New productivity definition

A New Productivity Definition that Won’t Burn You Out

December 5, 2019

As a society, we’re obsessed with productivity. Most major business publications have whole sections devoted to productivity.

But what is it that we mean by productivity?

To seek a goal without a clear definition of the goal is a recipe for failure and yet, that is the approach most take. For example, imagine if you made it your goal in 2020 to “get healthy.”  It’s easy to see how your definition of “get healthy” would determine what you would do to achieve that goal. Some people may define healthy as being a certain weight, others as getting a certain amount of sleep. Still others might say being healthy is about eating right regardless of what weight they are. For yet others, performing a challenging physical task like running a marathon would be the measure of health. Each of these different goals would require a very different approach.

In the same way, how we define productivity will determine how we become more productive. Short on time? Jump to the summary.

How do People Define Productivity?

These are responses to questions posted on Reddit asking what productivity looks like and why people should become more productive:

I feel like I have an extremely unhealthy view of productivity. I feel bad every moment I’m not working. Even if I should be doing something else, or if I’ve burnt out my brain to the point that it is no longer capable of doing work, I feel like I should be working. Even right now. I don’t see myself as productive even though I worked all day, because I took breaks. I want to be a machine.

This person defines productivity by the amount of time they spend “working” and the consequences are evident.

For me, productivity is achieving my goals for the day in a timely manner.

This definition hinges a lot on the quality of the person’s daily goals.  

Productivity is saying yes to the few things that actually matter, and no to everything else.

This more an approach to becoming productive than a definition. It would also be difficult to say universally that only a “few things actually matter.”

My personal definition of productivity has boiled down to 3 things: (1) Get your work done first, (2) Work on personal projects, and then (3) Enjoy guilt-free unstructured time

This sounds nice but is impractical when taken literally. For example, what if you can’t really ever finish your work? For most people, they have to leave work at night knowing that there are many other tasks they could have kept doing. If finishing your work is the threshold to spending time on personal projects or free time, you may never get to the second and third points.

Productivity is not necessarily a path for me to get more done. It is a path to get more enjoyment/fulfillment/satisfaction from the things I am actually doing.

This definition brings out an interesting dimension of wellbeing but suggests that output doesn’t matter at all, which undermines the core of productivity.

If we can do things faster, we gain more time to not do things.

This definition makes productivity about the speed of your work, which is only half of the equation.

Outside of this [job], there are set things I want to prioritize in my life. These are my health, my hobbies, my girlfriend, my friends, and my family. But I also have general life stuff that needs to be taken care of (bills, etc). Being productive means I can balance all of these things.

While important, being capable of “balancing all things” is a low goal characterized by survival and maintenance.

The point is not to criticize these people who were not attempting to provide a robust definition for productivity but to highlight the need for a simple, yet powerful definition. Many of these comments describe more a method to become productive or the desired benefit of becoming productive than a definition of productivity. Even author of best-selling book Smarter Faster Better Charles Duhigg said that productivity is about “making certain choices in certain ways.”

The focus on the path over destination can make it difficult to judge the success of our efforts to become more productive and can unnecessarily exclude best practices that don’t fit into our definition of productivity.

Economic Definition of Productivity

The word “productive” comes from the Medieval Latin word productivus first used in 1610, which literally meant “fit for production.” The word “productivity” wasn’t used for another 200 years. When people started using the term, it meant what one would expect: “the quality of being productive.” Almost another hundred years later in 1899, productivity was first used in an economic sense to mean the “rate of output per unit.”

The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) today defines productivity this way:

Productivity is commonly defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs. In other words, it measures how efficiently production inputs, such as labour and capital, are being used in an economy to produce a given level of output.

Defined in this way, productivity becomes a key source and indicator of economic growth and global competitiveness for nations. Nations measure productivity as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per hour worked. Given the centrality of this definition to global economics, it makes sense that Paul Krugman would say in his book The Age of Diminishing Expectations:

Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.

To summarize this definition, productivity is how much you get for how much you give.

Critical Thinking Mastermind

A New Definition of Personal Productivity

This macro-economic definition of productivity offers insight into how we may define the term for individuals or employees working in a professional context, offering two dimensions to productivity:

  • Quantity of work – In the OECD’s language, this is “output volume.”
  • Time – Time refers to the “volume of inputs,” capturing what is meant by “labour” in the OECD’s definition.

Productivity’s Missing Dimension:

However, we would argue that this definition is missing an important dimension. To make our case, let’s look at a farming example, which is fitting because some definitions of productivity refer specifically to the rate at which crops are grown on a standard area of land. It’s clear that the farmer who produces 100 bushels of corn on 10 acres is more productive than the one that produces 50 bushels of corn on the same acreage. However, what if 60% of the first farmers’ corn became spoiled or bad due to insect infestation? Then, in reality, the second farmer would be more productive because she would have 50 bushels of corn that could be used compared to the first farmer’s 40.

This may seem obvious, but it shows that there is a dimension of quality implicitly included in our conception of productivity. If the corn isn’t quality, then it doesn’t really matter how much is produced.

Updating our definition, this means that productivity is the combined quality and quantity of work produced divided by the time it took to produce it.

Yes, but the concept of quality is a bit limited for the purposes of defining productivity. For example, imagine there are two authors. Author A produces 1,000 words per week, while Author B produces just 200 words per week. When rated by literary experts, both authors’ writing receives the same quality scores. Yet, only a handful of people read, enjoy, and are changed by Author A’s work, while millions scour over the writings of Author B. Who is more productive? We would argue that Author B is by far.

Tony Robbins’ definition of productivity – “getting the results you want with less time and effort” – supports this line of thinking. Productivity is about results and results are about the outcome of one’s work, not just the output. What matters is the impact your work creates. The economic definition of productivity also supports this idea in that it measures national productivity as GDP per hour worked. According to Investopedia, GDP is the “total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.” Knowing just the amount of goods and services produced (i.e., the output) is not enough to measure productivity. You need to know the value of those goods and services to the market – that is, the impact those goods and services can have on the people that will consume them.

Putting this all together, we would argue that:

Productivity is the amount of impact you create each hour – or stated simply: impact per hour.

Productivity & Impact:

Impact is a factor of the three dimensions just discussed: quantity (i.e., output), quality, and value created. It can take countless forms:

  • For salespeople, impact may be the number of sales made last month
  • For parents, impact may be the character and emotional health of their children or the quality of their relationship with their children
  • For dentists, impact may be the health of their patients’ teeth
  • For structural engineers, impact may be the number of people who drive across the bridge they designed

Impact is about the difference you make on the world around you, making productivity about having a positive impact on the world around you. As illustrated by the diversity of definitions of impact given above, our point is not that productivity is somehow linked to social or charitable efforts. Businesses, governments, and individuals all have an impact on their surroundings. The size, nature, and rate of production of that impact determine their impact. To negatively impact one’s surroundings is to be counterproductive.

How Does this Productivity Definition Guide Us

If you choose to adopt impact per hour as your definition of productivity, there will be implications. Remember from the beginning of this article that the definition of the goal determines the approach.

Productivity “Synonyms” – Efficiency and Effectiveness:

Defining productivity as impact per hour makes it about both efficiency and effectiveness – terms many often use as synonyms for productivity. Efficiency is focused on the time dimension. The more efficient person creates the same impact in less time. Effectiveness, on the other hand, is focused on the impact dimension. The more effective person creates more impact in the same amount of time. For too long, many have defined productivity in a way that ostracizes one of these dimensions or the other.

For example, many equate productivity with doing work fast, but this is a limited viewpoint. If you do a task very quickly but very poorly, you will have little impact, making your productivity low. At the same time, many corporations and individuals pursue perfectionism to their own detriment because they elevate quality over impact.

Holistic Productivity:

Impact per hour is a holistic definition of productivity that conveys equal value for all areas of your life. It easily applies to every area of your life in a way that most other definitions fall short. For example, to be a productive parent is to be a parent who has an outsized positive impact on your children for the time you spend with them. You could say the same for a productive spouse or partner, a productive neighbor, or a community member. How much impact do you have on your neighborhood for the time you spend in it?

Using this definition, you can also think reasonably about the productivity of your whole life in a way that reinforces overall well-being. For example, if you spend excessive hours at work to be hyper-productive there, but come home exhausted, making your interaction with family, friends, and neighbors more detrimental than impactful, your overall productivity will be the net sum of those positive and negative contributors to productivity.

Objective Productivity:

Impact per hour is also more objective – and therefore measurable and comparable – than other definitions. While we love Tony Robbins’ focus on results, emphasizing each person’s unique choice of results makes it difficult to understand which people and entities are most productive. Ultimately, something as central to the health of nations and companies should not be left up to each individuals’ arbitrary selection of goals – which is why GDP doesn’t do this. Those who accept impact per hour as the definition of productivity forfeit their ability to judge their own productivity. Now the world around you is the judge of your productivity. How do they respond to what you produce?

Many people have driven themselves into an unhealthy lifestyle pursuing an inferior definition of productivity. The rising epidemic proportions of people suffering from burnout and unsustainable levels of workplace stress reveal that society’s obsession with productivity is not producing great results. In fact, the long-term consequences are already showing themselves: national productivity growth is at its lowest since 1979.

Economic productivity growth

It’s time for a new definition of productivity that incentivizes us to focus on what matters and pursue it in a sustainable way. Go out and create some impact!

Productivity Definition: Short Summary

Why does the definition of productivity matter?

Most people have a goal of becoming more productive. To seek a goal without a clear definition of the goal is a recipe for failure, and yet, that is the approach most take.

What is the economic definition of productivity?

The OECD defines economic productivity as the ratio between the volume of outputs and the volume of inputs (e.g., labor, capital).

How do you define productivity?

Productivity is the amount of impact you create each hour or impact per hour. Impact is the difference you make on your surroundings and it can be as diverse as sales made and relationships improved.

What are the implications of defining productivity as impact per hour?

If you define productivity as impact per hour, you’ll be forced to think about both your efficiency and effectiveness. You’ll understand that doing tasks fast is not the goal of productivity – and on the other hand, neither is doing tasks perfectly. You’ll be able to apply this definition of productivity to every area of your life and have a holistic definition that incentivizes you to make decisions that healthy and sustainable.