As programmers, we value efficiency. It’s a common personality trait in this profession. It’s why we see comics like this:
The interesting question for me is: Where do we aim our efficiency?
Efficiency just means producing the desired result and doing so without waste. It doesn’t define the desired result.
The word productivity, on the other hand, specifies a target. It is efficiency aimed at production — making something.
The word productivity gets thrown around a lot:
“Good for you, being productive this weekend.”
“It was a frustrating day, but at least it was productive”
Our society values and praises productivity — When people use their time, knowledge, and skills efficiently to produce things. Especially things with immediate measurable economic value.
That’s the target. Produce *things*. If you’re an employee, this means things that can be used by your company to make or save money. Generate revenue or cut costs.
So what does a productive programmer that values efficiency do? They start to look at themselves as a resource. A system.
Inputs = food, knowledge, time
Outputs = things that the company can use
The productive programmer starts to ask: How can we optimize this system? What waste can we eliminate? How can we minimize inputs and maximize outputs.
They may start to think things like:
“If I didn’t have to spend time cooking and eating, I could get more done”
“I get a lot done late at night. Maybe I should be waking up early too.”
And what is the result? Burnout
Even if you don’t fall into these traps. Even if you’re not a programmer or an efficiency minded individual, there is a good chance that a pursuit of productivity is pushing you closer and closer to burnout.
So what’s the solution?
I propose a perspective shift.
Replace productivity with excellence. Excellence isn’t something you produce. It’s not something you do. Its something you have and something you are.
It’s a term with a much looser definition. It just means surpassing ordinary standards.
If your immediate idea of “ordinary standards” is standards that other people set for you, your perspective hasn’t shifted yet.
The definition is different for everyone and it’s worth taking the time to ask yourself what it looks like for you.
For me, when I picture excellence, it isn’t a tired burned-out kid spending every waking hour studying or coding. And it isn’t the person that sacrificed everything to become famous for creating the next great thing. It isn’t even a technology tycoon that’s finally in charge after putting in the time.
If you’re having trouble seeing what excellence looks like for you, think about the roles you play in your life. You might have standards for yourself as a friend, a sibling, a parent, or an engineer.
Does excellence include things like honesty, integrity, and authenticity?
One thing that comes up for me is consistency. Having a handle on your responsibilities day-in and day-out might be harder than it sounds, especially if your career is going to be decades long. Paying attention to diet and exercise starts to make more sense, when you decide to value consistency, and you understand its prerequisites.
Another thing that comes to mind for me is genuinely valuing your relationships and the people in them. Having healthy relationships with friends and family can be hard work but the benefits spill into all areas of your life. It’s possible to create and find relationships that give you energy. Having these relationships make it easier to excel consistently. And if you genuinely care about the people around you, you will automatically be a part of creating an inclusive atmosphere at work.
It may seem weird to set your goals on something other than growing your resume or impressing your boss. But it’s a better goal to set. If you’re working toward excellence, you have your sights set on something higher than productivity. Your resume grows as a byproduct. Your commercial success comes as an afterthought.
Just as nobody can be productive 100% of the time, nobody embodies excellence 24/7. I’m not advising you to put more pressure on yourself — especially if you are approaching burnout.
My advice is this: Continue living your life the way you do. But watch your thoughts as you go about your day. Catch yourself when you’re thinking about productivity — when you’re thinking about what you can get out of yourself. And counter it by thinking about who you want to be.
You’re still in the real world so you’ll have to think about productivity from time to time. When you have a performance review or a job application, look back with your productivity valuing lenses.
But day-in-day-out think about who you are. And have fun doing it.