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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!

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On quantification

I started swimming again, after a year out of the pool and then, the year before that, something like fifteen years away. I was grateful to discover that, as was the case the last time I returned to swimming, the skills and motions I practiced so much at twelve came back to me with little difficulty at thirty (a fact which raises the question of why I quit being a pretty good swimmer at twelve to be a mediocre soccer player for years and years after).

Last week, I swam ten and a half miles. I did this largely because I enjoy swimming more than I’ve enjoyed any other exercise. That enjoyment stands in particularly sharp contradistinction to my feelings about running, an activity I loathe and have loathed my entire life, despite a decade of fairly serious soccer and uncountable attempts to get back into shape by hauling my recalcitrant and intensely unhappy carcass from point to point in search of the elusive and, I’m fairly certain, entirely fictitious “runner’s high.”

The other reason I swam ten and a half miles last week is that each day I recorded my yardage on my calendar, and there’s a deeply satisfying thrill to adding them all up on Sunday converting them to miles. Not that the final number was a surprise: I was aiming for a ten-mile week, and I knew exactly how far I needed to swim on Sunday to hit that target.

The thrill of adding those numbers up and hitting a target brings to mind David Sedaris’s recent and very funny essay on his Fitbit in the New Yorker. I read it on the plane from Houston to Atlanta, and if I hadn’t been trapped in a flying tin can, I probably would have ordered myself a Fitbit then and there. Sedaris describes a satisfaction in seeing the numbers creep up each day that I found immediately familiar: “During the first few weeks that I had it, I’d return to my hotel at the end of the day, and when I discovered that I’d taken a total of, say, twelve thousand steps, I’d go out for another three thousand. ‘But why?’ Hugh asked when I told him about it. ‘Why isn’t twelve thousand enough?’ ‘Because,’ I told him, ‘my Fitbit thinks I can do better.’”

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Don’t take it personally

I got the first set of papers from my class last Friday, and am returning them via email this evening. In anticipation of that, I wanted to end today’s class by saying a bit about the relationship between grades and the work done in my class, or any class, for that matter. I wanted to communicate that I genuinely, sincerely value each of my students as people, and that the grade I give any paper I read is in no way a reflection of my personal feelings toward the writer of that paper. That, more to the point, students should resist the urge to see their grades as reflections of something about themselves as people. A student’s grade on a paper is a reflection of where that paper is at this particular moment in time, no more, no less. It’s not a reflection of the writer as a person, and it’s not a reflection of the paper’s ultimate potential–it’s a reflection of this particular paper, written for this particular assignment, at this particular stage in the writing process. As such, that grade can and should change with revision.

I said something pretty much to that effect. I also meant to say something about the engaging in revision as a collaborative process where the goal is strengthening the paper and moving the argument forward, rather than addressing each of my questions and comments as discrete obstacles between the paper and an A. I meant to tell my students that the former approach helps them reflect on their writing process and their goals in each paper, while the latter approach leads to frustration. But I forgot that part. Maybe next time.

I wanted to encourage my students to think about themselves as writers, and writing as a process. I wanted them to think about grades as one of several ways to take stock of where they are in that process. Naturally, I bungled it. My awkward introduction to the topic of grades sounded ominous to my students’ anxious ears, rather than like the poorly-executed transition it was. My well-intentioned plea not to see grades as reflections of themselves implied to them that I was doing damage-control before giving everyone ego-crushing marks on their first paper. The more I tried to emphasize the particular and limited function of grades in the context of this class, the louder the panicked murmurs grew. I reassured them that this was not meant to prepare them for unexpectedly low grades on their papers, but by that time, I’m not sure they believed me.

Maybe next time.