One question that has, for some reason, bothered me quite a lot is: what is productivity?
Throughout all the different personal development and productivity blogs I’ve read, I’ve learned a number of ways to be more productive. Eliminate distractions, exercise, don’t have long meetings and so on and so on.
However, I never really took time to understand what productivity is.
Perhaps this is because the first answer is quite mundane.
The ability to produce stuff.
It’s a keystone behind David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” system which has sold millions of copies and inspired a host of productivity blogs out there.
The more productive you are, the more stuff you produce or complete.
Is this helpful? Anyone can be extremely productive if you take this definition because you can complete a lot of small, relatively meaningless tasks and say you’ve had an extremely productive day every day. This is why answering a bunch of emails or cleaning the house might feel productive even though you’ve put off something more important.
Simply producing more stuff isn’t a helpful definition in a lot of contexts we’re now in. What about…
The ability to produce important stuff.
This is a bit more focused. If complete more important stuff you’re going to be more productive than the person who just completes a bunch of meaningless tasks, right? For example, if you decide not to answer a bunch of emails and instead write the important report or calculate the important calculation, then you’re producing more valuable stuff.
While we’re getting closer to a more usable definition, we’re not there yet. What happens if the tasks you’re working on aren’t important to you but rather someone else? Am I being unproductive because the ‘important’ goals aren’t important to me?
Possibly. But many of us will work for other people and on important tasks that do not completely align with our personal passions. It’s a normal part of a working life in whatever capacity. The importance of the task depends on the context but then we may want to think in more depth about the kind of context we find ourselves in the majority of the time.
We may think about productivity in personal terms – getting stuff done that’s important to you. Doing this might be quite drastic because we could find that we’re largely unproductive despite doing brilliantly at your job or studies. We do want to make distinction between business and personal productivity because not everyone is at the luxury of being able to quit their jobs and focus on things that are only important to them. But it’s a helpful tool when coming to think about your priorities and how you can ensure you’re focusing on them as much as you can.
However, I don’t want to keep on twisting and contorting the definition of productivity. Working on and creating things that are important to you whether that is in a personal or business sense. This discussion leaves us a more important question.
Does your productivity matter?
The simple definition of productivity – getting stuff done – is unhelpful. Thinking about getting stuff done in terms of their importance is much more helpful. Yet, the more I think about it, the less I think it actually matters.
In the short term, of course it matters. You don’t want to lose your job or fail university because you’re too busy watching videos on things that barely interest you. In the long term, I think the value of an action might be better judged by its ability to help you live with integrity or overall satisfaction.
Focusing on things that are important to you isn’t good simply because they are productive. Instead, it results in matching the things that matter to you and the actions you complete every day. In doing that, we live with greater presence and a movement away from chastising yourself for “not being productive enough” or “lazy” or “wasting time”.
If we judge something as a waste of time because it doesn’t help us live in line with our values instead of whether it is helping us be productive enough, it helps us do a few things.
First, we stop micro managing our time. Doing this helps us stray away from being overly critical of how we spend our time.
Second, it gets to the deeper cause of our disappointment. We can spend a day with a very difficult problem and not write a single word yet still feel like we’ve done something useful. We can spend a day writing rubbish all day, and feel remarkably unsatisfied with everything. It’s the lack of personal importance that seems to drive this disappointment.
Third, we think honestly about the bigger picture – and make steps towards them. My yearly integrity posts are an attempt to slow down and reassess what is really important to me and how I can mould my life and my days in that direction. Doing this places a useful urgency into my days.
So, if not productivity, what is important?
Seneca complains that
It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it. Life is long if you know how to use it.
we say life is short yet treat it as though we will live forever. Regularly returning to important values instead of getting lost in thoughts about what is productive and what isn’t, I think, is more helpful overall.
Thinking about productivity is useful but should only come second to thinking about actions that help us live in accordance with our values.
To do this, we have to slow down and remember what is actually important rather than going so fast you’ve been running in the wrong direction for ages.
As always, thank you for reading.