The Difference between Efficiency and Productivity

Interlocking cogs on a machine

Photo by Laura Ockel

In 2012, Elon Musk described a new mode of transport called a Hyperloop. Compared to the four existing methods – planes, trains, cars and boats – Hyperloops promise significant reductions in travel time for distances of up to 900 miles.

A Hyperloop is a sealed tube system with most of the air pumped out. Inside the tube, a capsule would magnetically levitate above a track. The same magnets would propel the capsule up to operating speed.

By reducing the barriers to forward motion, the capsule should achieve fantastic speeds with minimal energy. No air particles are hitting the capsule, because of the vacuum in the tube. And there is no friction from the ground because it floats on magnets. Compare this to a passenger jet, which guzzles fuel as it lifts 400 tons of metal into the sky and holds it there.

I mention the Hyperloop because it’s a perfect embodiment of efficiency. The underlying task is clearly defined: get the capsule from here to there. The goal is to optimise for speed.

Efficiency is a one-dimensional quality. You can wash a car efficiently or inefficiently depending upon the methods and tools you use. You can eat an ice cream efficiently if you optimise bite frequency versus brain freeze. You can take any task imaginable and do it efficiently or inefficiently.

But just because you can do something efficiently doesn’t mean it should be done in the first place. In fact, if you do the wrong thing efficiently, that’s worse than doing it inefficiently.

In short, direction matters. Efficiently isn’t enough on its own.

What is Productivity?

Unlike efficiency, productivity has two dimensions. The best way to understand this is to plot a graph. On the Y-axis we have efficiency and on the X-axis we have purpose, which gauges how aligned the activity is with the work that matters to you.

A quadrant showing the two dimensions of productivity

Productivity is when you are efficiently executing tasks that are aligned with your purpose. Whenever you’re being productive, you’re making maximum progress towards your end goals.

For example, imagine you’ve prioritised your work and decided writing a report is the most important thing to do. This defines your purpose. If you then work efficiently on that report, perhaps by minimising all distractions and listening to classical music, then you’re being productive.

The other three quadrants represent states that are easy to fall into. Busyness is when you’re working effectively on the wrong things. A great example of this is reading emails. It makes you feel busy, but it’s not what you’re paid for. You’re supposed to be writing that report.

Procrastination is when you know the right thing to do, but you’re not working on it effectively. In this case, you’ve decided the report needs to be done, but it’s hard to know where to start. So you decide to check Twitter (again) and tidy the bedrooms before you get down to it.

Stagnation is when you have no idea what to do and so you’re doing nothing. Stagnation is our default state unless we take the effort to define our goals and figure out how to work effectively. Stagnation is Netflix. Stagnation is scrolling.

Why Does This Matter?

It’s helpful to realise most productivity advice is efficiency advice.

Articles about inbox zero, reducing notifications and minimising meetings are all focused on pushing you up the Y-axis. Productivity is a two-dimensional game, yet the advice online doesn’t fully reflect that. As a result, you could follow most of the advice and end up doing the wrong things very effectively.

Efficiency tactics are definitely worth studying. But they need to be balanced with techniques for deciding which work to focus on. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself sprinting in the wrong direction.