Question: How do you define productivity?

Estimated Reading Time: 1 minute, 8s.

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Productivity means something different to everyone. 

One person may define being productive as earning a killing a their job while leading a team of several hundred employees, while another person may see productivity as retiring at 30 and voluntarily living simply for the rest of their life.

Likewise, one person may define productivity as getting a lot of stuff done in a lot less time, while another may define productivity as taking their time and deliberately trying to do the best work they can.

To me, productivity means getting a ton of stuff done in less time so you have more time to do stuff that’s important to you. For example, an awesomely productive day for me would mean working 6 hours instead of 9, while getting even more done. It would also mean using that extra leftover time to do things that are more important to me, like spending time with the people I love, or working on cool projects. (Like this one, even though I’m working on this full-time).

I think everyone has a different definition of productivity, and knowing yours can help you become infinitely more productive. Taking the time to define what productivity is to you can be your north star, as well as a benchmark you use to compare each day to.

How do you define productivity?

If you want to post an answer, you can sound off in the comments below, or shoot me off an email via the Contact Form! Any answer you provide will help me a ton in determining what books to read, topics to tackle, people to interview, and more!

I’m excited to hear what you think!

  • Shawn

    To me productivity is always moving toward accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. That could mean work,chores, blah, blah, but it could also mean play… for instance, I play guitar in my spare time. I learn new songs quite often, and when I figure out a song I want to learn I try to move toward learning it. It is an accomplishment that has no importance other than my enjoyment, which is why it is productive to me when I can joyfully play the song anytime I want.

    • Cool! That seems to be a common refrain amongst the folks I’ve heard from so far, that productivity has to start with intention. So even if you intend to be unproductive, if you accomplish that, you have been productive.

      • Shawn

        Yes! But I think being “unproductive” is only when you don’t accomplish what you mean to. What is unproductive for you might be very productive for me and vice versa. For instance, if I saw you picking your nose I could say “Look at that guy just sitting there picking his nose… so unproductive”. But you could be saying “All I need to do is get that one piece of dried snot blocking my breathing in this nostril. Come on!!”. Maybe that’s a bit extreme (and gross!) but you see my point.

        • Very true that productivity is in the eye of the beholder.

          A productive day for me is one where I pick my nose at least 20 times.

  • Shawn

    To me productivity is always moving toward accomplishing the things I want to accomplish. That could mean work,chores, blah, blah, but it could also mean play… for instance, I play guitar in my spare time. I learn new songs quite often, and when I figure out a song I want to learn I try to move toward learning it. It is an accomplishment that has no importance other than my enjoyment, which is why it is productive to me when I can joyfully play the song anytime I want.

    • Cool! That seems to be a common refrain amongst the folks I’ve heard from so far, that productivity has to start with intention. So even if you intend to be unproductive, if you accomplish that, you have been productive.

      • Shawn

        Yes! But I think being “unproductive” is only when you don’t accomplish what you mean to. What is unproductive for you might be very productive for me and vice versa. For instance, if I saw you picking your nose I could say “Look at that guy just sitting there picking his nose… so unproductive”. But you could be saying “All I need to do is get that one piece of dried snot blocking my breathing in this nostril. Come on!!”. Maybe that’s a bit extreme (and gross!) but you see my point.

        • Very true that productivity is in the eye of the beholder.

          A productive day for me is one where I pick my nose at least 20 times.

  • Ardyn N

    I define productivity as how well you use your time and resources to get whatever it is you want to do done well. Whether its running errands, working towards a fitness goal, spending time with a loved one, or getting your work done, how well you use your time and resources to do these things will determine how productive you are at that task. You can’t very well reach a fitness goal by eating chips all day, that wouldn’t be a productive use of your time given what you actually want to do. You might answer 100 emails and think of an entire project plan in an hour but if in that hour you were actually trying to get some quality time with your friend you’re not using your resources productively to do that. Productivity, to me, is how well you can allocate the scarce resources you have at your disposal to accomplish short and long term goals.

    • Awesome! ‘Scarce resources’… you sound like an economist ;) I love your way of thinking. That also sounds like a great way of thinking in general. Stepping back from your life and looking at your time, attention, energy levels, money, and everything else at 10,000 feet can even show you if you’re doing the right thing in the first place! Sounds like a great way of measuring productivity as well as defining what to do!

  • Ardyn N

    I define productivity as how well you use your time and resources to get whatever it is you want to do done well. Whether its running errands, working towards a fitness goal, spending time with a loved one, or getting your work done, how well you use your time and resources to do these things will determine how productive you are at that task. You can’t very well reach a fitness goal by eating chips all day, that wouldn’t be a productive use of your time given what you actually want to do. You might answer 100 emails and think of an entire project plan in an hour but if in that hour you were actually trying to get some quality time with your friend you’re not using your resources productively to do that. Productivity, to me, is how well you can allocate the scarce resources you have at your disposal to accomplish short and long term goals.

    • Awesome! ‘Scarce resources’… you sound like an economist ;) I love your way of thinking. That also sounds like a great way of thinking in general. Stepping back from your life and looking at your time, attention, energy levels, money, and everything else at 10,000 feet can even show you if you’re doing the right thing in the first place! Sounds like a great way of measuring productivity as well as defining what to do!

  • Productivity is the act of starting something over again. I couldn’t find the article that worded it but it was great. Even if you’re working on the same task/project/whatever, it takes “starting over” each new day. When you’re in a productive state, you’re willing to start over again without delay.

    • For some reason, right after reading your definition my mind jumped to Apple introducing the iPod nano. I’m not sure if you know the story, but when they released the device, they were already making the iPod mini, their best selling product at the time, and the most popular MP3 player in the world.

      When they released the nano, they completely axed the iPod mini. People everywhere were stunned, and I remember every analyst hating the decision.

      But in the end, that “starting over” is partly what made them into the successful company they are today. The iPod nano went on to sell even more units, and make Apple an even greater profit than the mini did. Man, is starting over ever powerful :)

  • Productivity is the act of starting something over again. I couldn’t find the article that worded it but it was great. Even if you’re working on the same task/project/whatever, it takes “starting over” each new day. When you’re in a productive state, you’re willing to start over again without delay.

    • For some reason, right after reading your definition my mind jumped to Apple introducing the iPod nano. I’m not sure if you know the story, but when they released the device, they were already making the iPod mini, their best selling product at the time, and the most popular MP3 player in the world.

      When they released the nano, they completely axed the iPod mini. People everywhere were stunned, and I remember every analyst hating the decision.

      But in the end, that “starting over” is partly what made them into the successful company they are today. The iPod nano went on to sell even more units, and make Apple an even greater profit than the mini did. Man, is starting over ever powerful :)

  • Hmmm what an awesome question.

    To me productivity means two things…

    1) It means quality over quantity with my schedule. Meaning, I don’t work 12 hour days anymore. I work 6 or 7 hours per day, but all that time is deliberate. I am completely focused and very sharp. By understanding when I work the best I can make the most of that time and accomplish a lot.

    2) It means I’ve already worked my ass off. Anytime I’ve become productive it wasn’t an overnight process. The best example is when I was in college. My first semester I spent all my time studying. I practically lived in the library. But through all that hard work I started to figure out little shortcuts. Overtime I was able to cut down my study time and produce the same results. By the second year I was the definition of productivity. I could skip school, study a few hours, and ace my tests. But I couldn’t have done all that without working hard in the beginning.

    Great idea for a post man :)

    • Man, your points are huge, and do they ever work together beautifully.

      It always baffles me when people say they don’t have time for something like meditation. I think if the average person meditated for 30 minutes every day, they would easily be able to shave an hour or two off of their workday just because they are able to focus so much more. Practices like that pay for themselves. Focus is such a precursor for productivity, it’s unbelievable :)

      Working your ass off is also huge, and I wish more people would tune into that notion like you have. But it really does go a step further. You have to add in reflection to hard work, like you mentioned, to truly benefit from all of the extra hard work you put in.

      Thanks for sharing buddy!

  • Hmmm what an awesome question.

    To me productivity means two things…

    1) It means quality over quantity with my schedule. Meaning, I don’t work 12 hour days anymore. I work 6 or 7 hours per day, but all that time is deliberate. I am completely focused and very sharp. By understanding when I work the best I can make the most of that time and accomplish a lot.

    2) It means I’ve already worked my ass off. Anytime I’ve become productive it wasn’t an overnight process. The best example is when I was in college. My first semester I spent all my time studying. I practically lived in the library. But through all that hard work I started to figure out little shortcuts. Overtime I was able to cut down my study time and produce the same results. By the second year I was the definition of productivity. I could skip school, study a few hours, and ace my tests. But I couldn’t have done all that without working hard in the beginning.

    Great idea for a post man :)

    • Man, your points are huge, and do they ever work together beautifully.

      It always baffles me when people say they don’t have time for something like meditation. I think if the average person meditated for 30 minutes every day, they would easily be able to shave an hour or two off of their workday just because they are able to focus so much more. Practices like that pay for themselves. Focus is such a precursor for productivity, it’s unbelievable :)

      Working your ass off is also huge, and I wish more people would tune into that notion like you have. But it really does go a step further. You have to add in reflection to hard work, like you mentioned, to truly benefit from all of the extra hard work you put in.

      Thanks for sharing buddy!

  • Ellen Symons

    This is a great question and it’s been on my mind lately. My off-the-top answer is about quality of life: productivity is using my time and resources to do the things that are most important to me, to do them first, to do them mindfully, and not to feel that I’m wasting my time. Leisure is not the same as time-wasting, and even time-wasting has its place in a well-lived life. But getting stuck in a loop of mindless time-wasting is, well, such a waste! I want to look back each day and feel fulfilled by my life. That’s productive. I have an image of cutting off the excess to get to the gist- i will ponder it and post when I get it.

    • Ellen Symons

      It’s also about getting to my stated goal, with as little effort as possible. As Kevin writes, there may be hours or years of learning and heavy effort behind this simplicity. But eventually, being able to work efficiently and get something close to the desired result is productive. Example: In a massage, if I don’t relieve the client’s shoulder pain and spend most of my time working on something unrelated to the goal, that’s unproductive.

      • Interesting! The part that I find the most interesting about your definition is how you account for time. It sounds as though noticing how valuable time is is ingrained in your definition, and almost more important to you than what you do during that time, as long as your actions match your intention for what you want to get done. :)

        • Ellen Symons

          Good point. Content is important to me, for sure, but quality of time may be even more important. I never thought about that before. I want enough space in my life to pause and make choices about what I’m doing, not just run from one thing to another, because yes, the moments are limited in number! And to have that space requires being mindful, being efficient, and being able to identify the things that matter most so that I put my time toward them. Great question, Chris, thanks for getting me thinking.

  • This is a great question and it’s been on my mind lately. My off-the-top answer is about quality of life: productivity is using my time and resources to do the things that are most important to me, to do them first, to do them mindfully, and not to feel that I’m wasting my time. Leisure is not the same as time-wasting, and even time-wasting has its place in a well-lived life. But getting stuck in a loop of mindless time-wasting is, well, such a waste! I want to look back each day and feel fulfilled by my life. That’s productive. I have an image of cutting off the excess to get to the gist – I will ponder it and post when I get it.

    • It’s also about getting to my stated goal, with as little effort as possible. As Kevin writes, there may be hours or years of learning and heavy effort behind this simplicity. But eventually, being able to work efficiently and get something close to the desired result is productive. Example: In a massage, if I don’t relieve the client’s shoulder pain and spend most of my time working on something unrelated to the goal, that’s unproductive.

      • Interesting! The part that I find the most interesting about your definition is how you account for time. It sounds as though noticing how valuable time is is ingrained in your definition, and almost more important to you than what you do during that time, as long as your actions match your intention for what you want to get done. :)

        • Good point. Content is important to me, for sure, but quality of time may be even more important. I never thought about that before. I want enough space in my life to pause and make choices about what I’m doing, not just run from one thing to another, because yes, the moments are limited in number! And to have that space requires being mindful, being efficient, and being able to identify the things that matter most so that I put my time toward them. Great question, Chris, thanks for getting me thinking.

  • Charlie Stokes

    I see productivity as any progress you make towards your true passion, whatever it might be that gives your life the most meaning. Everyone has tasks that they have to complete on a daily basis, and sure, by completing those tasks one can say that they have been productive as they now have more time for other things. However, I find that what determines the level or quality of your productivity is whether or not the tasks that you have completed contributed in some way to your main goal or passion. For instance, my passion is spiritual enlightenment, and every day I complete certain tasks that I hope will lead me to my goal, such as meditation and prayer. However, I’m a busy student and am currently working, which means I can’t spend all my time devoted to my passion; but what I can do is be conscious of my goal as much as possible while completing my daily tasks at work, school, or home. This consciousness helps me to approach any of my daily tasks with a new perspective, as no matter how mundane a task may appear (such as doing laundry, washing the dishes, or filing at work) I find that I can be more productive if I remember that whatever task I am faced with is just part of the journey towards my ultimate goal. I think that if we approach each task we face not as an obstacle which is preventing us from our goals, but as a necessary step towards the attainment of these goals, that we will not feel as if our time was wasted. I think that as long as we remain conscious of what we really want from life and accept the situations and tasks we are faced with, that we will find ways to make any situation as productive as possible.

    • I love it man – this is one of my favorite definitions I’ve read, mostly because it connects the things you do every day to a higher purpose.

      Lately I’ve been exploring ways to bring more meaning to the work I do, because even though I’m doing some things that I see as cool with this project, I think they would be way more meaningful if I could mentally connect them with a higher purpose.

      In the book The Power of Full Engagement (corny looking book, great contents though), they talk about the four types of energy everyone has: physical, emotional, mental, and purpose energy. I think a lot of people neglect that last one when they try to become more productive, when ironically it’s often the search for more meaning that drives a person to become more productive in the first place!

      • Ellen Symons

        This definition resonates deeply with me, too, Charlie. Thanks for your clarity. I just logged on to post what I’ve come to as a definition over several days of thinking: Productivity means I am contributing to the well-being of the planet – my ways are via compassion, mindfulness, and love of other beings. So the tasks and activities I choose should mostly move me toward this goal; and productivity also means being focused on the task I’m doing to complete it in a way that aligns with my higher purpose.

  • Charlie Stokes

    I see productivity as any progress you make towards your true passion, whatever it might be that gives your life the most meaning. Everyone has tasks that they have to complete on a daily basis, and sure, by completing those tasks one can say that they have been productive as they now have more time for other things. However, I find that what determines the level or quality of your productivity is whether or not the tasks that you have completed contributed in some way to your main goal or passion. For instance, my passion is spiritual enlightenment, and every day I complete certain tasks that I hope will lead me to my goal, such as meditation and prayer. However, I’m a busy student and am currently working, which means I can’t spend all my time devoted to my passion; but what I can do is be conscious of my goal as much as possible while completing my daily tasks at work, school, or home. This consciousness helps me to approach any of my daily tasks with a new perspective, as no matter how mundane a task may appear (such as doing laundry, washing the dishes, or filing at work) I find that I can be more productive if I remember that whatever task I am faced with is just part of the journey towards my ultimate goal. I think that if we approach each task we face not as an obstacle which is preventing us from our goals, but as a necessary step towards the attainment of these goals, that we will not feel as if our time was wasted. I think that as long as we remain conscious of what we really want from life and accept the situations and tasks we are faced with, that we will find ways to make any situation as productive as possible.

    • I love it man – this is one of my favorite definitions I’ve read, mostly because it connects the things you do every day to a higher purpose.

      Lately I’ve been exploring ways to bring more meaning to the work I do, because even though I’m doing some things that I see as cool with this project, I think they would be way more meaningful if I could mentally connect them with a higher purpose.

      In the book The Power of Full Engagement (corny looking book, great contents though), they talk about the four types of energy everyone has: physical, emotional, mental, and purpose energy. I think a lot of people neglect that last one when they try to become more productive, when ironically it’s often the search for more meaning that drives a person to become more productive in the first place!

      • This definition resonates deeply with me, too, Charlie. Thanks for your clarity. I just logged on to post what I’ve come to as a definition over several days of thinking: Productivity means I am contributing to the well-being of the planet – my ways are via compassion, mindfulness, and love of other beings. So the tasks and activities I choose should mostly move me toward this goal; and productivity also means being focused on the task I’m doing to complete it in a way that aligns with my higher purpose.

  • I go back and forth on this one a lot, and I think that the term “productivity” has become so overused that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. I see a lot of people who claim to be “productive” but who are just spinning their wheels working without considering how efficient they’re being. At the same time, I see people working for 30 minutes, saying “I was productive!” then using it as an excuse to goof off afterwards.

    I like to think of productivity as a daily measurement (which I record on a google spreadsheet) that I base off of my effectiveness and efficiency.

    1. Effectiveness: Did I accomplish what I intended to today? This means meeting my “Rule of Three” goals and anything else I wanted to accomplish
    2. Efficiency: Was I efficient when I was working? No one can grind out work all day, and if they try then they’ll spend a lot of time spinning their wheels or goofing off. I know I won’t spend the whole day producing things, but when I am, was I doing it efficiently or was I slow?

    I also try to keep these in mind while I’m working: is what I’m doing right now the most effective way I could be using my time? And: is this the most efficient way to do this? If the answer to either is no, then I change something.

    • Cool! I have a similar ritual :) Every morning at the gym, while doing a bit of cardio, I take the time to reflect on the three things I want to accomplish that day (today’s list: catch up on everything – emails, tweets, questions, comments, etc; write and send out the weekly newsletter; finish writing a guide on networking).

      I’ll admit that I often get off track with efficiency, but bringing more mindfulness to the work I do helps a ton!

      Questioning what you’re doing in the first place is also huge. It doesn’t matter how efficient or effective you are if you’re not doing the highest-leverage things in the first place!

  • I go back and forth on this one a lot, and I think that the term “productivity” has become so overused that it’s lost a lot of its meaning. I see a lot of people who claim to be “productive” but who are just spinning their wheels working without considering how efficient they’re being. At the same time, I see people working for 30 minutes, saying “I was productive!” then using it as an excuse to goof off afterwards.

    I like to think of productivity as a daily measurement (which I record on a google spreadsheet) that I base off of my effectiveness and efficiency.

    1. Effectiveness: Did I accomplish what I intended to today? This means meeting my “Rule of Three” goals and anything else I wanted to accomplish
    2. Efficiency: Was I efficient when I was working? No one can grind out work all day, and if they try then they’ll spend a lot of time spinning their wheels or goofing off. I know I won’t spend the whole day producing things, but when I am, was I doing it efficiently or was I slow?

    I also try to keep these in mind while I’m working: is what I’m doing right now the most effective way I could be using my time? And: is this the most efficient way to do this? If the answer to either is no, then I change something.

    • Cool! I have a similar ritual :) Every morning at the gym, while doing a bit of cardio, I take the time to reflect on the three things I want to accomplish that day (today’s list: catch up on everything – emails, tweets, questions, comments, etc; write and send out the weekly newsletter; finish writing a guide on networking).

      I’ll admit that I often get off track with efficiency, but bringing more mindfulness to the work I do helps a ton!

      Questioning what you’re doing in the first place is also huge. It doesn’t matter how efficient or effective you are if you’re not doing the highest-leverage things in the first place!

  • Great post and thoughts. I’ve never really thought about the definition of productivity. But would say it’s getting a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.

    • Thanks Dan! I think your definition syncs up with the definition most people have for being productive: getting more done, quicker, to make time for even better stuff :) Thanks for sharing!

  • Great post and thoughts. I’ve never really thought about the definition of productivity. But would say it’s getting a lot accomplished in a short amount of time.

    • Thanks Dan! I think your definition syncs up with the definition most people have for being productive: getting more done, quicker, to make time for even better stuff :) Thanks for sharing!

  • Alicia

    Productivity means structuring your day by setting priorities, and you have to be really careful here because you need a clear idea of what’s really important to avoid any distractions.

    Then, you set a time to get them done. Once you’ve finished, you can use that extra time for yourself without worrying about anything else.

    • I love it! I love the idea of constantly defining what you want to do in a day, week, month, and year, and starting at that point. I think too many people work the opposite direction (especially at their job), and just react to what seems most important, and delegating their time and energy that way :)

  • Alicia

    Productivity means structuring your day by setting priorities, and you have to be really careful here because you need a clear idea of what’s really important to avoid any distractions.

    Then, you set a time to get them done. Once you’ve finished, you can use that extra time for yourself without worrying about anything else.

    • I love it! I love the idea of constantly defining what you want to do in a day, week, month, and year, and starting at that point. I think too many people work the opposite direction (especially at their job), and just react to what seems most important, and delegating their time and energy that way :)

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