One life coach says she's "very passionate about personal productivity." Hundreds of others call themselves productivity and time management "experts." Among thousands of business buzzwords, productivity is perhaps the most established and the most coveted.
But what does it actually mean?
According to the Oxford Dictionary, productivity means "the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input." Translation: productivity is how much we can produce with a given amount of time or effort.
The premise of productivity is that more is good.
But in an economy increasingly dominated by machines that totally school our output per unit of input, trying to be productive is a losing game. The machines have "more" covered. To set ourselves apart, we need to produce better: better thinking, better policies, better art, better machines.
In short, for getting ahead in today's workforce, quantity doesn't matter. Quality does. Georgetown University professor Cal Newport, whose excellent book Deep Work influenced my thoughts here, explained in a recent email that "deep, audacious results are the only currency that matters."
And yet, in attempt to increase our productivity, we chase "hacks" such as:
- "Make a productivity playlist."
- "Listen to TED talks on productivity."
- "Redecorate your room."
- David Allen's 2-minute rule, where you attend to an incoming task (such as an email) right away if you can accomplish it in two minutes or less.
- Forest, an app featuring a growing tree that blooms after 30 minutes of productive work.
- The Pomodoro technique, for which an animated tomato tells you when to start and stop working.
- Trello, where you spend more time prettying your lists than working.
These hacks and hundreds of others condone replacing the hard and important with the easy and quick. What they ultimately accomplish is not progress on a large, important goal but, rather, the feeling of productivity.
According to a writer on Happier.com, "There's a huge, huge difference between a day that feels productive and one that feels annoyingly not so, and the difference is not just in the amount of stuff you get done: it's about how you feel."
The problem with chasing the feeling of productivity is it lies. What feels productive is answering emails, using productivity apps, running errands and doing admin work. The last time I felt highly productive, I abandoned work to gleefully peruse The Container Store and clean my already-immaculate apartment.
Truly important work that distinguishes us and serves our personal, professional and global bottom line, on the other hand, frequently feels daunting and dissatisfying when we're doing it. Nothing important can be fully accomplished in two minutes. In effect, working to feel productive day-to-day means sacrificing anything worth being productive for.
To sum, productivity is an outdated purpose and a misleading feeling. Chasing it makes us unproductive toward what actually matters.
Maybe a better goal is to stay with and near the thing that moves slowly, begrudgingly, eventually changing.
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