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Productivity Trap: Following a list can be a bad thing

If you regularly spend time performing tasks that don’t create revenue, build a customer base, or on tasks that you can’t do or hate doing, you’ve fallen into the productivity trap.
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The path that leads to the productivity trap

Antique dealers work too hard.

Of course, “hard work” is a core American value. It’s said that working hard builds character, financial security, and happiness. To gain these benefits, we strive to maximize personal and corporate productivity. We employ checklists, analysis systems, and technology so that we may obtain more products, more sales, and more profits.

Isolator Helmet is a step towards the productivity trap

Hugo Gernsback's Isolator Helmet

In the past century, some ideas for increasing productivity have worked well, and others haven’t.

In 1913 Henry Ford’s moving assembly line reduced the time required to manufacture an automobile from 12 hours to two hours and 30 minutes. Ford could build cars better, faster, and cheaper than his competitors. As a result, American families could afford a car, and Ford sales skyrocketed.

In 1925, author, publisher, and inventor Hugo Gernsback introduced his Isolator helmet to the public. The device resembled a deep-sea diving helmet but was made of fabric rather than steel. It covered the head, had a view-plate in front, a tube connected to an oxygen tank, and a valve near the mouth to release the carbon dioxide created by breathing.

Science and Invention magazine featuring Hugo Gernsback's Isolator Helmet

Science and Invention magazine featuring Hugo Gernsback's Isolator Helmet

The device wasn’t intended for scientific exploration, though; it was intended to increase the productivity of office workers. The theory was that the helmet would reduce distractions and therefore increase focus on one’s work. Although Gernsback was issued a patent on the device, there is no record of it ever being manufactured.

Henry Ford’s concept was process-oriented; Hugo Gernsback’s was task-oriented.

In your business, are you more Ford or more Gernsback?

Focus on the 'big picture'

When our daily activities are driven by to-do lists, it’s easy to lose track of the “big picture” and become task oriented. Stores must open on time, listings must get posted, merchandise must be acquired and displayed, and bills must be paid in order to stay in business. But there are always more tasks to be done than there are hours in a day to perform them. Paying for help isn’t always a solution; too often it’s easier for an owner to perform a task rather than delegate it and take the time to train an employee.

So, we “work hard.” We put in long hours and make sacrifices. We’re always on the move, always “doing business.” At the end of the day, we still haven’t engaged customers on social media, decorated the store for the season, read industry news, updated our website, created our next seasonal promotion, or performed a dozen other tasks that can be done tomorrow. Like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind,” we declare: “I won’t think about that today; I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

The Isolator Helmet by Hugo Gernsback

The Isolator Helmet by Hugo Gernsback

Such an approach takes a physical, mental, and financial toll on an antique dealer. The Harvard Business Review reports that compared to other industrialized nations, American workers sleep less, take fewer vacations, and have higher incidences of illness [].

All our hard work results in less productivity rather than more productivity. The result is burnout.

Entrepreneurs maintain that one should work smart rather than work hard. We each have our own definition of what it means to work smart.

What’s yours?

Definitions of 'working smart'

Seth Godin [], Hall of Fame marketer, trainer, and author of 19 best-selling books, has this to say about working smart:

“A talented doctor spends no more than ten or fifteen minutes a day performing the service for which she’s actually renowned ... the same goes for salespeople, farmers, novelists, and hockey players”[Small Is the New Big: and 183 Other Riffs, Rants, and Remarkable Business Ideas].

Why so little time?

Godin continues:

“There’s too much overhead. A doctor needs to fill out forms, meet salespeople, answer phone calls, travel from hospital to hospital, manage staff, and, occasionally, see a patient.” (ibid)

A doctor gets paid “the big bucks” for what they know (diagnosing and treating patients) rather than a multitude of tasks (attending to overhead issues). Doctors are skilled diagnosticians. The more time they spend evaluating patients, the more revenue they generate. Although overhead must be attended to, doing so is not the best use of a doctor’s time. Being busy all day gives the illusion of being productive without increasing revenue and/or job satisfaction.

Therein lies the productivity trap.

Antique dealers are similar to doctors

Similarly, antique dealers are skilled in evaluation. We know the points of connoisseurship for a wide variety of collectibles; we can separate fakes from genuine and understand the subtleties of pricing. The enthusiasm for our products and the ability to share that enthusiasm with our customers is also our forte. But – like doctors – we spend much of our day attending to overhead concerns that, although essential, don’t build our business.

The core elements of an antique business are a well-curated, unique inventory and a large, loyal customer base. Most of us know this, but the demands of a day tend to get in the way of our dedication to the core elements. Consequently, our days are filled with activity, not productivity. If we wonder why we are busy all day but seem to be “spinning our wheels,” we have fallen into the productivity trap.

Getting out of the productivity trap in 4 steps

Getting out of the trap takes some thought and planning. It can be accomplished in four steps:

  1. Spend more time picking; you can’t grow an antique business without a great inventory. Whether you buy online, at auctions, estate sales, or through a network of pickers, picking must be your top priority.
  2. Determine which of your activities offers the most personal satisfaction. If you have a knack for merchandising or marketing, set aside time for these tasks. Doing so will help you avoid burnout.
  3. Decide to engage your customers personally on a regular basis. Customers prefer to deal with an owner because they believe that owners offer expert opinions, have more pricing authority, and are more committed to the business. Engaging on a regular basis includes face-to-face, on social media, and through email. Customers buy from those they know, trust, and like; as the face of a business, an owner must engage his customers.
  4. Make a list of tasks that must be done that either don’t produce revenue or that you hate doing. Those are the tasks that should be hired out. There is no reason for an owner to clean a bathroom, unload a trailer, or shovel snow. If you’re not skilled in internet marketing or search engine optimization, find someone who is.

If you regularly spend time performing tasks that don’t create revenue, build a customer base, or on tasks that you can’t do or hate doing, you’ve fallen into the productivity trap. 

Wayne Jordan specializes in the valuation and liquidation of estate and business assets. Learn more at is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to and affiliated websites. 

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