What does productivity mean to you?


I don’t like the word. At least, I don’t like what it has come to mean. The expectations it creates. And how we’ve come to turn it on ourselves. Our little businesses. Our lives. As though we are factories.

You are not a factory!

Seriously. Even if you are in the business of making goods for sale, you are not a factory.

And evaluating your day according to the ratio of the input of your labor to what you output – well, that’s just asking for frustration and disappointment.

Quantity or quality?

Is it merely quantity of output that’s necessary? Because feeling productive would be easy if it was. All of us are capable of busy work. But the problem with busy work is we end up with a lot to show at the end day, but not a lot to show for it. Which is usually pretty unsatisfying.

Even if we were productive, we don’t feel productive. So we push ourselves to do more. But like eating empty calories, we are never satisfied – so quality of output also would seem to count for something.

But what if generating quality requires a sort of productivity you can’t easily see or measure?

What if your best creativity comes from… walking the dog, tweeting, vacuuming, doing a bit of yoga, taking a class, reading other people’s blogs and newsletters, doodling, digging in the garden, hanging out with friends, napping… and the bazillion other things that allow your brain to rest and process and learn and spark?

From that point of view it can seem to take much, much too long to create what you’ve output. Except maybe not. Because a tired and uninspired brain is going to struggle. It’s going to take longer to create mediocre work. And it’s going to be so much less fun.

There is a certain efficiency to be found in being deliberately “unproductive.” And most of us know this on some level. We know the easiest way to be most productive in ways we feel good about is not to try to be productive all the time.

Yet this still can leave us feeling unsatisfied. Like we still haven’t gotten it right. Like we still don’t measure up. Because we are still evaluating our output by some vague yardstick of “productivity.”

If you want to feel productive, you need to decide what that is for you.

You need to answer the question of: how much of what?

What kind of qualities are you in the business of producing?
And what would be enough to satisfy you?

What exactly are you measuring your productivity by?

The length of your to-do list?
The state of your inbox?
Your web stats?
Your bank balance?


Your energy?
Pleasure in your work (and life)?
The number of useful ideas you share?
The connections you make?
How much you help others?

If you ended your day still feeling joyful and energized, would you feel productive?
If you inspired one person with one idea this week, would you feel productive?

I’m all for efficiency, but only in the service of creating what matters in the ways you want to create it. So before you push yourself to do more this week – to be more productive – first ask yourself what you really want to produce.

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6 Responses to “What does productivity mean to you?”

  1. 1 Sarah Bray August 18, 2009 at 9:03 am

    Productivity often *is* whether I get my stuff checked off every day. Yesterday was a prime example of that. (12:11am, and I finally checked off the last one, blast it!)

    But then I slept in until 10:30 this morning. So was I really being productive or just crazy? Probably the latter.

    • 2 Cairene August 18, 2009 at 9:42 am

      Crazy might depend on what it is your checking off your list…
      And nothing wrong with working in waves of push and rest – who says it has to look like 9-5?
      :) C

  2. 3 Susan Green August 18, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for this, for the reminder. Your words echo what vaguely hovers in our brains but which is often quietened by the ‘shoulds’ and the to-do lists and the feeling of must do more, more, more…

    Hurrah for dog walks, doodling, meditating, talking with friends and all the quality they bring to our work.

  1. 1 Twitted by HiroBoga Trackback on August 18, 2009 at 12:03 pm
  2. 2 Twitted by BerkshireMade Trackback on August 25, 2009 at 9:49 am

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Third Hand Works

from overwhelmed to ready for anything | organization and time management for people in their "right" minds | administrative guidance for independent creative professionals [more info]



© 2008 Cairene MacDonald, Third Hand Works. All Rights Reserved.

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