What is Productivity?


Do you have your own definitions for concepts or do you use whatever is in the dictionary?

I love having my own definitions. Depending on how you define something, you experience life differently.

Take success for example. What is success? There are infinite ways to define it. Examples are “earning a lot of money”, “having a lot of fun” or “being healthy”. Can you see how choosing one of these definitions over the other would shape the choices you make for yourself?

So it is for productivity.

Since one of the things I do is help people become more productive, I have been asking myself how to define this concept.

Everyday definitions

I’ve come up with a definition which represents the essence of productivity for me. Before I share it with you, let’s have a look at some other definitions I’ve found (herehere and here).

Productivity is an average measure of the efficiency of production. It can be expressed as the ratio of output to inputs used in the production process.

Employee productivity is an assessment of the efficiency of a worker or group of workers. Typically, the productivity of a given worker will be assessed relative to an average for employees doing similar work.

Productivity is about the effective and efficient use of all resources. Resources include time, people, knowledge, information, finance, equipment, space, energy, materials.

These definitions focus on words like:

  • Efficiency.
  • Ratio of outputs to inputs used.
  • Resources (such as people, machines, materials).

There is nothing wrong with these definitions, but I am nót inspired. So let’s make some changes.

Edit number 1; purpose

“It’s not so much how busy you are, but why you are busy. The bee is praised. The mosquito is swatted.” – Mary O’Connor

This quote resonates with me a lot. Not because I don’t like mosquitos (I’m sure they’re somehow useful!). It’s because it stresses the why of being busy. In other words: it’s not just important to be busy and produce things, but to do that for a good reason.

I think definitions of productivity that only focus on efficiency and resources are limiting. They can actually lead us in the wrong direction.

Instead, when talking about productivity, we have to ask ourselves the questions:

What are we really trying to achieve with the work that we’re doing? What larger outcome or purpose are we serving?

So, my first suggestion for a new definition of productivity is to include the concept of purpose.

Edit number 2; An alternative to efficiency

Now that it is clear that purpose is important, the next question pops up. In what way do we want to reach that purpose? Is it, as the previous definitions suggested, in the most efficient way?

Charles Eisenstein suggests changing the question.

From “How can we do things in the most efficient way?”

To “How can we do things in the most beautiful way?”

Now that’s a game changer.

The way I interpret this is: How do I make sure my work is something I am proud of? Something that has quality?

Looking at myself, I know that I am quite fast and accurate in doing work. But when I am somehow under time pressure to deliver, I get stressed and I don’t enjoy the process. Moreover, it usually feels like the result isn’t the best I could have come up with.

In contrast, what happens when I take the freedom and time that I need to produce something that has real quality?

  • I enjoy the process.
  • The outcome is better.
  • I am still being efficient with my time.

To have efficiency as a goal in itself is counterproductive.

Efficiency should come as a natural side effect of working for the right purpose in an enjoyable way.


To summarise: what I was missing in everyday definitions of productivity were 1) purpose and 2) an alternative to focusing on efficiency. Having these two things clear allows me to redefine the concept:

Productivity is achieving quality results that contribute to your purpose.

Or, in the context of an organisation:

Productivity is achieving quality results that contribute to the organisation’s purpose.

(Hopefully when you’re working for an organisation, its purpose and yours are aligned!)

How this changes things

As I stated in the beginning of this article, how you define a concept influences your choices, actions and in the end: outcomes.

Living by my new definition of productivity, I hope that…

…by stressing purpose I will always make sure that the work I do is somehow aligned with my purpose in life. Thereby minimising energy spent on work and activities that are not.

…by focusing on quality rather than efficiency, I will always take the time I need to produce something I can be proud of.

Only after meeting these two conditions, will I do my best to be efficient.

That, to me, seems the right order of things.

I hope this definition of productivity resonates with you. And by all means, if it doesn’t, create your own!

Photo credits: Landing… by Antonio Picascia

About Rob van den Brand

Rob van den Brand is a former partner in Structure & Process. Among others he held the roles of Personal Productivity Coach, Holacracy Facilitator and Product Development. He is focused on providing the necessary guidance to organisations that want to transition to different ways of working. He also likes to help people get more productive personally. Rob's Website is Productive Mind.

3 thoughts on “What is Productivity?

  1. Well written…
    For me productivity is a parameter in terms of both effectiveness (accounts for quality) and efficiency (accounts for on-time completion ).

  2. Your “new definition of productivity is intriguing, compelling, and upon initial review, a positive progression.” It has changed my thinking for the better. Thank you.

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