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What Is Productivity?

There's only so much time in a day, a year, or a life. Productivity generally refers to the ability of an individual, team, or organization to work efficiently within that time in order to maximize output.

High productivity results from a mix of factors: motivation, personality, natural talent, training or education, environment, support from others, time management, and even luck. Physical elements also play a role in fostering productivity: Exercise, healthy eating, and sufficient sleep can boost efficiency both in the short- and long-term. Some people seem to be natural super-producers; others struggle to become more productive and may look to daily exercises and better habits to help them get things done.

An individual's productivity hinges on mental energy and a sense of internal and external motivation. It often emerges naturally from work that they find inherently meaningful or valuable. And while not everything one must do each day can hold deep personal meaning, researchers find that maintaining a focus on a larger long-term goal can help activate the drive and energy to push through more tedious day-to-day tasks.

Unfortunately, there are countless ways for productivity to be derailed. For example, it takes time for the brain to disengage from one set of tasks and to commit to another, so switching between many tasks at once will slow overall productivity. Technology poses an endless supply of immediate distractions as well; avoiding them as much as possible should help fuel productivity.

What makes people productive?

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There is no magic formula for productivity. But decades of research suggest that some people are better able to execute and be productive than others and that personality, motivation, and emotions all play a key role in how well someone is able to get things done. While some factors that drive productivity, like personality, aren’t always easy to change, those who feel naturally less productive need not despair. Anyone can take steps to increase their productivity, identify hacks and techniques that work for them, and overcome obstacles to productivity that may be in their path.

For specific strategies for improving productivity, see Increasing Productivity. To learn more about productivity hacks, see Productivity Hacks, Systems, and Techniques. To overcome common productivity pitfalls, see Obstacles to Productivity.

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What motivates people to be productive?

In humans, the drive for productivity tends to be motivated by a set of overlapping natural desires. These include a desire to contribute to a group, a desire to be challenged and mentally stimulated, and a desire to fulfill basic needs such as food, shelter, and safety. Such desires could motivate someone to complete a project at work, clean the house, make dinner for loved ones, or engage in any other necessary task.

Beyond these basic needs, productive pursuits are also driven by identity and emotions; people may be motivated to complete a difficult project because it will grant social status, for instance, or because they will feel pride afterward. The desire to be perceived by others as a productive person—a highly valued trait in many cultures—may also motivate someone to get things done, even if they aren’t technically necessary for survival.

Why are some people more productive than others?

Individual differences in personality likely play a major role in how productive someone is able to be. Individuals who are higher in conscientiousness, for example, tend to be more organized, attentive to detail, and goal-directed than those who are lower in the trait, which often translates to higher productivity. Individuals who are better able to delay gratification may also be more productive than those who tend to pursue immediate rewards. External factors—such as support from others, educational attainment, and the environment—can also influence an individual to be more or less productive.

To learn more about internal and external barriers to productivity, and how to overcome them, see Obstacles to Productivity.

Are certain personality traits linked to productivity?

Yes. Conscientiousness, for example, has been linked to higher productivity in both academic and professional settings. Other related personality traits such as self-control have also been theorized to play a role. A recently proposed trait known as planfulness—characterized by someone’s tendency to develop specific plans to reach goals—may also help someone improve productivity, preliminary evidence suggests.

How do emotions influence productivity?

Both positive and negative emotions can drive or hinder productivity, though their specific effect may depend on the individual. In general, negative emotions exert a much greater effect on someone's output. Feeling stressed and anxious about an upcoming deadline, for instance, could motivate one person to work diligently to turn it in early; another person may attempt to avoid such negative feelings by putting the project off until the last second.

Positive emotions such as happiness have also been shown to influence productivity; one study, for instance, found that participating in a happiness-boosting intervention increased productivity by approximately 12 percent. However, happiness's effects on productivity are complex. Other data indicates that while workplace happiness has shown marked decreases over the past decade, worker productivity has gone up, suggesting that happiness and productivity do not always go hand in hand.

For more on the relationship between emotions and productivity, see Mental Health and Productivity.

Are some people more prone to procrastinate than others?

Yes. People procrastinate for a number of reasons that are subject to individual differences. A person who struggles with time management, has lower self-control, or is high in perfectionism may be more likely to procrastinate than others. Some researchers also hypothesize that individuals high in both neuroticism and extraversion may be more likely to procrastinate than those who are lower in the two traits, since neurotic extraverts may be prone to experiencing the intense negative emotions that can make procrastination more likely.

For common barriers to productivity, see Obstacles to Productivity.

Are “workaholics” more productive?

Not necessarily. While someone who works compulsively—sometimes called a “workaholic”—may give the appearance of higher productivity, most evidence suggests that it is an illusion. In the long run, those who never stop working tend to work less efficiently and struggle to maintain focus. They also have a significantly higher risk of depression and anxiety, which will likely in turn harm their productivity. '

To learn more about how mental illness negatively affects productivity, see Mental Health and Productivity.

Is it ever okay to be unproductive?

Absolutely. Humans are not machines, and attempting to maintain constant productivity is a recipe for burnout. Allowing time for rest and idleness does more than recharge the brain and body; it also allows for creative, unstructured thought that can foster breakthroughs. It may even increase productivity in the long run.

Many people also find that allowing themselves to be unproductive during periods of personal or societal turmoil is a powerful form of self-care. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many people found themselves coping with sudden anxiety, stress, and grief. Giving themselves the space to be unproductive, at least for a little while, allowed them to reduce their cognitive load and manage complex and painful emotions.

For more on the benefits of regular breaks, see Increasing Productivity.

What do productive people do differently?

Evidence suggests that people who are able to maintain strong levels of productivity tend to engage in certain behaviors. These include: they set clear boundaries between “work” and “life”; they say “no” to new tasks when they are overburdened; they prioritize regular breaks and time off; and they happily collaborate with others in ways that benefit both parties.

To learn more about the secrets of the highly productive, see Productivity Hacks, Systems, and Techniques.

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