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Learning & Development Blog

Self Control: The Ultimate Employee Productivity Killer

The New York Times articulated a problem recently in a way that had never occurred to me before. The problem is self control (or a lack therof, and its impact on employee productivity in the workplace. Sendhil Mullainathan says,

"When we look at productivity at the macro level, we tend to limit ourselves to issues like skill shortages, new technologies, or appropriate incentives. In our own lives, though, we see a personal struggle … The tedium [of work makes it] tempting to take a break and just let our minds wander. In our own lives self-control is a big problem – yet it is largely absent from high-level discussions about worker productivity."

Most business experts tend to speak about this more indirectly: employees, they say, are faced with “competing demands,” and often have “difficulty prioritizing.”

Steven Covey’s Urgency vs. Importance Matrix is often used to describe the problem. Employees, if they aren’t careful, will spend too much time on the “urgent” quadrants of the matrix (II and IV), and never find time for the “important but not urgent” (quadrant I) projects, which may be less clearly defined and complex. 

Employee Productivity Urgency Chart (1).png

If Mullainathan’s observations are correct, many of us spend far more time in quadrants II, III, and IV than anyone suspected.

Why is this a problem now?

In part, it’s because employers have been told repeatedly in recent years, by thought-leaders like Daniel Pink, that autonomy is one of the most effective intrinsic motivators for employees. While it’s true that autonomy can be motivating, it may only help up to a point.

To illustrate, Mullainathan describes a a recent study, in which data entry workers were tracked over the course of a year. Workers had discretion over their productivity; they were paid in direct proportion to their level of output – this gave them the ultimate in autonomy: work in equals dollars out.

But an interesting thing happened when they gave the workers an opportunity to choose between two compensation models. In the first, they were paid for each data field they completed. In the second, they were paid the same amount per field, but were required to complete a minimum number of fields per day, or their compensation would be cut in half. Surprisingly, the workers unanimously chose the second model, despite the fact that it brought a harsh penalty for under-performance.

As it turns out, the second model helped motivate them to work much harder and earn more. The effect on total earnings was significant, equivalent to an increase in pay of 50 percent.

How To Increase Employee Productivity 2.png

To some economists, these findings come as no surprise. Greg Clark, a professor of economics at the University of California, Davis, argues that the Industrial Revolution was in part a self-control revolution. Clark states:

“Workers effectively hired capitalists to make them work harder. They lacked the self-control to achieve higher earnings on their own.”

The data entry workers in our study, centuries later, might have agreed with that statement. In fact, 73 percent of them did agree to this statement: “It would be good if there were rules against being absent because it would help me come to work more often.”

One could argue that it’s not really valid to compare a data entry worker to, say, an analyst at a financial services firm. However, the self-control challenge may be even greater for the analyst. Because his day contains a lot of discretionary time, it could be easy to fritter it away on low priority tasks, or worse, to avoid it entirely in response to feeling overwhelmed.

Employers offer continuous learning programs for employees, and even wellness programs to increase employee productivity. In the age of ambiguous work and endless distraction, it might be time for them to consider helping employees battle their worst enemy: themselves.

How To Motivate Your Team EBook


Mullainathan, S. (2014, September 27). Looking at Productivity as a State of Mind. Retreived from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/upshot/looking-at-productivity-as-a-state-of-mind.html