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The Importance of Feeling Productive: How to Achieve It

by Niamh Moynihan on

Productivity is a word we often hear in the workplace, but what does it really mean?

Is it just about input versus output, or is there more to it?  In this article, I’ll explore four layers of productivity: the definition of productivity, being productive as a knowledge-based worker, feeling productive, and considering yourself a productive person. 

Layer 1: Definition of Productivity

Productivity is defined as a ratio between the volume of output and the volume of inputs. A simple example of this definition could be making cheese sandwiches. (I always use a cheese sandwich example!)

If you make two sandwiches in one hour, the input is one hour of effort and the cost of the ingredients and equipment. The output is two sandwiches. After a time, you may become faster and better at making sandwiches. Eventually, you can make four sandwiches with the same equipment and ingredients in one hour. Your productivity has now increased.

This definition of productivity is helpful for material objects and tasks that have inputs and outputs that you can consistently measure. However, much work in the modern workplace is more complicated.  For many people in desk-based or knowledge work, the outputs are often intangible and many salaried employees don’t track their hours. 

Even if you can measure your inputs and outputs, the activity is only productive if it creates the desired outcome or adds the expected value for the team or company. In this case, is productivity the ratio of inputs to outputs multiplied by the value? Returning to the sandwich analogy, does it matter whether you produce two or four sandwiches if your customer expects a salad?


Layer 2: Being Productive

As soon as we move away from the traditional definition of productivity, we get into murky waters.  Are you only productive if you're doing the most valuable work? If that is the case, how can you be sure the task you are working on is valuable? 

If you are an employee, there is always a risk that while you are busy working on what you believe is valuable, changes may happen in other teams, departments or at a more senior level that impact the perceived value of your output.

We say we're being productive when there is a list of things to do on a given day or week, and those things get done. This is why meetings, interruptions, and distractions get such a bad rep; they prevent you from completing the to-do list and being productive. It’s important to remember that some of those distractions, interruptions and meetings are valuable. While they might not help your short-term daily productivity, they will serve your long-term success.

If you look at your personal productivity minute by minute, it will be a very harsh judgment on whether or not you're being productive. But if you take a longer-term view, such as a week or even a whole month and then assess it, you might have a much better and clearer view of whether or not you are being productive. You allow for the ebb and flow of your attention, energy, and other people's demands on your time.

But what happens when you are getting all the work done but don’t feel productive?


Layer 3: Feeling Productive

It doesn't matter if you're being productive or if your productivity is high in the traditional sense of the word; if you don't feel productive, you won't feel like you achieved your potential for that day.  If you don’t feel productive over time, you might be tempted to work additional hours, find it hard to switch off from work, and feel stressed or anxious.


Now is the time to ask: What makes us feel productive?


Is it being productive? I don't think so because you could be doing everything, but at the end of the day, you might still say, “I don't know if I did enough”. And there might be other days where you only do one thing and feel like you had a great day. I believe it’s all about timely feedback, and I’ll share two examples to demonstrate why this is so important.


I had a part-time job in college selling men’s suits. During an eight-hour shift, I would talk to customers and make the sale or not. When I made a sale, I felt productive because I got immediate feedback from the customer paying for the suit. On top of that, I got an immediate sense of reward because I could log into a system and check my commission throughout the day. By the time I finished for the day, I knew what I had sold and earned, which directly impacted my feeling of productivity.

Contrast this to my time as a recruitment consultant, where the sales cycle is much longer. I could do all the tasks required to match a candidate with a company successfully, but the placement may not be completed by the end of the day or even the week. Unless I received feedback from my manager or the client, I could finish the day wondering if I was being productive or “just being busy”. 


In roles where it takes longer to see the result, getting regular feedback from your manager or key stakeholders is vital. 


Hindsight is not always helpful when it comes to feeling productive. If you do a good day's work only to find out that work is no longer needed, you may question whether you were productive after all. This is especially true in companies with constantly shifting priorities and last-minute changes.

On the other hand, if you complete a task and get positive feedback, recognition and maybe even some reward, then the narrative will be different. You might tell yourself that you focused on the work that mattered or worked smart.

When you link the memory of your daily work to results that do or do not materialise in the future, it can create a roller coaster of your feelings about your performance. Getting timely and relevant feedback to validate you are spending your time and energy on the right work is a much better position to be in.

These feelings of being productive or not can eventually impact how you view yourself.

Layer 4: Considering Yourself a Productive Person

Whether or not you consider yourself a productive person at work can impact your confidence, self-esteem and even levels of work-related stress.

Do you view yourself as a productive person, as someone who gets things done, or do you see yourself as a procrastinator or someone who gets caught up in busy work? This self-view is the culmination of days of feeling productive or unproductive, and that's why that feeling piece is so important.

If you finish every day knowing that you did a lot of tasks but feeling like you didn’t do enough, there may come a day where your internal narrative will be “I don’t do enough”. If you want to see yourself as a productive person, it’s essential to understand first what good enough is and your expectations of yourself in terms of the day.  

Nobody is perfectly productive. Everyone sometimes struggles with energy, motivation, distractions, interruptions, and unclear expectations.  Successful people know what work is important, get regular feedback, and know how to manage and support themselves.

Nobody is perfectly productive

So, what does productivity mean to you?

In knowledge-based work, productivity is a complex concept that goes beyond the simple input-output ratio. It involves being productive, feeling productive, and considering yourself a productive person. 

Understanding the difference between being productive and feeling productive and the value of timely feedback is vital to creating a better workday.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself or ask as a team:

  • What does a productive day look like?
  • How do you know what work is valuable?
  • What feedback do you need to validate you are spending your time on the right tasks?

When you feel productive, it results in more than a complete checklist. It boosts your confidence at work and gives you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction at the end of the day. What can you do to feel more productive at work?