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Sep 27 2011

Lies About Workplace Productivity

Pascale has a post up giving some tips for avoiding distractions–many of them from the Internet–while trying to get work done. These are probably perfectly good ideas if you are seeking to increase your sustained focus at work.

However, she also refers to a published article announcing that workplace distractions, those that take us off-task, cost our economy over $10,000 per worker per year.

Such estimates of “lost workplace productivity”–such as the handwringing every year during March Madness about “billions of dollars of lost productivity due to bracket pools”–are a complete lie. This is because they assume that every minute of time that a worker dickes around on the ESPN Web site subtracts an entire minute of time from the total amount of time spent working during a day *and* that work output over the course of a day (or week or whatever) is a linear function of time spent working during that interval.

With regard to the first assumption, it is obviously the case that different distractions can also displace one another, and not just displace work. With regard to the second assumption, the marginal output from a given unit of time spent working decreases as the amount of time spent working increases (once you reach some minimum threshold).

The result is that these estimates of lost productivity are always grossly overblown.

9 comments

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  1. 1
    Bruce Gorton

    They also fail to account for demand – productivity is only really worth anything if someone is buying what you are producing.

  2. 2
    Didaktylos

    It also doesn’t take into account time lost because you are waiting for someone else to link up with you.

  3. 3
    sailor1031

    When I was still a unit in corporate america most of my lost productivity was taken up by totally unnecessary and pointless meetings. At least 3 hours/day. Another hour or so each day dealing with equally pointless eMail. I learned to save time by deleting most of it unread on the theory that if it was important they’d send it again. Add to this the all-consuming evaluation process twice a year, culminating in an entire week lost in so-called cross-calibration meetings which all managers had to attend…….finally the continual adjustment to new completely ignorant and unqualified managers bungeeing in and trying to get up some kind of speed before bungeeing out again to their next assignment. It’s a wonder anything got done – but then it often didn’t. In my last seven years not one project I worked on was actually implemented anyway!

    It ain’t a few people making bets on sports that’s losing production. It’s the unbelievably blind, ignorant, stupid senior managers and their proteges who know nothing about the businesses they’re trying to run.

  4. 4
    skeptifem

    They always harp on that shit at jobs that pay hourly, as if there is always something to do at any given minute.

    I was reading a GQ once (or a Details or some other dude bro publication) where they measured how much time an average dude actually spends working in a day, and it is like 4 hours (for office jobs, anyway).

  5. 5
    Yellow Thursday

    Most of my work is mind-numbingly boring paperwork. I find that if I work for too long without a mental break that my work suffers due to the tedium. However, if I take a minute or two to read something online that stimulates my mind (such as the content at Free Thought Blogs), I can return to my work with the gears turning, as it were, and process my work much better.

    Unfortunately, my workplace has started tracking how much time employees spend online, and I’m afraid my next annual review will suffer because of it. (I don’t know what metrics they’re using – that will be interesting to see.)

  6. 6
    Dr. O

    Unfortunately, my workplace has started tracking how much time employees spend online, and I’m afraid my next annual review will suffer because of it. (I don’t know what metrics they’re using – that will be interesting to see.)

    Invest in a smartphone.

  7. 7
    wondering

    on a similar vein, what do you think of “lost” productivity due to sickness or more trivially, traffic?

  8. 8
    Nance Confer

    Increased productivity — we used to call that working yourself out of a job.

  9. 9
    Monado, FCD

    Excellent point, Professor!

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