I spent the last two days doing things which might have looked superficially similar, and which superficially felt very similar. Both days involved a fair bit of reading, note-taking, and iterating a bit on my tools for reading and taking notes. One of those days, though, I would describe as doing generative work, and the other as doing productive puttering. Both are good. But they are not the same.
Generative work is reading, writing, and thinking (often in combination) oriented toward projects I care about and am working on. It might mean reading an essay, taking notes on a book, or sketching out some connections between ideas and starting or iterating on essays or similar.
Productive puttering is iterating on tools and systems. It’s the digital worker’s equivalent of mucking with gear. Gear is fun! But mucking with your gear isn’t the same as using your gear, even if it can be helpful in the long term.
You actually need some of both: productive puttering done in small doses can make the generative work much easier. Rearranging your notes system may help you use the notes more effectively for your actual work, but it is not doing the work. The challenge, though, is that it is a good emotional substitute for generative work: it feels similar. To steal a framing from James Clear: productive puttering is motion, while generative work is action.
I want to allow myself a little bit of productive puttering from time to time, because it is genuinely helpful when identified for what it is and kept within its bounds time-wise. But I want to major on generative work.