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What Does It Mean to Be Productive?

Before we discuss whether it is possible to be productive all the time (all day every day), what defines productivity? This is because I guarantee your definition of productivity will be different from mine.

In my eyes, I define productivity as follows:

The state of spending time wisely and as efficiently as possible, such that it serves one’s ideal goals.

As a result, productivity has a strong foundation in one’s ability to manage their time effectively; spending every second of every day sounds difficult, but I urge you to hang tight for now.

Also, note how my definition doesn’t explicitly pertain to 24 hours of intense work each day. In fact, it doesn’t even mention work at all!

It doesn’t even allude to results, but, rather, your goals.

And why is this? It is because productivity is more than just working hard and generating results. Conversely, productivity is when your time management strategy is in favour of:

  • Your short- and long-term happiness,
  • your overall life success
  • as well as your quality of life

To be productive all the time doesn’t equate to working painstaking 14-hour days and 100-hour weeks: above all, this contradicts happiness alongside your quality of life. It sounds like a shockingly sad life, despite any massive successes you may stumble upon.

It’s not possible to live an easy life, whilst being productive—sacrifice is a necessity. However, you can choose to be strategic with your time, studying hard and living happily.

Awaken to a world of success: Why Is Time Management Important for Students?

It’s Not Possible to Work Hard All Day, Every Day

A workaholic staying in the office late after working hours, trying to be productive all day.

Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, suggests that we can only maintain a truly concentrated “flow” state for so many hours per day. After that, your attention begins to trail off and degrade with regards to efficiency.

In addition, studies have shown the power of short yet frequent breaks from work. Thus rose the Pomodoro technique, which goes by the principle of 25 minutes followed by a five-minute break.

Breaks are inevitably important since it is incredibly difficult—perhaps impossible—to maintain true focus—hence productivity—throughout the day.

Also, remember that this applies to intense work that requires especially undivided attention.

But how can you be productive all day if you spend 20% of it doing nothing? Surely, breaks would mean that it is not possible to be productive all the time, right?

Actually, no: this goes by the assumption that breaks are unproductive. We can be doing productive things during our breaks!

So, if we want to spend every second productively, we must ensure that our breaks are just as productive as work.

Creativity is Crucial to Make Your Work Meaningful

No, taking breaks from working hard is not necessarily representative of laziness; I don’t want you to see taking breaks as a necessary evil.

On the contrary, treat breaks as being beneficial, not evil, since they are productive in their own right.

This is another consideration to take into account when managing your time as a student: the distinct classes of productivity.

Because I would fail to list them all, here are merely a few suggestions of types of productivity:

  1. That which yields immediate results (so, chiefly raw work)
  2. That which improves your mind (mental state) and general quality of life e.g. health
  3. Activities (or lack thereof) that inspire you to produce better work, in a better way

Now, let’s focus on the last point, which specifically pertains to creativity. I say dedicating time to creativity is fundamentally productive due to the power of good ideas.

If you do spend eighteen hours each day writing a book, say, does that necessarily mean you’re working smartly? While you might be producing a whole load of quantity, what’s to say it is of the best quantity?

Therefore, it is a folly to equate the state of always being productive to excessive work volume.

Besides, it is the quality of your work that really drives you towards your goals, and creativity fosters work quality.

Be more meaningful: 55 Productive Things to Do in 2019 (The Best of 2018)

Disengaging Allows Your Brain to be Creative

Colourful hot air balloons in the sky show creativity is essential for staying productive all the time.

So, how does all this talk of creativity relate to breaks?

Recently, I was reading the book Originals, in which Adam Grant explains how not working—specifically, procrastination—can beget creativity. Indeed, taking breaks gives your mind space to think of ideas such as:

  • Solutions to problems
  • Strategies to work more efficiently
  • Things that can make your life and work better

When you’re in the flow of a task, your mind’s scope is narrowed, hence making it difficult to generate creative ideas. By contrast, doing pretty much “nothing” spreads your mind across unique contexts, providing inspiration.

Who knew that such an idle activity could be so productive?

But You Should Relax Wisely and Productively

That being said, just any sort of break—any sort of procrastination—does not guarantee the productive advantages of creativity.

If you truly want to always be productive, there are innumerable tasks that you must not engage in; you must be selective about what you do.

In other words, when you take a break, you must manage that time wisely as well. Accordingly, you would essentially be productive whilst you relax.

Oxymoron? Absurd? Not at all.

Behold the secret of being productive all the time, every second of your life: relaxing in a strategic, productive manner.

I’m confident that, by now, you’re not naïve enough to think that anything other than work is productive. Rather, there is a band of the most productive activities on the productivity spectrum, and it covers tasks of varying intensities—including “relaxing” activities.

This is why I dislike the argument that it is not possible to be productive all the time on the basis that humans need time to rest. Why not simply rest productively?

INSERT productivity spectrum graph

The productivity spectrum shows not all productive tasks are hard so you can be productive all the time
Productivity is not necessarily a function of work intensity.

Five Things That Constitute a Break Well-Spent

So, it takes the right type of break to qualify for spending time smartly. For example, here are a few key principles of an effective five-minute break:

Disengage from work fully, as it is imperative to give your brain a new set of inputs and recalibrate.

Enter different surroundings in order to ensure that your brain will stop thinking about your work. Also, a new environment uses the power of association to make relaxation and inspiration more potent.

Expose yourself to nature, because studies have shown that this has a dramatic effect on creativity. If genuinely experiencing nature is infeasible, pictures of nature can have a similar, albeit diluted, effect.

Do some exercise, for example, I love to do handstands during my break intervals. Physical movement, especially walking, is key to unlocking your sub-conscious brain and being more productive at home through mental recovery.

Socialise with people, positively, if you spend most of your time working alone. While it can provide a sense of happiness and purpose, this could just as easily get you carried away. (Also, social media is not permitted.)

Get enough rest at night, too: How to Sleep Easily for More Happiness and Better Focus

Do You Need to Be Constantly Productive in School?

School is a difficult environment, primarily because the education system is flawed. In other words, what most people spend five years learning could probably be learned in merely a year or two.

Alas, the rigid systems of schools below university are such that you have little control over what you do.

How can you be productive all day when seven hours are dedicated to compulsory education? This is perhaps where my argument falls flat—school disallows you to be productive all the time.

Of course, this is terrible, unlike at home where you (probably) have more control. Nonetheless, you must find a way to manage and use your time productively in school hours.

While you aren’t going to have full control, there are undoubtedly things you can do to be as efficient as possible. So, focus on where you do have control.

It's difficult for students to be more productive in school when the teacher has the last word.

How to Be Productive All the Time in School

Firstly, you are given breaks between lessons to study or engage in a productive hobby such as reading.

Secondly, make the most of lessons by paying close attention as well as practising active recall often. I’ve found during idle moments, the opportunity to read through my revision guide manifests.

Thirdly, see school as an opportunity to face a completely different challenge—the challenge of life. Admittedly, school is not the best training ground for real life, though, you can certainly use it as such.

For example, I rarely see friends outside of school because I have plentiful opportunities to socialise within school. In this way, it is the perfect opportunity to master your social interaction skills. What’s more, as social skills are infinitely advantageous for success, this is a chance to be more productive in school.

Finally, the fact that school is a productivity challenge is, in itself, a reason why it is not a waste of time. Why would this paradox be so? Well, it teaches you to value your time—use it sparingly outside of school—thus mastering your time management skills.

Whether You’re Spending Time Wisely Depends on the Context

With everything in mind, it is clear that too much of one extreme is seldom a reasonable idea. In contrast, you must balance your time with regards to deep work, less intense work, and pure relaxation.

Working hard every spare hour of your day is, indeed, foolish. Likewise, spending your life doing nothing much more than playing video games is just plain disastrous.

Furthermore, the chances are that the tasks you consider productive are spread over multiple domains; productivity comes in varying intensity, so it does not always equal incredible expenditures of willpower.

To exemplify a 100% productive day, you might begin with exercises, then intense written work (with break intervals), then easy but necessary to-dos at the end of the day. All of this is productive because it—in some way or another—contributes to your goals.

Moreover, sustainability is the goal here: you want to be able to maintain the state of productivity over the long term, hence breaks. If you neglect the importance of breaks, however, you might actually be less productive!

As a result, productivity depends on the context: are you doing things in the right proportions to get yourself where you need to be in the fastest way possible?

Because it rarely involves constant hard work of a single area.

Be deliberate about your life: How to Save Your Time: The Most Powerful Planning Routine

A person at a desk working productively while ignoring outside distractions
People are going to hate you for exceeding them, but it is very necessary.

Conclusion: You Can Be Productive All the Time!

In summary, it is possible to always be productive, all day every day.

We have established that productivity is not exclusive to the most demanding work, but rather your strategy; your ability to manage your time and energy efficiency to cater for all domains of your life that matter (in the right proportions).

When a day is crafted to bring you towards your goal as fast as possible, it is entirely productive—even if it only involves four hours of concentrated work.

Time spent meaningfully is time spent productively, so my key takeaways are:

  • Be thoroughly deliberate about how you spend your time
  • Make sure every second of your day has some sort of purpose related to your goals

(Also, when you review your day, you’ll find a purpose in everything that happens to you.)

For further reading, I recommend the fantastic productivity book (the book of the week) by Cal Newport:

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

Finally, here’s a question for you to answer in the comments below:

Are you productive all the time, and, if not, how can you improve?

* * *

Questions? Thoughts? Suggestions? Please leave your ideas in the comments below!

Thank you for learning at Cryptic Butter!

Article Name
Is It Possible for You to Be Productive All the Time? (Hint: Yes!)
Is it really true that you can’t be productive all the time, all day every day? Read on to see how I’m going to bust this myth—yes, it’s possible for students to spend every second wisely at home and even in school.
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Cryptic Butter
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Posted by Luis Thiam-Nye

If you want to learn how to use technology to increase your productivity, you should visit Cryptic Butter! I also have a GitHub project.

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