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Six Signs of a Highly Unproductive Person

Spotting these signs in others can help you tremendously.

Before embarking on any venture that involves more than one person, knowing how productive they are is invaluable. Whether that be a business partnership, new collaboration, or a simple meeting, it is to your benefit to recognize their productivity levels ahead of time. Otherwise, you may be stuck carrying the bulk of the workload. As you navigate through your side of the deal, they’ll still be crawling through the initial stages. As you give them updates as to your progress, you’ll have to hound them to provide the most basic of communications.

In my near half-decade of writing about productivity, I’ve noticed several commonalities. Commonalities that, if you are aware of them ahead of time, can save you great deals of headache and frustration. Therefore, here are six signs that you are dealing with a highly unproductive person. Keep them in mind as you work with others moving forward.


They Are Physically Disorganized

Clutter abounds. Wherever you look, there are piles. When they clean up one pile, suddenly a new one forms in its place. This is the first and most noticeable sign of an unproductive person. They will make excuses as to the clutter. They will say they know where everything is. But ask them to show you something from a week ago and they will scramble.

Compare this against a productive person. You go into their office. Everything is neat and orderly. It won’t necessarily be minimalistic, but it will feel as though its aesthetic was set up in an intentional way. If you ask them to grab something from two months ago, they’ll do it with rapidity. If you ask them about an email you sent earlier, they’ll have it up for you within seconds.


Mental Disorganization Is Abundant

“What do you want?” I ask. “Well I was thinking a little of this, and maybe some of that, and oh I was thinking about that thing you said the other day, and also…” One sentence into a conversation and I can already see the chaos that is their mind. Getting a straight answer from this person will pose a challenge. Mostly because they can’t give a straight answer to themself. Their mind is filled with idea fragments, half-stories, and undescribed wants.

The first sign of an unproductive person can be seen with the eyes. The second can be heard with the ears. Ask a simple question and see the response you get. This will give you an indication as to the level of order their mind possesses. You may find that physical disorganization coincides with mental, but it’s not always the case.


They Don’t Plan

Each day is a fresh tulip. It wakes to the sun and blooms into what it is meant to be. The wind blows and with it, the tulip goes along for the ride. That’s great unless you’re a tulip that wants to get things done. The third sign of a highly unproductive person is that they don’t plan for their time. Their calendar either doesn’t exist or is mismanaged. They don’t know what their schedule holds for them today, tomorrow, or the next. They’re “open” to see where the day takes them. Often that’s the couch.

You may make plans with them weeks ahead of time only to find that they don’t show up as promised. It “slipped their mind.” Or better still, you may try to schedule a call with them a few days from now. Their response will be that you can try calling them then and if they answer, they answer. Their schedule is too “variable” to make such commitments. They’re not on-call doctors though. They just don’t know how to plan.


Deadlines Are Missed

The task wasn’t that hard. You could have easily done it, but you delegated it out to him. His underling could have easily done it as well. So you’re surprised when he comes in and asks for an extension. “An extension? On that?” He doesn’t know where the time went. Either way, he needs more of it because it’s not done yet.

The fourth sign of a highly unproductive person is that they consistently fail to meet deadlines. Those failures often come with excuses like:

  • It wasn’t my fault. I was helping so and so out instead.
  • I lost track of time.
  • And my favorite: I thought the deadline was flexible.


Parkinson’s Law Foils Them

Parkinson’s law states that the amount of time you give a task is the amount of time it will take you to complete it. For example, give yourself one hour to write a report and it will take one hour to do. Give yourself three hours for that same report and it will take all three. The fifth sign of a highly unproductive person is that they succumb to Parkinson’s law.

This person will often give themself vast timespans to complete tasks. Because they have “plenty of time” and “there’s no rush,” they wait until the last minute to get started. They had a year to complete a project. It ends up taking them the full year. Little did they know though that they could have gotten it done in two months had they set a more appropriate deadline. But they don’t and continue to go about wasting their time and yours.


They Don’t Have a Reason to Be Productive

If life is ambiguous, if you don’t have concrete desires or aspirations, you have no need for productivity. Yes, productivity is a means to help you get more done but it isn’t the end. Productivity is a tool to help you create a more fulfilling life for yourself. For instance, if you write your blog post faster, you will have more time to spend with your spouse. If you move through the meeting more efficiently, you will have more time later that day to read.

The last sign of a highly unproductive person is that they don’t have a reason to be productive. They haven’t spent the time understanding what they want in life. And therefore all things seem equally important. In a world without priority, fishing with your daughter and sitting in traffic hold the same weight. Because of that, their efforts will never be more than a slow malaise of unproductivity.


Moving Forward

Before taking someone up on a “promising” venture, consider if they meet your standards of productivity. Better to know now, upfront, than when you’re three months into the project and feel like ripping your hair out. You know what to look for. Now it’s only a matter of searching it out in others, ideally before making a commitment to someone. Here are the six signs again for your reference:

  1. They are physically disorganized
  2. They are mentally disorganized
  3. They don’t plan out their time
  4. They miss deadlines
  5. They succumb to Parkinson’s law
  6. They don’t have a reason to be productive

Moving forward, use these six signs of a highly unproductive person to inform your people decisions. Is their workspace chaotic? Can you not get a straight answer from them? Is planning a simple coffee get-together excruciating? Do they consistently turn in their assignments late – even when they’re incredibly easy? Do they give themselves way more time for a task than is necessary and have it take that entire time to complete it? And finally, do they lack a reason for doing?

If so, you are likely dealing with a highly unproductive person. Good luck.

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