TFP vs TAP — How to Measure Your Own Productivity

It can be difficult to even start with the first word of your plan when you don't know how to measure your own productivity. (from: Pexels, Jess Bailey Designs)

Here’s how to measure your own productivity, whether you’re working from home or run your own business.


Money is time. Time is money. But there’s a lot more good to be said about the time that we squeeze the most value out of over the time that we sit and idly do nothing. Humans strive to be productive. We want our hours to mean something.


With bosses — and Elon Musk — beating down on the “laptop class” there is more need than ever to prove productivity. It is incredibly hard to figure out how to measure your own productivity. Doing as much as you can and checking the clock later is a recipe for burnout. Yet, the knowledge work of 2023 doesn’t fit neatly into an 8-hour day, either. At the end of the day, you can feel drained but feel like you’ve achieved nothing.


So, what should you do? It could be time for a big change in how you measure your productivity. Remember, a change in your productivity measuring can result in a change in your priorities. As a result, getting these things right is important. All productivity measuring techniques fall into the categories of TFP or TAP, so which will you choose?


TFP and TAP Productivity Planning — What are they?

Broadly speaking, we can categorize all measures of our own productivity as TFP or TAP, two systems I use to define productivity methods.


I define TFP as Time First Productivity, or the amount of work I can get done in an amount of time set aside for a task. This type of productivity measurement is pervasive in work culture and you probably feel at least somewhat acquainted with it.


Next, I define TAP as Time After Productivity, or when I do a task and then measure the time it took later. In other words, TAP is concerned with raw output. This is the “get your work done and go home” stuff. It can seem like a dream come true if you’ve been using TFP your whole life but it can have some serious downsides as well.


Neither TFP nor TAP is better. Rather, the systems are complementary and can even be used side by side.


In the sections that follow, we’ll take a look at how to measure your own productivity with TFP and TAP, what situations make each one shine, how to combine them, and also take a glimpse at a few of my personal anecdotes with each system.


TFP — The Classic Workhorse

TFP, or ‘Time First Productivity’, is all about setting time aside to do something and then getting at it. If you clock in at 9 and clock out at 5 for work, your boss is likely judging you based on a TFP system.


The Pomodoro technique, where practitioners work for designated lengths of time with short breaks in between is a classic TFP measuring system, as is the 9-5 job. There are other systems, too, and you likely use one or want to use one at least part of the time if you are trying to figure out how to measure your own productivity while working at home or running your own business.


To give you a clear look at the trials and tribulations of going full TFP, I’ve tried it myself. Here’s an attempt-by-attempt account of my trial of TFP:


‘Work Segments’ Week

Needing to get more done one week, I began with the intention of going full out. I was balancing many different clients and projects, as well as starting fresh with a new client.


To get everything done — including the unpaid work that was required to start up with a new client — I was going to have to pick up my bootstraps and get things done. The work as I please, when I feel good mentality wouldn’t cut it.


I devised a system of work segments that represented a chunk of time between roughly 45 minutes and an hour. Some tasks just always took that length of time, so were considered one work segment tasks no matter how much time they took. Other tasks were cut off around the 45-minute mark — which I was alerted to by a countdown timer — but I allowed myself to extend over 


I also read somewhere that if a task takes less than 2 minutes to complete, just do it immediately. That sounded pretty great — I procrastinate the little stuff — so I threw in this piece of advice as well.


The first day went great, completing a scheduled 5 segments (don’t judge me, it was a holiday, I had plans) and I came out of the day feeling great. That wouldn’t last…


Much to do About Nothing

One of the most heinous tricks TFP systems play on the mind is how they trick you into thinking mindless work = progress.


I can recall this phenomenon easily when, from afar, I saw my fellow classmates “studying” in the college library. They would spend a lot of time, sometimes hours, sitting around talking about how busy they were studying. In other words, spending time doing something begins to overshadow task completion.

My own experiences were different. I’m finally getting the work done! At least that’s what my thoughts were. Instead, I was basking in the glory of the feeling of hard work. The mistakes were numerous:

  • Spending more time on low-impact busywork to get my work segments in.
  • Prioritizing lower-paying clients.
  • Rushing to get started without reading the fine print on assignments.


Over the course of four days I spent 7 hours doing a task that could’ve been done in about 2 because I put so much effort into working that I didn’t ensure I was doing the right stuff. I had developed a sense of urgency but totally lacked strategy. And to top it all off, this wasn’t my only problem…


Flow Stopping

When you get in the moment, the flow state starts, and you start to *BEEP* *BEEP*


Wow, that’s distracting! It’s also exactly what will happen whenever you set a timer to track your TFP time blocks. Just as your brain is getting in gear, it all comes down.


This aspect of TFP measuring systems is particularly relevant for knowledge workers. What some don’t realize is that it can be easily circumvented.


To prevent flow stopping, use a stopwatch instead of a countdown timer. When — and only when — you feel mental friction (aka a tinge of boredom) check your stopwatch and see if your allotted time has passed. This way, if you hit a flow state you can ride it out for as long as it holds you without efficiency-decreasing stops.


Short Stop

Still, problems persisted.


And they’re all related to that most damaging of productivity zappers: Stops.


The first of which was the natural stops that infect your day. Funny noises that needed to be investigated, restroom urges, and important messages were all received during work segments, which had to be stopped. Sometimes I made a note that I did a half-segment, others I paused the stopwatch and resumed later. And for the quickest of stops, I didn’t stop the watch at all.


If only there were a way to freeze time!


The second type of stop was for tasks that didn’t take up a full work segment. What do you do with the extra time? If you punish yourself by making yourself do another task you aren’t yet prepared for you might end up subconsciously “teaching yourself” to slow down. Stop for now, call the work segment done, and mark it in your productivity journal? You’ll feel like you’re lying to yourself, performing “productivity theater” for one.


How to Measure Your Own Productivity with TFP

At this point, TFP measuring sounds bad.


Like, really bad.




And it really is a lot of the time for the kind of work that I do. In fact, if you’re a knowledge worker TFP might not be for you either.


What I haven’t told you yet is that I used TFP measuring styles for other tasks. As it turns out, TFP measuring is great for rote, busy tasks like these:

  • Tackling a large garden that needs a near limitless amount of weeding.
  • Going through that large stack of mail that needs to be sorted.
  • Watching tutorial videos for new software you need to learn.
  • Reading that book you need to get through for class.


Basically, anytime you need to jump in and get some butt-in-seat time is a great time to use TFP measuring.


For the rest of the tasks at hand, you’ll likely need to TAP into a new way of thinking about personal productivity measuring.


TAP into Something Good

TAP is short for Time After Productivity, and is a more hardcore down-to-brass-tacks form of productivity measurement. TAP measures how much you get done, not the time it takes to do it. It prioritizes focusing on work and finding the raw units of work. When you’re using TAP as a personal productivity measurement system, you’ll begin to plan your days around what needs to get done.


A quality TAP measurement system helps the mind minimize distractions. It rewards efficiency, discourages busy work, and boosts creativity; when you know something is going to get done, has to, you’ll invent new strategies to complete it more efficiently. Unlike TFP, being busy and grinding through the hours (though there will still be plenty of that) will no longer cut it.


TAP systems can be further divided into categorical TAP and quantitative TAP, of which I tried both and will report my experiences measuring my own productivity with them.


How to Measure Your Own Productivity with Categorical TAP

Any time that you’ve used a checklist, you’ve done a categorical TAP measurement system. Each task represents something that you’ve decided is worth doing. Large companies that use scrum systems do this on a large scale, oftentimes assigning each task “points” to evenly distribute the load.


Of course, if you are trying to figure out how to measure your own productivity with categorical TAP measurement, you’ll have to (get to?) measure category weights on your own.


In my first week of trying categorical TAP to measure my own productivity, I targeted a number of articles to be completed. I was to just take on the next article in my listing and do it. Hammer it out until the work was done. This system forced me to confront longer tasks with gusto, but I failed to reach my goal of a meager 10 articles. In fact, I only got to 7 thanks to a lucky bout of weekend assignments that were short and snappy.


Categorical TAP to measure your own productivity isn’t something you can expect to be happy with on the first try — Reevaluating task weights and priorities is a constantly evolving process.


Further attempts to redefine my categorical TAP measuring system got me to redefine my priorities and mix up longer and shorter pieces. Ultimately, after some tweaking, I found something I was happy with. I could, more or less, get a set amount done and feel happy with quitting. Mostly. Sometimes. When you’re behind the 8 ball — as it seems many writers currently are — being self-satisfied with work progress is hardly a guarantee.


How to Measure Your Own Productivity with Quantitative TAP

One of the most extreme, yet also widely celebrated, forms of quantitative TAP is the NaNoWriMo event. Participants write a 50,000 word novel during the course of one month, usually November. That’s about 1,666 words per day. As a writer, it makes me feel inadequate! Well, at least until I remember that self-editing and writing well on the first try are actively discouraged.


The units of quantitative TAP are the most raw units of your profession. For writers, that’s words. For bricklayers, it is bricks laid. For salespeople it is products sold or presentations given, take your pick. But it’s raw, 1-for-1, and doesn’t consider project scope.


And this lack of project scope is one of TAP measurement systems’ greatest advantages. Have two or three short 250-word articles to write? There’s no false sense of completion after each one. It’s not quitting time until you hit your 1,500 words for the day. Likewise, the grandness of large projects becomes less daunting. Read your 7 pages of that difficult book today? Great! The other 642 will come in their time.


Still, it is important to remember to celebrate the milestones when using TAP, just do so after everything is done. Or, take a break now (The chapter is done, hooray!), but get back to things later. In my own experiences with TAP, I’ve settled on 1,500 words a day or more. Sometimes I don’t make it — other tasks take the day — and other days I have to get more done due to outside pressures. As it turns out, there is a balance…


Escaping Systems and Using Good Judgement

When income is low, business is slacking, and your spirits are plummeting, it feels necessary (even vital) to pick a personal productivity measurement system and stick with it. Measuring your own productivity is rough, but you want something to go by that if you stick with, you can ensure you’re getting everything done.


However, once the slump is worked through, the flaws and missed opportunities of any personal productivity measurement system become clear.


How can we measure our own productivity without a clearly defined system? We can start by combining TFP and TAP measurement systems, use productivity journaling, and develop good personal judgement.


Combing TFP and TAP for Maximum Progress

As we examined using TFP and TAP systems for measuring your personal productivity, it became clear that one system was better for some tasks and the other for others. When getting started with measuring your own productivity it really is a good idea to choose your primary task, pick the best TFP or TAP system for you, and get started. This process focuses you.


However, these systems are rarely sustainable. If focusing purely on the number of words written each day, a writer can end up writing an enormous amount but stay stuck with lower-paying clients.


Instead, a smart strategy is to combine TFP and TAP strategies to create more comprehensive goals and measurements of your own productivity. Still, it can be hard to match how much different task styles are worth. How many hours of client outreach are 1,000 words written worth? The world may never know.


At its worst, a hybrid approach makes us feel like we’re getting less done as it can feel scatterbrained. Use productivity journaling to get a better feel for what you’re completing and help develop your sense of personal productivity.


Productivity Journaling 

Many years ago, I worked in labs. At one such lab, I discovered the magic of the laboratory notebook.


Far from the tool used to journey my discoveries, I was instead told to log everything I did into the notebook. Everything. As a young person that often didn’t have enough to do, but always wanted to be busy at work, I complied. Cleaning beakers? Logged. Sweeping the lab? Logged. Everything logged.


Weeks later I found out something miraculous. What had once seemed like days filled with “doing nothing” now looked like busy days with meaningful accomplishments and hard work.


Productivity journaling gives us a chance to look back at the work our past selves did and appreciate it with more forgiving eyes.


Later, when I was sick and unemployed, I picked up the same habit again. But this time, instead of a laboratory notebook, I use a productivity journal. Years later, I can look back at those times and reassess. Instead of seeing the unemployed loser that I felt like I was at that time, I instead see a productive young man making the most of hard times.


When you’re feeling down about your productivity, write down each task you do, complete, or attempt each day. Use tally marks, short memorable abbreviations, and whatever else it takes to get an idea of what you’ve done down. At the end of the day, week, and year you can reflect back on what you’ve done to get a better idea of what you can handle, what tasks were worth doing, and what gave you the most value.


How to Measure Your Own Productivity with Common Sense

As you start to measure your own productivity you will gradually see many changes in your mindset. Most profoundly, you will have more self-confidence in your work ethic than you had before starting. Additionally, you will get a good sense of what can be accomplished in a day and how much each task is “worth” to you in the end.

It can be hard to believe from the start of your journey, but the difficulties and anxieties you face about how much you get done will eventually fade if you stop worrying and get to it.

Related content:

One Response

  1. Fascinating article! Many new concepts for me. I liked the idea of how to prevent flow stoppage with a timer! Would love to discuss over beer🍺

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *