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How do you measure personal productivity?

Metrics (what a researcher client of mine calls indicators) for quantifying personal productivity improvements is a topic I started tracking when I got into the field. Having some kind of measure is important if you want to determine whether your presumably improved changes have actually helped. As I quoted in What's Your Feed Reading Speed? (attributed to Peter Drucker [1]):
If you can't measure it, you can't manage it.

That's why when Jason Echols over at Black Belt Productivity asked me chime in on the issue, I jumped at the opportunity. For him it came up in a comment on their post Sharing Notetaking Secrets:
Hi! My name is Mayra. I work as a Black Belt in a Mexican company. I want to know the best way to measure the performance of a BB. I mean, Which metrics are the most appropriate way to prove that a BB is reaching his/her objectives in the company (# of protects, savings, etc)? Thanks for your help!

So, following are a few thoughts on measuring personal productivity; please share yours.

What is a metric?

I'm sure my mathematics and sciences expert readers can address the this rigorously, but here's a definition that made sense to me. From Performance management glossary:
Metric (also called measure): Term used in commercial organisations to describe a standard used to communicate progress on a particular aspect of the business. Measures typically are quantitative in nature, conveyed in numbers, dollars, percentages, etc. (e.g., $ of revenue, headcount number, % increase, survey rating average, etc.) though they may be describing either quantitative (e.g., sales made) or qualitative (e.g., employee motivation) information.

In Value-Based Fees (VBF), Alan Weiss puts metrics in a central role during the proposal process. His definition (he calls them "measures"): "Those objective or subjective (anecdotal) criteria that will indicate progress and, eventually, completion for client and consultant." I found useful Weiss's list of three types of metrics:

  • Short-term measures. These would include weekly sales reports, monthly attrition reports, customer feedback forms, etc.
  • Long-term measures. These would include departmental goals achieved, executive behavior change, changes in public image, etc.
  • Client-specific measures. Virtually all clients will have some measures unique to their particular culture and business. These might include additional business sold by a call center, reduction in repetitive repair calls by an appliance company, renewed policies by an insurance firm, etc.

Do we need to measure productivity?

That said, there is a need to measure. For example, when promoting any productivity method it is helpful to have numbers showing typical results, with the thought being they're be more compelling than stories. Obtaining these is easier for larger firms with many clients and consultants. Some of those I'm familiar with are Sally McGhee, Kerry Gleeson, Chris Crouch, and The Paper Tiger.

However, even Sally McGhee (whose measures are integral to her process) admits that defining metrics may not be necessary for all personal objectives. My story is an example of that. When I adopted David Allen's Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology three or four years ago I noticed huge improvements in my life (you can find my litany in many posts). As a result I ended up leaving a wonderful job, switching careers, and starting my own productivity practice (see Commitment Time!, which Pam was kind enough to write about in I live for these emails). Did I measure number of emails in my inbox, number of projects completed, time spent in meetings, etc? Not at all! Instead, I felt at a deep level how much my perspective of how I look at my world (work and life) had shifted. In other words, I experienced the improvements on a qualitative (rather than quantitative) level.

(Interestingly, this one area in which I argue that GTD "cheats" by skipping. See 10 GTD "holes".)

What do you think? Are metrics necessary? In what cases?

Possible to measure?

If we take the "important to measure" perspective, what should we measure? When I spoke with Kerry he pointed out there's no easy answer to white collar measurement. As a huge fan of Koch's book The 80/20 Principle, I believe in getting the most important work done with the least amount of effort. As Laura Stack points out in Leave the Office Earlier, it's not about seat time (quantity), its about quality of work accomplished.

I liked this thought from Don't Measure My Productivity By Looking Over My Shoulder
...measure my work by its quality, not quantity. But hey, sure, if you're going to measure quantity, embrace the fact that we 21st century workers simply don't do the 9-to-5 that well. Let us decide where to place those 40 hours.

We should also consider goals: Are the objectives of the organization being better met after the techniques have been adopted? This implies the needs of the organization might beed to be taken into account. McGhee is also strong on this. Related is the article Increasing the Productivity of Office Staff, which states
In measuring office work, volume measures are seldom sufficient on their own. Output measures must also take into account the quality of the output, its timeliness, and cost. The effectiveness of the outputs is what matters, rather than the efficiency with which they were produced. For this reason the choice of productivity measures must be related to the purpose and objectives of the department and organization, and the needs of customers.

What do you think? Is it possible to create useful measures of white collar work? Is the organizational context important? Crucial?

A survey of measures

That said, there are things related to individual productivity we can readily measure. I've collected a bunch of assessments, but they mostly boil down to a small number of areas. For example the articleDo You Know The Real Productivity Problem? lists "the top six challenges to productivity and performance" in this order:

  • Unnecessary Interruptions and Distractions
  • Poor Planning and Scheduling
  • Unclear Priorities
  • Excessive Paperwork and E-Document
  • Ineffective Meetings
  • Ineffective Delegation

When I asked Sally McGhee about this, she said they measure simple things, and are creating more and more advanced levels of metrics. She gave a few examples of the simple ones, including:

  • how much email is in your inbox now and then six weeks after you have done the program,
  • how much email is in your inbox and how much time do you spend processing email,
  • how much time do you spend doing activities towards your objectives versus doing activities that do not support your objectives, and
  • how much time do you spend working at home versus how much time do you want to reduce that.

Gleeson lists:

  • how much time do you spend on your email,
  • how much time do you spend looking for things,
  • how much time do you spend in meetings, and
  • how much time is consumed with interruptions.

However, beware measuring the wrong thing. From the software realm, a classic example is measuring lines of code. Wikipedia lists some disadvantages, with a main point is that numbers don't reflect effectiveness (writing the right code) and quality (some people can accomplish a lot more with less code). Freakonomics has some great examples that highlight the problem with incentives. One that comes to mind is airline flights being on time. With that incentive it's possible to rig the system to always be on time, say by defining "on time" to be much longer.

You can find a bit more on this in Productivity - Steps in measuring and increasing productivity, Increased productivity through incentives.

Pre- and post-tests

As far as using these kinds of metrics, pre- and post-tests are common. The best short article I could find was here. The approach is straightforward: Give the test before starting and compare to re-testing when done. Any of the examples given above would work. Some of the results McGhee shared: Reduce inbox by 75%, save 50 minutes/day finding & filing, 15% less time/wk in meetings, reduce interruptions by 60%, reduce time spent processing email 1 hr/day.

Comments from educators on the efficacy of these would be very helpful.

Consulting as teaching

Another dimension I've thought about is what's reasonable to measure. As an educator (with little formal experience) I've realized there's only so much I can control, which is especially relevant with regard to habit changes. That's why I always support clients rigorously for at least 30 days. Thus, any metrics that measure productivity have to take this into account. For example, I'm very comfortable guaranteeing a consult will finish with empty inboxes (paper, voice, email), the knowledge of how to handle any kind of incoming, how to break down projects, and generally how the system works. I can't guarantee it will stick over time; that depends very much on the individual, how motivated she is, and the match between her personal style of work and the method.


You make the call

Ultimately, I suspect what's best is letting the person wanting productivity improvements herself decide the most appropriate metrics. This would be in the context of her goals, and those of the organization. Using one of the assessments above might be a good starting place, and would stimulate discussion and reflection. Regarding the mix of qualitative and quantitative measures, I think they'd come out during a frank discussion of objectives and challenges. Interestingly, Weiss says "the higher level your bar the more you can afford subjective measures in their metrics."

As I wrote in my Academic Productivity answers, I think the idea behind productivity is to do the most important work, with the least amount of effort, so we can spend more time doing what we love. (And yes, loving your work is wonderful.) With that in mind, we should put measurement in its proper place - as a tool for gauging whether the changes we make are effective.


  • [1] This quote is often attributed to Peter Drucker, but a bit of digging indicates it's not that clear. Searching for the phrase - and the original "If you can measure it, you can mange it" - yields some surprises. For example, A Hacker's Guide to Project Management credits it to Tom DeMarco, who starts with it in his book Controlling Software Projects: Management, Measurement, and Estimates.

    However, going back a bit, the book Measuring the Value of Information Technology says it was Lord Kelvin who originated it:
    It was the scientist Lord Kelvin who said, "When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science." Later, this statement was abbreviated to "if you can measure it, you can manage it," and "if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it."
    BUT, even further back the authors of Geography Matters! state "The Renaissance astronomer Rhaticus suggested that if you can measure something, then you have some control over it." Wikipedia has more at Rheticus.

Reader Comments (12)

Money should not be the driving factor in our lives. However, to survive in the big leagues, we must learn to think, act, and communicate in terms of money. Our corporate leadership understands money and often nothing else. The boss is built this way, and it is through this process that he or she has advanced and is now your boss. So if you want to do well in your career or even survive the next few years, you must become adept at monetary speak.
It’s all very simple. If our organizations don’t make enough money to satisfy the various needs of the organization, they will wither and die. Throughout the years, human related activity has been a burden on the company’s bottom line. Indeed, they have been tagged as unavoidable (I have actually heard this term used in a top-level meeting). I know and you the readers know that this is not the truth. In fact, while we don’t actually handle or produce the product or services, the human factors are a major player in the profitability of our companies. The problem is one of perception. We spend all of our time holding the box together while failing to show upper management the actual value of human factors to the company. We aren’t accountants or bankers. Some of you may have backgrounds in finance or possess an MBA, but for the most part, we simply go about our tasks with little thought to the monthly P&L statement.
Quantify the value of managing people. In earlier decades, Anything to do with managing people was viewed as activity-based: we hire, we fire, we pay, we track trends, we insure, etc. Today, people management has shifted to a results-based approach. Management has made a sizable investment in our existence; therefore, it’s a duty show a Return on Investment (ROI). That is a very easy thing to say, and for most areas within an organization, it is a relatively easy thing to do. With people management, showing an ROI is a much harder process. People management deals in a few areas that, with a little hard work, can be quantified. Areas such as turnover expense, absenteeism costs, costs of hiring, EEOC fines, etc. Even within these relatively simple quantifiable areas, we often have a credibility problem. The numbers we plug into our formulas are often nebulous. I discuss this further and offer solutions in my new management book, Wingtips with Spurs. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR www.michaellgooch.com

April 29, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMichael L. Gooch, SPHR

Thanks for your comment, Michael. In my case I'm *very* familiar with my products and services, and the bottom line has a necessary central role.

BTW, if you're interested in fees, check out the comments on this post - quite heated! [ A Conversation With Laura Stack, The Productivity Pro | Matthew Cornell - Personal Productivity Workflow Consultant | http://matthewcornell.org/blog/2007/10/conversation-with-laura-stack.html ]

April 29, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

The search for meaningful metrics is a lifetime's work. Be aware of context. Money as a metric - or more accurately, income or revenue, seems like an obvious one. However, it is most relevant in the workplace, and even there is it wrong. Margin, or profit, is a better one. Specificity is important. However, using monetary profit to measuring productivity in the personal frame, doesn't set the course in a very good direction. Do you want to be rich, or do you want to be happy? And, just in case it isn't clear, money<>happiness - that is a scientific view, not just a spiritual one.

Back to productivity: I like return on effort. You have to define what you mean by return (valuable work done?) and effort (time spent, including required recovery time), but it works for me. It also puts the focus back on the desired outcome - a good GTD hack.

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterBenjamin

Hi, Benjamin. Your comment is really helpful - "lifetime's work" brings it into perspective for me. Also, re: context - always, *always* crucial. Thank you.

Do you want to be rich, or do you want to be happy? Is this a trick question? :-) Seriously, excellent points. And I'll be the first to agree with you. Stepping up and asking purpose is important. I like those books on self-employed that ask you to envision what your life is like. For me, money is an enabler, but the things that came up with included really helping others, working with people I like, and not busting my A** so I can spend a lot of time with my family.

return on effort OK, good. I agree about "return" - producing value (however you define it). "Effort" ... I'm leaning toward thinking in terms of "time," in spite of the "you can't manage time, only yourself" saw. But I'm with you on the equation. Very nice

Thanks for reading!

P.S. I'm enjoying your posts, including [ Happenstance and productivity | http://redcatco.com/blog/productivity/happenstance-and-productivity/ ].

April 30, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Hi Matt,
Here are my two cents.
Metrics are good, necessary, yet sometimes difficult to establish. I think in context of productivity it’s all about finding the answer to question "Why do you want to be productive?"
Is it about more time, more things/money, or something else.
Once you now the answer you can establish proper metric. Just like your mentioned more emails written/ processed, more time spent at home, more money earned/saved.

May 2, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterRafal

Hi Rafal. Excellent point: measure at the correct level, based on goals. Well put. Thanks for your comment.

May 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Matt, I am astounded by this post! It is almost a class on putting productivity metrics in perspective and determining what adds value.

You, sir, are far too kind. Much appreciated, Stephen. I like your idea - a good one, as usual. Thanks for reading.

P.S. I continue to be super impressed with your work and boundless energy. A good model for me.

May 16, 2008 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Congratulations for this great post.

Wow, I was only going to say the above sentence when, sunddenly, a message appeared. "We are sorry, but the spam filter on this site decided that your submission could be spam. Please fill in the CAPTCHA below to get your submission accepted."

Am I so predictable? hahah.
I like this topic of personal working hours measurement. And I think is important to make emphasys in the word "personal" since it is better that oneself is the one that measures one's productivity.

March 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlfredo

Thanks for your comment, Alfredo. Sorry about the spam filter - funny point, as you .. ahh .. point out.

March 29, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell
I absolutely believe on this “If you can't measure it, you can't manage it”. Do we need to measure productivity? My answer is it should be measured. Measuring productivity can help you determine how productive you are for the day that could also serve as your motivation to excel. I’ve been using this tool ( http://www.timedoctor.com/ ) that tracks effectively all my activities in REAL TIME. It gives me analytics for my work day that allows me to improve productivity and eliminate less productive activities. I would say that I am more productive this way.
July 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTyron

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