How Productive Is Your Productivity?

3 years ago

Several weeks ago, I went to the library with my son. While he stood in line to retrieve his prize for participating in a program, I went to retrieve a prize of my own: The 4-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss. I went to the clerk’s desk for assistance:

Me: I’d like to check if you have a book here.

Clerk: Sure, I can assist you with that! What’s the name of the book?

Me: The 4-Hour Work Week, by Tim Ferriss.

In an attempt to respond to the clerk’s blank stare and assuming that she must not have heard me the first time, I started to repeat myself:

Me: Oh, I said it’s called The 4-Hour …

Clerk: No, I heard what you said, but do you mean the 4-hour work day?

Me: No ma’am, the book is really called The 4-Hour Work Week.

With what seemed to be a mixture of intrigue, pity, and annoyance with me, the clerk keyed in the search as she responded politely (but with a tinge of sarcasm), “What can you possibly do in a 4-hour work week? I don’t see that being very productive at all.” We waited in silence as her computer searched for the title. Finally, the search revealed that yes, there is such a book. By the looks she was giving me, it was clear she found the whole notion to be absolutely preposterous.

Credit: Donald Lee Purdue via Flickr Creative Commons

I thought about this exchange for the rest of day. Though comically entertaining, the conversation invoked a level of indignant mental pushback. Immediately I found myself pondering questions,like: By what standards was the clerk basing her views on productivity? How was she defining the word “productive”? And perhaps the most important question: productive for whom?

The general understanding within our workforce is “the more time you put in, the more productive you are." According to Tim Ferriss, time is so intimately connected to productivity because “few people choose to (or are able to) measure the results of their actions and thus measure their contribution in time. More time equals more self-worth and reinforcement from those above and around them.” In the pursuit of self-worth and reinforcement, we hand over our most precious commodity—our time—to an employer that quite often falls short on its return for our high investment.

To demonstrate the low return for time invested, let's consider Allison Doyle's article, Average Salary: Salary Information for U.S. Workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in December 2013 that the median salary in the United States was $48,872." Yet, research for that same year suggested that the cost of living for a two-parent, two-child household can range anywhere from about $50,000 to $95,000. Now, I don’t purport to be a seasoned mathematician, and one could contend that there are several other variables to consider when calculating salary and cost of living in the United States. But let’s be honest here. On a very basic level, something just doesn't add up. A nice salary doesn't seem all that nice when you begin to stretch said salary this way and that way to cover the most basic costs of living. And the situation becomes even bleaker for single-parent households with just one child.

In another example of the low return on our investment of time in the workforce, a 2013 study presented by the Federal Reserve Economic Data (FRED) revealed that an American working a full-time job puts in about 1,700 hours a year. However, for all of these hours, the overall satisfaction and happiness with our work-life is decreasing at a steady rate. In 2010, CBS News reported that workers have grown steadily unhappy for the following reasons:

  • Fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting.
  • Incomes have not kept up with inflation.
  • The soaring cost of health insurance has eaten into workers’ take-home pay.

Somewhere along the line, it became acceptable to believe that if your work week includes long, grueling,and tedious hours, then you are productive. To this end, Ferriss states, “ … our culture tends to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity.” And so continues the rat race we all know too well: Wake up. Clock in. Commence “The Daily Grind.” Clock out. Repeat. Before we realize it, this race has taken literally hundreds of thousands of hours to run annually. And the more we run, the less satisfied and happy we become. Too busy spending and giving time in the name of productivity, we fail to ask ourselves the most important question: “Is this work-life productive for me?”

Personally, being productive means that I am spending my time in ways that allow me to explore and impact what The Minimalists (Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus) refer to as the five essential areas of life: passion, health, relationships, growth, and contribution. If my day includes making progress in most, if not all of these areas, then I've had a productive day. To be honest, I am not quite sure how my definition will ultimately shape my work-life. I continue to mold and tweak my work-life vision every day. But what I am sure of is that lately, I have been happier and more productive at the end of my workdays. I haven’t had to wait to arrive at a specific job or position or status to experience a valuable return on my investment. The return so far has been in the journey itself.

Thinking back on my exchange with the library clerk, I would offer to her that productivity (as it is defined, viewed, and valued within the workforce now) is actually quite counterproductive. Perhaps contemplating and embracing an alternative perspective, one that encourages and empowers us to invest our time in say, the quality of our lives and our happiness, doesn't seem that preposterous after all.


What does the word "productive" mean or look like for you? How has your definition shaped your work-life?


Shaless is also the creator of the Da Capo Careers Project, where she listens to, writes about, and shares the stories of 20, 30, and 40 somethings who have started their career paths from the beginning in order to experience a more passion-filled, meaningful, balanced, and happy work-life. To learn more about the project go to Follow her on Facebook, and on Twitter.


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