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What Is Productivity? A Definition & Proven Ways To Improve It

Productivity is a concept that’s widely misunderstood.

Courtesy of Chutima Chaochaiya/Shutterstock
Courtesy of Chutima Chaochaiya/Shutterstock

Welcome to this productivity guide. The purpose of this guide is twofold. First, I will define what productivity is. Too often, we try to improve productivity without know what it is. Second, I share tested and proven ways to improve your productivity.

This is a dynamic guide. I’ve been researching productivity for 10+ years. I update this page as I find new ways to improve it. Feel free to bookmark this page as a reference. Productivity is not something we only study once. It’s a continuous practice. I hope you find this guide useful.

Content Of This Guide:


The Best Definition Of Productivity

Productivity is a concept that’s widely misunderstood. The main reason is that we use the word productivity on a macro and micro scale. On the news, we read about workforce productivity, which is basically the aggregate output of all workers.

So when we read “Productivity increased in September” we’re confused. Those macro trends have nothing to do with how productive a person is. To me, productivity is a personal measure. Especially in the 21st century where most of us work independently. We’re no longer machine operators. We’re skilled knowledge workers who manage their own time and energy. 

Based on the above, there are two types of productivity:

  1. Workforce productivity: The total amount of goods and services workers produce in a certain period.
  2. Personal productivity: The relevant output of an individual in a certain period.

You do not control the former but you have 100% control over the latter. Hence, if a person, manager, CEO, leader, wants to improve collective productivity; one must improve personal productivity. 

One note on the definition of personal productivity. By relevant output, I mean working on the right things. You can be highly productive and have a lot of output, but the results you achieve might be useless. When you focus on relevant output, you get the right things done. Things that improve your career, business, organization. 

Also, it’s important to look at productivity over a certain period, preferably monthly. Consistent output is what drives results.

Benefits Of Improved Productivity 

Productivity is the #1 measure1 that defines growth in the economy and one’s living standards (higher income, better benefits, more free time). Ray Dalio, a well-known investor and philanthropist, emphasized the importance of productivity in his explainer video How The Economic Machine Works.

In the 30-minute video, he explains how the economy works and gives advice on how you can increase your wealth. His most important piece of advice? Here it is:

”Do all that you can to raise your productivity, because in the long run, that’s what matters most.”

The benefits of increasing your productivity are clear: When you work on the right things, you will get more and better results. That’s how we realize growth. Here are three additional benefits of improved productivity:

  1. Innovation2—Modern-day life and work have always been about change. However, the pace of change has substantially increased in the 21st century. Also, technology has increased our productivity. But the reverse is also true; our increased productivity leads to more innovation and new technology. The more productive we become, the more we can innovate.
  2. Self-confidence3—In 1952, Bernice Milburn Moore published an article called Self-Confidence For Competence in the journal of Educational Leadership. In the article, she shares how self-confidence is boosted by your competencies. In other words: The better you get at something, the more self-confident you will be. The more productive you are, the more competencies you can develop. Hence, the more confident you will become.
  3. Higher engagement4—The more involved and passionate someone is about their work, the higher their levels of work engagement is. 

The research into productivity is robust. But it doesn’t require scientific research to experience the power of productivity. Simply improve your personal productivity and see what effects it has on your work, energy, mind, rewards, happiness, etc. 

Common Productivity Challenges

Before I share the most commonly used techniques to improve productivity, I want to focus on the biggest obstacles. If you don’t address these common blocks, none of the productivity tips will stick.

  1. Distractions — The modern-day workplace is an inherently distracting place. Enter any office building and you’ll see countless people in meeting rooms, walking around, drinking coffee, or chatting about the latest episode of a popular entertainment show. If that’s not distracting enough, we all own devices that demand our attention. As a result, we can’t work on our tasks without getting interrupted for 5 minutes.
  2. Personal reasons — Life is demanding. Some of us work 10 hours a day (or more). That leaves us only a few hours of spare time in the evenings. As a result, we’re spread to thin because we also have our personal demands like relationships, family, doing groceries, paying bills, working out, etc. 
  3. Not enough training — We want to be more focused at work. We want to be more calm in our personal lives. We want to make sure our lives matter. But we don’t see productivity as a skill one can learn. 

All the above challenges can be solved by improving your productivity skills. It’s important to be aware of what’s standing in your way to becoming your most productive self. For most of us, the three above roadblocks are the biggest ones. We need to commit to overcoming them and strive to reach our full potential. 

Widely Used Productivity Tips

To achieve your full potential, use the following productivity tips. All the techniques have been tried and tested. More than 30 million people have read my articles since 2015. I’ve received thousands of emails from people all over the world. The techniques I share below are the most effective ones according to readers.

  • How To Journal For Self-Improvement — While you might think that journaling has nothing to do with improving productivity; keeping a journal is one of the most powerful tools on earth. Many historical figures kept one. It can’t be a coincidence. If you’re starting with personal development, I recommend starting with journaling as well.
  • The Pomodoro Method: Take Strategic Breaks To Improve Productivity — This method instantly improves your focus. It’s been highly researched. And the results are clear: The Pomodoro method is one of the best productivity techniques that exist.

To me, this is everything there is to productivity. By applying all the tips from the above articles, I guarantee you will see results. One word of caution: Don’t try everything at the same time. While it’s good to quit your bad habits at the same time, when you try too many new things, you can get discouraged. Instead, create a strategy. What’s the first thing you want to improve when it comes to productivity? You can come back to this guide as much as you like.

Best Productivity Books

The funny thing is that the best books I’ve read about productivity are not productivity books. Instead, they are about living a meaningful life. Here are the four best productivity books I’ve read.

  • The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker — It’s no secret I’m a fan of Drucker. This book provides a practical perspective on productivity that I think every knowledge worker should read. The most important lesson I’ve learned about work is this: It’s not about what you do, it’s about the results you get. That’s the difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Sending 100 emails per hour might be a very efficient use of your time. But what results does it bring you? That’s what matters the most.
  • Essentialism by Greg McKeown — Productivity is about doing the right things. And this book helps you to focus better on what matters to you, personally. Once you know what you’re after, it’s easier to get there.
  • The Power Of Habit by Charles Duhigg — Forming new habits is a practical skill that immediately impacts the quality of your life. Want to lose weight? Be more productive? Exercise regularly? Build successful companies? One thing is sure: Without habits, those things will be extremely difficult to pull off.
  • Daily Rituals by Mason Currey — A unique insight into the habits and rituals of the world’s most renown figures. You’ll be surprised how simple their lives were.

Productivity Tools and Apps That Actually Work

Productivity tools can make your life a lot simpler. They help you to save time, improve focus, and improve the overall quality of our work. However, every time I talk about productivity tools, I also talk about the downside. Too much technology often decreases our productivity. That’s why the list of apps and tools is short. I don’t overcomplicate productivity.

  • Notebook — I prefer A5 sized notebooks with a soft cover and good quality paper. This Moleskine does the job well.
  • Calendar — My standard iOS calendar app is my favorite productivity tool. I primarily use my calendar for time blocking.
  • Trello — Trello is a versatile project management tool that can be used in many ways. I use this productivity app as a backlog of tasks that I have to do. With Trello you can create ‘boards’ for every project you have. And on every board, you can list all the actions you have to complete for that project. Every week I take some time to update my projects. That helps me to improve my focus, so I know what I have to do.
  • Evernote — By far the best note-taking app there is. Research shows that our brain works in a similar way Evernote stores notes, ideas, tasks, etc.
  • RescueTime — The easiest way to track your activities. You’ll be surprised how much time you’re wasting on useless activities. Measure it with RescueTime, become aware of the time-wasting activities, and then get rid of them.
  • Grammarly — I use this tool probably the most out of all the resources on this page. If you’re writing anything that’s more than an email, use this app. I highly recommend getting the premium edition.
  • Be Focused — This is the Pomodoro app I use on Mac. But any app will do. It’s important that the timer is visible. Whenever I don’t use a Pomodoro timer, I just waste hours every day. This app can easily save you one hour per day.
  • SelfControl (Mac) / FocusMe (Mac & Windows) — I use this to block distracting sites.
  • Day One — When I don’t use pen and paper for journaling, I use Day One. I prefer to have a dedicated journaling app. Otherwise, my Evernote gets too cluttered.

Originally published on dariusforoux.com.

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