What does it mean to “be productive”?
There are, after all, many methodologies, ranging from the simple ideas to overarching systems. Getting Things Done (GTD), Agile Systems, The Pomodoro Technique, Bullet Journaling, and certainly my own are all various ways of trying to be productive.
But what does it truly mean? Is it getting as much done in as little time as possible? Is it making the greatest change with the smallest effort?
The most related dictionary definition is:
“the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input”
But that does not fully resonate with how I, and I believe many others, consider it. Missing from that definition is the meaning of the work. In other words, if we are not doing work that feels meaningful, it is inherently unproductive.
This is not a trivial distinction. Meaning is something we continually discover. And, our search for it is greatly helped by deliberate regular reflection.
Considering the personal meaning of work separates one’s employer and even one’s self from thinking that we fully know what is meaningful about our work. We don’t.
In this way, being productive is better described as a practice. To this end, I propose the following definition:
**Productivity** is the daily practice of of engaging in personally meaningful play and work.[^1]
When we approach our work with this spirit, then we better think about how to engage ourselves with depth. When we do, we have a much better chance of ending any session feeling accomplished and invigorated to find more. If a current project feels devoid of life, then the question become how can we find vitality again, be that in the project itself, in another project, seeing it as sustaining meaning elsewhere, or perhaps finding a new line of work entirely.
This, of course, is not a matter of cheerleading one’s self or one’s team. Shouting “you can do it” does nothing. We can only ask, “How does this genuinely matter to me?” and build from there.
The dictionary definition is actually not bad: in terms of personal productivity, this would translate into output per day/week/hour or whatever the time unit is and whatever the individual is producing. The meaning of work should have a positive impact on how much is done and how good is the quality – if you see a meaning we usually do more and/or better. So, productivity should rise. But you can also be productive in less meaningful activities: for me this would include filing taxes, deal with insurance bills or clean the house.
I think there is a different way of looking at the issue of “meaning”, that retains its value in Kourosh’s definition, and that is also related to what Klaus says. I have very little difficulty in doing work that I find interesting and that has meaning for me. Where I can struggle more is with work that is important but not inherently interesting. Filing taxes would come into the latter category for me. The way I deal with that, and so not allow myself to keep putting it off, is to find a way to make the work meaningful (and interesting). That could be, for instance, by working out a way to simplify the task, or to integrate it with another task that I find less dull, or…