The Psychology of Productivity: What Really Motivates Us to Work Harder?

Ever wonder why some days you’re a productivity powerhouse, ticking tasks off your to-do list, while on other days you struggle to get even the smallest of tasks completed? Let’s face it; productivity is more than just a buzzword. It’s the nucleus of personal and professional success. So, what’s the secret sauce that makes us more productive? The answer lies deep within our psychology, along with some fascinating theories and practical tips.

brown and black bee on brown wooden stick

Understanding the True Essence of Productivity

Often, when we think about productivity, the image of a busy bee comes to mind, buzzing from one task to another. But let’s set the record straight: it’s not just about the speed.  It’s about working smarter. It’s not about mere output – how much is done in an hour. It’s about the outcome – the value we derive from what we’ve accomplished. This subtle difference between efficiency and effectiveness is crucial and yet often the two are mixed up.

Efficiency is about output—how much you can produce in a given timeframe. Effectiveness, on the other hand, focuses on outcome—whether what you’ve produced is valuable or impactful. So, being productive is not just about speed but also about doing the right things in the right manner.

The Evolution of Motivational Theories

Over the years, various theories have tried to demystify the complex web of human motivation. You may have heard about Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management theory, formulated in the early 20th, which suggested money as the chief motivator for worker productivity. This theory advocated for breaking down tasks into smaller, simpler components then optimizing those for efficiency. Workers were then paid based on their output, thus creating a direct connection between their effort and a financial reward. While revolutionary at the time and foundational to many modern-day management practices it has been widely criticized for oversimplifying human motivation by focusing solely on monetary incentives.

Then there’s Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which presents a layered pyramid to explain human motivation, starting with the basic psychological needs like food, water and shelter – fundamental requirements for survival. Once met, individuals then seek safety & security followed by social needs like love & belonging. Above those come esteem needs which involves the desire for respect and self-worth and at the pinnacle of the pyramid is self-actualization.

Maslow argued that lower-level needs must be met before individuals can focus on fulfilling higher-level aspirations. While influential in psychology and organizational studies as it offers a comprehensive look at what drives human behavior & aspirations, the theory has been criticized for its linear and universal approach, which may not fully capture individual or cultural nuances. Despite these critiques, Maslow’s model remains a cornerstone in discussions about human motivation and is often referenced in organizational settings to understand employee engagement and productivity.

Interesting? Yes. Entirely applicable in today’s dynamic workspace? Maybe not.

man holding 1 US dollar banknote

Modern Perspectives on Motivation

Contemporary thought offers a more intricate and nuanced understanding of our driver. Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, outlines three core needs that drive human behavior:

  1. Autonomy, or the desire to control one’s actions
  2. Competence, or the need to excel and succeed
  3. Relatedness, or the longing for connection and belonging

This theory suggests that fulfilling these core needs leads to higher quality motivation and well-being. Differing from historical theories which emphasize external rewards or hierarchical needs, Self-Determination Theory focuses on both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations and argues that aligning activities with these core needs results in more sustained motivation and greater life satisfaction.

Another compelling concept called the Expectancy Theory, formulated by psychologist Victor Vroom, states that human motivation is driven by three interconnected factors:

  1. Expectancy – the belief that effort will lead to successful performance
  2. Instrumentality – the belief that successful performance will result in rewards
  3. Valence – the value or importance an individual places on those

In essence, people are motivated to act when they expect that their efforts will lead to outcomes they value. This theory provides a multifaceted approach to understanding motivation by considering not just the reward, but also the perceived likelihood and value of achieving that reward. It has been widely applied in areas like human resources and organizational behavior to optimize motivation and performance.

red and white no smoking sign

Recognizing the Roadblocks

Understanding what hinders productivity is as essential as knowing what drives it. Psychological barriers such as procrastination, often rooted in fear of failure or perfectionism, can significantly impede productivity.

Similarly, burnout, decision fatigue, and imposter syndrome are not one-off events but chronic conditions that can undermine productivity over time. Burnout accumulates from sustained overwork, depleting energy and focus in the long run. Decision fatigue isn’t just a day’s worth of exhaustion; it builds up with each choice made, eroding cognitive sharpness over time. Imposter Syndrome fosters a cycle of self-doubt, leading to overwork and, ironically, contributing to burnout and decision fatigue. All three factors are interconnected, and their cumulative impact requires ongoing management for sustained productivity.

Beyond the Mind: The Role of Environment

But it’s not just all in your head; it’s essential to acknowledge the impact of external factors. The work environment, team dynamics, and management styles can significantly influence individual and collective productivity. An organization that fosters a supportive culture and healthy work conditions is more likely to have highly productive employees.

In essence, a nurturing and supportive environment can act as a catalyst, propelling us towards our goals and increased productivity.

three men sitting while using laptops and watching man beside whiteboard

Personable Pathways to Productivity

For those looking to boost their personal productivity, several strategies can be effective.

Conducting a self-assessment is step one. Understanding your strengths, weaknesses and motivators is necessary but focusing on areas of weakness that are tied to outcomes should be a priority.

Then, set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) to outline what you want to achieve. Time management techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique or time-blocking, can help you allocate your time more efficiently. It’s also crucial to schedule regular breaks and downtime to maintain a work-life balance, as rest is as important as work for long-term productivity. Finally, if you find that you’re struggling, don’t hesitate to seek professional help, whether from a psychologist, a coach, or a productivity expert.

Remember, balance is key.

Recommendations for Organizations

Organizations, listen up! There are several steps and considerations you can take to improve productivity and support employes inside your organization.

Creating an environment that allows for employee autonomy can fulfill the need for independence, as outlined in SDT (Self Determination Theory).

Investing in skill development programs can enhance employees’ sense of competence. Adopting flexible work schedules can cater to different work styles and personal needs, enhancing productivity and providing an inclusive workplace.

Implementing well-being programs focusing on mental health and physical fitness can help prevent burnout. Finally, organizations should provide and receive regular feedback and recognition to satisfy the employees’ needs for competence and relatedness, thus boosting morale and productivity.

Wrapping up and moving forward

In wrapping up this exploration, it’s clear that productivity is a complex interplay of various factors, both internal and external. However, with a deeper understanding of the psychological aspects and theories behind human behavior armed with the right strategies, each of us has the potential to unlock unprecedented levels of productivity.

Whether you’re an individual seeking to maximize your potential or an organization looking to elevate team performance, remembering that productivity is a complex blend of psychology, strategy and environment will allow you to be better prepared to conquer your tasks and make each day more productive.

After all, it’s not about being busy; it’s about meaningful achievement.

Learn more about our Author:  Kelly Colón‘s multi-disciplinary background gives her a holistic view of strategy development – particularly focused on blending the physical, psychological and behavioral elements of the workplace when supporting new ways of working, changes in work practices and ongoing operational support. At Allsteel, Kelly provides science and insight-informed guidance to a wide range of client projects in sectors including life science, financial, technology, higher education and government; an contributes to Allsteel’s strategic planning process. Kelly joined the Allsteel Workplace Advisory team in 2022, bringing unique and diverse skillsets and experiences from her 32 years in real estate, facilities and operations fields. Her last 10 years have been focused on developing operational strategies, facilities management and construction as well as teaching facilities and operational courses in several Boston-based colleges and universities. Kelly is an active member of CoreNet Global, the international Facilities Management Association and Workplace Evolutionaries, and most recently supported Women in Bio’s mentoring community. Kelly received MS in Facilities Management from Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a BS in Facilities Planning & Management from Wentworth Institute of Technology and an AS in Interior Design from Hesser College. She also competed post-graduate coursework in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at North Central University. Outside of work, Kelly’s passions include spending time with her husband and children, anything outdoors – other than camping – baking, reading and writing.

*Disclaimer: This post was not generated by A.I. It is indeed written by a real life human. A pretty cool human in fact.