What Are We Getting Wrong About Productivity?

I know what you’re thinking, ‘Oh great, another article on productivity.’ 

And okay, that’s fair. In a world where everyone is consumed by wanting to get ahead or have the upper hand, businesses and employment models have marketed ‘productivity’ as fundamental to success. Really, I don’t even think I disagree. The concept of productivity, in the right context, is enormously useful in ensuring that we live the best daily life we can. That is, again, if considered in the right context. Let me explain.

With respect to careers and employment, the commercialisation of productivity to incentivise or at its most extreme, to overwork, has been emerging readily for the past three decades. But personally, as a college student, it’s hard not to hear it in every facet of our lives now. Whether it’s staying on top of our modules or planning for our careers, we’ve heard it often and continuously – ‘If we’re more productive, we’ll do better, and if we do better, we’ll achieve better.’ As a result, we have all collectively tried to become more “productive”; we have made checklists and timetables, completed quizzes to identify how best we learn, strategised study techniques, and tried to increase the hours we work. In its most conventional sense, to us, productivity means that we become increasingly proficient in a group of skills (e.g. time management and organisation), so that we can accomplish the goals we’ve set for ourselves in daily, weekly and even yearly time spans. But is that really what it means to be ‘productive’?

Let’s evaluate two scenarios. Andy and Brianne attend the same university for the same course, and are in the same year. Andy has two months to exams and plans for a ten hour study/revision session everyday except for Sundays. He spent his year adjusting to the university life and found it difficult to stay on top of his academics. By the time the exams roll around, Andy is well versed and revised to adequately sit said exams. Meanwhile, Brianne works throughout the entire year, scheduling three to five hours to study every weekday. Brianne is also prepared and ready for the exam season at the end of the year. So, given the situations, which student, between the two, was productive?  

With our conventional understanding of productivity, we would say that they were both productive in their given circumstances. Andy stuck to the timetable he had set for himself over those two months; he had a checklist for each day and accomplished those tasks. It was the same outcome for Brianne – she had invested in her learning the entire year, managing her time and tasks consistently. So, she was also prepared for her exams. Therefore, isn’t it safe to say that they were both ‘productive’? 

Objectively, the answer is no. James Clear, a pioneer in productive learning and living, defines productivity as ‘A measure of efficiency of a person completing a task.’ He then clarifies what the philosophy of productivity is, ‘We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. Wrong. Productivity is getting important things done consistently.’ So in the right context, we understand that Brianne is at the very least, more productive than Andy. 

And that’s precisely what we’re getting wrong about productivity. The concept itself is vastly different to our conventional understanding of it. Productivity is more than becoming better at managing our time, putting in more hours of work or organising ourselves. It’s the idea that we effectively prioritise our tasks consistently, and live a balanced life. Brianne was able to balance her work, social life and study life throughout her year, taking breaks on her weekends and revising in blocks during her Easter break. This is a stark contrast to Andy, who was overworked and stressed at the task of a ten hour work day (everyday) – even if he managed to accomplish the feat.

So surprisingly, productivity is not what we think it is. At the end of the day, an optimally productive person has a diversified life – one with work, study and leisure.

Here are some resources that will help you understand more on how to develop and reinvent productivity in your life as a student:

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