I love reading about productivity and getting things done. I’m not quite sure why, but it has always fascinated me. My obsession started in college and has ebbed and flowed since then. I love thinking about productivity at home and at work and I get a kick out of finding new hacks to do things better. In fact, I still have a dream of starting a business all about organizing and productivity. Maybe that will be my next entrepreneurial endeavor.
The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines productivity as “the quality or state of being productive.” In my words, it's about getting stuff done in a reasonable amount of time. It’s a huge industry in the modern world where you can find books, courses, coaches, programs, and more talking about how to be more productive. Whether you are a company CEO or a suburban apartment dweller, you can find someone who will teach you how to do what you do faster and easier.
I mean, who doesn’t want things done faster and easier, right? Our modern life is jam-packed with a million details, appointments, tasks, expectations, and responsibilities every day. We can hardly get them all in if we don’t focus on productivity.
Although, as many have pointed out, there is a definite downside to the productivity mindset. When businesses and bosses talk about productivity, they often refer to your ability to get your work done in a shorter amount of time so they can give you more work, thus saving them from having to hire more employees. As Celeste Headlee points out in her book Do Nothing, increased productivity usually translates into making more money rather than employees working less. They end up doing more work for the same amount of time and pay. It doesn’t sound like a great tradeoff for employees and is a fast road to burnout. (Read more of my thoughts on burnout here.)
This doesn’t mean that productivity is bad, just that it can be misapplied. I love productivity because, when it is applied well, it allows me to do more in less time so that I can then spend that time I’ve created in my schedule doing something I really want to do. Back when I was a teacher, I used to apply as many productivity hacks as I could so that I could walk out of school at the end of the day without taking work home with me. I didn’t always meet that goal, but the better I got at productivity the more often it happened.
In my mind, productivity isn’t necessarily a way to do more with my day. It’s doing what is necessary as efficiently as possible so that I still have time and space to do what I want. Who wants to spend all day doing chores or dealing with financial stuff? I want to get that stuff done as quickly as possible so I can go hang out in my garden or work on a sewing project.
Productivity has some other benefits too. Instead of thinking of productivity being just for people with high-powered lives, it can also help those who struggle with chronic illness or fatigue. If you are one who deals with this, productivity can help you be as efficient as possible with the stuff you must get done. Unless you want to pay someone to do your laundry, you have to do it at some point. Making your laundry system as easy as possible means you get it done with less effort, leaving you with more of your precious energy for other things.
I spent about a decade of my teaching career feeling crummy most of the time. I was also single, so all the household chores were my responsibility. I invented tons of systems to make things as easy as possible. I broke tasks down into smaller bits and made each bit as efficient as possible so that they wouldn’t take a lot of energy to get done. My productivity obsession payed off big for me during this time when my energy was lowest.
I’m not working full-time anymore and I am generally feeling better than that period of my life, but I still think about ways to be productive and conserve my energy. In my current living space, there is a bathroom on the first floor by the laundry room. I finally realized that after I launder the hand towel, I can just replace it in the bathroom before taking the rest of the laundry upstairs to fold. It saves me a trip back down later to replace the towel. If this sounds silly to you, then be grateful you’ve never felt so chronically ill that an extra trip down the stairs makes a big difference in your life. If that makes complete sense to you, then look around your home and see if you can brainstorm similar ideas that will help you get your necessary work done easier. (Also check out my post How to Get Stuff Done When You Feel Lousy.)
Here’s another aspect of productivity to consider. If you don’t have a plan for getting something done, the time it takes to complete that task expands to fit whatever time you leave for it. If you leave the whole day to balance your checkbook, then it will take the whole day. If you have a system to get it done in 30 minutes, then it will take only 30 minutes. Productivity helps us define how much time certain things should take. If I know I can vacuum my car in 20 minutes, then I won’t schedule my whole afternoon to get it done. I’ll plan for about 30 minutes, get it done, check it off my list, and then move on to what I want to do after that.
Whenever you read productivity books you will also come across this idea of vital tasks compared to non-vital tasks (everyone has different terms they use, but that’s the essence of the concept). If you really want to be productive, you need to learn to distinguish between what must get done and what you think must get done. For instance, my bills must be paid, my dishes must be washed, I must feed myself, and I must make plans to go to that wedding next week. There are other things on my list that I think must be done, but really don’t. For instance, I might think I need to look up when the next Marvel movie is coming out, check the sales at my favorite clothing store, catch up on the latest social media posts, and spend time researching the best way to cook brisket. These, however, are not necessary to my life and could be skipped if I’m running out of time or energy in my day.
Productivity teaches you to define what you must get done and how to do it with the least amount of time and energy expenditure. You then have free space in your day to do those things you want to do based on how you feel.
Which makes me think of another way people go wrong with productivity. Just like the companies I talked about before, people think being productive means just getting more done in your day. To do things faster so you can just keep working and checking stuff off your list. This is an option, but not a great one. I believe the best benefit of productivity is that it can clear time in your day to do whatever you want, even if that means not being productive anymore. So, you may get the day’s most important tasks finished by 7 PM and then you have your evening to be lazy if you so choose. Being productive creates space in your life to do the things that bring you joy and help you relax.
Oh, and one more thing productivity does not do is teach you to “multitask better.” That’s a huge myth that deserves its own blog post. I’ll sum it up by saying that you can’t multitask yourself into better productivity. The two really aren’t connected at all.
So why is productivity important? Because it gets necessary stuff done so you have time and energy left over to do what you want to do. Or, for those who are chronically ill or fatigued, so you have some time and energy left to work on healing (or resting) rather than simply surviving your day. I think everyone can make their lives a little better with productivity applied in this way. I also think everyone can make their lives better with a little more relaxation and time to do the things that bring them joy.
If you are interested in learning more about productivity, then go to your local library and check out any of the dozens of books available to get started. I suggest borrowing them because I find that many productivity books have a few good suggestions and then a lot of fluff. I like to get my fluff for free and then send the book away so it’s not cluttering up my life creating more things I have to clean. (Plus, I’m a librarian.) But do what works best for you.
You can also look up productivity hacks online. Start with whatever you hate to do the most or whatever seems to take up the most time. Whatever area of your life you are trying to make more productive, just type in that thing and the word “productivity” or “hacks” and you’ll get plenty of information back. For instance, “laundry productivity” or “laundry hacks” will bring back more ideas than you’ll know what to do with. Watch the videos or read the blog posts and see what works for you.
If you want to read a good book about productivity, check out Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog. This is one of the books I read early on in my productivity obsession and I still think is one of the most valuable. I still plan my day based on the “frogs” (most important thing) I need to deal with and work all my free time around that. It’s written for people in the corporate world, but there is a lot to glean from this. If you don’t want to read the whole book, check out this decent summary.
Also, you may want to make a list of things you’d prefer to do with the time you create by being more productive. Do you want time to rest? To exercise? To catch up with friends? If you don’t make some intentions about what you are going to do with your time, you’ll just end up filling it with more stuff that doesn’t make you any happier or relaxed.
I’ll be posting more on this topic in the future both here on the blog and on Pinterest, so here are ways to keep in touch with me to read more.