Mr. Personality

A personality expert talks character and destiny.

How To Be More Productive (Without Even Trying)

Laziness cannot be coached, but productivity can

In my life I have met quite a few hyper productive people. They worked in fields as varied as advertising, academia, law, and banking. If there is one thing these very different characters all had in common, that is that they were all extremely passionate for what they were doing - even if the reasons underlying their passions were often quite different.

The secret to productivity is no doubt working on something you enjoy - and in order to do that, you have to take certain risks, such as not doing what you don't enjoy. This seems like an easily avoidable scenario, yet most people are trapped in careers they would not pick if they were given the choice again - and because they can be fairly good at those things, they just keep going.

In the past couple of decades, business psychologists have been paying increasing attention to the so-called "high potential" employees (often just called "hi-po's"). Although definitions of "hi-po's" vary, there is a farily objective way to identiy them, namely in terms of their productivity. Many years ago, the Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) noted that the peas in his garden were disproportionately productive: 20% of them accounted for 80% of the productivity; 80% of them accounted for just 20% of the productivity. The same turned out to be true in any domain of human performance - a minority of people (usually, even less than 20%) account for at least 80% of the productivity, whereas the vast majority of people (at least 80%) produce only the remaining 10-20%.

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These data are consistent with the irrevocable evidence for the fact that the majority of employees are either extremely dissatisfied or dissatisfied at work (visit www.gallup.com for the latest figures). Thus, there is a clear overlap between lack of engagement and lack of productivity at work. In other words, most people have jobs they do not like, and most people are unproductive at work. At the same time, a minority of people seem to enjoy their jobs AND they are also much more productive.

Would it be a complete utopia to think of a world where there reverse was true? Could we not have, say, 20% of disengaged and unproductive employees, and 80% of engaged and productive employees? Perhaps if people were forced to identify and follow their passions, we may well be able to at least balance the books to a 50-50 rather than 80-20 breakdown. But how can this be done? There are three key steps:

(1) Boosting self-awareness: if people knew themselves better (and from an earlier stage), they would probably not end up picking the wrong career, which begins when they decide what major to pursue at college. Unfortunately, students decide on what to study based on what their parents want, what their friends do, or what they imagine they would end up doing once they graduate from that particular degree. Most of these assumptions end up being false; most students have unrealistic expectations - until they face a reality check shortly after graduation.

(2) Earlier career planning: the biggest competitive advantage anyone has is to start early; delaying career-related decisions leads not only to important CV-gaps, but also desperation. When my 1st year students ask me what they need to do to pursue a career in X or Y, they have a 3-year advantage over my final year students (who tend to ask the same question, only a lot later)

(3) Doing what you love: if you do what you love, you will end up loving what you do, which is your best bet at being productive. Almost 1 in 2 working adults seriously considers a career switch, usually to something they already knew they enjoyed before (and still do now). Importantly, this may include people who are very successful (in objective terms: financially, status-wise, or in terms of their professional expertise). Yet productivity without passion is a waste of time - and it ain't rewarding either.

If, despite following 1, 2, and 3, you end up being lazy, you are dispositionally passive (which is fine, as you probably enjoy it). However, for more than 80% of the people, following these steps will lead to a substantial productivity boost - the problem is that few people do.

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Ph.D., is a Professor of Business Psychology at UCL and NYU. He studies online dating, entrepreneurship, and consumer preferences. more...

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