Friday, September 12, 2008

Definition of Productivity

I've always liked looking for structure and relations between things that surround me. I guess I'm not the only one? One of the things I would like to find structure in today is the term 'productivity' and what is usually associated with it. This includes so-called productivity systems, lifehacks, workflow tools, etc. In this article, I want to argument that 3 levels can be distinguished.

Efficiency is a term that is often used together with productivity. The Wikipedia page tells us:

... While productivity is the amount of output produced relative to the amount of resources (time and money) that go into the production, efficiency is the value of output relative to the cost of inputs used. ...

Most definitions of productivity are based on the production or manufacturing of (physical) goods. In sharp contrast with this, our Western civilization has evolved into a service-oriented society. Most of us no-longer produce anything physical (except for documents perhaps). This is often referred to as knowledge-work. By definition, knowledge work productivity is much harder to measure, as it involves creativity, thinking, finding solutions to problems, etc.

In my opinion, productivity-related information can be divided in 3 groups, I call them levels:

Level 1: Tips and Tricks

This level deals with the question: How can I optimally perform the task at hand. This task could be: process email, have a meeting, brainstorm, etc. Note that this level does not deal with the which task is done first or why this task is important.

The various popular life hack blogs and sites are usually concerned with this level of productivity and give plenty of tips on how to collaborate online, clean your house, etc. in a productive way.

Level 2: The Process

At this level, we ask ourselves: 'What', 'When' and 'in which order'? In other words: how do we approach things?

This level is about the tools and techniques that let you plan your life and work: todo lists, Getting Things Done, Do It Tommorrow, etc.

Level 3: Purpose

In this level, we ask ourselves 'Why'. In other words: what drives us, what is our vision and mission, what is our purpose?

In many cases, this level is forgotten about. Think about the successful manager who at the age of 60 regrets not having spent more time with his kids. Or think about people trying to do 1001 things on a day without standing still to see whether these things are really valuable.

Each of these levels can be further split in parts and obviously some things will be on the boundary or cross these levels. Generally speaking, though, every level influences the level below: Understanding your purpose (level 3) tells you which activities are valuable (level 2) and enables you to find tricks (level 1) to do them more quickly and productively.

The question remains which questions should be asked first. This is for later.

This article is the first in a series of almost literal translations from dutch blog posts by myself on

1 comment:

rbis said...

Hi Toni,
You should ask for an interview with Matthew Cornell ;-) In a note of his latest post, he's summarizing some answers this very question (

I'ld personally define productivity in terms of efficiency, effectivity and sustainability. In a funny way it summarizes late 19th-early 20th, mid to late 20th and early 21st century thinking about it (think Henry Ford, Peter Drucker and uh - Al Gore). Makes me wonder how to define it mid 21st century (add

Your level-approach is different but quite purposeful. Some major blogs seem to move in your L3 direction (most never ever leave the L1).

Custom Search