productivity: (n.) the state or quality of producing something, especially crops.
"I had a productive day today."
I love being able to say those words. However, until I began researching this post, I never truly delved into what being productive actually means, in general as well as me personally. Why do I find that feeling so satisfying?
That digging has led me to the belief that the above definition of productivity no longer applies, and chasing it will only make us unhappy. It's not about production or output, but about progress, improvement and meaningful change.
As our economy and the nature of work evolves, productivity does too. It has become an industry unto itself. Apps exist to boost it. Books are written about it. Everyone has a “productivity hack." But if productivity was just as simple as producing something, why do we need all these things? The very presence of these apps and books and hacks indicates that we're not satisfied, not as productive as we want to be. Why? Do we want to produce more? Produce less? Produce something different entirely? Why do we want more? An industry has sprung up, but the definition remains the same. Why has our concept of productivity not changed with the nature of our work, our economy, or the speed of our lives?
Let’s look back at the definition again. “The state or quality of producing something" is vague; what do we have to produce?
At previous points in history, that answer was simple. The example given with the definition is particularly indicative— crops. The objects to be produced had to move our lives forward, and drive towards a single goal: survival— our own, or that of our family. We had to produce crops, or machinery, or clothing; these concrete outputs meaningfully contributed to life's forward momentum. Progress. If the output didn't contribute, we ceased to produce it. To produce the meaningless was to waste time.
Admission: I love jigsaw puzzles. When I was a kid, I would demand that my mother put them together with me. When she couldn't be bothered sometimes (and who could blame her?), she wouldn't actively contribute to the effort, but she would move the pieces aimlessly to make me happy and hope I wouldn't notice. This, however, often had the opposite effect and I would indignantly point it out, saying, "Hey! You can't just move the pieces around!" She had to help me make progress, otherwise five-year-old me considered her effort invalid.
These days, it is possible (and not life-threatening) to produce a great deal of output. As a result, we create a lot but do very little, without consequence. We can produce anything and everything— so why don't we? Or, when we do, why don't we feel productive? It's more possible now than it has ever been to just push the pieces around, but expect to feel productive as a result. After all, we're producing something, but we (and those around us) aren't satisfied, because we're subscribing to an outdated image of productivity. This is its biggest issue:
Capable of producing something, especially in abundance; fertile.
Yielding good or useful results; constructive.
Of, or relating to the creation of goods or services.
If we chase this kind of productivity, we'll never be happy; this is because where previously, productivity always meant progress, this is no longer. We think that if we do more, produce more, we'll be happier. If we're not happy, it's because we're not doing enough. And not just that— we think that if we do more quantifiable things, we'll be happier. We're overwhelmed by that, by to-do lists that keep piling up with the unnecessary and the distracting and the anxiety-inducing. Our to-do lists grow exponentially even as we complete tasks. We can't differentiate between what will make us feel productive and what won’t, so we procrastinate, so we do nothing. We produce nothing. Previously, it was easier to feel productive; the tasks may have been difficult, but absolutely necessary. They were bigger things, but there were less of them. The decision was easy.
Now, our decision-making has become a lot more onerous. Our time is limited, and all those apps and books aim to help us do more in that limited time; but why do we have to do more? As I mentioned, it's possible to produce a lot, be very busy, and still not be or feel productive. In my work, for example, it's possible for me to work all day producing Photoshop mockups, but if that production doesn't move others on my team forward, all that work is meaningless. In a sports context, it's possible for a single player to be very "productive" in that they produce a lot of points, but the team can still lose. If those points came at the expense of shots taken by teammates who were better-placed or more skills, what good were they? Working hard doesn't mean being productive. It used to, but not anymore. The road to productivity is paved with smart work, not hard work.
"I had a productive day today."
To me, I am able to say this when I have enabled progress— either my own or that of another, physical or otherwise. The best thing we can do for productivity is to decouple it from the act of concrete production. It's not about producing but about enabling meaningful change, either for others or ourselves. If I spend all day reading a book and thinking about it, I have produced nothing, but I believe that I have been productive. If I walk my dog and listen to a podcast and helped my wife talk through a problem that she's having on a personal project, I have been productive. In a work context, I feel the best when I've enabled co-workers to move forward on their tasks— whether or not this has been done with concrete output doesn't matter. Some days I produce a lot, some days very little, but this has no bearing on whether or not I feel productive.
Overall, I believe that whether or not we've been productive lies in the answer to the question: Have you effected meaningful change? Have you enabled progress?
Of course, this "progress" means different things to different people, but it's not an insurmountable question. It just requires some thought. You can never be productive without being reflective. Productivity is subjective. It's personal. It's psychological, and the sooner we get away from a one-size-fits-all "do more," the better off we'll be.