What Does Productivity Even Mean to You?

In my first session working with life coach Tim Brownson we got to talking about my standards of productivity. I was telling him that I've been beating myself up lately for not meeting certain standards of productivity that I feel like I should have for myself. After a very small amount of digging I discovered that I don't even have any clearly articulated productivity standards. That wouldn't be a problem if I wasn't constantly beating myself up over not meeting these fictional standards. Anybody else see the problem here?

What follows is what I wrote down immediately upon getting off the call with Tim. Please feel free to share your insight and comments at the end. You'll see that I've far from resolved this issue.

How can I be mad at myself for not meeting a standard I haven't set?

I can’t continue to try using a standard of productivity that was developed during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, as long as you showed up for your shift and worked hard you were doing your “job.” It may have been 12, 10, or 8 hours but it was pretty clear when you were “at work.” Even now, lots of jobs still have that dynamic. Show up for 8 hours, work reasonably hard (or appear to, at least), meet the requirements of your job description and you can go to bed knowing you’ve been pretty productive.

As a student, blogger, writer and coach does it make sense for me to use this metric for my own productivity? If I show up at my office/desk/computer and put in my 8 hours is that good enough? That’s the metric I’ve been trying to use for the past couple months. It could work except for the fact that I’m completely unreasonable with what counts toward that productive 8 hour block of time. If I wasn’t actively writing, arguably my most productive and useful act, I felt like I was being unproductive. Maybe 8 hours of uninterrupted writing, everyday, is possible for some people but it seems patently absurd to me. Why should I be using this “old” style of measuring how well I’m doing? Especially when it’s causing me to constantly feel like I’m being unproductive and wasting my time.

A lot of my first session with Tim was spent talking about the standards I have set (but not really) for myself. Hitting my standards should make me feel like I’ve been productive. Because I haven't clearly defined what my standards are, I'm never sure if I'm hitting them. I always sort of assumed I wasn’t. Tim also made the interesting point that a standard should be nearly synonymous with “minimum.” If should be able to hit a standard without a superhuman effort. Consistently hitting my standards for productivity means I can then raise my standards. But if I can’t hit them then maybe it’s time I figure out why.

Right now my standards are set so high (and really, not even defined) that I rarely feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to do. That’s not good for my own state of mind or self-esteem. The problem is that setting my standards lower sounds like a cop out. Like I can’t handle a little hard work. I have all the time in the world, I’m fairly disciplined, I should be able to write for hours on end, right?

"Feeling" my way to productivity?

That may be true. But before I can decide if my standards are too high or too low, they have to be clear. I can’t just ambiguously “feel” whether or not I’ve met my standards. I should be able to objectively look at my output as compared to my previously defined standards and know if I've been productive today. And I might as well start low and work my way up. I can always raise them later.

Now, should standards be based on concrete output like words, articles, etc. or how I’m utilizing time? For example, should my standard be two articles drafted per day or two hours of focused writing per day? I think I’d like to get away from defining myself and my work by something as arbitrary as time but is any other metric any less arbitrary? It shouldn’t matter how long something takes, right? On the other hand, isn’t there something to be said for “putting in the time” regardless of how much actual output it creates? That’s what the pros do, right? They show up every day and do the work. Besides, shouldn't I be most worried about how I'm spending my time? Time is our most finite and valuable resource so it makes sense to measure my productivity in terms of how I spend it, right?

In the end, am I just cutting the same cake in two different ways? Either way, at the end of the week I should clearly know whether or not I was productive. Is it just a matter, then, of either looking at time logs or finished product? Is that what I’m ultimately deciding here? And does it even matter?

Please help me, wise readers

What are your standards for productivity? How do you know when you’ve had a productive day or week? Can you clearly decide when you’ve been productive or do you just operate on gut feeling?

While I’m working this out for myself I’d love to get your feedback in the comments. All of these questions I asked are legitimate — I don’t have any answers. I’d love to read yours, though.