Study Hacks Blog

On Productivity, Part 2

April 1st, 2020 · 28 comments

Yesterday’s discussion about productivity and the deep life sparked a really interesting conversation, both in the comments section and my inbox. I thought it might be useful to continue with this topic and see where we end up.

A crucial distinction that seemed to arise from this back-and-forth was between productivity in the business context versus the personal context.

In the business context, productivity refers to the efficiency with which an input is converted into a more valuable output. When applied to workers it refers to the amount of value they are able to produce per unit time spent working. The goal of increasing productivity, roughly speaking, becomes to increase the output reaped for a given salary investment.

It’s this formulation that seems to be creating unease, as it’s one in which productivity is about reducing the quality of the worker’s life, by pushing for ever more frantic output, to increase the return on capital.

Marx originally worked out the basics of this framework with industrial manufacturing in mind, but over the past decade or so, knowledge workers suddenly forced to answer emails at all hours, or exhausted contractors serving the output-driven, algorithmically-mediated gig economy, are beginning to similarly experience this pressure as exploitation.

Business productivity is, of course, a rich topic, having been studied and argued over with vigor since the mid-19th century.  (I’m convinced, for example, that in knowledge work, we’re miserable in part because we are working in ways that unproductively clash with our human brains. By making us more productive in the sense of making work more compatible with human nature might actually make our efforts less stressful and more satisfying.)

But let’s put this aside to instead consider productivity in the personal context. Here I’m referring to the individual’s desire to produce “value” in their life, where “value” can be a nebulous term, encapsulating aims like meaning, satisfaction, impact, etc.

I equate productivity in the personal context to a combination of two forces, organization and intention, united toward increasing the quality of your life. To be productive here is to enforce some organizing structure on the inputs and obligations pulling at your attention, so you can sort through what matters and what doesn’t, minimize energy wasted on activities that add little to your experience, and overall become much more intentional about where you direct your attention.

In this context, the connection between productivity and volume of output is severed. What matters instead is intention. If you eschew productivity in your life, you end up adrift, buffeted by the avoidance of pain and pursuit of positive chemicals. If you embrace it, you can cultivate a deep life worth living — one that might easily intertwine a long walk thinking about a book, with a long afternoon wrangling your kids. In this sense, all of the world’s great wisdom traditions can be understood, in part, as offering ancient productivity advice (among many other things).

The reason I’ve preserved “productivity” as the term of art for this second context is that it still accurately describes the goal of producing the best output you can with what you’re given. The floor, however, is open: Is this split useful? Do we need new terminology here?

28 thoughts on “On Productivity, Part 2

  1. Ayooluwa says:

    Great post, I think your definition is beautiful. Personal productivity is really all about fulfilling your intentions. Whether that’s writing an article, spending time with family or playing video games.

    One can organise by scheduling time for each intention on a calendar. Fulfilling those tasks would constitute traction toward the deep life, and anything else is a distraction.

  2. John Strosnider says:

    It seems to me that perhaps the term “contribution” might be a less capitalistic, more inclusive term. For example, I can contribute to a company by producing the output I was hired to produce (classic productivity), but I can also contribute by learning to be a better leader/mentor/coach. I can contribute to my family by being a good father and husband. I can contribute to my community by volunteering or through public service. I can contribute to my country via military service or activism. I can contribute to humanity by writing a book or publishing scientific studies. Most of these things wouldn’t normally fall under the umbrella of productivity, but all would certainly benefit from the practice of deep work.

  3. Nassim's Lab says:

    I always thought of productivity as the optimal work output that I produce once useless distractions are removed.

    As a college student, spending 6 hours watching YouTube videos and then working for 30 min is not something that makes me feel well. However when you remove this impediment and I regain my natural study behavior, I feel productive.

    Earlier this year I took the time to make a small desktop app called MinimalTube. It wasn’t super user friendly. This time I re developed into a mobile app.

    This mobile app called MinimalTube mobile is an extremely minimalistic client of YouTube.

    1.You search content.
    2.You get the 3 most relevant results.
    3.You select one and play it.

    There is no distractions (No comment sections, no recommendations, no endless scrolling). The use case is when I need to look up a topic from my college class that needs to be better explain. I don’t want to spend my day being diverted from my original goal.

    You can have it for free here: https://nassimslab.itch.io/minimaltube-mobile

    As you noticed It’s not on the Play store because if it did it would surely have been removed ASAP by Google. (It doesn’t comply with their terms of service.)

    1. Lauren says:

      I have an iPhone but I think this is a great idea 🙂 I often have the same problem when I go to look up something specific on YouTube

  4. Tyler Morgan says:

    I’ve always viewed your work as “efficiency” enhancing, with the implicit goal of affording us more free time to do the things we love outside of work and studying while still being very successful in the process. The best example I can give is from your original yellow book (How To Win At College). The book recommended never pulling an all-nighter; instead, you recommended we break up our studying and writing sessions into small (but hyper-focused) chunks over the course of several days or even weeks before a test or paper was due. While following your method likely would result in better grades, it would be worth following your method even if the end result was the same for both methods (e.g., an “A” on the test or paper). Pulling all-nighters throughout the semester would result in a vicious cycle of naps to catch up on lost sleep, eating junk food to give yourself energy to pull even more all-nighters since you didn’t have time to study during the day (since you were napping), missing out on social activities, and much higher levels of stress due to constantly feeling under the gun. While you could conceivably still get an “A” with either method, it’s obvious that the latter method is preferable to pulling all-nighters, and the importance of having some free time each day to do the fun things college kids do was explicit in your book.

    At the end of the day, I wasn’t necessarily more “productive” because I followed the strategies in your book (i.e., I might have made good grades without the book). But I certainly was way more efficient than I would have been had I not read the book, and my college life was much more fulfilling because of it.

  5. I think the split as proposed makes sense. But I think using another word for the second meaning makes sense, both just to distinguish in a way that’s more concise than writing out “in a personal context” and also because the term “productivity” has been used so much more to the former.

  6. Don Watkins says:

    Ayn Rand used the concept “productiveness” instead of ‘productivity” to capture what I think you’re getting at:

    “Productiveness is your acceptance of morality, your recognition of the fact that you choose to live—that productive work is the process by which man’s consciousness controls his existence, a constant process of acquiring knowledge and shaping matter to fit one’s purpose, of translating an idea into physical form, of remaking the earth in the image of one’s values—that all work is creative work if done by a thinking mind, and no work is creative if done by a blank who repeats in uncritical stupor a routine he has learned from others—that your work is yours to choose, and the choice is as wide as your mind, that nothing more is possible to you and nothing less is human—that to cheat your way into a job bigger than your mind can handle is to become a fear-corroded ape on borrowed motions and borrowed time, and to settle down into a job that requires less than your mind’s full capacity is to cut your motor and sentence yourself to another kind of motion: decay—that your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live—that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road…”

  7. Nora says:

    The term I use for myself when thinking about my personal life is “worthwhile.” What is more worthwhile – taking a walk with my kids or letting them watch TV while I scroll social media? Both of them are in the general category of “relaxing downtime” but one is much more worthwhile. But I don’t mind using the term productive, either. I can understand how those who have had “productivity” used as basically a goad from school and work prodding them to output more and more their entire lives could simply not look at it any other way.

  8. David Press says:

    When I think of productivity, I tend to agree with your definition, Cal. It’s to find ways and methods that best suit you to get the have-to’s done to spend more time doing what you want to do. In this case, a Deep Life. Eventually cultivating attention, intention, and impact.

    For someone like me–someone with ADD–I don’t have a hard time with organization and intention. I’m pretty organized and my intentions are good. This comes from years of figuring out tools and systems of “productivity” to stay organized and manage my time well. But the biggest thing for me is the gulf between organization and intention that leads to impact. Often that gulf is so wide that for all my organization and intention it ends up in the wrong impact.

    Ultimately in my mind productivity comes down to a mindset of getting things done. And that varies from person to person but in true minimalist fashion I think the key to being productive and living a deep life is down to three things my mother always says: Keep it simple, stupid; Less is more; and you’re overthinking. You got this. Now if only I could get her to follow her own advice.

  9. njmatch3 says:

    Yesterday’s blog had me pretty well convinced that the occasional dissonance I too feel when you emphasize productivity is largely semantic. But after today’s post I’m less sure it’s just that. The business/personal distinction you make here is helpful, but I’m not persuaded that “the goal of producing the best output you can” is another way to describe or capture “the individual’s desire to produce “value” in their life.” Value in a life is not an output of that life and while they are often related, there doesn’t seem to be a straightforward connection between the two.

    Here’s an example from the academic context, Some of the most “productive” scholars in terms of publication output are also those who are deeply personally engaged on a quest to understand or solve some big problem or puzzle. But some of the least productive scholars are too. The difference could be that the latter are interested in puzzles that are less easily chunked, so they don’t have as many discrete steps/interim discoveries to write about. Or it could be that they just don’t care to play the game of publishing every small step; they are content to wait until they’ve worked out the whole big thicket of issues. Or, it could be that they just don’t care about producing the scholarship at all; they care about working out the puzzle or sharing the quest with others and only produce publications to the extent that it’s required by their jobs. If we focus too much on “outputs,” the last case is hard to distinguish from the unproductive scholar who isn’t on any sort of intellectual quest (i.e., lacks intention), or who is but can’t make substantial progress (this may be a lack of organization). And the first case is hard to distinguish from the highly productive scholar who is basically churning out piecework and bored out of their minds (yet is highly organized).

  10. Raphi14 says:

    Maybe being “productive” in one’s personal life is “having a sense accomplishment” ?
    You can get a sense of accomplishment by cooking, gardening, learning a new craft, dusting your garage (i did it this morning 🙂 )…

    That is to say you put efforts in activities where you end up with something tangible : a dish prepared, a beautiful garden, new knowledge, a clean garage…

    That being said, i always found that you got more of a feeling of “accomplishment” if what you end with is “physical” (a delicious dish, a clean garage) than if it is “intellectual” or “virtual” (new knowledge that you painfully acquired by sitting long hours in front of your desk, a 3D model that you carefully prepared with a dedicated software).

    Even among “intellectual” sciences, during my early med studies i realized i got more satisfaction after an afternoon studying chemistry or biophysics (where you obtain results than you write and see on paper) than after studying anatomy, where you have little choice but learning by rote the names of the differents muscles, nerves, etc.

  11. Brian Blume says:

    Very thoughtful discussion. While I don’t necessarily have an answer regarding a better term than “productivity,” it seems that everyone brings his/her own baggage to the table when it comes to the concept of productivity. As I read the comments from yesterday’s post, it’s clear that one’s background and experiences in the economic and political worlds very much colors one’s view of productivity. I do believe your split into business and personal applications of the term can definitely help!

    I did a simple thesaurus check to see if it sparked any thoughts, and I wonder if the word “abundance” may be useful in this discussion. Abundance can refer to the amount of work getting done, and potentially the quality of the work being done. It can apply in the business and personal spheres, and I would think that, to most, it comes with a positive connotation. Abundance of quality time, of production, of efficiency, of impact, etc. Who doesn’t want more of something good? I’m sure there are holes to be poked in this, but it’s a thought…

  12. JP says:

    I think this distinction is EXTREMELY useful and it’s helpful to read it explicitly. I’ve struggled to explain my desire to have more dedicated, “productive” (in the second meaning) time. For people whose understanding of productivity is intertwined with the first definition, it’s been hard to articulate and convince people of the value of definition 2.

  13. Arturo says:

    No. Productivity is great. No need wasting time in Orwellian wording that remind us of 1984.
    Just wanted to thank you for your work on digital minimalism and intentionality. I recently finished my 30 days of no social networks and ended by leaving insta, twitter and linkedin altogether. I haven’t left Facebook yet but I will after I was one evening imagining life without internet. I got so bored that I asked my son if we wanted to play monopoly.

    Your work is an eye opener and I am hopeful we will see new laws regarding smartphones, social media and young people.

    Keep it going man!

  14. Mel says:

    This does seem mostly a semantics issue.

    It comes down to what we want in life. We’ve been taught to want to maximize productivity to a corporation, rather than maximizing our own happiness and what we can do to help others.

    If we’re maximizing for a corporation, every minute of every day can be dedicated to that goal, even if we end up exhausted and depressed. If we’re maximizing our own joy and the joy of others, then it becomes reasonable to get necessary tasks out of the way, to allow ourselves time to think and reflect and relax, and to do something sustainable in the aid to help others.

  15. Lisa says:

    It seems like the dissonance between business and personal productivity lies in the fact that the latter has no clear metric with respect to time.

    In a business setting, I can compute the amount of monetary revenue per man-hour down to the cent. Time moves forward at a constant rate and money is discrete. In a personal setting, time is an elastic quantity whose percepted speed depends on how engaged we are in some task. With the deep work that you discuss, it feels as if there are no increments of minutes or hours—we are too immersed to notice the passage of time.

    So I think in a personal context, the x-axis should not be time but a warped version of it—maybe perceived time? We want to maximize the amount of engagement we feel with respect to effort. And effort should be proportional to perceived time. Like you say, intention and organization are tools that enable us to reap the rewards of our actions with high efficiency.

    I have no idea what terminology to use for this maximization problem, but I think “productivity” is too tied to the time-money relationship. I don’t invest time to receive more money; I spend effort to reach a higher level of meaning in my life.

  16. EA says:

    I remain of the opinion that we should use “productive creativity”.
    “Productive” because we’re indeed producing something of value (meant not only as monetary or functional value but also as increased virtue or meaning of life).
    “Creativity” because we’re producing by using one the most uniquely humans traits, that is the ability of being “creative” (meant as taking one thing from one form/essence to create something of a difference form/essence; see wood used creatively to produce a beautiful chair).
    The two items need to be together in order to form a whole.

  17. Shreya says:

    “I equate productivity in the personal context to a combination of two forces, organization and intention, united toward increasing the quality of your life.”

    I think of organization and intention as necessary but not sufficient conditions towards increasing the quality of life. It’s only when this combination produces a flow state that I feel deeply fulfilled in the personal context.

  18. Space Taco Deluxe says:

    A quick search of synonyms for the word ‘product’ led me back to a term that may be useful. Fruit. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the idea that your fruit, or what you produce, is a reflection of your efforts and intentions. Labors or fruits come from many factors including a commitment to excellence while also considering the time it takes to produce a work. An example is a filmmaker who only produces one movie every ten years – but crafted, edited, and analyzed every aspect to render something that impacts an audience for years. On the flip side one can spend the same amount of time producing a YouTube video every day. One isn’t necessarily better, however, it’s obvious the fruit of these two differing styles of productivity and intentions, create different kinds of efforts, experiences, and results. Thus your fruit or work produced is the culmination of not just the work itself, but how you work and why you work. Everyone’s how and why will shape the results to a greater degree.

    Semantics aside, one can pause in the midst of a work task, household chores, web surfing, or a creative endeavor, and ask themselves, “what is the fruit of this effort and how much does this align with my deeply held beliefs and overall life goals?” Sweeping the porch may not get “likes” on social media platforms, but it will literally change the energy of the home, making it not only look better, but feel better. This is why I suspect homemakers get few accolades in our times, because it’s intentional work that, in result, may not necessarily be noticed. Yet everyone who walks into a dwelling lovingly cleaned and attended to, feels “at home” and comfortable. The fruit is greater relaxation and ability to do whatever else is wanted/needed to enhance their own life and the lives of those who reside or enter into such a place.

    Whatever word is used, the main thing is reflecting upon the products or fruits of our efforts. By doing this we journey further into a life that is full of both meaning and (seen or unseen) results.

  19. Barron Shawn Hampton says:

    I just read a wonderful meditation by one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Richard Rohr. He is sharing a series on the hard lessons of life that are true always, but that are often only realized in a crisis. One of them is the we are not in control of our lives in the big sense. Relating it to this blog post by Cal I can re-affirm that our modern western culture places so much emphasis on doing rather that being and we dualistically divide the two and elevate the former over the latter.

  20. JANE says:

    I think it would be helpful to pin down the idea of (personal) productivity more tightly. How about something along the lines of “performance output”?

  21. Mike says:

    Perhaps the word we’re all searching for here is…consequential. To me, this word connotes importance, value, enduring, and meaningful. I can spend an hour replying to business e-mails (productive), but I suspect most that on most days, my replies, while (hopefully) somewhat important and valuable, are unlikely to have any long-term resonance. When my head hits the pillow, I’d much rather reflect on my consequential efforts rather than on my productive ones.

  22. Barbara says:

    Thanks so much for these two great posts on productivity language!

    After reading the posts and the comments, I had the sense that many of the problems mentioned evaporate if one does not begin with productivity but rather with deep work and the deep life. It seems to me that what you’re promoting is how to get things done with focus and attention. You offer a number of fantastic ways to get there—from deliberate practice to digital minimalism—and they are hard but they give one that ability to focus and attend and *think* and *do* that is such a pleasure. And if one follows those suggestions, it seems to me that productivity, however one defines it, will inevitably be the by-product.

    The distinction between business and pleasure muddies the waters a bit insofar as I like the emphasis on the deep *life*, a phrase that presumably embraces all aspects of life. If that is one’s starting point then it will play out differently in different arenas and sometimes the result will be productivity traditionally understood (more output) and sometimes it will be productivity more flexibly understood (quality time with kids) but the point will be how one is living one’s life rather than whatever the results may be. All to say, I’d prefer to take the emphasis off productivity (and its implicit support of certain economic and political structures) and put it on deep work and the deep life instead.

  23. In a nod to “Space Taco Deluxe” my husband and I thought that the word cultivation might be more apropos.

    Words change. Usage changes, meanings change, and sometimes a word loses its usefulness in describing something. When dealing with abstractions of meaning and context it can be tough to land on the word that both connotatively and denotatively does the trick.

    “Productivity” has been so co-opted by business and industry that it cannot escape the connotation anymore. And a simple semantic devision might not be enough for individuals who have suffered burnout or experienced intense job related pressure in connection with their productivity.

    Just as “fruit” has a focus on the yield of one’s efforts, my husband and I liked the organic connotation of “cultivation.” We often nurture a skill and in one year the yield is high while in another with similar efforts the yield is low. We can go through all the needed steps to tend and prune our internal lives, but the results are rarely consistent and static in nature. They are much more like the tree that is planted, well tended, and then years later results in what looks like ,”overnight success.” The cultivated life is the one that yields results.

  24. Darius Szpilewski says:

    When reading your work, I was never married to looking at “productivity” through any one particular lens, whether that lens be called “college,” “assembly line,” etc.. I agree with your comment regarding this being semantics. I would imagine, each reader will interpret what they read in their unique way and there are just too many variables to account for what will impact what way the text will be interpreted (i.e. temperament, employment, etc.). Maybe the person who is overworked will interpret “productivity” through Marxist lens? And just maybe, one who is under-employed and scores high on creativity will interpret that same word differently?

    By the way, this is the only blog where I want to, and will read the comments. Thank you for contributing to you all. Stay safe and healthy.

  25. Katherin C says:

    I guess I’m uncomfortable with the notion that you need to be doing something all the time, which has taken the benefits and the need of simply doing nothing without guilt. I am tired of the “you are what your do” speech, because it implies that I’m only worthy if I am doing something, which creates a great deal of unnecessary pressure.

  26. Sean Alexander says:

    Welcome to the English language.

  27. Matt says:

    To me, “personal” productivity is still very tied to the business context, and could almost imply measuring an employees conformity with expected metrics. If I understand you correctly, I believe you (we) need a different word that is capable of representing the subjective nature of what might increase value within someone’s life.

    How about “constructive” and “constructivity”?

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