Productivity Without Product

Productivity Without Product

(This piece originally appeared in the The Human In The Machine on 9/28/2017.) 

“In retrospect, it's what I do outside of my working hours that benefits my work the most: running, reading, and sleeping."

This quote, from Reddit user green_straw_hat , has stuck with me since I read it a few weeks ago. I also enjoy the activities they mention, but I sometimes feel a little guilty when I put off work tasks to make time for them. Rather than things that “benefit my work the most”, I tend to view these as distractions, temptations, and easy excuses for procrastination.

Am I being too hard on myself? I think I’m being too hard on myself. Sure, going for a run can be a way for me to procrastinate in the moment, but perhaps running has longer-term effects on my brain and body that make me a more productive person over time.

The potential for non-productive activities to boost productivity is well-known; in fact, this article series is full of wonderfully-written pieces that dig deep into specific examples. Since I’m an obsessive organizer, though, I’m going to take a different approach and try to categorize these activities in a way that might help us remember when and why they can be helpful.

Okay, here’s what I’ve come up with:

Activities like those mentioned above—things  like exercising, sleeping, meditating, or engaging in hobbies—are peri-productive: they take place around or between periods of productive work. In the short term, they give a refreshing “change of scenery” (figuratively and/or literally) that may temporarily revive our productivity levels; in the long term, their positive effects on physical and mental well-being may make it easier to start and sustain productive work sessions.

For some of us, taking breaks isn’t enough; we also need practices or rituals before we get down to work in order to be at our most productive. These pre-productive activities set us up for success by getting us started in the right mental and environmental contexts. Some pre-productive activities that are important to me include cleaning my workspace, gathering together all the tools I need, and creating a to-do list with satisfying boxes to check off. It’s important for me to timebox pre-productive activities, though, as it’s easy for me to get carried away and have them eat into the time I have available to do actual work.

Finally, if you really want to nerd out on this stuff, you can spend some time being meta-productive: learning about how to increase your productivity. You’re doing this right now, in fact, by reading this article (and I’m doing it by reflecting on and writing about productivity). By taking the time to think about the nature of productivity and understand how others have honed their productivity skills, you can uncover new strategies to experiment with in your own productivity practice.

Productivity is more than just the act of producing things; it’s a skill or mindset that you can develop through deliberate practice, or simply by giving yourself a “reset” in between productive work sessions. Try experimenting with some pre-, peri-, and meta-productive activities in your life, and take note of how they change your approach to productive work.