Productivity Calculator: Create Your Own (+ My Top 3 Hacks)

written by Dan Silvestre


How do we calculate productivity in the Knowledge Economy? Let’s deconstruct how to create a productivity calculator and measure output.

Taylor’s theory of productivity was outstanding when he shared it with the world in 1911. It has been in use for more than 100 years.

But it can’t be applied in every single activity now. What worked for the “industrial economy” doesn’t work for the Knowledge Economy anymore. The productivity calculator has changed.

First, let’s throw out of the window the old definition of productivity. And then let’s build on it and understand why it matters.

How to Calculate Productivity?

Let’s consider for a moment the old formula of the productivity calculator:

Productivity = Output / Input

In the classical model, improving productivity meant increasing the output while keeping the input at the same level. A person who wraps 20 cups per day is more productive than another one who can only complete 10. Logical, isn’t it?

productivity calculatorBut how about software engineers?

Productivity can’t be measured by the quantity of code produced when programming.  We have known since the 1980s that this is a lousy way to measure productivity. The most important work in software development involves thinking and learning – not typing.

So how do you calculate the productivity of programmers?

Here’s Job van der Voort take, from the article “Commits Do Not Equal Productivity“:

“The best way to get an idea of someone’s progress is to look at both their communication and activity. An effective engineer will either be making commits to further their progress or communicate in some way about their work. It’s only when you look at both these factors that you can say something about their productivity.”

Other examples?

If you ask a project manager about his/her tasks, you will get a long list of functions. These may include communication, thinking on ideas, controlling other people, and writing.

How to evaluate a designer’s productivity who couldn’t invent any good logo in a month of his/her full-time work but managed to draw a brilliant idea in an hour?

Intellectual jobs are about the quality.

productivity calculatorOne person may invent only one brilliant solution in ten years, which can outlast all the previous models. How to estimate the value of this excellent idea, which just suddenly came to someone’s mind?

These questions change the whole idea of the productivity calculator. In the age of knowledge, we can’t estimate the person’s productivity by the tasks only. We need to focus our attention on the final results and their value.

And what do we get out of being so productive?

We feel progress.

Teresa Amabile conducted a study at Harvard involving over 200 knowledge workers for 4 months in order to uncover secrets of productivity:

“Of all the things that can boost inner work life, the most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

That progress – when in meaningful work – brings happiness.

And according to the latest research from the University of Warwick, happiness makes people more productive at work. How much more productive? They found that happiness made people 12% more productive!

Relations inside the company, the satisfaction of the work done and exceptional comfort at the working place usually are even more important than the salary for employees.

Today, the best companies are built on clear requirements and trust. Employees treated with respect and gratitude show better results than those who are only motivated by money. According to David K.Williams, when every employee understands the role they play in the company, it leads to positive relations and success overall.

productivity calculatorTwo new variables emerge on your productivity calculator…

We have arrived at a new formula to calculate productivity, one that works for the knowledge economy:

Productivity = Meaningful Work + Progress

When those two variables happen, in that order, we have happy employees. And happy means productive.

What Exactly is Meaningful Work?

MIT Sloan Management Review conducted interviews with 135 people in 10 different fields to understand the answer to this question.

Here’s their definition:

“We have defined meaningful work as arising ‘when an individual perceives an authentic connection between their work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self.’”

In the study, researchers reveal that they “were anticipating that our data would show that the meaningfulness experienced by employees in relation to their work was clearly associated with actions taken by managers”. However, they found quite the opposite:

“Our research showed that quality of leadership received virtually no mention when people described meaningful moments at work, but poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

Here are the top 7 “destroyers of meaningfulness” in employees:

  1. Disconnect between personal and company values
  2. Not recognizing and appreciating employee contributions
  3. Giving employees pointless work (e.g. bureaucratic or admin work)
  4. Treating employees unfairly
  5. Overriding employees’ judgment, leading to feelings of disempowerment
  6. Ostracizing employees or creating a disconnect between colleagues
  7. Putting employees in situations where they feel unsafe, creating unnecessary risk of harm to them

Feeling a disconnect between personal and company values is the most common cause of feelings of futility and meaninglessness at work.

productivity calculator

They also found that finding meaning in our work is “intensely personal and individual”. What works for me might not work for you.

“People tended to speak of their work as meaningful in relation to thoughts or memories of significant family members such as parents or children, bridging the gap between work and the personal realm.”

Even the best bosses are more likely to do harm than good when trying to help their employees find a greater purpose in their jobs.

Let’s look at it in another way: you are the only one that can make your job mean something.

Meaningfulness and sense of purpose can even lead to more wealth. But to create a sense of meaningfulness at work we first have to understand what makes work meaningful.

If your boss isn’t going to be cooperative, how can you improve your meaningfulness at work?

Work on adjusting your current job.

productivity calculatorAs Wrzesniewski and Dutton defined it in their paper “Crafting a Job: Revisioning Employees as Active Crafters of Their Work”, job crafting happens when employees customize their work, by expanding and/or narrowing their tasks and interactions with others at work. In other words: it’s a process of adjusting your job description to create a role that provides more meaning in your life. Those who do it are more satisfied and engaged in their work.

Job crafting comes in three parts:

  1. Task crafting: the process of picking up or dropping particular tasks to adjust the day-to-day of your role, changing how much time, energy, and attention are allocated to various tasks. Are there tasks you wish you were doing, but aren’t? Are there things you are doing, but wish you weren’t? You can improve the way things are done to generate better results using skills that you already have. Create opportunities to play to your strengths
  2. Relational crafting: the process of purposely creating or deepening relationships at work and changing who you spend time with. Changing how, when, or with whom employees interact within the execution of their jobs. For instance, you might take some time to teach new team members, or get to know colleagues in different departments whom you normally wouldn’t interact with. As Wrzesniewski phrased it on the podcast Hidden Brain, your relationships with your co-workers are at once responsible for the “greatest joys and greatest frustrations” that come from your job
  3. Cognitive crafting: changing the way you think about your job. Thinking differently about what you do and why it’s important can imbue your existing role with more meaning, due to a simply cognitive shift. Changing the way you perceive the tasks and relationships that make up your job. For example: a ticket salesperson seeing the job as an essential part of providing people with entertainment, not just processing orders. Also, changing your title to reflect the most meaningful aspects of your role can help you think differently about how your work has an impact and why it’s important

The link between job crafting and an increase in well-being and job satisfaction, as research has suggested, are not so surprising. It creates a greater sense of autonomy, something that many studies have shown to be associated with greater job satisfaction.

How to feel progress?

We tend to evaluate progress by how big our leaps are. Wrong! Progress means small and fast wins. In Amabile words:

“When we think about progress, we often imagine how good it feels to achieve a long-term goal or experience a major breakthrough. These big wins are great – but they are relatively rare. The good news is that even small wins can boost inner work life tremendously. Many of the progress events our research participants reported represented only minor steps forward. Yet they often evoked outsize positive reactions.”

You don’t have to see the whole staircase to make a little headway towards it.

Take baby steps if you want to get things done.

productivity calculatorHere’s a simple exercise I do to find my fast and small wins:

Divide your BIGGEST goal into:

  • Yearly goals
  • Quarterly goals
  • Monthly goals
  • Weekly goals
  • Daily goals

Now ask yourself: “What’s the one step that I can take today that takes me closer to my end goal?”

Avoid dreaming about the big goal. Focus on small and fast wins. That’s how you achieve your goals over time.

For example:

Let’s say you want to become a self-published author.

A typical book consists of 300 pages. Taking 250 words per page as average, that means you need to write 75,000+ words.

Instead of thinking about the end goal, focus on writing your first 100 words TODAY. Write another 1000 words by next week. Make it a habit of writing 500 words every day and within five months, you’ll hit your goal of writing a 300+ page book.

That’s the magic of focusing on small and fast wins.

Experts Reveal Their Productivity Calculator

As part of the research for this article, I asked experts a question:

“How do you measure your productivity?”

I got a lot of interesting replies with different takes.

Mark Manson, NYTimes bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, a blogger who writes about big ideas and gives life advice that doesn’t suck (and he knows a thing or two about productivity), uses a simple system:

“For writing, I actually simply measure it by time of being fully engaged and focused. That’s because when writing (or any creative work, I guess), you can have a really productive hour and only net 10 words. Other times you can write 10 pages and they’re all crap and useless. So I simply measure the amount of time I’m engaged and focused and let the words take care of themselves. It’s done when it’s done.”

Jocelyn K. Glei, author of the book “Unsubscribe” and the awesome podcast Hurry Slowly (seriously, go listen to it!), uses a special productivity calculator:

“Tracking metrics in the work I’ve deemed most important, and making sure I’m constantly moving forward.”

Make sure you also read her fantastic post “Productivity Is Really About What You Don’t Do”.

Ciara Conlon, a coach, author of Productivity For Dummies and motivational speaker that helps people live more authentic lives, become more successful and happier at work and life, shares her method:

“The simple answer is I measure my productivity against my goals. Am I achieving the goals that I have set for the week, month, year? I break down my goals into my calendar and plan time for them, then if I have done what I’ve planned to do I know I am on track. Another way I measure myself is how I feel, it’s no good achieving your goals if you are feeling stressed and under pressure to complete them so if I am starting to feel stressed or overwhelmed I stop and take a look at what’s taking up my time and attention and reassess to see if it is what should be. Productivity for me isn’t just about ticking boxes but about creating a life that I love.”

Anubhav Srivastava, motivational speaker and creator of the movie Carve Your Destiny, also offers an interesting take:

“The way I measure productivity is by simply taking a look at whether I have completed the relevant actions I am looking to accomplish in the quantity I aimed at, within a particular time frame. It is also important to make sure you are taking the right actions which have a direct effect on the goal you are aspiring for. Anything that has none or minimal impact on your desired goal is not productive work no matter what quantity you do it in.

For me, the number one relevant action today is prospecting to grow my business. I do that by contacting qualified people in the right quantities within a particular time frame. Because that activity is directly linked to my goal and time-bound, studying how often I hit my target or how close I get to it is how I measure how I productive I am.”

James Clear, one of my all-time favorite bloggers and whose work has been covered by dozens of major media outlets including Forbes and TIME Magazine, does it publicly:

“Each year, I publish an Annual Review where I recap my productivity for the year. My Annual Review answers three questions: What went well this year? What didn’t go so well this year? What am I working toward?

I track things like the number of articles written, the number of workouts completed, and the number of countries visited.”

productivity calculator

Paul Minors, who blogs about productivity self-improvement and who is also a “virtual consultant”, uses an organization system to stay on track:

“I tend to use my goals as a measure of productivity, how quickly and efficiently I am reaching them. Tools like Asana are great as you can schedule projects and tasks with due dates to ensure you’re keeping on top of your work and remaining productive, I’ve also really enjoyed using the Timing app on my Mac to literally track my productive hours.”

Leslie Shreve, Founder of Productive Day, focuses on the finished product:

The classic definition of productivity, of course, is the finished product out the door. However, for corporate professionals today, I believe that productivity is measured by a couple of things. It’s about being effective at using your time well to take small, planned, prioritized action steps and it’s about making progress, no matter how big or small the progress is.

For instance, assuming that the tasks and projects a person is working on ARE connected to the correct main goals and objectives, if the person moved five projects forward just an inch with small action steps on each one (tackling the priorities first, of course) or they moved one big project forward a mile, either way, it’s good progress based on a plan and based on priorities. It’s an effective use of time. They feel effective after finishing the steps they took, no matter what volume of progress they made because they could enjoy a sense of accomplishment after spending that time. 

Conversely, when someone DOESN’T use their time well—they’re unclear about tasks and priorities, they’re stuck in email jail, they’re wasting time looking for things they KNOW they have but just can’t find—there’s a lot of reactivity in their day. There’s no solid plan, they’re not prioritizing and they’re not thinking or working proactively. When this happens, the sense of accomplishment at the end of the day is low, progress is slow, and when looking back, they wonder what they did all day.

Nicola, from Berlin and Other Stories, helps women in their twenties become more productive and coordinate their lives in a boss lady style. Here’s how she calculates productivity:
“For me personally, I am a firm lover and believer of To-Do lists. Since I do not own a business and can therefore only measure my personal productivity growth. 
I do that by calculating and comparing the percentage of the things I got checked of my daily list. Keeping that system up for over a year now has really helped me to figure out the reasons on why I might be less productive on some days and what I can do to change that.”
Here’s the most effective to-do list format that I use every single day.

Kalen Bruce, who blogs at MoneyMiniBlog about controlling your finances, creating positive habits and getting the life you want, follows the same principle while adding happiness to the mix:

“I measure my productivity by my level of happiness. I think you’re productive when you’re reaching the desired outcomes. Sometimes that means getting a ton of work done, and other times it means going for a hike with your daughter. If I’m happy, then I’m focusing on the right things; therefore, I’m productive. For example, if I get lazy, my happiness immediately decreases. If I’m focusing on the right things and getting them done, my happiness goes through the roof.”

He shares some awesome productivity tips in “10 Important Actions You Can Take Right Now to Increase Your Productivity”.

Jo Bendle, a productivity coach for passionate business owners ready to take consistent and focused action, shares her approach:

“I measure my productivity by setting intentions and goals every single month.  These get broken down into smaller weekly goals.  I hold a powerful weekly review every Friday to check I’m on track.  I can measure how productive I am by whether I am moving closer on a weekly basis to my monthly goals and intentions.”

Can you spot what all these definitions have in common?

They track and measure progress in meaningful work, whether that means getting articles live, more leads to their business or number of workouts completed

We are ready for the last item on our productivity calculator.

Tracking Progress in Meaningful Work

productivity calculator

Awesome! We now understand what meaningful work is and how to find it, as well as knowing what progress means.

I also revealed how experts calculate their productivity and understand how they are moving forward.

It’s time for the last step of our productivity calculator: tracking progress in meaningful work.

Why is tracking important?

First, it helps you stay focused. Many people fail to reach their goals because they lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish. In other words: it’s not a matter of skills, but rather a matter of focus.

Furthermore, by not tracking, it’s easy to focus on your failures. To avoid it, make it a habit to track the actions you’ve taken and the accomplishments you’ve made. Keeping your spirits up is very important in goal setting.

Second: you can break big tasks into small wins.

Remember the small and fast wins exercise? It will come handy now.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with big tasks. To overcome it, break it down.

For example:

Let’s say you work in sales and have a board presentation next week.

Start by listing all the steps needed to get it done: research, study data, the first draft of a presentation, making sure the slides are cohesive, editing, final tweaks.

Now, break each small step into something smaller. For this example, research could mean finding statistics and graphs about total sales, revenue, and products sold. You might also need to find comparable statistics of the market or your main competitors.

Repeat the exercise for all the other tasks and you will now have an overview of the small steps you need to do to complete your presentation.

Finally, tracking tells you which activities generate the best results.

If you track the results from each step, after a few days or weeks, you’ll start seeing a pattern that will show you what actions work best for your goals. After that, it’s just a matter of adjusting your goal setting plan and concentrating on the tasks that yield better results. Doing this will make things easier for you; it might even help you achieve your goals faster.

We now understand why tracking progress in meaningful work is so important.

Let’s go into detail on the top 3 strategies that I use to achieve it (I share more in my free productivity newsletter):

#1 Construct a Project Page

If you are productive without having an intense desire for completion, you end up just being busy.

We all know the feeling.

You work all day off of your to-do list. Everything is organized. Everything is scheduled. Yet, still, months pass with no important projects getting accomplished.

Cal Newport presents a simple system that will help you cultivate your own completion obsession.

It‘s called Completion-Centric Planning.

It works as follows:

#1 Construct a Project Page

Open a word processor (Google Docs, for example), and do the following:

  • Make an Active Projects List: list 6 – 12 of the most important projects in your life from all three relevant spheres – professional (e.g., school or work related); personal (e.g., home, family, fitness); and extra (e.g., big projects like blogging, writing a book, starting a club)
  • Label Each Project With A Completion Criteria: next to each project type a concise description of what action must be completed for the project to be completed
  • Label the Bottom Half of the Page as a “Holding Pen”: this is where you can jot down new projects that enter your life while you’re working on the active projects. They can be stored here until you complete the current batch

#2 Using the System: The Daily Check-In

Each morning, look at your project page and ask:

“What’s the most progress I can make toward completing this list today?”

Your biggest goal should be to complete projects. If you see a way to do it (even if it requires a big push, perhaps working late) go for it. If you can’t finish one, think of the single thing you could do that would get you closest to this goal over the next few days. Harbor an obsession with killing this list!

Your goal here is to make as much progress on your projects as possible despite the other responsibilities you have each day.

#3 Finishing: Rest and Reload

Don’t start new projects until you’ve finished the projects on your current project page.

If you come up with new project ideas before you complete the currently active projects, simply jot them down in your holding pen.

Work as hard as possible to finish your projects as fast as possible.

Once done, take a break. For at least a week.

Try to do a minimum of work during this time. Recharge.

Then, once you’re ready, build a new project page and start over again.

#2 Journaling

Asking feedback from your boss every day is not the best option to have a feedback loop. Instead, create your feedback system.

According to scientific research, the power of writing – and then rewriting – your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness.

While writing doesn’t solve every problem, it can help people cope. Dr. Wilson, author of “Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By,” said that:

“Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.”

productivity calculatorGretchen Rubin does this by keeping a one-sentence journal. It has helped her not only stick with the habit but also improve her life.

I use a simple document with dates and accomplishments.

For example:

Let’s imagine I finish and publish this article today. That’s going on my document as a task marked as done.

I also add Quora answers I did and other relevant work.

It doesn’t need to be a long dissertation. Focus on writing what helped you get closer to your bigger goal. I normally write two to three sentences.

This simple exercise helps me track where I’m improving and what needs improvement, and the upkeep of such a habit requires little effort.

If you have a more traditional job, this hack can prove useful in your next performance review:

It will help you chart progress and show how much (and how hard) you’ve worked.

#3 Don’t Break the Chain

Consistency is the key to forming any habit.

The majority of people fail at building life-changing habits because of one reason: they start strong but give up early.

Here’s where a proven productivity hack by Jerry Seinfeld comes in handy.

Wait, Jerry Seinfeld?

Yep, it’s commonly known as the ‘Don’t Break The Chain’ hack, and the concept couldn’t be simpler.

Jerry said the way to be a better comic was to create better jokes and the way to create better jokes was to write every day. But his advice was better than that. He had a gem of a leverage technique he used on himself and you can use it to motivate yourself – even when you don’t feel like it.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Find Your ONE Thing: do you want to master SEO? Do want to become a superb programmer? Or do you want to be a stand-up comedian, like Jerry himself? Figure it out.
  2. Put Up the Calendar: hang a huge annual calendar at your workspace, office or home. I do this with a sheet of A4 paper and it works just fine.
  3. Mark the Days: put a big X across each day when you devote time to working on your one thing. This creates a chain of X’s showing your progress. Focus on growing your chain longer and longer.
  4. Keep the Chain Going: your only job is NOT to break the chain.

After a few days, you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt.

This hack works because it helps you become more consistent with your most important skill or talent. If you’ve been running a business for a while, you already know how important it is to be consistent.

For example:

Writing is a big part of my work.

In my blog, I write about personal development, developing habits, and time management techniques.

I also write about optimization and management systems.

In Quora, I write about reading 200 books a year effectively and which books to read for personal productivity.

I add my take on favorite productivity tricks and how to increase productivity. I write answers to help people overcome their problems.

I run a free bi-weekly productivity hacks newsletter, where I share one amazing productivity hack per email.

And then I also write social media updates, reach out to other bloggers by email and other assorted copy.

The more and better I write, the more successful my business is.

So I built up the habit of writing every single day, no matter what. Get 500 words down and I get in the zone to continue writing.

To make sure I stay on track I have a paper with my writing chain. Every day I make a big X on it. I’m currently past 200 days.

I don’t intend to break it.

A simple yet very powerful hack.


Uff, that was a long read!

Here’s everything that we covered:

Taylor’s theory of productivity doesn’t apply anymore. In the Knowledge Economy, the productivity calculator takes two new variables: meaningful work and progress.

Meaningful work happens when there is a connection between our work and a broader transcendent life purpose beyond the self. Research showed that poor management was the top destroyer of meaningfulness.

The good news is that making your job mean something doesn’t appear to be up to anyone but you. You can do it by work on adjusting your current job through job crafting.

To feel progress, make sure you take baby steps: follow my simple exercise to find your fast and small wins.

Tracking your progress helps you stay focused, breaking big tasks into small wins, and it tells you which activities generate the best results.

The 3 strategies that I use to track my progress are:

  1. Construct a Project Page: completion-centric planning lets you work as hard as possible to finish your projects as fast as possible
  2. Journaling: the power of writing – and then rewriting – your personal story can lead to behavioral changes and improve happiness; focus on writing what helped you get closer to your bigger goal
  3. Don’t Break the Chain: find your one thing, put up a calendar and mark the days. Your only job is NOT to break the chain

Thanks for reading!

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