Productivity vs. Efficiency: Understanding the Difference While Maintaining Healthy Productivity


Productivity and efficiency are more complicated than they seem. This is in part because the two terms are often used interchangeably. They're connected but different. 

Productivity is more than fitting as much work into your day as possible. Efficiency is more than highly-optimized workflows. Usually, when you optimize one, you see results in the other. Step one is having a firm understanding of both. 

We're taking a closer look at productivity vs. efficiency. By the end of this post, you'll have a solid grasp of how to set yourself up for sustainable success. 

What's the difference between efficiency and productivity?

Productivity and efficiency both refer to ways of working that impact total output. They aren't synonyms, but they influence each other. You can use the right tools and efficient processes to boost overall productivity

Let's first take a step back and compare productivity vs. efficiency. 

Productivity is the amount of work completed within an allotted amount of time. In other words, it's how many tasks you check off in an hour, day, week, etc. 

Think about how you measure productivity day-to-day. Odds are, your most productive days are the ones when you've knocked out everything on your task list. You could’ve also gotten ahead on tomorrow's tasks or utilized a spare hour to learn something new. You’ve completed your to-do list during regular work hours and maintained a high quality of work. 

Efficiency measures how well you use the tools and resources at your disposal to complete tasks. The more strategic you are with these tools, the more efficient you become. Efficiency is, in effect, a time management strategy. You optimize workflows to automate as much as possible and use time-saving techniques to structure your schedule. 

As you consider how you can work more efficiently, remember this: working efficiently isn’t about getting more done in less time so you can add more to your task list. Rather, when you work efficiently, you end up with more time for yourself, working fewer hours overall. You’re highly-focused for a handful of hours during the day, so you can relax when the workday is over. 

Bottom line: the more efficiently you work, the more productive you are.

Productivity is the amount of work you complete in a given time period. Efficiency is how well you optimize resources to help you accomplish your work. 

The two work hand-in-hand—an efficient process results in high productivity. 

Let's take a closer look at some examples of both. 

Examples of efficiency and productivity

Let’s say two of your customer success team members must respond to 20 tickets apiece. 

To measure efficiency, look at how long it takes an individual to complete tasks. If Person A takes about two hours to respond to all 20 tickets and Person B takes 2.5 hours to answer the same number of tickets, Person A was more efficient with their time. They used the available tools, knowledge, and resources, resulting in the same amount of work done in less time. 

Productivity is measured by how much work an individual can complete in a set amount of time. Imagine the same two customer success team members must respond to as many tickets as possible in one hour. Person A answers ten tickets in one hour, while Person B responds to eight tickets. 

In this scenario, Person A has been more productive than Person B. They answered more tickets within the established time frame than their peer. 

When measuring productivity, time is the constant. 

When measuring efficiency, the amount of work is the constant. 

Productivity equals how much work is completed in a given time frame. Efficiency is measured by how well resources are used to complete work. In these examples, the main resource was time. However, in most real-world cases, resources include tools, documentation, pre-existing knowledge, and time management skills. 

Now that you've got a handle on the differences between efficiency and productivity, we'll throw you a curveball: quality of work. 

Quality of work comes into play once you review the final product. While Person A's productivity levels look good on paper, they might have sent less comprehensive responses to each ticket. They might litter their answers with typos and technical mistakes. Person B might've spent more time researching their answers, resulting in higher quality output. 

Just because Person A showcased more employee productivity does not necessarily mean they did a better job. Productivity and work quality is a delicate balance. You want to optimize your time to work efficiently while consistently producing top-notch work. 

The right time management techniques and healthy work habits help ensure you productively complete high-quality work every day. 

At the end of every day, Sunsama shows a comprehensive view of everything you accomplished.

What is deep work?

Deep work is one of the best ways to do great work productively. It’s a flow state when your work environment is free of external distractions. You've silenced your Slack notifications, put on your noise-canceling headphones, and refilled your coffee cup. This is an uninterrupted period of time when you can focus solely on the work at hand. 

Most of us strive to have deep work time for some of our work days. You can hone in on the tasks or problems that are exciting and fulfilling to you. Here is where true productivity lives. Deep work fosters space to be creative and solve big problems. Some of our best work is born out of these highly-focused periods. 

The alternative to deep work is "shallow" work. Shallow work encompasses tasks that don't require your undivided attention. These are tasks like reading emails or sending Slack messages while scheduling next week's one-on-one meetings. Effectively, you're multitasking. 

How deep work relates to productivity and efficiency

To achieve a deep working state, you must have an intentional process. This process is the efficiency part of the equation. You're optimizing your work day to have time for deep work when you're at your best and shallow work when you're not. 

The single best thing you can do is plan your day. Lean into a scheduling and time-blocking tool that provides you with a comprehensive view of everything on your plate for the day and week. You know what you need to work on at any given moment, so you’re not using precious mental energy trying to figure out what to do next. 

Automate what you can to reserve time to focus on doing great work on the things you can't. Streamline workflows so you can cruise through your day with ease. Here’s how you can structure your schedule with efficiency and productivity strategies working harmoniously to help you achieve deep work. 

  • Step 1: List everything you need to do for the week. 
  • Step 2: Spread those tasks across your week. You're most likely working around meetings and miscellaneous shallow work tasks. You can time block an hour here and there to respond to emails and check in with Slack. This way, you reduce context switching every time your laptop pings with a new message. This level of organization is you being efficient with your time.
  • Step 3: Schedule deep work. If you're a morning person, plan deep work before lunchtime. If you're an evening person, your deep working session might be from 3 PM to 5 PM. If possible, schedule deep work for when you will be at your most productive. 

We all love the feeling after a highly productive day, but we can only be productive during the assigned hours to prioritize productive rest. No one is capable of doing deep work all the time. Part of working efficiently is knowing when you are the most productive and scheduling a day that aligns with your work style. 

Sunsama helps you prioritize your day by assisting you to move lower priority tasks to a different day, helping you maintain a realistic workload.

What is healthy productivity?

Healthy productivity is a balancing act. It means time blocking your day to allow time for both deep work and breaks, with opportunities for shallow work mixed in. You're setting yourself up for success by allotting time to focus on your work and then stepping away from your computer. Go on a walk, play with your dog, or make a snack—do something that will give your mind a break before returning to your desk. 

In short, healthy productivity is the harmony of deep work, shallow work, and breaks. You build a schedule that prioritizes how you work best. You recognize there is not one “right” way to get things done—the only correct way to work is the one that supports you to deliver the best results. 

As a quick recap before we wrap up, here are a few tips for healthy productivity:

  • Don't spread yourself too thin. Create a daily to-do list that is actually attainable. 
  • Use resources like daily planners to guide your workday.
  • Plan your deep work for the time of day when you're most productive. 
  • If you're feeling exhausted or drained, take a break. 
  • Create a workspace that helps you be productive—whatever that looks like for you. 
  • Set daily work boundaries to ensure you rest, thus ensuring your success.

The right tools and time management strategies make achieving healthy productivity possible.

Achieving healthy productivity 

Have you ever reached a point in your workday when you continue to push yourself despite being so tired your eyes can't stay focused on the screen? You've had a day full of meetings, answering questions on Slack, and trying to work through a seemingly endless mountain of tasks. Your work is still unfinished, but you're so tired you can't think straight. 

This is the opposite of healthy productivity. It’s a clear signal to take a break because you likely won’t be productive or do good work. Continuing to push yourself is a recipe for burnout. You only do yourself a disservice by forcing yourself to complete tasks.

Healthy productivity means you work with a balance of work and rest. You avoid overcrowding your task list to the point when you’re working for hours without a break and feel overwhelmed. A staggering 82% of workers don’t have a time management strategy—it’s no shock that so many people are overwhelmed by their task list. 

Time-blocking your day is an efficient way to avoid this stress and get your work done. Efficient time management comes in many forms—knowing when to take a break so you can maintain a high level of productivity in the long term is one. 

The most efficient process for healthy productivity is the one that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to being highly productive. You’re the only one who can schedule a day that results in you knocking out your task list and feeling good. 

How the right tools boost healthy productivity

Here’s where we can help. 

Sunsama productizes sustainable work. We’re not another tool to clutter your tech stack. Our tool cleanly integrates with others (for efficiency) and has a smooth operational interface for scheduling your day (for productivity). Drag and drop tasks from your project management tools for a seamless daily planning workflow. 

We know there isn’t only one way to work. That’s why we support you to work in your own way with your own schedule. Use Focus Mode to dive into your scheduled deep work. We make time-blocking easy so that you can balance deep work and breaks. 

Your time and energy are valuable. Don't settle for mediocre tools and systems that don't simplify processes to support you to be your most productive. 

Our work never ends. There will always be a task list. The best thing for us to do is optimize our work styles wherever possible. We’ll help you do it

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