Coming to terms with productivity

Two people cannot have an effective debate unless they agree exactly what it is they disagree about. For example, if you and I were to debate the utility of cryptocurrencies in the near future, we would have to decide whether we were talking about the potential of cryptocurrencies as a generic technology, or the potential of a specific iteration of that technology, either in the past, the present or the future. If we were to debate the presence, extent and consequences of climate change, we would have to nail down precisely what is signified by the words, “climate change”. Are we talking about the warming of the oceans, the change in weather systems, the adaptation of ecological environments, human-induced pollution? All of that? None of that? Or something else entirely? Another example concerns the concept of productivity. 

“Productivity” is a confusing word, mainly because it is used in such diverse ways. Some use “productivity” as a substitute for “efficiency”, which is the ability to perform any task in the best way possible. One instance of this is the “two minute rule” made famous by David Allen, author of Getting Things Done. It states that if a task takes less than two minutes to complete it should be done at that very moment, not deferred. This non-deferral of simple tasks enhances productivity (efficiency) because the cost of doing that task immediately is less than the cost of deferring, remembering and managing its completion for an extended period of time. 

Productivity can also involve “effectiveness”. Peter Drucker formulated this best when he observed that efficiency is doing things right, and effectiveness is doing the right things. Example: many articles and books on productivity for high level executives advise the executive to do only the important work, the work that the executive is uniquely suited to and that alone. The CEO makes six-zero decisions and leaves the single-zero decisions to someone else. Formulated another way, it doesn’t matter how well you do something if you’re doing the wrong thing.

Yet another way to interpret “productivity” revolves around the level at which the concept is applied. When we think of productivity, are we talking of the ability to perform a single task or the ability to manage multiple tasks? The former—which could be called singular or micro-productivity—has under its umbrella ideas like flow states, immersion, mise en place, tool selection and environment management. The latter—which could be called systemic or macro-productivity—has under its umbrella concepts like maker’s blocks, strong filters, information flows and management, planning, scheduling, goal setting, prioritisation and alignment, system slack and communication strategies.

That’s just four ways to interpret “productivity”; as efficiency, as effectiveness, referring to the micro, or referring to the macro. There are more. Yet, multiplicity of meanings concerns not only “productivity”, but everything we think of, learn about, and discuss. For if we do not come to terms before engaging in argument—with ourselves or others—we can never reach conclusions. Or rather, we can, but those conclusions will be clumsy, unsustainable, likely wrong, and in need of an imminent revision.