5 Types of Productivity Debt

The further you get behind, the more you have to work to get ahead.

by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)
by Colter Reed
2:07 read (647 words)

The point of productivity (as an art/science) is to do less, not more. You focus on getting done the things you have to do so you can spend more time doing what you want to do. Greg McKeown addresses this in Essentialism: identify the essential things you need to do without creating extra “work” that just keeps you busy without adding anything meaningful or beautiful to your life.

In Take the Stairs, Rory Vaden describes The Rent Axiom:

There are plenty of things to keep us truly busy and engaged. Our vocation is the obvious source of things we need to do, but any role we take on—employee, entrepreneur, husband, father, church, volunteer—has its payments we need to make.

This payments metaphor helps to illustrate why procrastination is (usually) bad. When we put off making payments, the bills pile up, complete with late fees and interest. If we develop a habit of choosing short-term gains with long-term consequences, we’re committing to future payments that will come due sooner or later.

Paying back these debts has a real impact on our productivity. It’s that much more that we have to take care of before we can spend our time and attention on the things that matter most to us. Here are five kinds of productivity debt that you should pay off as quickly as you can.

  • Financial debt. This is what most people think of when they hear the word “debt”. Mortgages, HELOCs, credit cards, and student loans. It hampers your cash flow, raises your stress, and can limit your options. Money isn’t everything in life, but the more you’re worrying about where your money is going, the less energy you have to enjoy everything else.
  • Sleep debt. Driving while you’re exhausted is more dangerous than driving while you’re tipsy (myth confirmed). Driving after a few drinks is socially discouraged, and illegal in most places, but being tired is too often heralded as a badge of honor. It shows how hard-working, helpful, and caring we are, right? But being short on sleep kills productivity quickly. You make worse decisions and work less effectively. You increase costs by making mistakes and needing to do work over again.
  • Technical debt. Technical debt is the accumulated cost of doing what’s fast instead of what’s right. There’s never enough time to do things just the way you want, and the 80/20 rule says that “good enough” may be better than perfect. But going for a short-term benefit with a long-term cost will eventually catch up with you. All the time you “saved” will need to be paid back—with interest.
  • Commitment debt. Making a commitment you shouldn’t is one of the fastest ways to rack up productivity debt. It’s the hardest to pay down, too. Doing what we say we’re going to do is at the heart of our integrity, and fundamental to the trust others place in us. Commitments should be carefully made and considerately renegotiated when we won’t be able to come through.
  • Email debt. You’ve probably heard of people “declaring email bankruptcy”. Have you ever considered email as a form of debt? You have all these little bills—usually for your time and attention, not money—piling up in your inbox, and each requires an action. If you start your day by checking your email, you’re setting yourself up for a long day.

If debt weren’t enough, there’s also inflation. Tomorrow’s problems can’t be solved with the same level of thinking we have today. The world is getting more complex, and we have to keep getting better at what we do just to keep up. The only way to do this is to regularly take time to sharpen the saw. Learn new skills. Reduce clutter. Read. Never stop learning.

Just as you (should) have a budget to tell every dollar you earn where to go, you should similarly budget your time and attention. Your weekly review is where you plan how you’re going to spend your week. Things seldom go according to how we plan, either with our time or our money, but it’s essential. Without a plan, we end the month wondering what just happened.

Question: How do you pay down your productivity debt? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.