Productivity Requires Producing More than You Consume

This is the twelfth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.

In our historical moment, nothing is easier than scrolling through endless posts of the work that other people are doing. I said before that information has always been an available distraction, but it could be argued that we’ve never had easier access to such an immense amount of content. Living in such an environment tends to shift our default setting to consumption.

Consumption isn’t bad in and of itself, but it can easily become an enemy to productivity. Again, this is more common sense than it is a research project. Looking at things other people have created has always been (and will always be) easier than rolling your sleeves up and attempting to do great work yourself (on top of being healthy, removing distractions and focusing). The tricky part is that needless consumption can parade itself as a productive activity. Whether it’s ‘finding inspiration,’ ‘research,’ ‘keeping up with the industry,’ or even ‘getting organized,’ we’re surprisingly adept at justifying consumption that doesn’t move our work forward.

In a Quora post called “The Hidden Habits of Ineffective People,” Chris Wake says it well2:

Ineffective people, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time consuming the fruits of others’ labor. They are consummate lurkers.

The action part is difficult for a variety of reasons, whether it’s the daunting experience of staring at a blank page or canvas, or the fear that what you produce won’t be good enough. I often let those excuses drive me to a pattern of consumption followed by doing what I know I absolutely has to get done, which is an unproductive, reactionary way of working. Other times, I want what I produce to be perfect, so I labor over the details and continually delay completion.

Producing creates inertia

Repeatedly making things works to change our default setting from consumer to producer, turning action into a habit over time. Again, Chris Wake explains this well:

Effective people tend to create a lot of content. Content can mean a lot of things – but the rule is always the same, create more than you consume.

The act of starting something, working on it and finishing it creates productive inertia. It’s satisfying. Once you’ve broken out of a pattern of consumption and tasted the satisfaction of hard work and the reward of completion, you begin to develop a hunger for finishing.

Quantity begets quality

Our life experience often shows us an inverse relationship between quantity and quality—as the quantity of production increases, quality goes down. There’s less time to focus on each individual item.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but focusing on quantity over quality begets not only more work, but better quality.

In a book called Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland illustrated this point through a story about a ceramics class3.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.

Well, grading time came and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work—and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

Action begets action in our lives—the more we produce, the more we will want to produce and the better the result will be.

1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read all of Chris Wake’s “Hidden Habits of Ineffective People” on Quora.3. You can read more about Art and Fear on Ted Orland’s website.

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Practicing the art of bringing guns to a knife fight.

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