Anyone who has a job that has changing tasks and responsibilities on a regular basis is likely familiar with the internal question of “am I being productive.” It’s not that we don’t know what needs to get done, it’s just that some tasks may not be aligned with our internal sense of what is productive. For example, anytime that I get a project that takes me down highly creative, design-oriented routes I quickly feel unproductive.
Here are four quick ways that I’ve developed to help me understand if I’m being productive:
1. Do others know the next stop or are they just as confused?
The most common situation that initiates my feelings of unproductivity is not knowing what step comes next to get to a solution. If I have to stop because I don’t know where to go, that time always feels a bit wasted.
My first step toward resolution is to ask others what they think I should be doing next based on their experience. Often they can quickly point you in the right direction and get you back on task. When they can’t and you are truly in unexplored territory then you know the time is going to be useful because someone needs to blaze a new trail. Stay on top of the time you are investing but don’t feel bad about it. It will go quicker the next time.
2. Is the size of the prize equal to the time being invested?
Some projects simply require time and thought. Projects that are big enough (saving money, costing money, high publicity, impacts a lot of people, lots of controversy, etc) to need investment beyond just getting to the answer. There are many soft outcomes that need to be done to keep everyone onboard. Handholding, answering questions, presenting the solution, evaluating new options all over and over and over are not wasted time. Spending time on making sure others are comfortable before you move forward can sometimes be the best time invested even if it feels unproductive to you.
3. Is inaction going to lead to a better solution than more action?
There have been more than a few projects that I’ve worked on that simply needed time to simmer if they were going to be successful. Solutions sometimes have an optimal time that they can be decided within. Trying to get it done too early can be wasted time and trying too late may be completely useless.
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be doing anything during this window. You can be preparing for the arguments you’ll get, further refining the answer, modeling various alternatives but you may be doing everything behind the scenes. And much of it may turn out to be overkill.
4. Are you simply being too tough on yourself?
Sometimes you have to ask yourself if your expectations of what you can get done. If others are constantly questioning why things aren’t being done, then you should definitely be wondering if you are simply being unproductive. But if you are consistently the only one questioning your productivity then the problem may simply be one that has been self-created.