate it to your goals. For example, if you’ve been saddled by mountains of laundry that are making you feel overwhelmed, perhaps you told yourself that you’d move the process along. If that was the case, then you would be productive if you finished the laundry.

On the other hand, maybe you were up against a deadline for a freelance writing assignment. You spent the entire day doing laundry to avoid sitting down at the computer. In that instance, would you say that you were productive?

The Definition of Productivity Directs the Outcome

You can’t truly know how productive you are until you define what productivity means to you. That definition drives the resulting work.

Think about what would happen if you told a waiter that you were assessing his productivity. You tell him that you’ll be tracking productivity based on the number of customers that he serves per hour. The waiter will likely try to move quickly and complete transactions rapidly. He might not spend much time conversing with each customer, but each table will have a great deal of turnover that day.

The next day, you tell the waiter that you’ll evaluate him based on the total dollar amount for each check. He might spend more time talking to each customer, helping them choose the perfect wine for their meal and encouraging them to order a variety of desserts. In this instance, pushing the guests to eat and leave quickly would counteract the goal of increasing the sales total for each table.

This scenario illustrates the way that productivity can shift depending on the way that you identify it. You can decide how to define productivity based on your goals.

If you owned a restaurant in a high-end neighborhood, you might aim to provide top-notch service to each table. Speed would be a detriment in that circumstance. On the other hand, if you managed a convenience store in a busy urban area, you might focus on ringing customers up quickly to prevent them from waiting in line for long periods.

The same goes for productivity in a personal setting. To determine how productive you are, all you need to do is spell out what you’d like to accomplish on a particular day. If you do what you said you would achieve, you can consider yourself to be productive. If you did it with plenty of time to spare, you could say that you were efficient.

But you should also take the bigger picture into account. You might give yourself a long list of to-dos every day but never stop to consider whether your tasks correlate to your goals and dreams. If they don’t, you might feel like you spend your life doing busy work.

Productivity Makes Your Work Meaningful

Most people would probably agree that they feel truly productive when they’re doing meaningful work. Tasks that don’t add value to your life drag you down. They can suck the inspiration and motivation out of you.

When you feel the most productive, you’re usually doing work that feels valuable. One way to ensure that you’re doing meaningful work is to color-code your to-do list. You can follow the guidelines below to hack your productivity and create a more meaningful life:

  • Red work – These obligations add little or no value to your personal development. Your life or contribution to your company wouldn’t change much if you eliminated or delegated these tasks. Strive to minimize red work to enhance your productivity.
  • Green work – This work is high value and helps you grow personally or professionally. It’s in line with your higher priorities or those of the organization. It leverages your skills and has a unique impact. You are also recognized or credited for this work. This is the core of your job.
  • Gold work – This is the type of work that transforms you. It allows you to leave a legacy. It harnesses your inspiration to make you act in a way that’s inspired and productive.

How to Be More Productive

If you want to be more productive, you could benefit from stepping back and looking at the bigger picture and working backward:

  • What are your life goals?
  • What would you like to accomplish in 10 years?
  • Where would you like to be in 5 years?
  • What would you like to achieve this year?

Break those down into quarterly, monthly, weekly and daily goals. Once you’ve developed a list of goals for each day or week, you can begin to develop a plan for your productivity.

This is different than a to-do list. It may include chores or other responsibilities that belong on a task list. However, it might also include items that contribute to your personal development, such as meditation, writing poetry or simply taking a break in nature.

When you’re focusing on productivity, don’t worry so much about efficiency. Imagine that productivity is a connect-the-dot activity that links your daily actions to your life purpose.

Highly productive people:

  • Know how to prioritize and complete important projects
  • Keep their energy and motivation high
  • Take care of mundane, routine tasks without wasting time
  • Understand how to avoid procrastination

We’ve listed some tricks to improve your productivity below:

1. Get Used to Deep Work

You might think that buzzing around, taking care of easy tasks makes you productive, but it can actually prevent you from accomplishing meaningful work. If you want to enhance your productivity, cultivate deep work.

Cal Newport explains that doing deep work will improve your skills and help you feel fulfilled. He contrasts deep work with distracted tasks, which contribute to procrastination and lack of focus. Although deep work may not always be interesting, it allows you to reach new levels in your strengths and productivity.

2. Write Down Distractions

Getting into deep work is a practice that can be refined over time. When you begin, you might feel as though your thoughts are taking you in every direction. Keep a list of those reflections and ideas. Jotting them down allows you to remove them from your mind. You can expand on those concepts later. For now, writing them down will prevent you from judging them and help you finish the task at hand.

3. Break Down Tasks Into Action Steps

You might avoid taking action if a project seems too complicated. Many people experience analysis paralysis, which prevents them from doing anything when there are too many moving parts.

One way to bust through this and maintain momentum is to break down larger tasks into baby steps. The smaller the barrier to entry is, the more motivated you’ll be to act. Sometimes, all you have to ask yourself is, “What is the next step?” Once you take that, you’ll be able to move on to the next one, and so forth.

4. Automate Decisions

Making decisions all day long can also lead to analysis paralysis. Decision fatigue also depletes your willpower. When you’re exhausted from a decision-heavy day, you may experience a reduction in physical energy. If you feel like sitting on the couch instead of doing anything, your productivity will suffer.

You can’t control some options that pop up throughout the day and force you to make choices. However, you can automate routine decisions.

Prepping your day the night before is one example of this. Set out your clothing and make your lunch to begin on autopilot instead of bombarding your willpower with choices as soon as you get out of bed.

You can also automate decisions by committing to a schedule. Don’t give yourself the option to avoid exercising, writing in your journal or taking a continuing education class. Schedule a time to complete those tasks. If you plan to exercise on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, you don’t have to decide whether to work out when those days come around. The decision has already been made.

How to Be More Efficient

Some habits that can enhance your efficiency are as follows:

1. Take Care of Important or Difficult Tasks First

Although prioritizing is often thought of as a habit that productive people follow, it has more to do with efficiency than production. Organizing your to-dos in order of urgency, importance or difficulty clears them from your mind so that you can focus.

If you’re the type of person who has more energy and motivation at the beginning of the day, this trick will do even more to maximize your efficiency. You’ll perform at peak capacity while tackling the important or challenging obligations. When your energy and mental capabilities diminish at the end of the day, all you’ll have left are the easier, more robotic tasks.

Trying to accomplish the easier tasks first is usually less efficient. You end up wasting your energy on simple work, and you may be too exhausted later on to manage more complex issues. This could lead you to procrastinate or take longer than you need to complete your work. Plus, keeping big issues on your plate all day may take brainpower away from your other obligations.

2. Communicate Efficiently

Many meetings and emails are a waste of time. You can often disseminate information and brainstorm without setting aside a chunk of time to meet with colleagues. Instead of holding meetings, streamline your workflow so that everyone knows their responsibilities and is held accountable for their duties and deadlines.

Managing your inbox can also deplete your efficiency. Trying to determine why you were CC’d on messages, reading irrelevant messages and sifting through lots of text with no call to action are major efficiency destroyers.

Use more efficient communication by making a phone call or leaving a voice mail when it’s warranted. You should also plan to do something with every email that you open. If you don’t take action right away—whether you delete it, respond to it or follow up in some way—then you wasted time reading it.

3. Put on Some Pressure

Parkinson’s Law says that tasks expand to fill the amount of time that you allot for them. Projects are like goldfish—they’ll grow to take up the space that you allow for them.

Give yourself deadlines to help you complete tasks more quickly. If you give yourself excuses to neglect self-imposed deadlines, trick yourself by timing your work in micro-chunks.

Before you begin a task, estimate how long it will take you. Divide that into 30-minute segments. Determine what you want to accomplish within 30 minutes. Then, set a timer. When the timer goes off, assess your progress against your estimation. You’ll be surprised at how this trick makes you competitive with yourself.

4. Create an Environment That’s Conducive to the Task

If you’re writing a paper, you might not want to listen to music with lyrics. Research shows that doing so will interfere with your brain’s language centers. If you respond well to potential feedback from others, work around your peers. You’ll be less likely to stare off into space or daydream if you feel as though your colleagues are evaluating you.

Keeping your space clear and tidy can also help you become more efficient. If your area is cluttered, you’ll have to decide whether to work around it or take time to clean up before you tackle the task at hand. Either way, you’ll work less efficiently.

Work transition periods into each task on your schedule. Make sure that you clean up your workspace and close out all of the tabs and programs on your computer so that you can start fresh each time.

Leave a Comment