The True Definition of Productivity

It’s not what you think.

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The way we measure productivity is flawed. People checking their BlackBerry over dinner is not the measure of productivity. — Timothy Ferriss

There are thousands of articles online on how to be productive.

Rarely, though, do any of them define what “productivity” actually means.

Our world is changing at rapid speed.

With it, so has the Art of Work.

What does productivity mean in the modern age? I want to share with you my thoughts on what true productivity is and what it isn’t.

It Is NOT About Contributing Labour to an Employer

“Stop measuring days by degree of productivity and start experiencing them by degree of presence.” – Alan Watts

Historically, productivity is an economic measure of output per unit of input. The early stages of capitalism were entirely focused with the manufacturing sector in mind. If you worked twice as fast, you could make twice as many products. In the absence of Information Workers, most labourers were only seen as productive when they were able to churn out something that met a demand in the private marketplace.

This definition is antiquated and no longer serves us.

In today’s world, being productive is no longer about doing more, it’s about doing better. It’s about getting off the couch and doing work that matters — whether there is a monetary value assigned to it or not. It is about being efficient with your time, focused on your goals and producing value.

We have self-employed single mothers. We have graduate students researching for the next ground-breaking discovery. We have freelance writers. Yes, these are all still providing some sort of product or service in relation to a need but productivity is no longer about producing more. Now, it’s about producing better.

Let me throw out a few questions.

Are a team of scientists who run experiments for 5 years without producing any results productive?

Is a freelance writer who decides to turn down well-paying clients less productive because she decided they were not in line with her brand?

If you strictly define “productivity” as short-term profits, then no they wouldn’t be. However, that might all change within a few years.

The team of scientists may finally get their break in their 6th year of research and suddenly have a prototype that can be commodified for a total value of $150 million dollars.

The freelance writer may turn down a short-term influx of money now but by maintaining her brand she manages to triple her income in two years as her audience grows.

The point that I’m attempting to get at is that we can no longer measure productivity in terms of short-term profits for an employer. We are now our own businesses — regardless whether we have a traditional 9-to-5 job or not.

We must continue to develop our skillset, market ourselves accordingly and understand that we are the CEO of our lives.

It Is NOT About Being Busy

All things will be produced in superior quantity and quality, and with greater ease, when each man works at a single occupation, in accordance with his natural gifts, and at the right moment, without meddling with anything else.
— Plato

We love to glorify busyness.

I work in the legal industry and it has become standard practice to hear colleagues regularly work 60 to 80 hours a week.

But that does not mean anything.

Working through lunch because you had a 2 hour conference call with your boss on something that could have been summarized in 5 minutes does not mean you are productive.

Staying late at the office because you are tired and unmotivated to complete the project that could have taken you 5 hours, instead of 10 hours, does not mean you are productive.

Churning out five mediocre research memorandums when you’re colleague produced three superior research memorandums does not mean you are productive.

Productivity in the modern age involves considering a person’s hunger, ability to synthesize information and their drive to churn out high-quality work.

Productive people have spark, ambition and are self-motivated. THAT is the distinction between who is and who is not productive.

It IS About Targeted Volume

It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less.
— Nathan W. Morris

Worker harder and smarter.

Productivity is not volume. Productivity is targeted volume.

Say, for example, you are an aspiring freelance writer.

For example, say that 80% of all the content that you write is garbage, and the remaining 20% is amazing, a simple calculation would show that the more content that you write will lead to the production of more amazing content.

So, out of the 5 pieces that you wrote on Monday, only 1 will be usable. However, out of the 10 pieces that you wrote on Tuesday, 2 will be usable.

By increasing your targeted volume, you account for the inevitable — the mistakes, failures and straight-up crappy work.

This is why it is fruitless to focus on perfection and more important to focus on doing one or two things better.

When the money starts rolling, you can begin to outsource the stuff that is secondary—the business cards, web design, etc.

In other words: Increase your productivity on what matters.

It IS About Self-Awareness

Productivity is 100% self-awareness.

It is about knowing how and when you best perform.

It is about knowing what you need in order to best perform.

It is about knowing why you want to sacrifice sleep, social events, and other awesome things in order to achieve what you want.

Are you a morning person?

Are you a night owl?

Are you excelling in the space between?

What are your priorities?

What is your definition of success?

What are the tools that you need to get there?

It’s all about you, you, you.

Yes, we should look at others to see how they have done well for themselves, but at the end of the day it all comes down to you —by yourself —putting in the work.

In the end, the true measurement of productivity is accomplishing what you set out to accomplish within the same 24 hours that everyone has. Whether that is being the best mother, the richest entrepreneur in your country, or being both at the same time.

Our paths are unique and thus our measurement of productivity will always be different. Forget about what your friend and competition is doing.

So what are you waiting for? Roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

Thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this story, you should check out where I write about the intersection of money, work and happiness. — Jen

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Productivity, craftsmanship, and the pursuit of excellence at work. Writing now at

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