The Productivity Paradox: Why We’re Less Productive Than Ever

The Productivity Paradox: Why We’re Less Productive Than Ever

Read Time: 4 Minutes


06 Apr 2021

The productivity paradox: while technology continues to accelerate, productivity does not. According to the World Bank, it has even slowed down in the last 15 years.

The reason is simple: no fancy apps, or well-designed planners, are a match for our human brain.

As our technological advancements have increased, so has our availability, so far as to say that we are now available 24/7. Not to mention we carry around personal distractors (phones), with all kinds of notifications and opportunities to lose our concentration. Research tells us that every time we start a new task (or get distracted and return back to it), it takes us nearly 30 minutes to refocus on what we’re actually meant to be doing. Each buzz, ping, ring and “quick thing” you do has a larger impact than you think. 

Ever find yourself staring at your screen, forgetting what you had opened up that tab for because you got caught up in new alerts? Then you’re not alone. We live in the era of the attention economy. Companies are built around getting, and keeping, your attention. That’s why “one quick reply” can lead to wondering why it is 5 pm. With our attention for sale, it’s no wonder labour productivity hasn’t increased.

The root of the productivity paradox comes down to three things: our brains and how we've evolved, our education and how we are trained, and our work structures and how we work.

1. Our brains have one job

Our brains have evolved into their most modern form over the last 40,000 years for one thing: survival in the wild. This is why we don’t like to fail. We've evolved with programming that has taught us failure means likely death. Failing to find adequate shelter, or picking the poisonous berries was literally deadly. We also evolved in tribes, with chances of survival outside a tribe at zero; this is why we dislike rejection and care what other people think. Lastly, we evolved to be lazy. The act of conserving energy was in itself a survival skill. So, if you have been frustrated with yourself recently for not getting everything done, spending a few too many hours on Netflix, then know it is not you, it’s your brain.

Add to this that our predecessors that had great instincts for danger, and the ability to be on high alert, were the ones that survived. We’re biologically primed for notifications in a world where we are able to receive hundreds of alerts every day: email, social, calls, to name a few. This also explains a rise in anxiety and stress that directly impacts productivity – because the more stressed out we are, the more likely we are to burn out and require time off work to recover.

Our brains are crazy powerful - the hardware is amazing - it is just operating on outdated software. There is more awareness of this than ever before as we have seen a surge in the personal development and wellbeing industry, which during the last couple of years has thrust itself into the mainstream. The most successful people talk about the impact of mindset and training their brains and account their success to it. 

2. Our education & how we are socialized is outdated

We have zero education on how to use technology and yet the average person spends almost three hours a day on social media apps alone. It is a widely accepted substitute for dealing with problems and a distractor that allows us to switch off and pull away from what we are doing in the moment (costing us as much as 30 minutes each time we return to work).

Technology has also changed the rules of success, and yet schools are often teaching the same rules that applied a 100 years ago: success comes from time, hard work and knowledge.

Of course, some success does come from these three, but really if success came with time, then our optimal strategy would be to wait. Which is what many people do. In fact, they say most of the best ideas in the world are in cemeteries. 

The word “hard” is overused; sure, work used to be physically hard, farming the land to feed the community, for example. Add to this that our puritan roots fuelled the “good people work hard” beliefs and, in our modern world, “hustle” and “busy” have become glamorized. This is literally at the root of imposter syndrome, which is when we think things should be more difficult or need more time spent on them than they actually are and do, leading us to believe we’re doing something wrong. 

Lastly, knowledge IS power, of course, but we live in the information age where any teenager with a smartphone has access to more information than the President of the United States had before 1995. We can lose years to research, ideas, consuming knowledge instead of getting started. It’s too easy to slip into diminishing returns here, and let’s remember Einstein’s quote: “Information is more important than knowledge”.

So, what are the updated rules of success?

  1. How we manage our brain: are we fuelling confidence or doubt?
  2. How we make decisions and implement them: indecision is a decision to do nothing
  3. How we face the fear of failure: failure creates success, if you’re not failing, you’re not succeeding


3. The end of the 40-hour work week

The 40-hour work week is widely regarded as being outdated. It was initially created to help workers work less as a form of standardisation for employee rights, but just how effective it is in the 21st century has been increasingly questioned.

Our industries and jobs have evolved and they no longer fit into the working decisions that were made in 1900.

Countries like Japan and Germany have seen an increase in productivity with many businesses already making the switch to a four-day work week. And that’s just the beginning. 

Intel reported that during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving their staff more freedom in managing their time for themselves has meant they’ve been able to finish their work early – they have more focused time on, and more relaxing time off.

So, if we want to end the productivity paradox, we want to manage our brains, update our education and look at the impact of removing the 40-hour work week for other countries and industries.

This starts in some cases at the individual level, since more and more people are working for themselves, and can be successfully brought in at the corporate and country-wide level.

For example, just recently Spain has begun a €50 million project to launch a nationwide 4-day work scheme, where any costs of reducing the number of days worked will be paid by the government during the pilot.

Microsoft saw fantastic success when they trialled a 4-day work week with a team of 2,300 in Japan, recording a whopping 39.9% uplift in productivity and 92% of workers liked the new schedule.

It’s one thing to read articles, it is another thing to implement them. Pick one thing from today and implement it - maybe it is an hour off a week, maybe it is choosing to build your failure muscle by experimenting even if it means failing, or maybe it is switching off notifications on your phone during your work day. 

Sharing what you will implement makes it 100 times more likely you will do it! Feel free to tag me on social media to let me know what you’re going to implement.

Vikki Louise

About the Author

Vikki Louise is the founder of Time Hackers, a coaching community built around achieving more by doing less.