The True Meaning of Productivity

Productivity is a misunderstood concept.

When we hear the term productivity, we usually associate it with either a crass obsession with making money or with superficial self-help schemes.

In both cases, we tend to think of productivity as a kind of hack to quickly get us what we want (usually money).

And while it may have devolved into this in most peoples’ eyes, I want to reconsider the concept of productivity and elevate it to a more meaningful place in our lives.

Specifically, I’ll make the case for why productivity, rightly considered, is about much more than making money or climbing the corporate ladder—it’s a practical means to living the life that we aspire to.

The Original (Roman) Meaning of Productivity

The term productivity comes from the Latin word ducere meaning to lead. Adding the pro at the beginning gives it a sense of leading from the inside out. Put them together and we get the term producere, which means to bring forth or draw out.

This is a nice starting point for a fresh discussion of productivity because it shows how the original spirit of productivity was closer to the idea of leadership than material production.

Specifically, it’s about self-leadership — taking something from within ourselves and leading it out into the world.

Think of the composer who draws out a piece of music from within themselves or the entrepreneur who builds their vision for a better future.

In both cases, there’s something inside that wants to get out. And those who have the courage and ability to do it—to lead their inner self out into the world—we rightly admire.

I think this is the idea that all of our self-help 2.0 terminology is trying to get at: Personal Development, Self Improvement, Personal Growth, etc.

We’re all trying to figure out how to lead ourselves — to move from our current self, with its many shortcoming and weaknesses, toward a better more aspirational vision of our “best self.”

Are You Living the Life You Actually Want?

The notion of self-leadership and drawing something out from within ourselves immediately brings to mind the psychological concept of self-actualization.

While usually attributed to American psychologist Abraham Maslow, the term self-actualization was originally coined by the German neurologist Kurt Goldstein.

Contrary to prevailing Freudian theories of the day which saw sex and reproduction as the central motive in human behavior, Goldstein argued that self-actualization, or the drive to realize one’s full potential, was the more fundamental motivation in our lives.

Later, self-actualization was taken up and championed by American humanistic psychologists like Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl, and Abraham Maslow in the middle of the 20th century.

Maslow, for example, in his influential A Theory of Human Motivation, argued for the idea of self-actualization as:

the desire for self-fulfillment, namely the tendency for him the individual to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.

Whether or not Goldsein and later Humanistic psychologists like Maslow were correct in their assertion that self-actualization is the primary drive or motivation for human behavior, it’s very clearly a central one and still the topic of ongoing research in psychology.

But while most psychologists would likely agree about the importance of self-actualization, the field as a whole is surprisingly quiet about how to go about self-actualizing: How do we reach our potential and fulfill our highest callings? What are the steps? Where’s the playbook?

How do we actually self-actualize?

Why Productivity and Self-Actualization Need Each Other

So far, I’ve shown how the original spirit of productivity has more to do with self-expression and personal growth than with making stuff. And how this idea of drawing out our inner potential is strikingly similar to the psychological concept of self-actualization, a core component of mental health and well-being.

But both concepts, productivity and self-actualization, seem to be a little stuck on their own:

  • Productivity began its life with the best of intentions (self-expression and leadership) but devolved into a utilitarian and materialistic process for making stuff (especially a quick buck). It’s a How in search of a Why.
  • Self-actualization, on the other hand, is an aspiration we all can get behind—who doesn’t want to become a better version of themselves?—but how to actually do it remains a bit of a mystery. It’s a Why in search of a How.

What if it’s only by joining productivity and self-actualization together that each can be fully understood and realized?

  • What if the tools and techniques behind our modern notion of productivity were applied to the goals of personal development and self-actualization?
  • What if we have such a hard time achieving self-actualization and personal growth because we need a more practical and rigorous system and structure for getting there?

See what I’m getting at?

Productivity is a process in search of a higher end (self-actualization, anyone?), while self-actualization is an end in search of a practical process (productivity methods, maybe?).

Put another way, without a higher content and purpose, productivity becomes shallow and overly materialistic. And without a grounding process, self-actualization remains overly abstract and out of reach.

But together, they could become a powerful combination for what those ancient Romans had in mind when they talked about that wonderful term producere: 

To look inside ourselves, take hold of our highest aspirations, and “lead them out” into the world.

Wouldn’t that be something?!

True Productivity is the Art of Realizing Your Potential

Productivity has withered into a relatively shallow concept because we’ve limited its purpose to profits.

But there’s no reason the tools and methods of productivity can’t be applied to other (higher) ends and goals.

For example, I’ve written about how I use a productivity technique called The Seinfeld Method to help me achieve something I’ve always wanted to do—become a writer and self-publish my own book.

Or how I use behavioral science plus a few productivity tricks to get up early every morning and make time to work on my hobbies on top of working a full-time job and prioritizing quality time with my family.

I believe that if we can shake off our profit-focused conceptions about productivity, we’d be free to reimagine it as a set of techniques and tools for achieving our own highest aspirations.

Productivity Reimagined

We all have goals and dreams. But unfortunately, they often remain just that — dreams—because we don’t have a reliable plan and system for getting there.

But if we can think about productivity in terms of our own growth and development rather than making money, it becomes a powerful way to take practical steps towards our goals — whether that really is producing more company widgets, or perhaps something a little more personal like doing our first triathlon, running for local office, or starting that coffee shop we’ve been dreaming about.


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