Big Gains vs. Little Gains in Productivity

Tips to increase personal productivity usually focus on ways you can make immediate improvements. Do your most dreaded task first. Limit meetings to 30 minutes. Use such-and-such app to block internet distractions.

These kinds of improvements help, but they only give you small gains.
What’s missing in the discussion of personal productivity is the difference between big gains and little gains. The reason is most people don’t measure their productivity, so they never know if their output is increasing by 2 percent, 40 percent, or not at all.

When we turn to hard research on productivity, however, it quickly becomes clear that certain kinds of productivity improvements give much bigger results. They aren’t always quick fixes, of course.

For example, a research paper that looked at sleep habits of more than 4,000 knowledge workers (Rosekind et al., 2009) showed that those who were classified as “good sleepers” made more money and performed much better than everyone else—everyone else being poor sleepers, insufficient sleepers, and insomniacs—in their time-management skills, physical performance, mental performance and interpersonal skills, and output. Those are compelling improvements, much more so than whatever gains you get from limiting meetings to 30 minutes.

Another study (Isen and Reeve, 2005) found that people who were prompted into a state of happiness solved quiz-like problems 25 percent faster than control groups. When it comes to reading about productivity tips, no one (except me) ever suggests trying to put yourself into a happier mood. And yet a 25 percent faster result in a big gain.

Sleeping well and being happy… easier said than done, right? Sure, but very few tactics to improving personal productivity are easy. You might was well focus on the ones that have the biggest payoff.


Isen, A. M., & Reeve, J. (2005). The Influence of Positive Affect on Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Facilitating Enjoyment of Play, Responsible Work Behavior, and Self-Control. Motivation and Emotion, 29 (4) doi: 10.1007/s11031-006-9019-8.

Rosekind, M., Gregory, K., Mallis, M., Brandt, S., Seal, B., & Lerner, D. (2009). The Cost of Poor Sleep: Workplace Productivity Loss and Associated Costs. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 52(1), 91-98. doi:10.1097/jom.0b013e3181c78c30

Image by Guillaume Issaly on Unsplash.


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