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What Is Productivity?

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Read Time: 12 min

Productivity—and all it includes—is something we’ve become virtually obsessed with. Oh, productivity itself isn’t a new idea. In fact, the concept of productivity has been around for as long as production has been around, so, arguably, since humans first figured out how to stick a seed in dirt and produce a crop. 

Productivity IllustrationProductivity IllustrationProductivity Illustration

Productivity Illustration. You can find more creative assets on GraphicRiver.

Productivity in business became an important, ongoing discussion with industrialization. Making labor—both human and machine driven—more efficient became an important goal, because more efficient labor meant more profits. (There are a whole host of side issues that developed from this increasing issue with labor productivity, but we’ll save those for another time.)

Business, or economic, productivity continued to be developed and refined through the second Industrial Revolution, the second World War, major technological advancements, and economic globalization. But productivity has also become something much more individual; it’s become a personal pursuit.  

With the technology we use today, we have unlimited information and unlimited accessibility. That’s great, on many levels, but it also leads to overload: the world is at our fingertips, literally, every moment. For people prone to distraction and procrastination (read: every person), the digital age quickly turns into the unproductive age. 

Hence the rise of our personal productivity pursuits, in the form of books, blogs, apps, and all the advice you could ever want. It’s an important pursuit. We’ve lost the boundaries that used to separate work from personal life, that used to limit our options and define our roles. These are great advancements, but they bring the necessity of building our own filters and boundaries. If we want to create value in a world of unlimited options, we have to learn to be productive. 

But first, we have to figure out what we really mean by productive. 

Is it better time management you’re after? Or a clarification of your goals? Or something completely different? Productivity is a big concept. It covers a lot of areas. In order to get the most from your pursuit of productivity, you need a deeper, more specific definition of productivity.

Let’s take a look. 

1. The Business Definition of Productivity

Defining productivity for business really means talking about productivity in economic terms. And that’s the history of productivity. All our personal, subjective ideas of what it means to be productive are spin-offs of a very pragmatic, numbers-based definition of productivity. 

Here's how Thanh Pham from Asian Efficiency describes it:

There is another definition used in economics that is important to know. In simple economic terms, productivity means the output you get per input given. For example, if I give you 5 apples and you give me 1 liter of apple juice, your productivity is 1 liter per 5 apples. However, if someone else can get 1 liter of apple juice with 4 apples, then that person is more productive. It takes that person fewer apples to create the same amount of apple juice.
The metric used in this economics example (as you probably have seen in your economics class in college) is: Productivity = Output / Input.

That’s the basic business, or economic, definition of productivity. Improving productivity in the business sense means either a) increasing output relative to input or b) decreasing input relative to output. You’ll hear this discussed in business terms with phrases like “reducing our overhead,” “increasing our profit margin,” “cutting down expenses,” “improving our bottom line,” and “being more efficient.” 

2. The Personal Definition of Productivity

The first thing we should look at is how fluid, subjective, or random productivity can sound when we’re discussing it in personal terms. 

Definitions Are Arbitrary

As Chris Bailey says at A Life of Productivity

Productivity means something different to everyone. 
One person may define being productive as earning a killing a their job while leading a team of several hundred employees, while another person may see productivity as retiring at 30 and voluntarily living simply for the rest of their life. 
Likewise, one person may define productivity as getting a lot of stuff done in a lot less time, while another may define productivity as taking their time and deliberately trying to do the best work they can.

Personal Isn't Personal

The second point to mention here is that “personal” is a bit of a misnomer. 

For many who pursue better personal productivity, the goal is greater productivity in work. We want to be better at what we do, get more done in less time, be able to stay focused on our most important work, and learn how to handle the flood of information and accessibility without losing progress on our projects. 

The tools we need to achieve all those goals are personal productivity skills: individual systems, abilities, and behaviors that enable us to manage all of the demands and options and keep getting stuff done. 

Of course, you can apply your personal productivity skills in any area of life: relationships, hobbies, finances, housekeeping, parenting, so on. 

Value vs. Output

My favorite definition of personal productivity is this one, from Steve Pavlina

Productivity = Value / Time 
(productivity equals value divided by time)

It’s really simple, and really similar to the economic definition. Instead of output, though, we’re measuring value. And instead of input, we’re measuring time: that’s because, for most of us who are pursuing personal productivity, time is both our primary power and our primary limitation. 

Pavlina goes on to talk about how we can understand and measure value: 

What is the “value” in our productivity equation? 
Value is a quality you must define for yourself. Hence, any definition of productivity is relative to the definition of value.

Pavlina defines value as a product: 

Value = Impact x Endurance x Essence x Volume
And therefore: 
Productivity = Impact x Endurance x Essence x Volume / Time

You can read the full article for an in-depth look at each of those factors. In short, impact refers to how many people are influenced by your work, or to what degree they are influenced. Endurance refers to how long your work will last (think of the longevity of a sandwich vs. a digital graphic design vs. a classic work of art). Essence refers to the quality and type of what you do; is it easily mimicked, or unique? Is its effect deep and important, or temporary and self-limiting? Volume refers to the quantity of what you produce as defined by your particular work.  

3. Bringing It All Together

While the business definition of productivity gives us a good starting point, it’s not quite enough for a meaningful, daily understanding of productivity. 

We need to think about the value of what we’re doing rather than just thinking of our output in general. Otherwise, we can all work hard to get really efficient at doing meaningless stuff. If you’ve ever spent hours tweaking some tiny corner of your life, like email management or your menu planning, only to emerge from that productivity rabbit hole and realize it’s had no significant impact on your life, overall, you know what I mean. 

It’s not that improving the details and daily habits is bad; in fact, the small things and the daily routines can make or break us. But we need to give appropriate effort to appropriate endeavors. Feeling more in control of things, temporarily, because you’ve color-coded your files isn’t as good as being more in control, ultimately, because you’ve learned how to set good priorities and handle distractions.   

If it’s a sad thing to waste your time, how much worse is it to waste your life? You avoid wasting your time—and life—on meaningless outputs by thinking of the value of what you do, not just how efficiently you do it. 

Our Working Definition of Productivity

A cohesive definition of productivity, then, is one that considers both the economic side and the ‘personal’ side. I think of it this way: 

Productivity = Valuable output / Time and resource inputs

4. Basic Productivity Principles

Now that we have a working definition, let’s take a look at the foundational principles of productivity. 

Start with Priorities

You can go deep and wide with productivity, but you need to get some basics in order first. If you're going to increase your valuable output, for example, you need to know what it is. So sorting all the tasks and possibilities into a set of priorities is an important first step. 

There are many ways to prioritize. David Masters covers the process and a few different strategies in his to-do list tutorial, and Lisa Jo Rudy explains how to use Pareto Analysis for setting priorities.

Know Thyself

Productivity starts with you. There are infinite strategies and systems you can put into place, but they'll only work if they work for you. That means you need to figure out your preferences, needs, energy levels, and your limits so you can choose the tools and systems that will actually make you more productive. 

Start by understanding your own productivity style, and then move on to learning how to manage your tasks by your energy levels. 

Master the Basics

Once you know your priorities, and you're better at assessing which systems and tools will work for you, you can learn and apply basic productivity skills much more effectively. To help you get started, I've written this series on Essential Productivity Principles.

5. Common Productivity Pitfalls

Productivity isn't easy. If it were, of course, we wouldn't need to talk about it so much. We'd just do it. But there are pitfalls, my friend! Many pitfalls on the path to productivity. 

Fortunately, there are also guides to help us get past those pitfalls and keep making progress. 

Distractions, Distractions Everywhere

One of the biggest pitfalls we all face is the plethora of distractions. From social media to dinging email notifications to family issues to endless entertainment options, we can, and do, get distracted all the time. 

Admitting you have a distraction problem is the first step. It's a problem we all have. Once you see what tends to distract you the most, however, you can make some smart moves to limit the distractions. That doesn't mean you don't get to do the fun/distracting stuff; it just means you let it in your life on your terms. Leo Babauta has shared quick tips to eliminate distractions: 

Being Reasonable

Many productivity pitfalls come from our unrealistic expectations. We tend to underestimate the obstacles we'll face in achieving a goal, and overestimate our own abilities and willpower. The result is a deadly combination of uninformed optimism and lack of preparedness. 

I don't want to be a naysayer, but you'll be much more effective (and happier!) if you learn, as we all must, to set effective goals. You'll also need to recognize the limit of your own powers (quit multitasking!) and learn the fine art of delegating. 

6. Start Your Productivity Practice 

Being productive is not something you get with a one-time effort, sorry. It's an ongoing pursuit, a practice that just gets built into your life and becomes an essential, helpful part of it. 

If you're anything like me, it will become a really enjoyable, fulfilling part of your life, too. Pursuing productivity has led me to greater clarity on the kind of work I want to do, the relationships I want to build, and, ultimately, the life I want to live. It all comes back to defining value; when we do that, we start seeing what makes sense for us and what really is a waste of time. 

Read Great Books

Here's my short list of the best books to get you started on your productivity practice. If you're not much of a reader, try listening to the audio version of these books while you're traveling or working out. I prefer standard format, but my husband swears by audio books. 

  1. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
  2. 168 Hours: You Have More Time than You Think by Laura Vanderkam
  3. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  4. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
  5. The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul by Danielle LaPorte
  6. Manage Your Day-to-Day by Jocelyn K. Glei and the 99U team
  7. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  8. Deep Work and So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport
  9. The NO B. S. Guide to Time Management for Entrepreneurs by Dan Kennedy
  10. The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel

Imitate Productive People

Find the people in your life who excel at being productive, in general, or who have really mastered one or more aspects of productivity. Then ask for their help. Maybe your spouse is great at reasonable goal-setting, your best friend rocks time management, or your brother is a master delegator. People who are good at certain aspects of productivity can help you become good at those aspect, too: they've figured out tools and techniques that work, and can save you some time and effort.  

You can also look for interviews, podcasts, expert round-ups, and "how we work" posts (here's one about the Envato team) to get insight into how busy professionals like yourself manage their time and priorities. I've often come away with a really great tip or tool, or a new method for handling distractions or overcoming procrastination. 

Build Your Own System

There are many popular productivity systems you can learn and use, such as David Allen's Getting Things Done system or FranklinCovey's 5 Choices to Extraordinary Productivity. Many people find, though, that the best system is one they build themselves. 

You might start with a foundation from another system and tweak it to your liking. Or perhaps you'll build something from the ground up. David Masters has written an excellent series on how to build your own productivity system. It will walk you through the whole process. 

It's Always About Value

Remember, as you define your own productivity and set up your own practice, that it always comes back to value. Don't be afraid to change your approach, throw out a tool, or completely rearrange your priorities. None of us are static; life changes, and so do we. Productivity as a practice can change with us, and as we grow we will clarify and define it for ourselves to get the most value for ourselves and for others. 

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