On Productivity: Take 2 - Productivity As A Systems Effect

Posted 1 year, 6 months ago | Originally written on 22 Jan 2023

I have previously written about productivity. However, I feel that the list of points I outlined were all incrementally influential on productivity--you can only make superficial and volition-based gains in productivity. Instead, what is needed is to think of productivity, not as a volitional attribute (he is productive), but rather as a systems effect (he should be productive because everything required for productivity is present); that is, productivity is an emergent phenomenon.

Before, we get carried away with the factors for productivity, it may be instructive to agree on a definition of productivity. I propose that we think of productivity as the act of creating enduring value. By value, I am referring to the subjective quality of the output that consumers of your productivity rely on as an input for their activities. The number of consumers is irrelevant, what matters more is the degree of dependence. Stronger dependence suggests higher subjective value. By referring to enduring value we can easily dismiss all dependence that is destructive e.g. a drug dealer may foster high levels of dependence which is hardly enduring is any constructive sense.

With that out of the way, here are what I believe is a non-exhaustive list of essential factors required for productivity.

Non-volitionality of Productivity

Productivity is not a controllable effect. We cannot decide to become productive, in the trivial sense of deciding as when we can decide to drink a glass of water. Productivity is a systems effect. You are either set up for productivity or not. Productivity is not a product of the willingness to have a higher quality or volume of output. It is exclusively the result of applying the principles of productivity.

Essential Components of Productivity

As a systems effect, productivity depends on the presence and operations of several interdependent components. These components are independent of one another and the absence of any one can seriously undermine one’s positioning for productivity. A person can be very disciplined yet lack the environmental factors towards producing something. On the other hand, one can be incredible at execution---they get things done on time---but may be hasty leading to non-robust outputs that constantly require revision. It may even be the case that their expedience at execution may cover up for their lack of robustness.


Disciplined individuals have the capacity to will themselves to particular action independent of how they feel. While feelings are a powerful motives for action (both positive and negative), they are unreliable and waiting for the right feelings is like waiting for the right wind to catch your sails all the way to the destination. Not must travel can be expected from feelings. Feelings are a form of inertia have to be overcome. Being able to subject yourself to discipline is essential even just to arrive at the production environment.


While discipline is where productivity must begin, having the right environment to produce is also essential. The right environment is one from which no conflict arises when we commence the task of production. There are several subcomponents of the environment:

  • Equipment: You need the right tools to produce. We can say a lot about tools but to keep it simple let us only consider those tools which do not hinder the production task.
  • Materials - I have the materials required for production. No production can take place without the substrates for production. A farmer will not be productive without the seeds she needs to sow.
  • Social factors - I am surrounded by people who support my production: willingness, culture, attitude etc. All the people in the vicinity of the production task support the act of production.
  • Instructions - I have the directions required to produce. No production can occur with instructions that are confusing, illegible, cryptic or incomplete.


If one has had the discipline to present oneself at an enabling environment, it goes without saying that one may still abstain from applying oneself towards executing the act of production. However, without execution, no production will result. This is the place for skill: having high levels of skill can result in quick turnaround time but it should be obvious by now that skill on its own is not a redeemer. It does pay to invest in skill but it is also possible to do so at the expense of the other factors resulting in zero or low productivity.


Execution must be applied for the minimum duration to produce an effective product. Partial execution will not amount to any productivity. However, we must aspire to one level higher: adaptable execution.


Merely executing does not guarantee that what we have produced fulfills the endurance requirement. Adaptability is the property that makes the product successfully confront changes in the work environment. That is, should the equipment, materials, social factors or instructions change, it should still be possible to take advantage of foregoing production without the need to begin from scratch. It is easy to overlook this. This requires great skill involving insight, understanding, discretion and knowledge. If someone has worked for five years in a certain role, it is expected that taking on a similar role in a different company will not require a further five years to get back into full gear. A productive individual will be able to adapt to the new work environment.

Non-linearity of Productivity

True productivity is a nonlinear effect. To be precise, it is a monotonically increasing discrete nonlinear effect of effort. This means that in the short term it may be difficult to observe productivity. It emerges at the appropriate time. A sign of healthy productivity is an exponential growth in productivity. It may take a duration T to make the first output and subsequent multiples of T should result in orders of magnitude levels of output. However, as indicated by the next remark, T may be relatively large. A professional software developer may take longer than a junior developer to have working code but because of experience, subsequent modifications should take exponentially shrinking time and effort to implement changes. Meanwhile, the junior developer will experience the opposite: exponentially growing time and effort to implement changes.

Time-invariance of Productivity

True productivity is time-invariant. While one can quickly produce some output, it might cost much more future time than it saves. Furthermore, what it will save may be a vanishing fraction of what it will waste when considering the number of loci of application. There is a strong trade off between production time and product effectiveness. It may be advantageous to take longer in development and produce a more robust output than rush and produce something disposable. Every task has a true unknown time required to complete it which depends on, among other things: what is presently known, how fast it will take to understand the domain complexity and so on.