What Is Productivity?

October 19th, 2005 by Steve Pavlina

In this post we’re going to take a deep look into the concept of productivity.

Here’s my personal definition of productivity:

Productivity = Value / Time
(productivity equals value divided by time)

By this definition there are two primary ways of increasing productivity:
1) Increase the value created
2) Decrease the time required to create that value

You can complicate this definition by including other factors like energy and resources, but I prefer the simplicity of time because in most cases factors like energy and resources are reducible to time anyway. Time also makes it very easy to compare different levels of productivity, such as output per hour or per day.

Apparently you can make some significant gains on the time side. There are many personal productivity optimizations which, especially if you introduce them in your youth, will produce a massive net savings of time over the course of your life. Consider your typing speed, for instance. If you invest the time to get your speed up to 90 words per minute or faster, it will be well worth the initial time investment if you happen to do a lot of typing over your lifetime, compared to allowing your speed to linger at 50 wpm or slower year after year. The extra hours of practice will be nothing compared to the time you save typing emails, letters, or blog entries over the next few decades. Other time-based optimizations include improving your sleeping habits, minimizing commute time, or dropping time-wasting habits like smoking.

The main limit of time-based optimizations is that the optimization process requires an input of time itself. It takes time to save time. So the more time you invest in optimizing time usage, the greater your initial time investment, and the greater your need for a long-term payoff to justify that investment. This limit creates an upper bound for any time-based optimizations you attempt, in accordance with the law of diminishing returns. The more time you invest in any optimization attempt, the lower your net return, all else being equal.

This law of diminishing returns points us back to the value side. While we might be stuck with diminishing returns by trying to optimize the time side alone, we may notice that working to optimize the value side is less limiting and more open-ended.

What is the “value” in our productivity equation?

Value is a quality you must define for yourself. Hence, any definition of productivity is relative to the definition of value. In circles where people can agree on a common definition of value, they can also agree on a common definition of productivity. However, in terms of your own personal productivity, you aren’t obligated to define value the same way anyone else would. You are free to adopt your own definition, such that your pursuit of greater productivity becomes a personal quest that produces the value that matters most to you.

Too often we adopt a socially conditioned definition of value, which tends to be very limiting. Perhaps we define value in terms of work output within our career, number of tasks completed, number and quality of important projects finished, etc. You may not be able to verbalize it clearly, but perhaps you have a working definition of value that feels comfortable to you. You can tell when you’ve had a productive day and when you haven’t based on how much value you created, in accordance with your own sense of what value means.

But how much conscious thought did you put into your personal definition of value? I’m going to challenge you to put a bit more thought into your definition, which will consequently redefine your sense of productivity.

Impact

First, according to your definition of value, to what extent is the value provided? Who receives the value? Yourself, your boss, your coworkers, your friends, your family, your company, your customers, your team, certain investors, your community, your country, the world, your family, God, all conscious beings, etc? What degree of value is ultimately received by each person or group? Are you providing value to one person, 10 people, 100 people, 1000 people, millions of people, the whole planet? How much do you feel the value you provide ripples outward beyond those you provide it to directly? How quickly do those ripples dissipate? What’s your sense of the basic level of impact of your value? Is it limited or expansive?

For example, if you’re the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation or the leader of a country, you’ll have a far greater ability to provide value to large numbers of people vs. if you work as a janitor. The more people you can influence, the greater your potential value. Greater leverage means greater potential impact.

Endurance

Secondly, how long does the value you create endure? An hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, a lifetime, 100 years, 1000 years, 10,000 years, until the end of time? To what extent does your value carry forward in time? Is it quickly consumed and forgotten? Or does it continue to regenerate itself year after year? Does your value create ripples through time?

The Mona Lisa is still providing value hundreds of years after its creation. But other works of art do not provide any enduring value beyond the lifetime of the artist. They are quickly abandoned and eventually replaced.

Essence

Thirdly, what is the essence of the value you produce? Do you help people survive? Entertain them? Enlighten them? How much do others value what you produce? What price would they be willing to pay for it? Do they consider your value essential, optional, or undesirable? How unique is your value? Are you the only one who can provide it, or are there plenty of equivalent choices?

The essence of value provided by a janitor is low because it is easy to find people to do such work for little pay. The essence of value of a physicist is potentially enormous because a new theoretical concept could yield a more accurate understanding of the universe.

Volume

Lastly, what is the volume of value you create? How much of it are you putting out in a given period of time? What is the quantity in which you produce that value?

For example, Picasso was a prolific artist who created hundreds of different works over his lifetime. Other artists had a far lower volume of output.

So now we have this little formula:

Value = Impact x Endurance x Essence x Volume

And therefore:

Productivity = Impact x Endurance x Essence x Volume / Time

Now what’s interesting here is that most of the productivity literature I’ve read focuses almost exclusively on volume and time. But those are the most limiting parts of this equation. However, they’re also the easiest to write about.

I think the most important long-term factors to consider when optimizing productivity (whether that of an individual, corporation, country, or other entity) are impact, endurance, and essence. And the most important of these three is essence.

For example, let’s consider the productivity of a blogger.

The impact of a blogger’s value would be related to the blog’s traffic levels and overall influence among its readers. How many people are reading the blog, and how much do they value what the blogger writes? To improve impact a blogger could increase traffic to the blog or improve his/her writing skills in order to have a deeper effect on the readers. Impact can also be increased if the readers then go out and tell others about what they’ve read. Furthermore, the blogger could use the blog as a means for self-exploration, thereby increasing the impact of the blog on the blogger’s own life.

The endurance of a blogger’s value would be the long-term effect on the blog’s readers, if any. Is the blog changing the long-term thinking and behavior patterns of its readers? Do the readers quickly forget what they read on the blog, or does the information stay with them? Are the readers permanently haunted by what they’ve read?

The essence of a blogger’s value depends on the topics the blogger writes about. Is the blogger writing throw-away posts to get a laugh or generate traffic, or is there a serious commitment to providing deep value? What is the nature of the blogger’s value delivery? Is it financial advice that could help a person become wealthy? Does it provide solutions to important problems? Or is it mostly fluff?

And of course the volume of a blogger’s value would be the quantity of words and posts the blogger delivers.

Now extend this line of thinking to your life as a whole, well beyond the boundaries of your career.

What is the ultimate impact of your life? How many lives are you touching? Are you a person of influence? Or do you exist in relative obscurity?

What will be the endurance of your life’s value? Will your lifetime contributions turn out to be largely insignificant? Or will your contributions ripple on for centuries? What of your value will survive your own death? What of your value will you have the potential to retain after you die (assuming there is an afterlife of sorts)?

And finally, what will be the essence of your life’s value? What is the heart of your contribution? Are you here to play follow the follower? Are you in pursuit of a worthwhile destiny? When you consciously consider the value you’re providing, do you feel empty and fearful or peaceful and fulfilled? What is the meaning behind your deeds? Was that meaning consciously chosen?

You cannot optimize your productivity without consciously and deliberately optimizing these factors. True productivity is far more than volume / time. If you neglect the importance of impact, endurance, and essence, you doom yourself to the pursuit of spinning your wheels faster and faster and missing the whole point of life. And the worst part is that as you live, you will know this to be true. You will sense the hollowness and emptiness in all that you do. When you consider your output in light of the boundlessness of time and space, it becomes nothing.

Essence is the single most important factor. Until you discover the true essence of your life, you can never really be productive. You can take for granted that any task you perform will have a nonzero impact, endurance, and volume. Those factors may be very small if the task is trivial, but they’ll be greater than zero. However, if the core essence of any task amounts to zero, then your total productivity is zero. If you miss the point of your life, your ultimate productivity is zero, no matter how hard you work and how well you attempt to optimize all the other factors. If you gain the whole world and lose your soul, your ultimate payoff is zero.

That essence is your purpose.

This is why it’s so important to discover your life’s purpose. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. In fact, the only truly productive task you can perform before you know your purpose is to work to discover what that purpose is. The pursuit of essence is essential if you wish to have a nonzero productivity.

Once you discover your essence, you’ll find that all those other factors begin to optimize themselves very easily. Embracing essence creates passion, and passion increases impact, endurance, and volume. Passion also makes time seem to pass more slowly. Passion provides the energy and attracts the resources to manage time more efficiently. Passion allows you to see the present moment as inherently complete and perfect instead of perceiving life as incomplete and imperfect. The discovery of essence automatically optimizes productivity as a whole.

Find a person who knows and embraces their life’s purpose, and you’ll find a truly productive person. But in the absence of purpose, you’ll find busyness, but never productivity — the volume of output created might as well be tossed on the trash heap. It will have no power to endure.

Purpose is rooted in the permanent, the timeless, the unbounded. It is the essence of what is real. Purpose is conscious and alive. Outside of purpose you can work only with the temporary, the timebound, the limited — the ghost projections of reality but not reality itself.

Be productive. Spend your time discovering your essence, and then devote the rest of your life to working from your essence. Then you will live and work with a sense of boundless productivity because essence itself is boundless.


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