As I was working “the third shift” earlier this week, a thought occurred to me. I was getting a fair bit of work done for a client. Each task had a corresponding dollar value, so I was feeling especially productive. This was a very good feeling, until I realized that all this work came at the expense of neglecting all the other items I had on my to-do list that day. What I was actually doing wasn’t even on the to-do list I compiled that morning, because these tasks trickled in as the day went on.

And this got me thinking. Was I actually being productive or was I simply procrastinating by working on something else? Was I fooling myself? In other words, was my temporary sense of joy and positive self-worth the result of perceived productivity?

Let’s take a step back and assess a few possible scenarios. You can likely relate in your own line of work, particularly if you’re self-employed and work in some sort of creative field. When you do feel more accomplished? When you do feel more productive? Is it when you manage to strike the single, large item off your to-do list? Or is it when you have an extra long to-do list with a greater number of smaller, less meaningful tasks?

I don’t need to tell you about how satisfying it can feel to tick an item off your to-do list, but does the relative value or difficulty of that item really matter? Do you perceive yourself as being more productive when you can tick an item off the list every half hour, purely for the sake of being to do so?

If you were to work on a factory assembly line, the first widget you manufacture in the morning has no greater or lesser value than the last widget you put together at the end of the day. From the perspective of productivity, what really matters is how many total widgets you create over the course of your shift, assuming they all hold up to quality standards.

Creative fields, as well as any number of other professional contexts, are different. Writing 10,000 words of meaningless “fluff” isn’t nearly as valuable as a single, carefully crafted article of only a few hundred words. Word count, on its own, cannot and should not be a measure of productivity. But in my case, with the episode described at the top of this article, that’s almost how I assessed my performance.

I was able to edit X number of articles in Y amount of time, generating Z dollars in income. But am I really moving my career forward? Am I really being productive with a purpose? Or is that a different set of concerns altogether?

What we have to realize is that our perception of our performance is ultimately even more important than the objective reality. Because I felt like I was being productive, I felt good about myself, if only temporarily. So just like how perceived progress and control is inextricably linked to a greater sense of happiness, perceived productivity can lead to a greater sense of accomplishment.

Which is motivating. Which keeps you moving forward. Which encourages you to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

And that’s what really matters, isn’t it?