nick novitski


When to be Productive

935 words, around 3 minutes to read

Hello, friends!

The world is full of techniques for personal productivity, and some of them even work: they help people produce more work of higher value in fixed time. But what makes a productivity technique popular is not helping people do more, but helping them be anxious about less.

For the most part, people adopt and socially promote a technique because it helps them cope with a chaotic and cluttered life by creating personal rituals of peace, grace, and simplicity. Psychologically, the same itch is scratched by GTD, TM, and KonMari. And by reducing anxiety, which would otherwise be a distraction, I believe they do all, at least slightly, increase productivity as well.

So that’s the good news: if you want to be more productive, almost every system you try will help you with that. What they won’t help you do is decide what to be more at. Productivity techniques are excellent hammers, liable to convince you the world is made of nails.

You can use whichever system you want. I’m here to tell you when to use it, and even more importantly, when not to.

Never maximize your workplace productivity

Demographics being what they are, it’s likely that you’re employed, with almost all of your compensation being either a salary or an hourly wage. If that’s the case, you shouldn’t bother using this or any other method for improving your productivity on that work.

It’s not worth your energy

If you do work for a salary or wage, ask yourself, if for whatever reason you suddenly began to produce ten times more value per hour of work, would you:

  1. Make ten times as much money, or nearly that
  2. Be able to work a tenth as many hours, or nearly that
  3. Neither A nor B

If your answer is A or B, then please contact me: you’re either at an amazing company, or in a sales or executive position. In the first case, I enjoy hearing about companies which survive while exploiting their workers less than usual, and in the second case, with how valuable your time is, I’m amazed you even spent it reading this.

But more likely, your answer is C. It’s extremely unusual for companies to effectively and transparently monitor performance at all, and downright unheard of to have compensation track performance that closely. As a result, it is not in your best interest to optimize the productivity of salary/wage work.

If you need and/or enjoy your job, then you should do it well enough to keep it. If you like your co-workers, then you should treat them well enough to brighten their day. But anything beyond that is wasting energy and attention better spent elsewhere.

I’ve found this easy to forget. We spend a lot of time around our co-workers and managers, and it can feel like we’re letting them down if we don’t give them “our best”.

If you aren’t stealing from your boss, you’re stealing from your family

That’s an old joke I frequently repeat. The point is not that you should literally rob your workplace, but that you should always remember who and what in your life really deserves your best.

Similarly, I’m not trying to convince you to quit your job, but to simply recognize employment as a means to an end of your personal choice, and one that is rarely well-served by techniques of personal productivity.

As for what work is well-served by such techniques, it’s pretty simple:

Only maximize your productivity on work you will get maximum benefit from

I see there being three basic types of that kind of work.

Work which you will own the product of

If you own the product of your work, then when it makes money, it makes it for you. The product could be a book, an app, a blog, an art piece, or an online custom printed boxing glove store.

The greater your productivity with this kind of work, the proportionally sooner you complete the product, and the proportionally more products you can make in a given amount of time, and the proportionally more money they can make for you.

Work which you will be paid a fixed price for

In the world of consulting this called value-based pricing. Either way, it’s you agreeing to deliver some work product before some time, and them agreeing to pay you a fixed price upon that delivery.

The greater your productivity in this kind of work, the proportionally sooner you finish the job, and the proportionally higher your effective “wage”: when dollars stay constant and hours decrease, dollars per hour goes up.

Work which will equip you to get more rewarding work

“More rewarding” could be either in financial or emotional terms: getting more money, or having more free time. More rewarding work could be another job, or (hopefully) product or fix-priced work, as described above.

What helps you get these things is skill (the appearance of skill). You could gain valuable skills from educational side-projects, online courses, reading the right books, or even meeting the right people and making the right impression (influencing and connecting people is a skill).

It could even be work you can find at your salaried/wage job: the one exception to the rule of not spending too much energy at work is when you can volunteer for projects and tasks which you think can serve as learning experiences.

The greater your productivity in this kind of work, the proportionally more you’ll learn, and the proportionally more valuable all your work might become.

Good luck,

PS: If you noticed any mistakes in what I've written, and are prepared to accept the sacred burden of Being That Person, you can make a correction on github.

PPS: give me your () to .