There's so much talk going around right now about productivity.
If you search "how to be productive" in Google, the first page of results will show you long lists of tips and hacks. If you ask your colleagues or classmates, they'll mention tools such as Asana, Trello, or even a specific kind of calendar or planner. You'll hear advice about morning routines, productivity assessments, pomodoro timers, transcendental meditation, journaling, batching, theming, ice baths, miracle teas, and many, many more.
You might ask, do any of these work?
For them, probably.
But the more pressing question you should be asking is:
How do you start being productive, the right way?
Since this article is quite comprehensive, I've divided it into eight parts:
- First, productivity defined
- What you get
- What you put in
- Putting them together
- Productive instead of busy
- Where you should not start
- The ladder and the wall
First, productivity defined
To start being productive, let's first go back to the origin of the word to understand what it means and identify what it takes.
Productivity can be traced to the Latin words, productivus which means “brought forth” and produco which means “to lead forth, lead forward, bring out.”
In most recent times, it’s become more commonly used in economic and business circles and it refers to the ratio of output to input.
In simpler terms, personal productivity refers to what you get relative to what you put in.
With this basic definition, we can understand productivity in terms of results (what you get), resources (what you put in), and their relationship (productivity is a ratio). It's also a formula which makes it easier to digest (and later manifest!).
Here's the breakdown.
What You Get
Your output or “what you get” is just another way of referring to your outcome or result.
At this point, I’d like to point out three things.
First, what you get may or may not be what you intended. It can either be a consequence or reward; it can be favorable or unfavorable. It can even be somewhere in the middle.
- What you get in terms of employment: A promotion, demotion, or retaining the same position
- What you get in terms of business: Hitting your targets, falling behind, or stagnating
- What you get in terms of finances: Reaching a higher income level, falling to a lower income level, or staying at the same income level
- What you get in terms of sports: Winning a championship, losing the championship to the opponent, or not making the championship at all
- What you get in terms of sales: Exceeding a sales quota, not reaching the sales quota, or making the same sales as you did the previous term
- What you get in terms of personal development: Being happy, being depressed, or somewhere in the middle
Second, what you get and how you perceive what you get are different things. A person's income level may be considered high for him, but for you, maybe not so much. Or a business' current target may be in the million dollar range but for your business, this could be too low already since you've reached that target five years ago.
The point is that what you get (aka the outcome you're aiming for) is entirely relative from one person or organization to another. Does this sound familiar? It should because it's what we humans refer to as goals.
The positive outcomes or results from the previous examples are all familiar goals—get a promotion, make more money, be happy. The only difference between my goal and your goal is how relevant and important each of ours is based on our own set of criteria.
Third, this basic definition of productivity highlights a liberating piece of knowledge: Our productivity is at maximum if we generate the most output given the least input.
What You Put In
Your input or "what you put in" doesn't just refer to the resources you have at your disposal. It's how much of each resource you can contribute and how effective you are in doing so (aka the least, the better).
Of course, the resources I'm referring to are time, energy, and attention. These three are what we, personally as humans, can manage. Even with a finite number of hours in a day, how much time you put into a certain activity is still up to you. Your energy is likewise up to you whether or not you exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, and eat healthily. Lastly, your attention is also within your control as you decide to give in to distractions or choose to focus.
This is precisely why you might have heard of productivity in terms of time management, energy management, or attention management.
Given these three resources of what you put in, how well you balance them and allocate them towards necessary thoughts and activities will determine how effectively and efficiently you've produced your output.
Putting them together
To understand this formula, here's a really simple example. Let's say you are a website developer and you can create 10 websites in 10 days. Here, websites are your output and your days are your input. Your productivity, therefore, is 1 since:
Your output of 10 websites / Your input of 10 days = 1
To increase your productivity, you can do three things:
- You could increase your output, perhaps 20 websites in 10 days and your productivity would be 2 (since 20 / 10 = 2).
- Second, you could keep your output but decrease your input of days, perhaps 10 websites in 5 days, in which case your productivity is 2 (since 10 / 5 = 2).
- Third, you could do both and increase your output while decreasing your input at the same time. Perhaps you could make 20 websites in only 5 days, in which case your productivity is 4 (since 20 / 5 = 4).
Take note that whatever you define as your output or input is up to you but in terms of your input, it's very difficult to have 100% of your time, energy, and attention available for use. So if you're allocating these resources towards the wrong tasks or on thoughts or activities that don't lead you towards your intended output, then you're still very much unproductive. In fact, you're just being "busy."
Productive instead of busy
A popular quote among productivity circles is by famed author, entrepreneur, and podcaster, Tim Ferriss, who said, "Focus on being productive instead of busy."
Now that we've discussed 1.) the definition of productivity, 2.) identifying what you want to get, and 3.) maximizing what you put in, I'd like to also clarify the difference between being productive and being busy.
Being busy is easy.
You only need to be moving, usually in a perpetually frantic, all-over-the-place kind of fashion. To be busy, you don’t need to have a result in mind. You can forego intended outcomes for all your thoughts and actions.
People under this category usually wear "busy-ness" as a badge of honor, as if their success or happiness is dependent on other people's perception of them. These are the people who usually brag about their busy schedules as opposed to letting their results do the talking.
They have multiple "priorities" even if by its original definition, the word priority should be singular, not plural. They value efficiency over effectiveness and they're more concerned with tools, hacks, and quick fixes.
Most notably, people who are busy scoff and sneer at strategic planning, scheduling, reviewing, developing good habits, and quite remarkably, setting goals.
Being productive, on the other hand, is a lot more challenging.
Each activity is intentionally done with an outcome, result, or goal in mind. To be productive means recognizing your limited resources (time, energy, and attention) and maximizing them by only focusing on thoughts and activities that have a purpose and will move the needle. Everything else gets a firm but polite "no."
Instead of work for work's sake, people who are productive are concerned with clarity and strategy before action. These people are top performers who value routines, effectiveness over efficiency, continuous learning, and most importantly, setting goals.
Where you should not start
At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the tools, systems, and topics that are popular right now. What I haven't told you is that this kind of conversation isn't entirely new.
First, people were excited about to-do lists and checklists. Then, it was calendars, planners, and appointment books. After, it was electronic spreadsheets and different kinds of software. Nowadays, you have apps and gadgets.
Notice how the tools and other external elements have changed but the underlying principle of productivity remains the same: Generate the most output using the least input.
It doesn't matter what tool, app, or system you use, no matter how fancy or advanced it is. If you're unable to master basic fundamental principles, you'll be stuck with inefficient, ineffective, and unproductive habits and systems.
As Bill Gates said:
"The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
The ladder and the wall
Have you noticed the recurring theme all throughout this article? This theme is an essential part of the productivity formula. It's what sets productive people apart and it's the first step to being productive, the right way.
Before anything else, set relevant and important goals first.
If you ever want to be productive, you’ll need to have a goal, outcome, or result in mind right at the outset. This will serve as a foundation upon which everything you think and do will be based on. This is also the benchmark upon which you will measure your progress and of course, your productivity.
Think of it this way: You don't want to be climbing a ladder only to find out that it's leaning against the wrong wall.
My suggestion? Identify the right wall first. Identify the right goals/outcome/results first.
Once you're clear on what your goals or intended results are (what you get), you'll more easily find solutions as to how to effectively allocate your limited resources without wasting any of your time, energy, and attention (what you put in).
Earlier in this article, I said personal productivity is what you get based on what you put in. But given what we discussed, this definition can be expanded further:
Being productive means setting relevant and important goals then allocating the necessary amount of time, energy, and attention towards thoughts and activities that will make you achieve those goals.
If you’re looking to be productive, don't immediately go towards tools, tips, or hacks. Start by setting relevant and important goals first then, and only then, should you proceed from there.