The Relationship Between Culture and Productivity

I would like to start this article by describing how I personally maintain my own levels of productivity. This has two reasons: firstly, it could potentially give you some inspiration on how to be more productive yourself. And secondly, I am going to talk about why this way of maintaining productivity isn’t going to work for all cultures around the world.

Essentially, my own way of staying productive rests on three different pillars: my purpose, my goals, and my way of keeping a balance between rest, work and play.

My own purpose is probably the most important factor of keeping me productive. As long as I know that on a daily basis I am doing what is making progress for my to fulfill my purpose, I will have the drive to push hard and work even if I do not feel very well, feel tired, and so on. It is important to note here that my purpose is completely intrinsic, that is there is no financial reward behind it. To be precise, it is to create understanding between people from different cultures, and to contribute to a more peaceful world by enhancing the cooperation between people from different cultures.

To me, my goals are essentially specific things that I need to do on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis in order to make progress in fulfilling my purpose. Specifically my daily goals are extremely important in that regard. They are to write 2000 words for my upcoming book on a daily basis, and to publish one blog post on a daily basis. Now, in addition to that I also write down other things that need to be done every day on a priority basis. First, I make sure that I finish all these daily priorities. Next, I start writing. Here it is important to make absolutely no exceptions whatsoever in reaching these writing goals. No matter how many other things I need to do, no matter how bad I feel that day, I should always strive towards reaching these daily goals.

Recently, Seth Godin has written something extremely interesting. He has compared skill-building with building muscles. I remember him writing that building muscles is interesting in that for the most part, the work out is completely useless. We first tire out our muscles until we reach our own physical limitations, and it is only when we have reached this absolute limit and we move beyond it, that our muscle grows. The same thing also goes for any other skill, whether it is writing or playing an instrument etc. In writing, I also have to make sure that I go beyond my limitations, by forcing myself to get something on paper even if no inspiration and no ideas are coming naturally that moment.

Lastly, there is the point of keeping a balance between rest, work and play. Now, for me personally I have created a schedule where I am to go jogging every morning at 6am. Next, I prepare to make my way to work, where I walk for the most part. Then, when I am at work, I always work in 60-90 minute rhythms

What I mean with that is that I work for 60-90 minutes, and then I go outside to walk around for half and hour and/or for a short period meditation. The reason why I do this is that I have noticed that my personal limit for concentration is around that 60 to 90 minute period. After that, I have a strong drop in productivity. At this point a lot of people will try to force themselves to work, or at least to look busy, while in fact they are not getting accomplished anything during that time. That’s why I prefer to do something useful in the mean time.

Why am I saying that this is useful? Well, there is a very simple reason. Research says that people who sit for more than 6 hours a day or so are, on average, decreasing their life span by several years. Plus, sitting for extended periods of time is also extremely unhealthy. Plus, consider these two benefits:

  1. By simply working in this 90 minute rhythm and commuting by feet, I get roughly between 3 and 4 hours of walking time during the day.
  2. These walking times can sometimes be my most creative ones, as they encourage your mind to wander. This type of mind wandering is often where our brain is subconsciously processing the problems which we have been trying to solve up to this point. You see, your unconscious mind can be much better at solving problems than your conscious mind, but to let it work you first need to gather enough information, and then give it permission to work on the problem.

Why does my way to keep myself productive not necessarily work in other countries?

My way of maintaining productivity rests on intrinsic motivation. What this means is that it is based on my purpose, not some sort of external reward.

It is likely that all cultures around the world share this drive for intrinsic motivation. On the long run, money or other extrinsic rewards are a poor motivator for productivity.

What is likely to be different, however, is what constitutes for such an intrinsic reward. A personal purpose assumes an individualistic mind-set: I have a feeling for what I really desire to achieve in life. In many Asian cultures, such an individual purpose would probably not be something that people develop.

Rather, their purpose is often a shared purpose with some sort of larger entity, whether it is their family, their community, or the organization they belong to. This is a result of the so-called ‘interdependent self’, where the person’s view of him- or herself is intertwined with the group he or she belongs to,

For instance, let’s talk about an organization. Westerners are likely to perceive organizations as a collection of individuals. Asians, on the other hand, are more likely to perceive an organization as a group of highly intertwined units, all of whom work in harmony together towards one shared goal.

Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There will always be some people in Asian countries who are much more individualistic than others. Take it more as a rule of thumb.

Either way, the result is that when you would like to increase the productivity of your Asian colleagues, you will still have to create intrinsic motivation for them to do so. The difference with western colleagues, however, is that these intrinsic motivations should be shared goals which apply to their whole team, department, or organization, depending on which part of the organization they identify the most with.

One last comment: if you are an Asian employee and you are moving to a western country, this can have an interesting influence on your degree of motivation. As long as you do not feel a real sense of belonging to the new team, department, or organization you are joining, and as long as you feel like there is no shared sense of purpose between you guys, your motivation levels are likely to remain low (if you have a very interdependent self-concept).

Essentially, there are probably two solutions to this. The first is to ensure to find some group to which you can get a stronger feeling of belonging (perhaps, a smaller team instead of the whole organization), and with whose purpose you can identify.

The second one is, and this is much more complicated, to somewhat shift your mind-set from a more interdependent, to a more individualistic one (at least when it comes to work). This, however, can potentially be dangerous when you are moving back to your own country, where it will most likely be perceived as a lack of obedience and conformity if you maintain the behaviour you learned overseas.




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