Productivity Defined

January 19, 2019

The concept of “productivity” has always been puzzling to me. I still don’t really know what it means given our current definition of it.

pro·duc·tiv·i·ty (noun):

  • “the state or quality of producing something”
  • the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.

Based on this meaning, one could be productive without any positive or negative association. It’s merely superficial ouput (product).

I think I’ve come to a more refined definition I can be satisfied with:

The ability to reliably make sought-after things happen.

Let’s break down the key components:

‘Happen’ is probably the most important part. For example, hours of research isn’t productive until something is produced or facilitated from it. Organization of a calendar or notes isn’t productive until it produces some beneficial future action.

The word productive literally has the word “product” in it. Ultimately, something needs to be produced.

‘Things’ is expressly vague because the categories can be anything– work, art, health, social bonding, etc. The point is a productive life. This is essential to clarify because productivity can mean making mistakes too. It need not be tied to quantification or capitalization.

More specifically, the point is consistent action for the things you want to happen.

‘Reliably’ is also important because it implies consistency and robustness of actions. Without this, there is no sustained accumulation of results.

Think of a tippping scale, and productivity is the even leveling of that scale. One one side of the scale is Consistency, and on the other side, Action.

If there’s lots of consistency with passive (low action) tasks, that is not productive.

If there are infrequent bursts of lots of action (perhaps reliant on volatile motivation), or the actions are easily harmed by external circumstances, that is not productive.

That’s my attempt to further understand the parts productivity is actually composed of. I hope this concept can prevent work just for the sake of work (“shallow work”). To recap, for every goal (your ‘thing’), ensure you have purpose (why that thing), action (what to do for that thing), and consistency (maximizing your chances of that thing).


The point is consistent action for the things you want to happen.

Perhaps, then, something is productive if it tangibly orients you toward the future? But let’s leave that conversation for another time.