Productivity past and present

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!

Upton Sinclair describes the speed up in The Jungle, writing, “the speeding-up seemed to be growing more savage all the time; they were continually inventing new devices to crowd the work on—it was for all the world like the thumbscrew of the medieval torture chamber. They would get new pacemakers and pay them more; they would drive the men on with new machinery—it was said that in the hog-killing rooms the speed at which the hogs moved was determined by clockwork, and that it was increased a little every day.”

Productivity science got a less greedy and inhumane facade in the twentieth century, when people like Frank Gilbreth(subject of two of my favorite novels from childhood, Cheaper by the Dozen and Bells on Their Toes [I always liked the sequel, which is about what happens to the family after their bullying, blowhard father dies an early death, much better]) and Frederick Winslow Taylor began carefully studying efficiency in the workplace. Gilbreth and Taylor found ways to save employers money by teaching their workers to be more efficient; Taylor’s secrets can be found in his book, The Principles of Scientific Management.

The speed up and its kinder, gentler cousins were all developed for employers to impose on workers, and with good reason: the beneficiaries of increased efficiency and productivity are the employers, not the employees. If you’re being paid by the hour, all you get by speeding up is more work each hour. And, sure, there’s still a robust and fairly creepy body of management literature that can help you, the middle manager or small business owner, get the most out of your workers by means of motivational gimmicks, threats, or sheer charisma (on the latter tactic, Dale Carnegie is probably still the definitive source—there’s very little said in lots of management guides that Carnegie doesn’t cover in How to Win Friends and Influence People. As a bonus, Carnegie’s examples are all drawn from now-obscure incidents in nineteenth-century history).

But the productivity movement today, so closely aligned with the quantified self movement, is aimed at and fueled by workers, not employers. In some cases, increasing productivity is a clear act of self-preservation, and there’s lots of advice on how to keep your job in a down economy, most of which boils down to, do lots of useful things, and make sure what you’re doing is visible and clearly attributable to you. But there’s also a tendency to align one’s self with one’s productivity—you, yourself, are a lifehacker, you are someone who is efficient and productive. So you identify with your ability as a worker, and you identify with your work, if not with your employer (though maybe that, too). And what it all adds up to is a sort of cultural speed-up, in which everyone is pushing to be more and more productive to almost no advantage to themselves: wages are stagnant, the cost of living keeps going up.

None of those observations are particularly novel, but it’s hard to read those nineteenth century labor novels, with their earnest pleas for an eight hour day and a work environment that doesn’t involve running people to the ground, and not feel a bit sad about the current state of American labor.

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