Want to Feel (and Be) More Productive? Maybe You Need to Change How You Measure Success

How do you measure a job well done? How do you judge, at the end of a day, if you’ve been “productive” at your work?

(Of course, being productive isn’t always the end goal. Sometimes just being is what’s important. But sometimes, we do have to work, and when we do, it can be helpful to think about how we measure our success.)

This came to my mind recently because I’m about to take up a long-neglected project that, to be honest, isn’t at the top of my priorities list. It isn’t something I’m enthusiastic about. But, frankly, it’s something that needs to be finished.

This is one of those situations where I do want the goal, but I don’t want the process. But in the grand scheme of things, I am almost done, and my husband reminds me that an undone project can lead to being unsettled – and I definitely don’t want to keep being unsettled.

So, as I sat on my sofa, wondering how I could motivate myself not just to finish the project (I’m definitely motivated for it to just be done already), but to do the project so that it will be done, it occurred to me that I need concrete measures for success along the way.

I’ve had a lot of suggestions regarding my hours. “Just spend an hour a day! That’s not much. Soon you will be done.” Or, “pick a day of the week, and just devote that day to it. Wednesdays are for the project and nothing else.”

In these cases, I would measure whether or not I was successful if I could check off having spent an hour on it every day, or if my Wednesdays were filled with nothing else. Part of me is drawn to measuring my hours spent on it, because it seems fairly easy. Even if I do nothing else but sit and stare at that computer, for an entire hour every morning – even if no words come out, no research is done, no thoughts are processed – I have achieved my goal.

It’s like being a toll booth operator: whether or not any cars come through, you get paid. The job is being available. The hours you spend are your measure of success.

But honestly, hours are not motivating for me, precisely because I am not in this thing for the process. I’m not looking to build a new skill or be available in case the muse of inspiration strikes. I just want to be finished with it.

And that’s why outcomes aren’t going to work for me as a motivating measure, either.

Some people’s work is measured by the effectiveness of the product produced. An ad agency doesn’t make its money just by being known for making a lot of commercials. It’s considered successful when those commercials are effective. The agency’s product is the ad, but it’s the outcome of the ad that matters.

Outcomes were a big motivator for me when I started the project. I thought it might help people, or contribute to its field in some way.

But somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the outcome. I am no longer sure if there will be any outcome, to be honest. (Others insist the contrary, but I can’t be certain.) I’ve really had to wrestle with this shift: if there’s no outcome—no good outcome—what’s the point? It’s like an ad agency putting out a commercial they aren’t sure will actually motivate anyone to buy anything.

My husband, however, has pointed out that my goal with this project has shifted. Which means that my measure of success also needs to shift.

My original goals might have been focused on outcomes, but my current goals are simply focused on output. It’s not about the effectiveness of the project. It’s about completing the project itself. It doesn’t have to change lives. It just needs to be good enough to be done.

My current measure of success? This question: It is closer to being done?

Have I created enough output in my time spent working on it to be able to say: it has moved forward? It is more done today that it was yesterday? If so, I’ve been successful.

In this project, output matters. Of course, I need to spend hours on it to achieve that output. And I still might have small hopes that the output will lead to good outcomes. But measuring hours spent or effectiveness of outcomes won’t act as helpful motivators in this particular situation.

Framing my goals in these terms – hours, outcomes, output – has helped me to see that I was using the wrong measure of success in other areas of my life, too.

Sometimes I would think that the hours spent on a house project, for example, made it more valuable. But honestly, I just cared about the outcome! Did it look nice? Was it what I had envisaged? If so, whether it took me 10 minutes or 3 hours didn’t really matter.

Or, in spending time with my nieces and nephews, I would focus on the outcome. Did we read a story together? Did we complete an art project? But for them, it was the hours that mattered more than anything we “achieved” together.

Knowing which measure of success to use has helped shift my understanding of productivity. Hours, Outcomes, or Output: it’s a useful set of categories, isn’t it?



What about you? Have you considered measuring your work success in terms of hours, outcomes, or output?