Being Productive

What does it mean to be productive? A typical definition might be something like, “Getting the most done in the least possible time.” In a workplace context, this means one and only one thing: more work. If the process for a task can be streamlined so it can be done in half the time, then you can have your employees do that task twice as many times.

In order to cram more into the same amount of time, we need careful time management, but I want to suggest that productivity is far more than just time management. That in fact, the definition of productivity above might be fine if you’re an employer and paying your employees by the hour or the workday, but it’s absolutely dreadful for just about everyone — and everything — else.

Another definition of productivity

Here’s a different take on what productivity is: You’re being productive when your work is entirely satisfying and fulfilling.

Although the specific things that are satisfying and fulfilling to you are, of course, a matter of individual tastes and preferences, here are a few qualities most people would consider important:

  • You grow as a person.
  • You enjoy the company of others.
  • You are proud of what you’ve completed.
  • You feel confident about your abilities.
  • You look forward to undertaking the same or similar projects in the future.
  • You help others.
  • You receive the acclaim of your peers.

Notice, the qualities that make work satisfying are all about you, not about the work. There is no job that is inherently so dirty or demeaning that nobody could find it satisfying and fulfilling. (Unfortunately, that isn’t at all how work gets assigned in our society, where race, class, gender, social standing, ambition, educational certifications, and other irrelevancies determine who will do what job, leaving only a small amount of “wiggle room” for each of us to choose among a limited number of options.)

There are dirty jobs, and you have to do them

There are, of course, lots of tasks that are neither satisfying nor fulfilling that have to get done nevertheless. Few people enjoy doing their taxes or getting a root canal, but they need doing. Since it’s unlikely that every routine, boring, dangerous, or repetitive task that our society needs to keep running will be automated within our lifetimes, there is still a need to manage our time.

But the goal of time management should not only be to get the most done in the time allotted. At it’s best, time management offers a set of strategies for maintaining balance between “work” and “life”. I’ve put those terms in quotes because a) our work is, of course, not a thing separate from life, and b) by “work” I don’t mean our job but all the least satisfying and least fulfilling tasks that we need to take care of in order to live. Frankly, if your job consists entirely of that sort of work, you’d best be considering a switch!

Looked at this way, the hoary phrase “work-life balance” that so many employers are paying lip service to these days takes on a new meaning (and one most employers don’t have even remotely in mind): to balance our lives more in favor of tasks that are satisfying and fulfilling.

Those tasks that are draining and unstimulating should be done as quickly as possible, not to maximize shareholder value but so that people can get on with the stuff that makes them human. Sometimes that means giving employees family days or setting them up to telecommute, but often that means giving employees room to do things that challenge and stimulate them, and minimizing or automating the things that don’t.

This applies outside of the workplace, as well. If your family life consists entirely of chores and drudgery, you’re not in balance no matter what percentage of your time is spent at home. Household organization and chores should be, as much as possible, systematized and routinized so it can be gotten out of the way with the least possible investment of time and effort, so that you and your family can get on with the things that make you grow closer together.

Getting to doing

When you have the “work” under control, you can afford to give time to the projects that turn you on. In fact, you can afford to take pleasure not in getting things done but in doing them. While a completed task or project can give you a great deal of satisfaction, the act of doing should also be fulfilling. Consider fishing: everyone loves landing a big fish, but at the end of the day what counts is not how many fish you’re bringing home or how big they are but the time you spent sitting in the boat watching the line.

For a writer, having a finished manuscript to send off to a publisher is great, but it’s the daily flow of words that makes writing worth doing. Same thing for a painter, for whom the feel of paint on canvas is as important — if not more so — as having a finished work to hang or sell. There are sales people who love being in the thick of a negotiation, actors who love the thrill of the stage, athletes for whom the feeling of pushing their bodies is far more important than a win. And when they’re finished, they move on to the next one.

The most useless thing you do

There’s a word in Yiddish that I’ve always loved: “Luftmenschen”. Literally “air people”, Luftmenschen are people who deal in “air” — in the non-tangible: ideas, thoughts, dreams. While it’s a bit of a put-down to be called a Luftmensch, I’ve always felt is seemed like an admirable occupation.

The Luftmensch knows something the rest of us don’t: that the most useless thing you do is the most important. That is, the things we do with no final purpose in mind, solely for the enjoyment of doing them, are the things that make us human — that make us Menschen. (A Mensch is a genuine, authentic person.)

If we’re lucky, these things are part of our job — we get paid to do things we’d do anyway just for the sheer enjoyment of doing them. But lucky or not, they are the key to real productivity — not doing as much as possible in as little time as possible, but doing the least fulfilling stuff as quickly as possible so we have plenty of time to do the “useless” stuff — thinking, dreaming, living.

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