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What Makes Some People More Productive Than Others

Robert C. Pozen

Dec 31, 2022

Would you rate yourself as highly productive?


We’ve learned a lot about personal productivity and what makes some people more productive than others. Last year we published a survey to help professionals assess their own personal productivity — defined as the habits closely associated with accomplishing more each day. The survey focused on seven habits: developing daily routines, planning your schedule, coping with messages, getting a lot done, running effective meetings, honing communication skills, and delegating tasks to others.


After cleaning up the data, we obtained a complete set of answers from 19,957 respondents across six continents. Roughly half were residents of North America; another 21% were residents of Europe and 19% were residents of Asia. The remaining 10% was comprised of residents (in descending order) from Australia, South America, and Africa.


Our survey had its limits — for example, respondents were a self-selected sample of readers of HBR.org, and the ratings were self-assessments of habits rather than objective measures of people’s productivity. Nevertheless, we believe the survey results provide useful insights into important productivity habits and challenges facing professionals.


Three general patterns stood out: First, working longer hours does not necessarily mean higher personal productivity. Working smarter is the key to accomplishing more of your top priorities each day. Second, age and seniority were highly correlated with personal productivity — older and more senior professionals recorded higher scores than younger and more junior colleagues. Third, the overall productivity scores of male and female professionals were almost the same, but there were gender differences on particular habits that promote personal productivity.


More specifically, we found that professionals with the highest productivity scores tended to do well on the same clusters of habits. They planned their work based on their top priorities, and then acted with a definite objective. They developed effective techniques for managing a high volume of information and tasks. And they understood the needs of their colleagues — for short meetings, responsive communications, and clear directions.


Let’s go deeper into the survey results. On geography, the average productivity score for respondents from North America was in the middle of the pack, even though Americans tend to work longer hours. The North American score was significantly lower than the average productivity scores for respondents from Europe, Asia, and Australia. On the other hand, the North American score was significantly higher than the average productivity scores for residents of South America and Africa (though recall these were the areas where we had the least data).


Drilling down into the data, we found the higher productivity scores for Europe, Asia, and Australia were driven by strong habits in areas such as daily schedules, not constantly checking messages, focusing early on the final product, and thinking carefully before reading or writing.


Let’s go deeper into the survey results. On geography, the average productivity score for respondents from North America was in the middle of the pack, even though Americans tend to work longer hours. The North American score was significantly lower than the average productivity scores for respondents from Europe, Asia, and Australia. On the other hand, the North American score was significantly higher than the average productivity scores for residents of South America and Africa (though recall these were the areas where we had the least data).


Drilling down into the data, we found the higher productivity scores for Europe, Asia, and Australia were driven by strong habits in areas such as daily schedules, not constantly checking messages, focusing early on the final product, and thinking carefully before reading or writing.


Beside geography and gender, we analyzed the responses to our questionnaire by age and seniority. There were five age brackets — with the most respondents in the under-30 bracket and the least in the over-60 bracket. We found that the productivity scores of respondents rose systematically the older they got. This trend seems to reflect the benefits of learning from years of experience how to work smarter. The drivers of these higher productivity scores for respondents in older age brackets were their stronger habits in four areas: developing routines for low-value activities, managing message flow, running effective meetings, and delegating tasks to others.


The story was somewhat similar when it came to seniority. There were five levels of seniority captured in the data, with 5 being the most junior and 1 being the most senior. The number of respondents was highest in the most junior level and lowest at the most senior level. As with age, the productivity scores rose systematically with successively higher levels of seniority. This may suggest that business professionals attain higher levels of seniority in part by cultivating good productivity habits (or vice versa, people become more senior and then have to become more productive). However, the drivers of higher scores for senior level respondents were different than those for older respondents. More senior respondents achieved high productivity from better planning of their schedules, getting a lot done, and stronger communication skills.


Finally, we focused on the tails in each of the four demographic categories. We defined tails to include all respondents whose total score fell outside of two standard deviations from the mean. The left tail comprised those with the lowest scores; the right tail had the highest scores. We didn’t find any geographic or gender patterns on either tail, though we saw a few of the youngest and most junior professionals in the right tail with the highest scores.


The professionals in the right tail with the highest productivity scores were particularly adept at overcoming procrastination, getting to the final product, and focusing on daily accomplishments. Low ratings on these three habits were typically reported by professionals with the lowest productivity scores. In addition, professionals in the right tail were much better at advance planning — reviewing schedules the night before, sending out meeting agendas, and setting success metrics for their teams. Professionals in the left tail had low scores on these aspects of advance planning. They also did not leave open slots in their schedules and did not use outlines before writing memos.


So what should professionals take away from the results of our survey?  If you want to become more productive, you should develop an array of specific habits.

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