A General Theory of Productivity

A General Theory of Productivity

The question “Why Am I Productive?” very rarely comes up when we’re productive. Usually, it’s when we’re not productive that we ask why we’re not being productive. Asking the question in the negative like that often gets us to quick fixes, but very often does not answer it in a way that’s helpful.

Here recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes people productive in general. What follows is a general theory that captures what I think is going on:

Productivity = (Creative Energy + Focus + Motivation + Aptitude + Ideal Time)/(Difficulty + Distractions)

A discussion of the individual components is in order:

Productivity: Effectiveness vs. Efficiency

There’s a difference between being effective and being efficient, as highlighted by most productivity systems. Basically, here’s the difference:
Effectiveness: Completing tasks related to meaningful goals.
Efficiency: Completing tasks in a specified amount of time.

The model of productivity that I’m working with is based on effectiveness, not efficiency. We can complete any number of tasks in a given amount of time, pat ourselves on the back, and not have advanced a single meaningful goal. While it may seem that we should be proud of the feat we’ve just accomplished, the reality is that we have moved backward rather than forward. Time is finite, and every minute spent on tasks that are not related to meaningful goals puts us further behind.

“Meaningful goals” is intentionally vague at this point, and though it is a critical part of the theory, we’re going to leave that aside for another day. I’ve started making stabs at it with this proposed model and I’m thinking it’ll be something like “goals that promote flourishing.”

Productivity Enhancers

The following components positively affect our productivity, meaning that having more of any one of them can make us more productive.

    • Creative energy

This one is fairly straightforward. Though we can influence ourselves by setting up the right conditions, the brute fact is that there are times when we are insanely, innately creative.

    • Focus

Another straightforward one. There are times when our attention is laser-focused on one task, project, or idea, and time, reality, and physical necessities melt away while we chase the muse.

    • Motivation

Motivation comes in two distinct breeds: general motivation to get something – anything – done and specific motivation to get specific tasks completed. The higher the motivation, the more likely we are to stay on task and complete the project.

    • Aptitude

Our proficiency at a given task has a major impact on our ability to complete that task in a given amount of time. For example, people who have difficulty writing have to work so much harder to complete the same given article, essay, or post than someone who is either innately better or better through practice. Experts at a task are quantum leaps ahead of novices in terms of productivity.

    • Ideal time

Different tasks require different amounts of time to complete them. Figuring out your own ideal time is a matter of practice, but it’s critical for planning and execution. The importance of being able to plan work is obvious on the planning end, but many people forget that going past the ideal time in execution also hampers productivity.

Two Observations

    • All of the productivity enablers are internal

By internal, I mean that they have to do with our own natures, we can individually identify what’s missing, and we can influence the components. The “hack” literature on the blogosphere is mostly about giving you ways to influence these components. While this is not a hack-y post, I’ll provide some starting reads for each of these dimensions.

    • The enablers are interconnected

Each of the dimensions has a tendency to increase the others. Being in an incredibly creative mood tends to motivate us to work the ideas through. Working within an ideal time tends to make us focus on the task at hand. Being apt at the task tends to open up creative avenues to approach and complete our work.

This interconnected feature of the enablers can work to our disadvantage, too. Low motivation, for example, tends to make us lose focus, lose creative energy, and squander our ideal time.

So, there are two tricks here. The first is to figure out how to increase each of these dimensions and incorporate them into productive habits. The second is to identify the weakest dimension and work on increasing that one so that it doesn’t drag down the other enablers.

Productivity Detractors

The following components negatively affect our productivity, meaning that having more of any one of them can make us less productive:

    • Difficulty (of task)

This is different from our aptitude at a task. Some tasks are inherently more difficult than others and require more of the enablers to complete. Compare the difference in difficulty between, say, writing a catch-up email to a friend and writing a pillar post for a blog. Though the word counts might be the same, the difficulty of writing a good pillar post is simply far greater than writing the catch-up email.

    • Distractions

Distractions are different from focus because focus has to do with what’s going on inside our heads, whereas distractions have to do with what’s going on outside our heads. Of course, what’s going on outside our heads has a tendency to creep inside our heads, but usually removing distractions requires you to cut yourself off from something else. Increasing our focus requires us to quiet the noise inside of our heads. Understanding the difference between the two is critical for decreasing distractions requires different methods than increasing focus, although the two dimensions are heavily interrelated.


    • The productivity detractors are external

We can’t control when our children need attention or when our loved ones are having bad days. We, also, can’t really control the fact that some tasks are more difficult than others. Our ability to influence these dimensions requires us to handle things outside of ourselves. Minimizing the detractors consists of (a) minimizing distractions, and (b) simplifying difficult tasks. Some resources for each component:

    • The productivity detractors are interconnected

I’ve covered this above, but observe that the detractors have the same feature. Given that difficult tasks require more productivity enablers, we’re all too prone to look to outside sources to make them easier, so we wind up distracted. And being distracted makes difficult tasks that much harder.

The Take-Away Value of the Theory

General theories are nice and fun, but what we really care about are the ways in which a new framework helps us make the types of changes we want to see. That said, here are some of the takeaways from this post:

    • We can create habits that increase the enablers.

Every one of the enablers is within our control to foster, despite the common myth that we’re born creative, focused, and motivated. That myth is rubbish and doesn’t address the reality that creative people are creative through habit, focused people are focused through habit, motivated people choose to do things that motivate them, and experts train and hone their skills routinely.

    • We can examine the tasks that we do and plan ideal times to work; and
    • We can plan around or minimize distractions.

We can’t help the fact that kids returning from school require attention. But we can plan our tasks around them (and we can recognize that time spent with them is itself a valuable goal). We, also, can’t help that someone has to make food and we have to eat. Yet, we can turn email, IM, IRC, Twitter, Growl, and the myriad other technological time-wasters off and do our work.

    • We can simplify complex tasks.

Some tasks are just hard. But even hard tasks can be simplified if you break them down into more manageable pieces.

    • It helps us figure out why we’re productive at “weird” times.

I’ve been trying to figure out why most of my ideas come up in the shower and on Sunday afternoons. Answer: few distractions (in shower and off work) and high creative energy (batteries recharged since I’m not at work and I’ve had time to play). Apparently, Dave Seah has the shower problem, too.

Of course, not a single bit of this is new information, as the links attest. But there comes a point when we need to step outside of hacks and look at general trends. In the next few days, I’ll be covering a Special Theory of Productivity that focuses more on time management.

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  1. says

    I have a suggestion: our personal habits (or practices or routines) are perhaps THE largest determinant of our productivity.

    Familiar ways of acting are difficult to change, and there are specific ways to change them that don’t require a great deal of motivation, aptitude, focus, etc.

    In other words, people act out their habits without thinking about them, and this either makes them productive or not. They don’t question them, for a variety of reasons.

    There are both physical habits and mental habits, and changing them requires specific approaches that work better than others (as the research into breaking physical addiction is telling us.)

    In this way, habits can enable OR detract, and there is no way to be more productive without changing the blend.

    — Keep up the thought-provoking work!

    Francis Wade’s last blog post..How I Do My Capturing

  2. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Francis: Keen insight, and I agree with you 100%. I haven’t done such a great job on this blog tying together (habitual) practice with productivity although that’s the way the trees are going. I need to make a post that explicitly ties all this together. Welcome to the conversation!

  3. Charles Gilkey says

    @ Arman: Thanks for stopping in and commenting. You’ve got a great blog going – I’ve added it to my reader and will do some more reading in the next few days. Keep up the great work over there!

  4. fekadu molla says

    i have a suggestion on if ,. i believe that when peaple are hihly motivated ,encourged through incentives ,training , the company’s productivity & profitablity will be increased

  5. says

    Wow, amazing post! I’ve been struggling with motivation and creativity lately, which then decreases my focus and productivity as a whole.

    I love how you list links to other articles that will help improve each of the different areas. I’ll definitely give them a look!

    I’ve also been enjoying your planners enormously!


  6. Martins Okotie says

    This has been a touch in the heart of men who wants to improve in whatever he/she is doing. Thus keep up the good work.

  7. says

    I have to agree with others that this is an amazing post. Like the formula you use. (Not sure I could do the math? haha)

    Glad you addressed the “ideal time” issue. People may not be their most productive during office time 9-5. Creativity may be more effective during early morning or latenight. I found working at a coffee shop for me on a writing or presentation for 90 minutes was much more productive than grinding it out in the office. The office suggests to others you are available and therefore it is ok to distract you. The reality is if you have to complete a presentation you need creative and productive time whereever and whenever that time works for you.

    Wayne Melton

  8. samson excel says

    hey Charlie Gilkey i am making attempt to cite your article in my research work. it happens that there is no way to cite you based on journal and date of publication. it also appers that there is no other source of information about business productivity/ performance theory.
    your work has been of gr8 help so far.
    i need your assistance on this as soon as possible. please reply

  9. says

    I think that everything said made a lot of sense. However, think
    about this, what if you wrote a catchier post title?
    I am not saying your content is not solid, but what if you added something that
    grabbed folk’s attention? I mean A General Theory of Productivity is kinda plain. You should look at Yahoo’s home page and watch how they create news headlines to get viewers to open the links.
    You might add a related video or a pic or two to get people interested about what you’ve written. Just my opinion, it might make your posts
    a little bit more interesting.

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