Productive vs. Making Money

The thing is that I live in a capitalist society where money is basically seen as a reward for productivity. If you’re more productive at work, you make more money, theoretically. But unfortunately, this is far from true. Good work is not always rewarded.  

And if money is a reward for productivity, does that mean that if you don’t get it, you’re not productive? Well, no. Not getting a reward for something doesn’t mean you didn’t do it. Though, getting it is a good indicator that you did do it. 

So if not by making money, how do we know if we’re productive? What does productive even mean, removed from capitalism? Is any goal productive? What if the goal is to not leave the couch for an entire weekend? 

I had a good discussion with an acquaintance once, and they said that when they put something out into the world—a creative work, education, event organizing—they like to get something back, though they don’t care as much what it is. Maybe it’s gratitude, praise, acclaim. Maybe it’s money; maybe it’s not. 

But money is easy, they said. 

In some ways, it is. It’s easily measurable, it is something that can be asked for without reducing its value (unlike the issue of fishing for praise); people generally understand money trading hands as a fair exchange, whereas gratitude sometimes seems meager. When people give me money, they don’t wonder if it’s enough—especially if it’s something I set a specific price on, which they paid. But somehow, many find their gratitude or praise inherently lacking, even if I’m thrilled to receive it. 

The money has the same value within a society to both of you, the same ability to be traded for other goods and services; it’s a placeholder for those things. (But, if one of you has significantly more of it, the same dollar amount might mean less to one of you. What’s dropping a dollar on the ground if you’re a millionaire? But what if it was your only dollar?)

Money can also be spent again. If someone gives me ten dollars, at some point I probably give someone else that ten dollars. I might spend it on a class or a cookie or the mortgage, but money moves around in a largely trackable way. But if someone gives me positive feedback—where does it go? Maybe it puts me in a good mood, and I pass on that good energy to others, or put that inspiring energy into producing more of the kind of work they praised. Or maybe it just lifts my spirits a little in the middle of a long day, and I don’t have overflowing good energy to pass on. Where does that positive intent go? That is harder to track. 

Yes, money has a lot going for it just as an indicator of productivity—forget the fact you need it to survive. 

However, it’s not the only one. There are all kinds of other ways to barter or compensate someone for their work, and there are many ways to measure productivity. It may be someone else compensating you with acclaim, favors, gifts, education, experience, exposure, etc. It can also be as simple as knowing that a thing got done that wasn’t done yesterday. 

Though, this brings us back to a question—is accomplishing any goal productive, then? 

I have mixed feelings. Ultimately, I think it’s best if we all answer that question for ourselves. I’ve seen good cases for both. For myself, I’m going to go with no. 

A lot of things lure me in to feeling like they’re productive. Consuming even relatively mindless media can feel very productive. With that nice little progress bar at the bottom of a video or audio player, with chapters and episodes checked off, with dwindling to be read piles and watch lists, with entering items into spreadsheets of what I’ve finished—anything can feel like an accomplishment. But is it really productive? For me, no. 

I’ve based this blog on values based productivity. So if something doesn’t serve my values, I’m not going to consider it productive. Rewatching Lilo and Stitch for the millionth time, while tempting, is not productive, because I don’t see which value on my list it serves. However—reading a new nonfiction book on a subject I’m trying to learn more about because I write or teach on it? Sure. Not the most crucial thing on my list, so not going in my productivity system for its own sake, but I’d say it is productive. 

Another question I see a lot is, Is self care productive? My opinion on this one might be a little unpopular, but hear me out: no. 

However. Here’s the thing. Self care is not productive to me in itself. It really doesn’t serve any of my values in a super direct way, nor any of my spheres of life I select based on those values—except that I dedicate a whole sphere to it anyway, because it is step one towards serving any of the others. (Here, I’m talking about largely basic, routine, health oriented self care.) 

I can’t write much of a book if I’m dehydrating to death. I can’t teach a good class without getting any sleep. I can’t host a fun event if I haven’t eaten in days. So, it’s a crucial baseline to start at to be productive—it’s something to be maintained to build productivity on top of—but I don’t consider it productive in itself, like being conscious isn’t productive in itself. Or, putting gas in a car isn’t driving a car. 

Something not being productive doesn’t mean it’s bad. Sure, you should keep an eye on how much time you spend on it, and you want to make sure it’s not unproductive as in undoing your productive efforts, but it’s not evil. 

Now, here’s a reverse question: is making money always productive? Here, I’m again personally going to go with no. Now, making money will pretty much always fall under at least a form of self care, because it’s a resource you need to survive and to be productive at much of anything else. But it may just be that—forming a base to help you accomplish other things—if the way in which you make money doesn’t serve your values, and so on. 

Hence, the concept of doing the minimum at a day job to pay the bills while you build up your passion project (which may pay the bills itself one day, freeing up that day job time to work on that project, or may not, depending on your vision for it—perhaps it’s charitable or something exploratory and creative you don’t want money and obligation mixed up in.)    

So, money isn’t the only way to measure productivity. You don’t have to be making money to be productive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything is productive. Some things may not be, and that’s okay; just watch it. Some may just be part of setting yourself up to be productive—including making money. 

For me, I define productive as something that serves my chosen spheres of life, based on my values, and the goals and projects within those spheres. 

This is another reason I like my values based system: it makes that definition easy for me.