Probably the most popular post on this blog is the one on GTD and the Weekly Review (followed by the one on Scrivener on the iPad and a link to Dean Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness”). Self quantification is about a quest for a very particular type of individual perfection, one that turns behavior, habit, and routine into data points that can be used to determine future improvements, or simply to signify accomplishment. Productivity is a different kind of quantification—one that has, on the one hand, clearer benefits, but also insidious consequences.
Productivity systems have a lot in common with systems of self-quantification like the Fitbit ecosystem or the much more geeky and elaborate setups described in this (rather dated) New York Times article. Much of the advice on productivity, particularly David Allen’s Getting Things Done system, emphasizes capturing, recording, and tracking data—generally in the form of correspondence, ideas, action items, etc. You then create a system—in Allen’s original version, an actual, paper filing system—in which all of that data is immediately available and easily searchable.
And there’s certainly a benefit to that kind of continuous capture. For one thing, it removes a significant cognitive burden when you’re not trying to remember things and remember what you were trying to remember. And for those of us prone to anxiety, it reduces the number of things clamoring for attention and rumination.
But productivity doesn’t stop with task managers and to-do lists. There’s an ocean of advice out there on life hacking—how to make your morning routine as efficient as possible, how to shave off a few seconds from tasks you do repeatedly, how to turn your commute into “the most productive time of day”. Some of it’s just geeky fun—nobody really needs to make a tiny hot dog grill out of a tin can, and doing so won’t really make you any more efficient or productive. But a lot of it is aimed at helping you get more done with less, or eliminate things from your life so that you’ll have more time to work. Finding hacks so your chores don’t take as long is one thing, replacing your desk with a treadmill because you no longer have time for exercise is another.
Like the quantified self movement, the current productivity craze has its roots in the past, though not so far past. Productivity science emerged in the late nineteenth century and was honed in the early twentieth. If you’ve ever read a late-nineteenth century labor novel (you haven’t? well, why on earth not?), you’re probably familiar with the “speed up,” which in the novel is likely to result in the collapse of a secondary but beloved character. Factory owners discovered that they could continually increase the tempo and pace of work, often employing someone to set the pace or using machinery invented for the purpose. Eventually, workers would be unable to keep up, either because the pace was too fast or they had exhausted themselves. If the latter, businesses simply hired new workers. Unregulated labor markets for the win!