Clarifying the Meaning of Productivity

Clarifying the Meaning of Productivity

I did my laundry on Sunday afternoon, the conclusion of an absurdly-long process. It started two weeks ago with the collection of loose items of clothing. Then I found my hamper and put them in. Today, wearing the Hawaiian-style World of Warcraft shirt that signals a critical shortage of clean clothing, I moved the hamper halfway to the laundry room before being distracted by the sheer inefficiency of my process. I ended up in my office writing this post. Ironic I know, but my slothfulness has triggered an interesting chain of insights regarding how individual uniqueness plays a big role in defining a systematic approach to productivity.

Systems Aren’t Just For Work

I was talking to a new acquaintance last week, Don, about freelancing. He’s a very imaginative systems-oriented thinker, and was making a lot of suggestions about how one could systemize their process so that you spend less time doing the clerical stuff and more time doing the good stuff. I hadn’t quite thought of it that way before, though I’m a fairly systems-oriented thinker myself when it comes to project work. I realized in my own work, the urge to systemize goes out the window.

Why is that? Probably because I am still making an assumption that “work==boring and structured” and “personal==impulsive and fun”. As a result, I’m unintentionally throwing out an entire range of helpful tools by assocation. Enough of that!

Personal Productivity is Subjective

The first step is to define what “being productive” really means, in a personal (not job) sense. I think that it’s actually feeling that’s important, not measurement.

Being productive can be split in two: producing things (which is measurable), and feeling that sense of accomplishment (which isn’t easily measured). Ultimately both are important to feel that sense of accomplishment, but the feeling part tends to get overlooked. Feeling isn’t a metric like “lines of code” or “number of widgets created” or “time to write a proposal” or “number of items I checked off my To Do list”. Those are examples of metrics and they’re useful when you’re doing quota-based work, but what really matters is feedback. Feedback is measurement with meaning. You do not get a sense of accomplishment without that; this is particularly true in video game design.

This has ramifications for the design of personal productivity tools, which tend to be metrics-oriented; it’s that old qualitative versus quantitative duality popping up again! Even workplace productivity is dependent on feedback; in my management experience, learning how to give meaningful feedback was one of the toughest things to learn, let alone realize.

Fulfillment is Human

Feeling productive leads to a sense of fulfillment; we’re really talking about what people need in general. Let’s start with the following assumptions:

  1. The urge to create is fundamental to everyone. I heard Neil Gershenfeld say this on Talk of the Nation, and I think it’s totally true. We’re all creative in some way…it’s an itch that must be scratched!
  2. The act of creation, however, is specific to the individual. When the act is something particularly cool in the eyes of the individual, that’s an achievement.
  3. The desire for recognition for our achievements is, I believe, also fundamental. While we’re capable of recognizing achievements ourselves, it’s far more interesting to get positive feedback from someone else.
  4. The value of recognition depends on who it comes from. Some recognition is bound to be regarded as more meaningful than others, for any number of reasons.
  5. The accrual of recognition leads to a sense of accomplishment.
  6. Accomplishment has a shelf-life. It’s expected to lead to improved life, whatever that may be. Otherwise, repetition of the accomplishment loses value. In some cases, the creation itself is the reward for no rational reason at all (this is probably a true passion), but in other cases we really do expect some kind of payoff.
  7. If we do get that payoff, then we do it again. Otherwise, the act of creation is not self-sustaining.

We need to design a system that addresses all the elements of this list. To put the premise another way, I’m postulating that:

Productivity exists only as a function of feedback in a social context. In a non-work/personal fun context, productivity takes place largely in the mind. High productivity is the result of tuning the production cycle to take the “personal fulfillment cycle” into account. Feeling productive leads to being productive, if the above two conditions are met.

Again, I’m talking about the qualitative aspect of Productivity. And for imaginative/creative people like me…that’s what I think really matters. Otherwise, I wouldn’t spend so much time worrying and trying to come up with a better system.

Disambiguating Creativity

People who are concerned about productivity, I suspect, are those who have imagination in excess of creativity. After a long hard look at myself, I realized that I also fall in this category. I have tons of ideas, but the desire to actually create tangible things is not as greatly-expressed in my personality. Recognizing this, I created the Printable CEO to emphasize getting more concrete things done. Without concrete, tangible items, you just end up talking a lot and nothing ever changes. But even then I didn’t think I had a problem with creativity until now.

There are two meanings of the word “creative” in my mind, each with different associations. It’s this ambiguity that gives rise to a fallacious argument in my head. The fallacy is that of Equivocation, and it goes something like this:

I’m a skilled, creative individual. To be productive, one must create. Because I am creative, I therefore am (or should be) productive.

Because I’m not feeling particularly productive, I feel I’m wasting my potential. However, the term creative means a lot of different things: in kindergarten, it means that you are a busy kid. In graphic design, it means you come up with good ideas and then make them, but “coming up with ideas” is actually imagination. That’s different.

The definition that counts in productivity is creating things, and this is at the root of my fallacious reasoning. I have the skills. I have the imagination. I don’t necessarily have “creativity”. I know it’s true when I look at all the things that I could do that I haven’t. The impulse, the drive, the motivation…it isn’t there, at least for a certain class of activities.

Fortunately, this is not a major bummer because all that means is that I’m not pursuing the right things; they probably aren’t my passions.

Those things we do automatically without external motivation I’ll call primary passions. For me, one of them is finding the patterns in things and writing them down. Another is problem solving within a contextual framework (e.g. Design). Yet another is acquiring the know-how behind expressive, creative mediums—I’ve always thought it odd that I like to know how to do things but not necessarily do them beyond what it takes to understand the medium, but there ya go.

I also have secondary passions. These are things I want to do but haven’t, despite having the opportunity to do so. I’ve got a huge pile of these: music composition, motion graphics, game development projects, making movies, languages, etc. These are all things I like that I think will contribute to my sense of accomplishment, but I haven’t figured out quite how to make them happen. There’s nothing stopping me, otherwise, from starting the process.

From this, two productivity strategies come to mind:

  • For secondary passions, I think the list of “7 assumptions about fulfillment” will play an important role. I know that I’m lacking the human feedback element to kick things off. I may be more susceptable to the desire to create with other people than most; I can be tremendously productive when I feel the immediate need for it from someone else, but in the absence of that pressure I tend to just follow through with my primary passions: solving problems for people I know rather than creating my own resources, and gathering the resources and knowledge that makes it easier. I probably would enjoy Extreme Programming, now that I think of it.
  • I also know that my definition of creativity needs to be split into “imagination” and “creation”. The funny thing is that when I’m working, I make a clear distinction between “ideas” and “execution”. It’s very similar. In the work context, I personally believe that Ideas are cheap; execution is everything. Sometimes you do get that rare idea that flips everything upside down and revolutionizes the way something is done, but I am not particularly impressed by people who feel it absolves them of the responsibility of doing any heavy lifting. Thus, it’s rather ironic that I find myself being lazy with respect to being productive with respect to my personal projects. Doh!

Creating a New Productivity System

So now I have some new guidelines:

  1. Chose projects for which I can successfully build the full 7-step personal fulfillment cycle. Otherwise, the project will stall, and I will not feel productive.
  2. By making the distinction between being imaginative and being creative, I won’t feel like I’m wasting my potential. Imagination is one thing, and creating things is another.
  3. I’m not sure about this, but I suspect that achieving any feeling of fulfillment, assuming it is authentic and sustainable, solves a lot of problems. Assuming you’ve got your other needs taken care of: once you’re plugged into that feedback cycle, there’s not a lot to complain about.

Step #2—the specific act of creation—is dependent on what talents are unique to the individual. And I’m NOT thinking just about skills…I’m thinking of the proclivities that reinforce certain skills over others. Identifying what those are will be important in determining the path of least resistance and maximum gain; It’s what they call “playing to your strengths”.

But more on that later.


  1. lee 18 years ago

    You’ve got some great ideas here. I wouldn’t put you in the more imagination than creativity category, though. Sometimes the resources aren’t aligned for you to get the bang from your effort buck as you need to fulfill one of your requirements.

    My dad, a darned successful inventor, always said that the ratio of inventions he actually realized into production, was about 100 to 1. He had some rules about it.

    1) No more than six months from first effort to prototype. (He had a minuscule abandonment rating, and I never saw him abandon a project before a working prototype was made.)

    2) No more than six months from prototype, or acceptance of prototype by a company for manufacture, to product being out the door and in the marketplace. (The only times he abandoned the project, it was because of market variables, like a crucial financial partner dying.) He also was a good deal for whomever hired him because he designed and supervised the creation of the manufacturing plant.

    3) The idea that you can’t believe hasn’t been done before is the one to go for. It feels obvious. It’s exciting. You wake up in the morning looking forward to every moment in the day.

    4) You only worry about what you can get done that day.

    Dad used to brag that he was ‘boilin’ because he had over 212 patents, or had caused 212 patents to be made through another entity – like a think tank. Those rules worked for him. He, like Bill Gates, knew that the product wasn’t perfect, but he also balanced that with the necessity for an income stream from a product in order to build a more perfect product.

    5) While he designed the prototype, he was designing the production model in his head. He knew now much chips from one manufacturer cost vs chips from another and knew that half a cent could kill profits.

    6) One movement, one moving part.

    7) Engineering is art.

    8) Pay your secretary well.

    9) Have a secretary. He believed that the ability to organize goes out the window when you’re immersed in a project. It was worth it to him to build an infrastructure so that he could create at will without getting in trouble. Those times when he didn’t have anyone watching his proverbial back in the paperwork department, he got in trouble. One of his favorite sayings when being chased down after a government grant was “Why doesn’t the government hire an accountant to do their inventing for them.” It turned out that he was golden on that count, and had yet to invest a penny of their money into his project (a solar heating and cooling unit for houses that can be made from off the shelf hardware products).

    I think that a lot of the difficulties I’ve had with creating has had to do with not having a) infrastructure and b) breathing space. I have to buy it, and often forget to. I did this Thanksgiving and allowed space on either side and allowed myself to create one afternoon with only a general thought of what it was going to be, as a fundraiser for FabLab. It had to be 1) something I could laser out of plexiglas, 2) take care of a need and 3) be integral to itself – no assembly required. In a couple of hours, I had production drawings finished. People have said that it’s the best thing I’ve done yet.

    Anyway, gotta run. Turns out this is a big topic for me. I’m glad that you posted it.




  2. Dave 18 years ago

    Thanks for the FANTASTIC post, Lee! You should put it up on your website! You rock! :-)

  3. Dave 18 years ago

    A reader on noted that “the feeling of accomplishment counts in the workplace too”…that’s absolutely true. I didn’t mean to imply that it didn’t, so I’m going to go fix that section :-)

  4. Melissa 18 years ago

    best of all, I like how you analyzed everything single detail. pathetic attempt of delaying the task that you really need to do—laundry! hahahaha

  5. Dave 18 years ago


    The greatest insights from from the smallest observations! Or the greatest annoyances. Probably both!

    My laundry is sitting in the dryer now. One of these days I’ll fold it and move it back upstairs, and start the whole cycle over again! Sisyphus would be proud, unless he’s become a born-again GTDer :-)

  6. Mari M. 18 years ago

    REALLY like this post and really like Lee’s comments.  Especially really like the 7-point breakout of “urge to create” through to “do it again.”  And Lee’s 9-step about Dad!
    Thanks, guys.