Sam Holstein

What Does It Mean To Be Productive?

Productivity is a word we all use a lot, but don’t have clear definition around. We know we all want to be more ‘productive.’ There are productivity apps and productivity tools. But do we mean productive at work? Productive at home? Productive in our hobbies?

The word productivity, I think, can be broken down into this definition:

To be productive means to be effective at externally rewarding tasks.

This definition was chosen very carefully.

Effective: to be efficient. To get something done fast and well.

Externally rewarding: People don’t usually speak of being productive with respect to, say, relaxing. Relaxing is important, but we don’t refer to it when we speak of being more productive, because it is internally rewarding.

Tasks: People don’t speak of being productive for things which have no endpoint. The idea is that if we are productive, we complete tasks faster and with better quality.


I think this is a terrible conception of productivity. It blinds us to a lot of the value of productivity advice.

Productivity advice tends to be written with an eye toward accomplishing more work tasks, but that’s not exactly its goal. The goal of productivity advice is to free up time by reducing time spent on wasteful activities. It usually comes with recommendations on how to spend the newly-freed time, but technically, you can spend it on whatever you want.

For example, I just reconfigured my phone according to the specifications in this productivity article by Coach Tony, “How To Configure Your iPhone To Work For You, Not Against You.

EDIT: I have since written an article about how I reconfigured my own phone, called “The 5 Step Guide To Breaking Your Phone Addiction, For Good.”

The idea behind these reconfigurations is that you are engineering your phone to help you meet your work goals instead of sidetrack you.

The article tends to discuss goals in the context of external goals, like learning new things and staying focused in meetings, but that’s not the true benefit. The true benefit is that these phone reconfigurations free up my time and focus. I can use that time and focus on whatever I want, not just work tasks.

This is important to realize because work is not the only thing we do. If you as an individual are experiencing a lack of time to do work tasks, you can use productivity hacks to free up time for work — but you don’t have to. You can use that free time to get a pedicure you desperately want instead.

If we focus only on work tasks, we lose a lot of the benefit of newly-freed time.


In my life right now, I am experiencing a desperate lack of time to relax. I get almost no time to myself to sit around and just be. Reconfiguring my phone is an attempt to carve out a space in my life where I will not be inundated with notifications. I hope to use that freed-up time sitting in bed goofing off. This is not productive in any traditional sense of the word, but I consider it to be.

This extends to my entire life. I use productivity advice to help me do what I want to be doing (finishing a project, relaxing, learning a new language) and not what I don’t want to be doing (looking at spam email, compulsively clearing facebook notifications).

In my life, I am productive when I am doing what I want to be doing.


This article is inspired by a response I received to my previous article “The Secret to Having Enough Time.”

Interesting, Megan…I am curious, how do you decide what is productive and not productive? For example, I love to write and read Medium posts (such as yours) for ideas and inspiration but it does detract from my “work” (although I do enjoy doing it).

Ken Sexe’s Response

Ken Sexe, thank you for the great question and the article inspiration.


Originally published on Medium.