You’re Most Productive When You Feel Productive


How do you measure your productivity? Do you count the number of items you crossed off your to-do list or check how much you made in sales dollars? Or do you not measure at all?

Personal productivity isn’t alway easy or straightforward to measure. When researchers run experiments on personal productivity, they have a few different ways to measure it, and the most common is called perceived productivity.

Perceived productivity is a rating people give themselves about how productive they are based on nothing more than self-assessment. It usually looks something like this:

On a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 is very unproductive and 7 is very productive, how productive were you today?

Of course, how we feel about ourselves, including how productive we are, is 1) completely subjective and 2) highly influenced by outside factors.

If I’m feeling bad about myself today because I overate last night and this morning my dog snatched a pigeon bone off the sidewalk that I had to wrestle from her tiny jaws, then my perceived productivity could be quite low. In reality, I might still produce as much high quality work today as any other day. But my perception is that I haven’t done as much as I could have. When we feel bad about ourselves, our perceived productivity is going to be lower than when we feel good about ourselves.

There’s a positive or negative feedback loop built into this system, depending on your starting point.

  • When I feel productive, it makes me feel good, and when I feel good, I perceive myself as being productive.
  • When I feel unproductive, it makes me feel bad about myself, and when I feel bad about myself, I feel unproductive.

Again, it’s all subjective. When we don’t have clear measurements of productivity, there’s no way to know for sure.

Examples of Clear Productivity Measurements

With some lines of work, measuring productivity is fairly straightforward.

  • In a manufacturing, productivity is the average number of item produced per hour, day, or week.
  • In a call center, productivity is likely the average number of phone calls taken and successfully resolved in an hour.
  • In a sales environment, productivity might be the total amount of sales made in dollars per month.

In all cases, it’s a unit of measure over a unit of time.

Examples Where Productivity is Difficult or Impossible to Measure

In many lines of work, we don’t have clear measurements for productivity. Think about a research assistant or a legal clerk. They figure out what to read, read it, pull other relevant data, and write summaries for other people to use in their work. You could measure a research assistant’s or legal clerk’s productivity in terms of the number of pages they produce per hour or per case, but not all pages will be equally useful or profitable.

The same problem comes up in the world of writing. I’ve been in plenty of meeting discussing what a writer should measure. I could look raw outputHow many of my articles published this month? How many words did I write?but each published article is not worth the same for the business that publishes them. We could look at page views for online articles, i.e., how popular they were. But popularity isn’t necessarily what’s ideal to measure either. I could write 10 very click-baity articles that contain misleading or incorrect information that 5 million people read in the first week. Or I publish one very well written article based on facts that I cite clearly, which gets a mere 200,000 views in a week. Which is better for the business? If the business wants to generate as many views as possible to convince advertisers to spend money on their site, then the output of click-bait articles might be the right measurement. Does the business model rely on building a strong reputation for factual and insightful reporting? In that case, it’s harder to measure how the number of page views or words written or articles published contributes to a longterm reputation. A contribution to a soft business goal is harder to measure than dollars earned, or goods produced, or phone calls resolved.

You’re Most Productive When You Feel Productive

Whether you work for yourself or for another business, whether your productivity is easily measurable or not, there is always something to be gained by feeling good about yourself and your productivity. One of the major themes I’ve noticed in reading so much research about productivity is that it’s highly influenced by happiness and autonomy. When tend to perform best when:

  • We feel good about ourselves
  • We feel good and our work, and
  • We have at least decision-making power in how the work gets done.

If you feel productive, you’re more likely to be productive.

Image by Adam Kent, CC.


One thought on “You’re Most Productive When You Feel Productive

  1. I can offer another additional angle. For repetitive activities…the number of defects. Or in other words, the number of times where a clear expectation has not been met.

    For example, you can set some goals for this article in terms of its SEO performance, quality of readability etc. When a soft measure such as “how I feel about it a week later” can be an expectation. A defect would be any place the expectation is not met. It could cover new expectations you don’t know you have beforehand.


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