Productivity vs Learning

G U E S T  A R T I C L E

I’m a big fan of productivity and often read and write about new ways to do more in less time. So I love it when Café Jen readers send me articles on productivity, as Frank did recently when he shared a link to 15 Surprising Things Productive People Do Differently.

Coincidentally, Frank’s recommendation arrived as I was reading another piece: Average People Are Productive, Successful People Are Learners. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of these two articles.

The author of the second article, Michael Simmons, grabbed me with this lead: “Let’s face it, we love productivity! As a culture, we have a seemingly unending appetite for viral articles on productivity hacks.”

“Learning is the ultimate productivity.”

But there’s a downside to the blind pursuit of productivity, he argues. Trying to maximize productivity can actually be counterproductive. As examples, he cites listening to audio tapes in the car with his family rather than engaging in conversation, or rushing through life rather than fully experiencing it.

“Paradoxically,” he says, “becoming more productive doesn’t make our life less busy. It just turns up the treadmill speed and creates even more work and makes us even more frantic.”

Instead, Simmons advocates a shift in thinking: “Learning is the ultimate productivity.” If you want to make better decisions and generate better ideas, he suggests, focus more on learning, an activity that will pay exponential dividends into the future, and less on productivity, which tends to be about meeting immediate goals and relying on the knowledge you already have.

Simmons recommends spending an hour a day focused on learning, following the example of greats like Benjamin Franklin, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Mark Zuckerberg.

In a complementary article—Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Oprah Winfrey All Use the 5-Hour Rule—Simmons praises three activities that promote learning: reading, reflection and experimentation.

We should look at lifelong learning the same way we view exercise: it has to be part of deliberate practice.

I agree with his recommendation. I spent many hours in my early 20s reading books and reflecting on what I was learning. I would devote entire weekends to reading self-help books and journaling my reflections. Books like The New Diary, Making Peace with Food and Love Is Letting Go of Fear changed my life and shaped who I am today. As for experimentation, blogging has been an eight-year experiment in crafting posts that make a difference in my life and the life of my readers.

Simmons concludes Average People Are Productive, Successful People Are Learners by saying that we should look at lifelong learning the same way we view exercise: it has to be part of deliberate practice.

“Just as we have minimum recommended dosages of vitamins and steps per day and of aerobic exercise for leading a healthy life physically, we should be more rigorous about how we as an information society think about the minimum doses of deliberate learning for leading a healthy life economically.”

Like Simmons, I started this article pitting productivity against learning, but I don’t truly think they’re mutually exclusive. Being more productive in getting done what you have to do can only help to free up time for the deliberate practice of learning.

In fairness to Frank, it’s worth noting that 15 Surprising Things Productive People Do Differently does contain some useful tips, like these three:

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Write things down

The article’s author, Kevin Kruse, says: “Ultra-productive people free their mind by writing everything down.” For example, Richard Branson credits a simple notebook as a key to building Virgin. Similarly, Aristotle Onassis is quoted as saying that always carrying a notebook and writing everything down is a “million dollar lesson they don’t teach you in business school.” For me, my notebook is my mobile device, in which I keep lists in Trello, notes in Evernote and articles in Pocket.

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Manage your energy

Kruse advises: “You can’t make more minutes in the day, but you can increase your energy which will increase your attention, focus, decision making, and overall productivity.” Don’t skip meals, breaks or sleep. One thing that works for me is packing morning and afternoon snacks in addition to my lunch, which allows me to eat every 3 to 4 hours, thus maintaining my energy throughout the day.

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Make it home for dinner

Kruse says that there’s always more to be done, both what should be done and what can be done. But successful people know what they value. I would add that it’s time away from work—doing things we love with the ones we love—that helps to make us more effective when we’re at work.

High achievers are both super productive and lifelong learners. It’s easy to ignore the second in pursuit of the first, but we truly need both.

What’s interesting about the many articles on the Internet about productivity and learning is that they often cite as examples the same successful people. My conclusion is that high achievers are both super productive and lifelong learners. It’s easy to ignore the second in pursuit of the first, but we truly need both.

About the author:

Jennifer Hollington is senior executive in the Canadian public service who writes a weekly blog called Café Jen‎ on the theme of success at work. You can reach Jennifer using our contact form.


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