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Productivity at home and at work

Having plenty on my to-do list for a recent weekend, I marvelled at how productive I felt when some free time allowed me to get through a lot of projects.

By another measure, however, I wasn’t very productive at all: the amount of bread I baked, beer I bottled, and so on, was only a tiny fraction of the amount a commercial bakery or brewery could have baked or bottled in the same time. By the measure of how much someone is willing to pay for what I produce, I’m vastly more productive as an academic and software developer than I am as a baker, brewer or fiction writer.

Evidently my inner sense of “productivity” isn’t the same as the one that appears in economics texts: what I’m really feeling is some satisfaction in having spent time doing things I enjoy, and not so much joy in producing vast quantities of bread, beer, or unpublished writing.

A hard-nosed productivity-maximiser might say I should have spent the weekend writing computer programs, technical writing, and/or advising students, then spent the money thus raised on bread, beer, and writing made by the professionals in those disciplines. But of course this isn’t the point: buying a loaf of bread, a bottle of beer, or a book is a very different experience to making one for oneself. My baking of bread or brewing of beer might not produce very much bread or beer compared to a commercial bakery or brewery, but it produces a lot more personal satisfaction than visiting a bakery or bottle shop (though I do plenty of this as well).

In economics jargon, my productive weekend produced a lot of “utility” (personal satisfaction) even if it didn’t produce a great quantity of goods. This sense of utility is often lost in discussions of productivity, efficiency and growth as it applies to “the economy” whose purpose is to produce goods and services, then distribute them. But the ultimate purpose of the goods and services is itself to produce utility—which in this case includes the pleasure in producing them.

Perhaps I need a better word to describe my “productive” weekend. “Satisfying” doesn’t seem right because I can also be satisfied by activities that don’t produce anything, like visiting friends or walking, while “busy” implies being overwhelmed by stuff to do that one doesn’t necessarily want to do. Maybe an adjectival form of “flow” would do it, to save us expressions like “I spent the weekend in a state of flow”. In the meantime, however, perhaps I’ll just say “productive” knowing that I don’t use the term the same way at home as I would if I were writing economics texts.

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