We all feel unproductive at times, some of us more than others.
For me, personally, I have high expectations of myself and what I’m able to do, so I feel unproductive frequently. It’s very rare that I put in a solid 10- or 12-hour day of work and feel good about it. Sometimes it’s because I don’t work solidly and I know it. Other times it’s because I work solidly but don’t feel like I accomplished anything.
I’ve been through long periods of employment and “funemployment” and it’s easy to feel unproductive in both cases. When I’m employed, it’s easy to work very hard and look back and not have anything significant to show for it. It’s not always clear if it’s the sort of work that adds up and pays off at the end or if the entire project, concept or enterprise is on the wrong track from the start. At other times you have a bad manager or conflicting goals from the top that make productive work in one direction difficult. In either case it’s easy to feel unproductive even if you’re spending all your time working.
When not employed, there’s even less of a way to tell whether your work is productive or not. If you’re spending your time looking for a job, a similar type of busy work can be had sending out hundreds of applications. It’s easy to be unproductive whilst seeming productive, especially when looking for a job.
If you’re spending your funemployment trying to start a startup or build a project, you face a similar crisis of confidence. You can spend all day building a website or a MVP only to take it to your first customer and be told it’s useless. Or you can scrape a list of all the hospitals and clinics in the world from a directory site only to decide that the market testing you spent $500 for came up a dud. Or you can do nothing, which sometimes feels more productive than working in circles.
I feel most productive when I feel like I’m building something, even if it’s something no one wants or will use (or read). But the sense of accomplishment is fleeting; then there is another task ahead, another project to tentatively poke and see if it’s got some life in it.
I don’t like committing wholeheartedly to a project unless I can see how it’s worth it. But that often means not doing enough work on it to reach the right conclusion. That’s a trap to avoid.
This is what I think the cult of “failing fast” is all about. Not simply doing something and failing, but doing something seemingly productive and then realizing it was all for naught. To then be able to pick up again and feel productive about something potentially useless is a rare gift.
I felt productive writing this post. I will hopefully feel productive later today when I’m done cranking out the finishing design touches to my new site so that people will actually buy what I’m selling. I think that’s probably the easiest way to tell if what you’re working on is productive: not whether you feel productive working on it, but if before you work on it, you can define why you’re doing it and how it will help your project succeed.