The last productivity article you’ll ever read

If unproductivity is the disease, could research help us find a cure?

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An unproductive worker slumping in his chair at work

As a nation, we are obsessed with productivity — particularly in the workplace. We set departmentwide metrics that measure things like percentage to goal, and we schedule monthly check-ins with managers to assess our performance over time.

And when our productivity falters, we turn to the internet, falling on articles like “Practicing Mindfulness for Productivity” in the hopes of learning some new trick that will put time back in our busy day.

But perhaps we’re ignoring the real problem here. Instead of focusing on the solution, we need to better understand the cause. So in the spirit of understanding what makes people unproductive, QuickBooks Time sought the answers to these questions: What are the triggers of unproductive behavior at work, and whose job is it to reverse unproductivity?

We surveyed 500 employees from around the U.S., asking how factors like sleep, work environment, and more might affect their ability to get the job done.* Realizing we weren’t looking for productivity — rather, the inverse — we knew we needed a word to describe our endeavor. Thus, unproductivity. (Whether or not it’s really a word is beside the point, and googling the answer isn’t really a productive use of your time, now, is it?)

And if you’re still looking for a helpful top-10 article with tips for achieving the ultimate productive day, we have good news: In exploring the disease, we’ve unlocked at least a few possible cures. If you’re looking for the antidote to unproductivity, you’ve come to the right place.

Are U.S. workers getting enough sleep?

Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise. Or so Benjamin Franklin thought. But are U.S. workers getting all the sleep they need to be productive — let alone healthy? According to survey respondents, the answer is no. Just 1 in 5 said they get enough sleep every night, while 80 percent reported some level of insomnia.

And if you’re thinking, “Does sleep really have that much to do with productivity?” the answer is yes. While 3 out of 5 workers said they can sometimes function at their best without a good night’s sleep, 25 percent of those who said they never sleep well said they also never function at their best. Unlike their better-rested counterparts, these workers were also most likely to be “very distracted” by interrupting co-workers, background noise, and meetings.

Still, despite rolling out of bed tired, the majority of workers stated mid-morning was their most productive time, regardless of how many hours they’d slept.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), there’s been a decline in average sleep duration and quality over the last 50 years, leading to adverse health consequences. Interested in better understanding why sleep quality and duration was suffering, PNAS surveyed 1,508 American adults. Results showed 90 percent of these used some type of electronic device at least a few nights a week within one hour of bedtime, disrupting natural sleep patterns.

The PNAS then took their study even further, asking test subjects to interact with different electronic and non-electronic items prior to sleeping. This compared, for instance, the effects of using an e-reader versus a physical book prior to going to bed. On average, people who used an e-reader took 10 minutes longer to fall asleep, experienced significantly less REM sleep, and displayed lower levels of melatonin — the hormone that determines the body’s circadian rhythm and makes it easier to fall asleep.

Worker looking at his phone before going to bed.

Sleep productivity challenge

Sleep is personal to everyone. Encourage your workmates to try an experiment where you track how many hours of sleep you get a night, shutting down any electronic devices an hour prior to hitting the hay. In the morning, rate your restfulness on a scale of 1 to 10. Do you feel more alert on seven hours of sleep, or eight? Then build a routine around that finding. And if you use your phone as an alarm, don’t forget to turn off notifications and set the clock prior to winding down for the night.

Are U.S. workers too distracted?

QuickBooks Time asked workers about some of the most common office distractions. Unsurprisingly, other co-workers were the biggest distraction, including talkative co-workers, interrupting co-workers, and sick co-workers. Most folks did better with background noise or electronic devices, though only 30 percent of respondents felt instant messaging and their own smartphone wasn’t distracting at all. Music was the least likely factor to drive workers to distraction. Only 28 percent of people said it was very distracting, while nearly 50 percent said it wasn’t distracting at all.

Which of the following do you find distracting at work?

A chart showing what workers find most distracting in the workplace.

As for what helps them get work done, most folks (67 percent) felt they were able to get more done working from home. Another 61 percent said they’d be more productive if they had more flexible hours, perhaps capitalizing on the times when they feel most focused. While each of these might help solve for distracting co-workers, just in case, 56 percent said they’d certainly get more work done if co-workers would stop interrupting them.

Meetings were another major factor, with 50 percent of workers stating that fewer meetings would likely aid their productivity. And speaking of fewer check-ins, another 50 percent of workers said more autonomy would allow them to get more work done.

I would get more work done if:

Chart showing ideas that would increase worker productivity.

All in all, workers were on the side of a flexible work environment — one that allowed them to work where they wanted, when they wanted, on the projects they wanted, with fewer human interactions overall. But is such a reality even possible?

According to Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of the book “Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It,” the answer is yes. It’s called the Results-Only Work Environment, or the ROWE concept. Essentially, employees have clear, measurable goals. They know exactly what they need to get done to succeed. So long as they hit those goals, they’re free to take time off when they like, come into the office when they wish, and even skip out on pointless meetings.

Distraction productivity challenge

It may not win you any company culture points, but studies show open floor plans, while fun and airy, are breeding grounds for unproductivity. Beyond giving people the room to work where and when they’re most productive, design an office space where workers can get in the zone. Or if cubicle walls aren’t an option, give the gift of noise-canceling headphones, complete with audio so workers can turn up the tunes if they wish. And finally, encourage people to use IM rather than in-person interactions for quick problem-solving, saving social hour for a pre-planned (later) time of day.

Should U.S. workplaces be giving workers more breaks?

The majority of workers agree: Taking breaks throughout the day promotes productivity. But are workplaces doing everything they can to encourage such breaks? And are workers taking advantage of the opportunities they’re given?

According to survey respondents, 60 percent of workers feel taking a daily lunch break helps boost their productivity. That’s compared to the 1 in 5 workers (22 percent) who said powering through their day and skipping lunch to go home early boosted their productivity.

Regardless of whether they were taking a break or not, overall, 12 percent of respondents felt they were too busy to take a lunch break. This number jumped to 18 percent among those who never get a good night’s sleep, meaning people who never get a good night’s sleep are more likely to say their workload is too high to take a lunch break.

Some productivity experts recommend taking seven breaks a day, which is essentially getting up once every hour of the workday. Unfortunately, 3 out of 5 workers said it’s unlikely they would be able to take that many breaks every day, regardless of productivity outcomes. The remaining 2 out of 5 said they thought it’d be at least somewhat likely they could take seven breaks a day.

A photo of workers taking a walk during a break.

Break-time productivity challenge

Breaks don’t have to be lengthy to get the blood moving. Consider implementing voluntary minute-to-win-it events throughout the day, and create calendar reminders so people remember to take a break. Here in the QuickBooks Time marketing department, we do at least one minute-to-win-it event a day, with a longer 10-minute game of trivia on Wednesdays. Whether it’s a minute of wall-sits, a minute of planks, or a minute of squats, taking 60 seconds to move as a team doesn’t just prompt the brain to start firing on all cylinders — it also promotes camaraderie, encouragement, and wellness.

And speaking of wellness …

Should U.S. employers provide workers with standing desks?

Standing desks, like open floor plans, are easily the biggest office trend today, with some saying they’re the most revolutionary invention for the workplace since cubicle walls took over in the 1960s. And statistically, that statement is likely truer than you think. According to the 2018 Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) Employee Benefits Report, the number of employees who’ve been given standing desks has gone up drastically and consistently over the last five years. This year (2018) it’s up by 53 percent over 2014.

Source: SHRM Employee Benefits Report

But while experts like Harvard Faculty Editor Robert H. Shmerling, MD, often point to the potential standing desks have to improve things like neck and back pain, the reality is less than half of U.S. workers are taking advantage of their new workstation.

In fact, survey results showed that while 1 in 3 employees is provided a standing workstation, only 34 percent of workers actually stand most of the time. One in 4 never raises their standing workstation. Interestingly enough, those who are provided with standing desks were more likely to find office happenings “very distracting.”

That said, whether or not a standing desk gets used may be a secondary concern for HR and office managers. Such modern amenities have very much become a recruiting tool for offices looking to portray a company culture that promotes health and wellness. Managers will have to look at the bigger picture — including the potential to attract greater talent, whether that talent uses their standing desk or not — prior to making any final decisions about purchasing standing desks.

Would U.S. workers be more productive if they were paid more?

Some workers believe so. When asked to rank a list of benefits in order of which ones might boost their productivity, over half of respondents (56 percent) chose a pay increase as their biggest motivator.

That’s likely no surprise to researchers Angus Deaton, Ph.D., and Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman, Ph.D., who found wages played a dominating role in emotional wellness and life evaluation.

In an effort to determine what makes people happy, the doctors uncovered this salary secret: Employees who make $75,000 are the happiest. And that’s even compared to those making far more, regardless of the cost of living. According to Deaton and Kahneman, those with annual household incomes below $75,000 responded less positively to both life evaluation and emotional well-being questions. And while life evaluation ratings continued to increase for people with annual household incomes of more than $75,000, emotional well-being was less affected.

Getting back to the QuickBooks Time survey, pay wasn’t the only factor employees deemed important for staying productive. Results showed quality of life outside of work was just as popular a response.

  1. Quality of life outside of work
  2. How much I get paid
  3. How much sleep I get
  4. How stressed I feel
  5. My relationship with my manager
  6. How good I am at prioritizing my work
  7. A supportive company culture

But while pay might be an easy incentive for managers to address, most HR departments would likely feel a worker’s quality of life outside the office is above and beyond their jurisdiction. In fact, they likely have more sway in this area than they realize.

Dad driving with his family in a car.

Quality of life productivity challenge

For companies with resources to spare, benefits like free childcare or wellness reimbursements for physical and mental health are just the tip of the iceberg for influencing their employees’ personal lives for the better. Offering to pay part of an adoption, incentivizing employees to take a vacation, or offering additional mental health benefits like marriage or grief counseling are all benefits that roll into a worker’s quality of life outside the office.

But companies don’t have to be rich to increase their employees’ overall health and happiness. For those with smaller budgets, partnerships with local businesses like neighborhood pools, daycares, or dieticians may give employees the boost they need to lead a more productive, fulfilling life inside and outside of work.

Does company culture and stress make U.S. workers more productive?

Employers must strike a delicate balance when it comes to stress and company culture. On the one hand, managers want employees to have fun at work. Not only do happier employees have better retention rates, but they attract better new hires as well. On the other hand, a company’s culture can’t be all play and no work, or the company would never make any money.

Same goes for stress. There’s healthy stress and unhealthy stress. And as survey results show, an employee’s stress level can play a big role in determining their productivity.

When asked how stress affected their productivity, 3 out of 5 workers said stress made them less productive, while the remainder felt stress actually boosted their overall productivity. People who reported never getting enough sleep didn’t show appreciably higher levels of stress than others, but they were more likely to say stress made them less productive.

In relation to company culture, workers who didn’t get enough sleep were also less likely to say they provided an invaluable contribution to their company. Overall, though, the majority of workers (68 percent) did say they provide an invaluable contribution to their company, which is good news for office managers.

According to, feeling accomplished — in the sense of making an impact on the larger organization — is the No.1 driver for happiness in employees under 35 years old. And happiness plays a big role in employee retention and productivity.

For employers looking to impact employee productivity even further, here’s some good news: There’s still room for improvement.

Despite the fact 60 percent of workers said they felt invested in the goals and direction of their company, only 39 percent of employees felt they had a say in those directions or goals.

Otherwise, employers seem to have company culture down — at least for the most part. While less than half (45 percent) of employees felt they were properly rewarded for their efforts, 66 percent said they were valued for their work, and more than half had some say over the types of projects on their list.

Which of the following about your company’s work culture are true for you?

Chart showing how company culture affects employee outlook and productivity.

Key takeaways

It’s impossible to implement effective tactics for increasing productivity without first understanding the potential causes of unproductivity. It’d be like taking medication for an illness you’re not sure you possess. Yes, there’s a chance whatever you try could fix the symptoms, but if you haven’t paused to diagnose the disease, chances are good those problems will rear their ugly heads again eventually. 

For businesses looking for new and creative ways to upend unproductivity, there’s plenty of room for change and growth. From more flexible work schedules to scheduled breaks, companies have the opportunity to increase worker productivity for the long haul. While not every solution is going to fit every office, these statistics and honest conversations with your own team about their productivity roadblocks can at least jump-start a program that is mutually beneficial to employers and employees.

*Methodology: QuickBooks Time commissioned Pollfish to survey 500 anonymous employees (age 18+) from businesses throughout the US, asking them about their productivity habits and common distractions. QuickBooks Time designed and paid for the survey and welcomes the re-use of this data under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original source is cited with attribution to “QuickBooks Time.”