This is one of the best definitions I’ve come across. It’s from Charles Duhigg’s Smarter Faster Better:
Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. It’s a process of learning how to succeed with less stress and struggle.
I like this definition because it brings together two things that are both necessary in defining productivity well.
First, the focus is on getting the right things done—not just getting things done more quickly. The aim is to “figure out the best uses” of what we have and to seize “the most meaningful rewards.” It does not matter how much you are getting done, or how fast, if you are not getting truly useful and helpful things done.
Second, it doesn’t overcorrect and forget that efficiency does matter. We do need to try to accomplish things with “the least wasted effort” and get things done “with less stress and struggle.”
This is the magic combination: get more of the right things done, in less time and with less friction and frustration.
In your quest to be productive, remember both sides. When all you care about is quick and cheap, you run the risk of helping to fill the world with useless things. But if you don’t care about speed and efficiency, it’s going to take forever to get your great work out to the world. Caring about both of these sides is a big challenge–but it is well worth it.