The Essence of Productivity

I’ve just finished reading Tim Ferris’ The 4-Hour Workweek, and although I’m far from the target audience, it offered some insightful ideas on productivity. This article concerns one of those ideas, describing the nature of productivity itself: the difference between efficiency and effectiveness.

Efficiency: Performing a given task using as little as possible of a constrained resource. For most of us, that resource is time, but it could be a number of other things like money or fuel.

Effectiveness: Doing the most impactful thing possible to reach your goals.


In a perfect universe, you are both efficient and effective. I’d be willing to bet though, that you’re far more efficient than you are effective, and that’s a problem. Think of productivity as the equation time x efficiency x effectiveness2 . Sure, time and efficiency are levers you can pull to get more done, but effectiveness is the true hero. 

A lot of work does nothing but making us feel productive and is therefore unnecessary. That’s hard to accept. A much nicer way to think about it, is like this: All the work you’re doing is necessary to get your desired result, but only until you increase your effectiveness. After that, you are free to work less, or achieve more.

If a rational being subscribed to this belief, there would be a couple of consequences. First, since improving effectiveness has such a large effect, you should dedicate some portion of your working hours to do so. Here’s an illustration of someone who sacrifices 10% of current output to improve effectiveness, which sees her improve at a rate of 1% every month. The blue line is the same person, without any improvement.


Although expressing productivity as a mathematical function of months is a little crazy, I thought this graph illustrated my point well.

Second, if a person has maxed out effectiveness, modest, or even ambitious, goals, require little work. This is the fundamental point of The 4-Hour Workweek. If your goal is to earn enough to live an interesting life abroad, 4 hours a week should be enough.

Third, if you are not improving effectiveness, you’re operating sub-optimally. To make us feel better, improving effectiveness gives us a shield against the harsh reality of wasted work. Activating that ability though requires committing to improving effectiveness.

In other words: Don’t feel bad about wasted effort if you’re actively improving your effectiveness, but do feel if you’re not.

Living it

Living as though a large portion of what you’re doing is unnecessary, is hard. So hard in fact, that telling someone to increase their effectiveness is about as effective as telling a starving man to eat. Sure, it’s critical information, but he already knows it, and had there been any way he could eat, he would have done it.

At least, that’s what most of us think. If you accept the idea of effectiveness and think you are able to change your actions, you should be able to improve your productivity by being more effective.

Just what that change in action looks like, is the million dollar question. I’m inclined to think new habits are the solution, which is what I’ll be trying. Other tactics like 80/20 analysis and time tracking are viable alternatives.

Either way, there are only two ways to do only the absolute necessary: Eliminate all activities that can be eliminated, and delegate all activities that can be delegated (in that order).


It’s what you do, not how you do it that decides your productivity. Eliminate or delegate all activities that are not crucial to reach your goals, then make the remaining activities as effective as possible. That, I think, is the essence of productivity.

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