How we talk about productivity needs to change

Productivity isn’t as clear-cut as you might think it is.

The concept of “productivity” started as a metric measuring the output of assembly lines and the like. How much time is spent vs. how many things did we actually produce? This worked well for the industrial era, but since then, the idea has grown into something completely different.

The 1950s brought about a wild shift toward information-based work. Yet, as society continued to change, we continued to measure our productivity in terms of output; however, instead of measuring items produced, we started measuring tasks checked off. And if I’m being honest – it feels great to check off a ton of items on my list!

However, with the advent of the digital era, the opportunities before you and I are now endless. You can work wherever you want, learn anything your heart desires, and even optimize the heck out of your workflows using technology to get more done.

But is this the best way to look at productivity? I’m not convinced it is because we’re still measuring ourselves on how much time is spent vs. how many things did we do.

Despite the immense opportunity in the digital era, we live in a world that’s also full of information overload, burnout, and a lack of rest. Achieving just a little bit more will never fix the health issues of a broken down, exhausted, overachieving life. We need a new outook on what it means to be productive.

A number of productivity thinkers have commented on a shift away from this mindset in recent years, and I think it’s a positive trend. We have to redefine productivity for ourselves in order to stay healthy and be effective. You cannot be chasing the completion of an endless todo list and maintaining your mental/ emotional health at the same time.

This is in part why I started Process – I wanted to be a catalyst to help change the outlook in the productivity space away from “YAY I GOT MORE DONE!” That’s why we’ve talked about the definition of productivity in a number of ways throughout the years.

The case I’ve made is that your definition of productivity is inherently tied to what you deem to look like success. For example, if your vision of success is to own a multi-million dollar business and have all the nice “stuff” that comes with wealth, productivity looks like seeking work and achievement that earns more money to live that lifestyle.

Alternatively, you might want to provide well for your family but be present as a parent. Productivity for you looks like limiting your work hours, getting the most done you can in the time you have, and focusing as much of your time as possible at home.

Cal Newport recently shared a different definition of productivity which resonated deeply with me.

He states:

productivity is about navigating from a large constellation of possible things you could be doing to the actual execution of a much smaller number of things each day.

Otherwise stated, productivity is the process of selecting the one thing you’re doing right now from the near infinite number of potential actions. It’s not about checking off the most boxes in a day, but it’s about filtering down options to your most important work and exercising intention to execute it.

Yet in order to effectively navigate this process, you have to decide what is most important to you and actively stop pursuing the rest. That’s no easy feat, but it’s also not a one-time event – choosing your priorities is a day-to-day, season-to-season process full of experimentation and growth.

Keeping that in mind, I’d like to amend Newport’s definition a bit:

Productivity is the process of honing what you value most in life in order to select the one thing you’re doing right now from the near infinite number of potential actions.

I think it would benefit you and I to actively fight the urge to feel like checkbox champions, crossing off as many todos each day as possible, and instead focus on the highest value-producing actions for the holistic picture of our lives. We’ll be better off, living healthier and more productive lives, if we stop trying to chase greater output and instead focus on what you and I each find important.


Productivity has always been a struggle for me. Like many, I used to count productivity by the number of completed tasks in my “Done” list. I also enjoyed the idea of project hoarding. Just adding a bunch of projects grouped into numerous folders to show myself that I am “ambitious” and worthy of needing a heavy duty task manager to handle my awesome/busy life.

I despaired when I saw all of my undone tasks and projects left in various states of incompletion. Suffering was a badge of honor when I trudged through a task list that was a mile long. At least I’m gonna die with a full bucket list.

I have often rejected or ignored the game-ification of my task app. I’ve tried the Habitica app to see if I can turn my habits into an RPG. I would level up and create a powerful adventurer. To cheat the system, I would add easy tasks to check off just to add experience points to get closer to the next level-up.

I haven’t dived into Todoist’s Karma system but I suspect it would be the same. Seeing my completed list to see how many tasks I’ve completed today or this week doesn’t make me swoon anymore.

To regain a little bit of sanity, I’ve become more discriminating about the number of projects that live in my task app. I don’t want to to be a project hoarder and marvel at the large number of projects and future tasks to work on. I had to learn to focus once again on what is important versus what is urgent.

I’ve learned to periodically cull and re-orient my existing projects. I’ve put as many projects into my Someday/Maybe list for future consideration. Then I select just a small handful of projects that are relevant for this quarter and focus on those. I aim

I have to take care of the busy work that comes with my daily life. I don’t have complete control over customer requests, supervisors demanding reports, and other external forces that will pull at my attention. But I try to reserve time for my Big Rocks that I do have in OmniFocus.

I do try to make sure I schedule time for the Big Rock projects in my task app in between all the day-to-day work that comes. Protecting those few precious time blocks has been essential in me getting productive on the projects that are “important.”

The struggle continues but I try…

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Glad I’m not alone in that :smiley: I used to really get drug under the bus by this.

Yeah, basically :slight_smile: It’s nice when you’re focused on checking off individual tasks, but if you want encouragement to get real focused work done, I don’t think it helps.

Cal Newport mentioned something the other day – tools and systems only help you so far; the rest comes from self-discipline. I hadn’t heard anyone in the productivity world make that distinction prior, but it’s true. What matters is getting the work done, Often times that requires doing hard things, and hard things take discpline to do.

No tool is going to build your own self-disciplline for you.

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