The etymological roots of productivity are from the 16th century French word productif, reaching its economic sense in 1899 with the meaning “rate of output per unit.” This definition has essentially not changed in 100 plus years: “producing readily or abundantly […] producing goods having exchange value,” or the measurement of output over time.
The word derives its meaning from the era in which is was generated. The Industrial Era was the mechanization and assembly line production producing time that eventually lead us to a 5 day work week and the underlying motivation that what is good for the company is good for the worker. Higher profits should equal better conditions, be they pay, working conditions, or some other tangible benefit to the worker.
The worker was not hired based on their talents, but merely on their ability to complete a given task in a timely manner. The progenitor of the “cranking widgets” idea. Children running underneath looms was common, not safe, but common.
The definition of a 40-hour work week (and definition of child labor standards) was pressed into law 1938’s The Wages and Hours Act (later change to the Fair Labor Standards Act) and affirmed less than a year later by the Supreme Court.
The work day is still defined by a law that was created more than 50 years ago. Before the advent of computers, knowledge work, cellphones, and the Internet.
We live in a time when society is more productive than it has ever been. Our fathers and mother accomplished more than their parents, and we are accomplishing much more than our parents did (or do). Rather than condensing our work week, most of us are working more than 40 hours a week, spending parts of the weekend responding to email and catching up on the work that wasn’t completed during the week. By working more and getting paid the same amount, we are essentially working for less pay.
It has been well documented that the American worker is does not take vacation given to them, and when the do, work follows them on vacation in the form of checking email and taking phone calls. In comparison to European counterparts, the amount of vacation given is based on tenure and there are no statutory minimum paid vacation. This means that in order to take a vacation you have to work, but by the time you have enough vacation built up, you will not be able to go on vacation due to the work you have to do.
The Lifehack Industry
This vacation / work paradox lead to the rise of The Productivity Industry, starting generally with the writings of Peter Drucker and Steven Covey and coming full circle to David Allen and Timothy Ferriss, has lead us to believe that the paradox can be broken and burn out avoided.
The problem with these books is not their philosophy, but their authors. They have the motivation to sell book, increasing their foot hold in corporations, selling their brand of “productivity” that will be trickled down to the average worker.
These books are peddled as “self-development”, but “self-development” is a misnomer. The activities that develop our “selfs” are generally incompatible with productivity. I want to develop my ability to play the guitar, but that does not produce more code for my department.
This narrow focus on productivity often causes us to zero in on the minutiae and mechanics of our day to day tasks. This is the essence of a Buddhist parable:
It is as if a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow and when attended to by a physician were to say, ‘I will not allow you to remove this arrow until I have learned the caste, the age, the occupation, the birthplace, and the motivation of the person who wounded me.
Measurement without clear goals, which is a large problem in the “lifehack” and productivity circles, defeats the point of measuring at all.
Since the 1950s society has encouraged a martyr-like drive to be a busy person. The person who is busier, who operates on the least amount of sleep, who pulls the all-nigher, is a greater person. The focus on productivity and the creation of the “life hack” culture supports this addiction to a busy life. The addiction is fed by 30-minute cookbooks, Clif Notes, and always-on email.
The saying “Early to bed, early to rise” has turned into a self abuse mantra, essentially removing early to bed. With the electrification of the country, there was no longer a need to work with the sun, now work can be completed at all hours. Not to rail against electricity in the home, but the advent of more recent technologies has allowed the average knowledge worker and manager to make their home their office, essentially never spending time away from work.
Productivity in office circles, not in the management top-down approach, is generally so niche that the application is so narrow it does not make a large impact a workers productivity at a whole, like throwing a pebble into the still lake and expecting large waves. Does this approach seem effective to reducing the strain of work?
An interesting development has come with the use of technology at work, particularly the Internet. Study after study has proclaimed that work place productivity is down, due to the Internet, the mindless surfing or the checking of Facebook, MySpace or some other social network. That is the problem with adding technology that is not purely work related into the work environment. A single Wikipedia search will more often than not spiral into fleeting thoughts of what happened to the afternoon.
Software have been created to block Web site access on a corporate level, but when that software is translated to a personal level is shows that the focus on productivity has reached a preposterous zenith.
This de rigueur of always working is not conducive to the expansive and innovative thinking that goes on when the mind is not engaged. While the “free time” is being consumed by work, a steady loss of thought time occurs. People are not like computers, it is not possible to turn off work. Our minds continually drift back to the process and projects that we work on, outside of the hours of 9–5. Innovation comes in many forms, an after-hours thought can lead to significant process change or a brand new money making idea. With the always-on culture we are developing we are losing the thought time from which true change, innovation and great ideas come from.
Pie in the sky
Things need to change, the pace of work combined with our overwhelming commitments show that this is a cycle that does not scale. They paradigm needs to change for us to truly be productive.
First, workers need to realize that if they become more productive, but getting paid the same, they are effectively taking a pay cut. If they are producing more product, be they widgets or white papers, for a pay based upon the level of production, the system rewards those who are more productive. Currently, most business do not operate that way, payment is based on a tenure system. Pay for Performance should be rename Pay for Productivity.
If pay is not increased with productivity, time at work should be reduced. If you are accomplishing what would have taken your grandfather 40 hours, and your father 20 hours, in 10 hours, the rest of the week should be given over to real “self-development”. This would be considered anti-capitalist by some, but it is the marvel of technology and those who have mastered their productivity. When Henry Ford started the assembly line, it produced far fewer cars than today’s, but now that today’s assembly line can produce more we must. Or must we?
Vacations are cherished by the American worker, but so often not taken. With greater productivity, as an alternative to pay, vacations should be increased. If you are doing the work of 4 people, with out burning out, you should be rewarded by four times the amount of vacation. Burn out is a common problem for the American worker and could be avoided by regular time away from work, from productivity, from the busy nature we have created in our lives.
Change from within
Before the corporate / management world will change to accept the concepts of more productive worker should be compensated by pay, shorter work week, or more vacation, change will have to happen on a personal level. What inspires, or makes a person productive varies from person to person. Whether it is getting out of the office quicker, or the satisfaction of being able to take on extra work, with out the fear of over commitment, the source of each persons productivity is unique to them. This is another problem with the cookie-cutter productivity books and gurus.
Another fallacy perpetrated by The Productivity Industry is the correlation between productivity and a Zen-like state of mind. The two are not related in the way described, there is no cause and effect relationship. The relationship is instead the people who have a Zen-like mind are able to be more productive. That does not mean that the desired state is not achievable by those who are not already there, but that fixing the cart does no good without the horse.
In order to be more productive is it often best to renegotiate or break the commitments you currently have. If you are are overwhelmed and constantly busy, what can be eliminated, outsourced or given away. We live in a society that is now okay with outsourcing, why not give your lawn maintenance to someone else, or if commitments are too great at work, reevaluate whether you are really needed on every committee you volunteered for. Learn the art of the Conditional Yes “I will help you with your PDA, if…”, “I can get you that report, but…”, or the Unapologetic No, “Sorry, but my plate is full right now…”, “I would want to devote my attention to this but can’t…”. These two skills will give you a way of stopping the tidal wave of work that continues to flow in your direction. It is not that you are being unhelpful, merely honest.
Losing focus on a task or project is not a sign that you are not productive. It is simply a sign that you are focused on the wrong things. Passions are more apt to capture our attention and take up a greater mind share than things we “have” to do. This is why it is important to respect the boundary between work and the life outside of work. People often complain about how they would never want to work in the field of what they love, but that is simply a statement of practicality. They realize that running a bicycle shop will not allow them the same monetary freedom that they are expecting. In that they are sacrificing their passionate freedom to remain unhappy.
Lastly, the prime element of this manifesto: Productivity should work around our lives, not the other way around. If a system developed to increase productivity is difficult to use or your day to day work continually feels like a pyrrhic defeat, the idea of productivity is lost, not only from the aspect of getting tasks completed, but from the soul-sucking, loss of passion, lack of personal life aspect of being human. After all, when productivity is measured against a mechanistic measure, our humanity is lost in favor of a machine.