Pseudo Productivity

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Today’s blog will be one of those where I take a newly learned phrase which resonated with me, then write about it in my own words. And that phrase is pseudo productivity.

I heard it from Cal Newport, the multi times top seller author of books such as So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and his most recent offering; Slow Productivity.

Historical Knowledge Base Work Measures

Having entered into the workforce as an office worker in 1986, I have always been in the knowledge base side of work. The early days consisted of lots of filing and counting and delivering of documents. Productivity was simply based around ensuring the jobs were complete at the end of each day.

As I moved into the 1990’s when computers started hitting the desks, and then into the 2000’s, bottom line performance results were the general measurements used to gauge productivity of the workforce as a whole.

As a sales and development person, the only thing that mattered were the monthly and annual performance figures. This measurement was a consistent gauge for most knowledge based workers, as ultimately these are the only figures in business which truly matter.

Overtime Pseudo Productivity

Throughout those years I often observed non-sales based colleagues who worked a lot of overtime. I know for a fact that some of these people had worked slowly throughout the day to ensure they had the opportunity to work overtime, and therefore show the bosses how “hard working” they were. 

These overtime workers were used as a stick to beat others with. These other workers were often far more efficient, but because they would not stay in the office for overtime and were therefore not seen to be working above and beyond, they were considered not as valuable as the “hard workers” who were always in the office.

This was my first observation of pseudo productivity at work.

The Covid Effect: Working From Home

Covid changed the way people worked in many different aspects. Above all else, it made people realise that working for somebody else, giving your life, heart, health and everything you have to make money for others was maybe not as fulfilling as previously thought. It changed the dynamic and shifted the mindset of people towards a more balanced and reasonable use of their time and health.

Most companies now need to continue offering a WFH practice to ensure people join or remain with the company. This is more true in Europe than it is in Hong Kong. But many Hong Kongers have also seen the light and realise that there is life outside of work.

I was an advocate for flexible working hours many years before Covid. After all, people are individual’s with their own life challenges to balance. So if treated as adults and allowed to manage their time flexibly, they will be more productive in business and at work. Covid opened the pathway to prove these theories correct. 

After years of practising WFH I have now also shifted slightly back the other way, recognising that company culture and social interactions within the office environment are hugely important. I now feel the sweet spot is 1-2 days (depending on the person and their lives) per week WFH.

WFH Pseudo Productivity Shift

WFH meant that companies felt they needed to find a way to measure all staff, no matter what their roles or responsibilities were. This included sales and business development staff who were previously measured by results.

Company leaders felt the need to be sure that people WFH were not just sitting around watching TV. So plans were devised to measure these staff which included things such as keyboard and screen time monitoring, as well as some companies having video monitoring to ensure the staff were always in front of the computer at home.

Pseudo Productivity Mindset

The mindset of workers became one of trying to demonstrate being busy all of the time with valueless activities. Activities such as 30 minute daily or weekly video calls for things which would previously have been discussed by picking up the phone and speaking for five minutes.


This is why you clearly notice an increase in emails back and forth, confirming receipt, saying thanks and giving pointless meaningless information. I like to call this Busyness Business Virtue Signalling. It’s the need to reply quickly to messages, rushing through meaningless tasks to make it look like you’re busy. Rather than focusing on deep work which has actual value and meaning, but cannot necessarily be measured.

Factory Based vs Knowledge Based Work

Covid came so fast that business leaders did not have the time to think through the style of measurement. All they had to go on was looking back historically at measurement, which is very much entrenched in factory based work.

Henry Ford was able to measure the productivity of his staff when he changed the production system to a moving assembly line. This was the pattern copied throughout manufacturing to ensure all factory workers were measured and could hit their targets of production.

This strategy works extremely well in a factory based / product driven business. But in a knowledge based / service driven business, replicating those ideas brings companies deeper into pseudo productivity.

Data Driven Pseudo Productivity

What we have ended up with as a result of not being able to find a way to measure all of the people all of the time in knowledge based work, is a pseudo productivity of data collection driven by systems such as SAP’s and CRM’s. A factory-based measurement system for products, being applied to service-based industries and sales jobs.

The Real Effect of Data Collection on Sales Development

What this leads to is a sales workforce who are measured by the amount of data they enter into a system, rather than the results of the business they bring. This allows management to show CEO’s and board members how productive the sales people are, by measuring the amount of calls they make and sales leads they bring, rather than the actual bottom line business results.

In order for sales people to hit the required targets of management for such data entry, you can clearly imagine what will happen.

False Data

Having always been in sales, I am more than aware that my weakness is administration. Making sales reports of visits was always the last thing I would do, and would always be a struggle to complete. Not only because it’s my weakness, but more so because sales people should be busy handling their customers and managing business to ensure satisfaction and growth. Reports were always completed outside of official working hours and were a drain on my energy.

Nevertheless, pre covid this was mostly only a requirement for business trips, and not applied to daily everyday work.

With the application of daily sales work now needing to be reported into CRM’s to show management how “busy” they are, what results is false data being entered simply to ensure the box of completing and hitting the targets are ticked. Management can then be satisfied as they are able to present to the CEO or board pretty bar charts showing how productive their sales teams are.

Multi Layered Pseudo Productivity = Reduced Productivity and Bottom Line Results

Ironically, in the desire to push for more data to show the productivity of such sales people, pseudo productivity is encountered at all levels of the business. From the sales person entering false data, to the line manager presenting to the top management, who presents to the CEO/Board. This is all data driven rubbish in / rubbish out, but it gives something for management to justify their jobs and show the CEO/board how hard the people are working.


Let your sales people do sales and look at the bottom line volume and financial results only. Ultimately that’s all that really matters, and that’s all that will ever matter.

I have personally removed most of my weekly video calls I put in place during Covid, and gone back to the old style of picking up the phone and talking to people when it’s needed. Video calls still have their place. But they are occasional and should not be the norm for discussions with customers or suppliers.


I was so happy to read Cal Newports book Slow Productivity because it helped explain the way I have been working for many years. I cannot work on one thing from 9-6. I have always juggled my work time, interjected with exercise or other hobbies to ensure my brain is always fresh and able to focus on each task at hand. 

My working time has always been from the moment I wake til the moment I sleep, but it’s never 100% job focused all the way through. That’s simply impossible. So by taking the Slow Productivity approach, you can juggle multitasks and be the most productive and best working version of yourself.

In the Jordan Harbinger Show #975, Jordan talks to Cal about this phenomenon. Listen to this fantastic podcast to learn more about Slow and Pseudo Productivity, such as:

  • Why we need to redefine what productivity means in an age of constant connection and unclear boundaries between work life and home life.
  • How the pandemic’s remote work “solutions” exacerbated on a societal level an already simmering host of workload issues.
  • How committing to doing fewer things makes work more sustainable and increases its overall quality.
  • How to increase the volume of email you can process while minimising the productivity-killing need to context switch.
  • Innovative work models that may be key to better balance and slow productivity in the near and distant future.
  • And as always much much more…

Dig in, open your mind, listen and learn more about how to Live Smarter, Live Happier & Live Longer.

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