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Boy showing delight of being productive

What is Personal Productivity and Why Should You Care About It?

It’s no secret that personal productivity is a popular topic right now—some might even call it a cultural obsession. If you don’t believe me, just consider the thousands of books that currently exist on the topic, and the hundreds more being published each year. But, amid all the tips, hacks, and productivity systems being thrown around, hardly anybody stops to ask the simple foundational questions: What is personal productivity and why should you care about it?

These are important questions because how you define what personal productivity is will determine what you do to become more productive. And the degree to which you care about it will determine how successful you are at actually becoming more productive.

Personal Productivity is About Results

Graph showing increasingly positive results as goal of productivity

Traditionally, productivity is defined as maximizing outputs and increasing profits. It’s about getting more work done, more products produced, and more money in the bank.

In other words, productivity is about results.

So, when we talk about personal productivity, we’re also talking about results. However, we usually don’t use terms like “maximizing outputs” or “increasing profits.” Instead, when we talk about personal productivity, we usually talk about getting things on our to-do lists done. It’s no surprise that one of the most popular productivity systems is simply called Getting Things Done (GTD).

But, because we are so fixated on crossing off items on our to-do lists, a lot of personal productivity tips or hacks are geared only toward helping us get more stuff done in our day.

And, while it’s incredibly valuable to be able to accomplish more in less time, that’s not what personal productivity is.

Productivity is Not Efficiency

Wind turbines creating efficient energy, but not being the most productive

In the corporate world, there are very clear metrics for measuring productivity: It is always about the bottom line. You can cross ten thousand items off your to-do list, but it doesn’t matter if nothing you do helps to increase the bottom line.

One of the big challenges when it comes to personal productivity is that there is no universally acceptable equivalent to the corporate “bottom line.”

How can we distinguish between productivity and busywork?

If you think about productivity as simply getting things done, it becomes too easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time doing tasks that don’t actually matter.

The problem is that too many personal productivity hacks and systems confuse productivity with efficiency.

The two are related, for sure, but they’re different. And the difference, it turns out, is very important.

Simply put, productivity is measured by an end result, while efficiency is measured by the resources it takes to attain that result.

So, for example, wind turbines are efficient ways of producing energy because they don’t use natural resources. But they don’t actually produce much energy compared to other, less efficient, methods.

Personal productivity is measured by whether or not you are able to accomplish the goals you have set out for yourself, while personal efficiency is measured by how quickly you can get all the tasks on your to-do list finished.

Do you see the difference?

Efficiency is really about getting things done in less time, with less effort, or by using fewer resources. Productivity is about getting the right things done.

Productivity hacks and tricks—and even many productivity systems—might help you become more efficient. But that doesn’t mean that they help you to become more productive.

Personal Productivity Increases Your Value for Your Own Life

People lying down as a bridge for someone else, helping them with their personal productivity

If you make the common mistake of confusing efficiency for productivity, you will inevitably become more valuable for other people’s goals and dreams than your own.

There are entire industries built around this concept.

Think, for example, of personal assistants. The job of a personal assistant is to be efficient in everything that he or she does.

Why?

So that the person they are assisting can be more productive.

This is an important distinction, so let me reiterate: The personal assistant’s job is not to be productive; it’s to be efficient. And that efficiency serves the productivity of the person they work for.

And the more efficient the personal assistant, the more valuable they are to their boss.

Why?

Because the more efficient they are the better they serve their boss’s productivity.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with being a personal assistant. They play an incredibly important role, and it can be a very rewarding career path.

But there’s a difference between being a personal assistant in your professional life and being a personal assistant to everyone you know all the time.

I know you have your own dreams and goals. And, while you might enjoy helping other people accomplish their goals, you probably don’t want to spend your entire life serving the dreams and goals of other people.

However, if you make the mistake focusing all your efforts on becoming efficient instead of becoming productive, you will naturally become more valuable for other people’s dreams than your own.

You have probably experienced this already—maybe without even knowing it.

Have you ever worked really hard at work to get everything done that you are expected to do only do receive even more work as your reward?

That is a classic case of becoming efficient instead of productive. Your boss has recognized that you are a very efficient worker. But, that doesn’t mean you get considered for a promotion or invited to the next donor’s breakfast.

If you are productive, on the other hand, you will become first in line for any number of perks.

And you will find that you will be able to choose which projects you want to take on and which ones you want to pass on to your super-efficient colleagues.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Efficiency is essential for productivity. So you should definitely try and be as efficient as possible.

Just be careful not to focus on efficiency instead of productivity.

Personal Productivity is All About Control

Path in the woods with a fork in the road, illustrating the choice we all have to be productive and take control of our lives

Okay, so far we’ve established that personal productivity is about results, but it’s not just about getting things done more efficiently.

Now it’s time to let you in on the big secret…

Are you ready?

Here it is: If you don’t decide what you will do every day of your life, when you will do it, and why you want to do it, other people will make those decisions for you.

In other words, if you don’t take your personal productivity seriously, you will not be in full control of any aspect of your life, including:

  • Your time
  • Your money
  • Your mental bandwidth
  • Your values

Think about it for a minute. If I were to ask you why you want to be more productive, you might give one of the following answers:

  • “I want to get more done in less time so I can spend more time doing what I love.”
  • “I want to accomplish more because it will lead to more money, a better job, a nicer house, etc.”
  • “I want to be more productive because I want to keep up with my friends or colleagues. I see them all doing so much, and so I feel like I should do more.”

Do you see what each of these reasons has in common?

They are all surface-level, but they all point to the same deeper reason: Control.

  • You want control over how you spend your time
  • You want control over career or comfort level
  • You want control over your social status

By increasing your personal productivity, you take more and more control of your life.

So, if you really boil it down, personal productivity is not about getting things done; it’s about control.

  • It’s about taking control of your life
  • It’s about deciding what you will do, rather than having than being ruled by a never-ending to-do list
  • It’s about being able to actually accomplish the things you want to accomplish
  • It’s about creating a life filled with purpose and meaning

Which life do you want to live? One where you’re in control, or one where everyone else is in control?

The choice is yours.

Personal Productivity Requires that You Overcome Fear

A little dog running without any fear to illustrate the freedom that personal productivity brings

Studies have shown that feeling like you have control is important for your own self-worth and sense of purpose—two critical components of your happiness and your overall mental health.

But, getting to that point can be tough.

If you’re like most people, you probably think that the reason you struggle with personal productivity is that you are:

  • Weak
  • Lazy
  • “Not wired that way”
  • Lack discipline (whatever that really means)

And, truthfully, you might be any or all of these things.

But they’re not the reason why you aren’t being productive. These things are symptoms, not the cause.

The real reason you aren’t being productive is the same reason why anyone hesitates to take control of anything: Fear.

I know, I know, you’re probably saying, “I’m not afraid; I would LOVE to take control of my life and get rid of the stress that I feel ALL THE TIME.”

And, yes, that’s probably true. You probably would like to feel like you’re in control.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not scary.

As soon as your success and happiness rests squarely on your shoulders, the doubt and fear come flooding in:

  • Can I really do this?
  • What if I fail?
  • What if I do it and I don’t like it as much as I thought I would?
  • What if I’m not as good at taking control of my life as so and so?
  • Will it be too much work?

And the list could go on, but you get the point.

All of these questions, which serve as barriers to your productivity, are based on fear:

  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of inadequacy
  • Fear of being a fraud

And here’s the truth: You probably will fail a lot. You will almost certainly not be as good as someone you know. And it will be a lot of work.

The greatest obstacle you must overcome in order to get where you want to go and be who you dream of being is not learning how to make better to-do lists or manage your time better (even though these are extremely valuable skills).

No, the greatest obstacle you face is fear.

But if you face the fear head on and overcome it, the results will be amazing. You won’t be ruled by everyone else’s demands anymore. Instead, you will be in control.

And that is an amazing feeling. It is where a sense of purpose and meaning can come from.

(Related: How to Overcome a Fear of Failure: Start a Journal)

Personal Productivity is Holistic

Two stuffed smilie faces sitting on bench

I’ve already made it pretty clear that personal productivity is not about crossing items off your to-do list.

But don’t get me wrong. A well-crafted list can do wonders for your productivity. And, in my experience, it’s the best place to start.

But you can’t fall into the trap of thinking that’s it.

Productivity is about much more. It’s about how you engage the world in which you live. It’s about your mindset, your emotion, and your outlook. It’s about your goals and your dreams. The “stuff” you get done along the way is really only a by-product.

Personal productivity is about choosing what you will do, when and how you will do it. And, most importantly, it’s about why you do it.

But, personal productivity is also about results. So how can you know if you’re being productive or not? I mean, mindset, emotion, and outlook are pretty tough to quantify, aren’t they?

This is exactly why you need more than a to-do list.

In order to be able to truly measure productivity, you have to be able to measure both objective and subjective results.

How Can You Measure Subjective Results?

Tape measure around red apple to illustrate the strangeness of measuring personal productivity holistically

Measuring objective results is fairly straightforward, although even this can be complicated.

But measuring subjective results (how you feel and what you think) can seem damn near impossible.

It might be helpful to think about it like this: If objective results are more a matter of science, subjective results are more like art.

And this means that, to most people, subjective measurements are way more complicated, or maybe even unreliable.

But it doesn’t need to be this way.

There are some very simple ways you can begin to get a measurement on your subjective success.

And here’s how.

Go get your journal or a piece of paper and answer four simple questions:

  1. Do you feel like you’re winning?
  2. Do you feel like you’re influencing others in a positive way?
  3. Do you feel like you’re needed by the people closest to you?
  4. Do you feel like you’re enjoying life?

These are the four questions recommended by Eric Barker in his excellent book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success is (Mostly) Wrong.

You see, being productive means that you can actually choose to turn up the dial on each of these subjective measurements.

You can do things to make you feel like you’re having success, influencing people, needed by others, and enjoying life.

To be sure, feelings are not going to put money in your bank account, and they’re certainly not going to get you a new house or car.

But, they’re an essential part of your happiness—and they can have a surprising impact on your productivity.

These feelings can serve as a compass or guide, as you set and measure your objective goals.

To feel like you’re having success, you need to be accomplishing goals (this is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t do away with to-do lists, done lists, or productivity trackers).

To feel like you’re influencing others, you need to focus on offering something positive to those around you that help them find success as well. It doesn’t matter what that is, big or small, but it has to be something.

To feel like you’re needed, you need to make a point to be there for people that are closest to you. You need to be reliable and trustworthy.

To feel like you’re enjoying life, you need to make a point to be grateful for what you have. A big part of the focus in productivity is on what’s next, what you don’t have yet. But if you want to enjoy life as you go, you need to take frequent stops to reflect on what you already have and express gratitude for it.

Barker says:

“What’s the most important thing to remember when it comes to success? One word: alignment. Success is not the result of any single quality; it’s about alignment between who you are and where you choose to be. The right skill in the right role.”

Finding this alignment means that you need to pay careful attention to both the objective and subjective aspects of productivity.

Conclusion

Personal productivity is about way more than simply getting more “stuff” done more efficiently. It’s about actual and meaningful results. It’s about making yourself more valuable for your own dreams and goals by taking control of your life. And, finally, it is holistic—objective and subjective.

That is what productivity is, and that is why you should care about it.

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